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Wednesday 18th October was a big day. Students’ Union UCL hosted a reception in the Wilkins Building to mark its 130th birthday. At that event, Michael Spence, the President and Provost, addressed the crowd, as did Union Affairs Office Mary McHarg – and I launched a new small book that I have written to mark the occasion. The evening was also the official launch of the ‘Generation UCL: Two Hundred Years of Student Life’ Octagon exhibition, and I was part of a panel at an afternoon seminar where we discussed the process of curating and installing this. 

The seminar seemed a fitting way to kick off. Our venue was the beautiful Object Based Learning Lab (the Old Refectory in a previous life), which is right next to the exhibition space. Our full house crowd included colleagues from across UCL who are interested in its history; individuals who have donated or loaned items on display, or who have been interviewed for the project; and those from the Students’ Union, UCL Culture and beyond who helped shape the direction and ‘feel’ of the final exhibition. 

The Object Based Learning Lab, set up for our seminar.

The seminar was led by the lead curator, Georgina Brewis, who discussed just what a huge operation it is to design and implement an exhibition like this. I can confirm that many, many workshops, random searches for items, and writing sessions are involved to get to the finished product. Georgina covered how the exhibition is designed to turn UCL’s history on its head and see it through the eyes of those without whom there would be no university: students. This concept informs the entire rationale for the exhibition, and funnelled into its strapline: ‘There is no University without its students’ (which, as cleverly displayed in the exhibition space, can also read ‘Without its students, there is no University’). She showed how she found many of the items on display and what a challenge it is to both spotlight individual stories or artifacts, whilst also trying to make sweeping comments about 200 years of student life. 

Some of the items that were found for the exhibition.
Colin and Sam looking at material from the College archive.

Our colleagues Colin Penman and Leah Johnson talked about the College archive and how the exhibition had been an opportunity to showcase the range of records they hold there. We all made a call for people to come forward with more ‘stuff’ they might have lying around at home! I then covered the challenges of integrating sound and film into the exhibition space. My oral history project is now 75 testimonies strong and those visiting the Octagon can put on a pair of headphones and listen to some snippets from these interviews, as well as some historical clips that talented friends of ours have voiced up. 

Some of the participants in the Generation UCL oral history project. Clockwise from top left: Charlotte Tasker; Alwyn Davies, Jim Onyemenam, Diana Armfield. Alwyn and Jim's voices feature in the exhibition, alongside several others.

I also helped make a film, using the superb archive of UCL’s Film and TV Society, which has an unprecedented collection of digitised film footage from the 1950s onwards. The film runs silently in the exhibition space but we played the whole thing at the seminar, with sound, to an appreciative audience. Despite having watched the final version of this film more than a dozen times, this was the first time I had seen it without looking anxiously for continuity problems and it was nice to fully appreciate what an amazing resource these film clips are. 

The video created for the exhibition, using UCL Film and TV Society footage.

Guests then had the opportunity to look at the exhibition and to go to the Jeremy Bentham Room for refreshments and for a celebration of the Union's 130th birthday. We were regaled by the UCL Jazz Society and the exhibition’s film was showing on a big screen. Both Mary and the Provost spoke about the importance of the Union in the functioning of UCL, including how important it has always been, and should continue to be, that decisions relating to students are student led. 

I also made a short speech to launch my new booklet, ‘Students’ Union UCL: A Short History’. This is looking lovely, thanks to the graphic design talents of David Parfitt and Guy Stepney in the SU. The book updates previous works that focused on the Union’s history, with fresh archival research and extracts from my oral history interviews woven in to provide a fresh, updated analysis. The story told in this history is one of a Union that has been genuinely pioneering but has also faced challenges for much of its history, particularly in relation to premises and space. Its central London location has always made cramped facilities an issue. My book argues that it is in spite of these problems that the organisation is one of the most thriving of its kind in the world. 

Launching the new book in the Jeremy Bentham room

I used this opportunity to highlight how books like this have one name on the front cover, but they are never solo efforts. I owe a lot to those who have done much important research in the past, as well as many in the Union today, including John Dubber, who helped shape this latest work. My colleague Georgina, however, deserves huge thanks for the proofreads and for helping to source many of the amazing photographs that feature in the book. 

The new history of Students' Union UCL, which is now on sale!

On a personal note, this event marked the moment when I think I finally felt like I belonged to the UCL community. At the seminar in the OBL, I looked around the room and knew the majority of people there: all of them supportive, enthusiastic friends and colleagues who love UCL, the Students’ Union, and want to be involved in our project as it develops. Some of them were great oral history interviewees, many of whom had travelled hundreds of miles and from places like Germany and the Netherlands to be there. Doing oral history is always a great privilege in itself, but I was and remain touched that they continue to take an active interest in this research.

With project interviewees, Lalith Wijedoru and Oli Burbage-Hall, and Diego Collado and Pedro Tafur Fasce from UCL's Film and Television Society.

Some of us went to a dinner afterwards, and I realised quite what a big day it had been when I nearly started using my muscovado tart as a pillow. We will need more energy and stamina, however. The exhibition has been a major output of our project but there is much more to come. Georgina and I have a big book to write that needs to be out by the beginning of 2026. Watch this space for more details!  

Lead exhibition curator, Georgina, with Sam shortly before the official launch of the exhibition.