Archive provides window to history on the high street

Students are gaining a unique insight into the history of one of Britain’s best-loved brands, thanks to a successful University of Leeds course.

Caroline Smee, Martha McGuiness and Lucy Dawson.

History on the highstreet

An undergraduate module – History on the High Street – is entirely dedicated to teaching how to use primary sources and conduct historical research in the M&S Company Archive.

The archive was relocated to the purpose-built Michael Marks Building on the Leeds campus in 2012. It has significant value for researchers across several disciplines because of the firm’s economic and social importance.

The University’s unique partnership with Marks & Spencer aims to increase collaboration with local communities, enhance employability and lead the way in specialist research.

The course is one of the University’s wide range of ‘discovery’ modules aimed at offering students extra opportunities to broaden their learning and pursue personal interests, while developing skills that will help prepare them for life after University.

It has been established by Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Professor of the History of Business and Society.

She said: “The M&S Company Archive provides a wonderful opportunity for students – it’s right on campus, the staff are very helpful and it’s an unparalleled teaching resource because it has fantastic veins of material to draw on.

“The archive sheds fascinating light on a wide range of areas from visual merchandising to aspects of how an international family business is run, as well as gendered dimensions of shopping and parallels between retailing in the USA and UK.

“Leeds students have the opportunity to see a world-class company archive on their doorstep. This is the first module that is devoted one hundred percent to using the archive as a hands-on resource.”

Katharine Carter, M&S Company Archivist, said: “The module proved extremely popular with the students last year and we're delighted to have expanded availability this academic year. It’s wonderful to see the archive collection being used in this way, and knowing that’s it’s enriching learning for students”.

The eleven-week course’s inaugural run in 2014-2015 attracted students from a diverse range of disciplines including management, marketing, maths, history of art and sociology – as well as history.

History on the high street Emily Hodge with Katie Entwistle of M&S.

Management and marketing student Emily Hodge said: “I’ve enjoyed the hands-on approach to learning.”

Lydia Mantle, who is also studying management and marketing and is interested in a career in the merchandising side of retailing, said: “The course has given me more of a hands-on experience of visual merchandising with a very successful retailer.”

History student Natasha Rai said: “I’ve taken a lot away about consumer culture, technology and buying online.”

For maths and management students Martha McGuinness and Lucy Dawson, the course has broadened their skills with essay writing, while they felt the course’s requirement for presentations and reports was equipping them with useful workplace skills.

Jenna Lamb, who is studying both history and history of art, already has plenty of retail experience and wants to pursue a career in retail buying. “I love fashion,” she said, “but that’s not easy to fit into a history degree – this has been a great way of combining the two.”

The students finished the course with a field trip in Leeds city centre led by Leeds City Council Principal Conservation Officer Keith Williams, learning about how the retail heart of the city has evolved over time.

A second run of the course is currently underway, with a third starting early next year.

Find out more about the University's strategic partnership with Marks & Spencer or watch this short animation about the partnership.

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