Project to bring yesterday’s games to life

Helen Woolley with Sarah Thiel at the Bodleian Library

Researchers aim to bridge the generational gap between children’s play and that of their grandparents by creating virtual reality and ‘mixed reality’ playgrounds based on over 20,000 accounts of play from the 1950s and 60s.

Playing the Archive: Memory, Community and Mixed Reality Play, which is a partnership between the University of Sheffield, UCL, the Bartlett School of Architecture with the Bodleian Libraries and the V&A Museum of Childhood aims to explore the nature of play through the ages and bring together archive material with modern technology.

The EPSRC funded project will create a 3D, virtual reality environment in which users, both old and young, can experience 1950s style play. To help achieve this, the researchers will digitise and catalogue substantial sections of the Opie manuscript, held at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries.

The manuscript, which is the work of folklore experts Iona and Peter Opie, features thousands of accounts from school children from 1951 onwards about their favourite games, rhymes and songs. The researchers will use this digital catalogue to create the virtual reality environments, which will be freely available to visitors at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London and the Weston Park Museum in Sheffield.

Archive of Iona and Peter Opie, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Opie 90

The project also aims to build two experimental ‘smart’ playgrounds in London and Sheffield. The playgrounds will use innovative ‘smart’ play equipment, which will link to historic objects in the archives of the Bodleian and the V&A Museum of Childhood. By linking the physical and the virtual, the playgrounds will exemplify ‘mixed reality’ play.

The Sheffield team includes Helen Woolley, Reader in Landscape Architecture and Society in the Department of Landscape along with Professor Jackie Marsh and Dr Julia Bishop from the School of Education. Two cataloguers, Alison Somerset-Ward and Cath Bannister, have recently been appointed to the Sheffield team.

In May, the group visited the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library to get a taste of the task ahead.

Cath Bannister said: “the team members were warmly welcomed by Bodleian project archivists Svenja Kunze and Sarah Thiel, creators of the Opie archive finding aid funded by the Wellcome Trust. Svenja and Sarah shared their own experiences of cataloguing the material and their growing sense of familiarity with Iona and Peter Opie’s distinct characters as their work progressed.”

“The Sheffield team were delighted to be able to view the original materials, which included some of the children’s papers, teacher correspondence, and the Opies’ working files on an array of subjects - from ‘pavement lore’ and the consequences of treading on cracks, to rhymes romantic and otherwise for Valentines’ cards, including light-hearted instructions to the postman. Of particular interest were the Opies’ questionnaire templates which were a key means of data collection.”

“The visit helped make the team more aware of the human stories behind the Opies’ remarkable collection, their contributions, all in different handwriting, bringing alive the variety of people who were involved. “

The project runs from September 2017 to August 2019.