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A People’s History of the NHS

The People’s History of the NHS

Archiving a British institution

Led by Professor Roberta Bivins and Professor Mathew Thomson, this major research project funded by the Wellcome Trust explored the impacts of the NHS on British cultural life and beliefs, testing Nigel Lawson’s famous claim that the NHS was ‘the closest thing the English have to a religion.’ From workplace experiences to national (and international) symbolism, the project expands our knowledge of the NHS as a transformative British institution.

The challenge

In 2018, Britain’s pioneering National Health Service turned seventy years old. The NHS has been the subject of several major political and policy histories. Astonishingly, however, given the sheer scale of its impacts on local and regional communities, and on Britain’s national and international identity, the cultural history of this key institution of post-war British life remains largely undeveloped. While the public may ‘love’ the NHS when it seems to be threatened, public feeling towards the NHS has evolved in response to changing circumstances. Professor Bivins and Dr Thompson have produced the first major, and critical history, of the NHS and its importance to British cultural identity.

Our approach

The team asked members of the public who have used or worked in the NHS for their personal stories and memories, and invited them to share their own ideas about topics and questions for research. These were used to create a virtual museum of everyday, overlooked and eccentric subjects from throughout the history of the NHS. This sits alongside the People’s Encyclopaedia, which includes entries on a broad range of topics from throughout the institution’s history. The team worked with local history and community groups, NHS trusts, social enterprises, and regional heritage powerhouses (such as the Black Country Living Museum), as well as national organisations such as the Science Museum, where they pioneered an 'NHS pub quiz' format to gain insight into public knowledge of the history of the NHS.

Our impact

Our research term has helped to frame current debates about health devolution; migration and the NHS; the ‘uses of history’ for NHS policy makers; and the meanings of public outcry against ‘NHS privatisation’. This was particularly evident during the 2018 celebrations of the Service’s 70th anniversary, when the team co-created the critically acclaimed BBC4 documentary, ‘The NHS: A People’s History’, which was viewed by millions of people. Reviews in broadsheet newspapers described the series as 'tremendously moving', with many 'powerful stories', showing 'Britain at its most beautiful, but also its ugliest'. Since the series aired, over 1 million people have viewed the virtual museum and more than 700 people have contributed their stories to the museum.

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