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Roll up for the fake news tour coming to a village near you

PUBLISHED: 13:05 18 July 2018 | UPDATED: 15:23 19 July 2018

US President Donald Trump with Prime Minister Theresa May as they arrive for a joint press conference at Chequers, in Buckinghamshire.
Picture:  Jack Taylor/PA Wire

US President Donald Trump with Prime Minister Theresa May as they arrive for a joint press conference at Chequers, in Buckinghamshire. Picture: Jack Taylor/PA Wire

Wherever Donald Trump goes the term ‘fake news’ is sure to follow, as it did during his controversial stop-off in the UK. But is fake news really just a modern phenomenon? Sheena Grant reports on a project at the Museum of East Anglian Life that attempts to answer that question.

Advertising material, such as this Ransomes sign, were used to spread news of new technologies – and to sell them.
Picture: Museum of East Anglian LifeAdvertising material, such as this Ransomes sign, were used to spread news of new technologies – and to sell them. Picture: Museum of East Anglian Life

It’s a term that’s become so much part of everyday language that it’s in danger of being over-used. Or misused.

‘Fake news’ is everywhere, especially if you spend much time listening to US president Donald Trump.

Only, much of what Mr Trump calls ‘fake news’ isn’t really fake. It’s just news he doesn’t like. And, say his critics, Mr Trump isn’t averse to spreading fake news of his own.

He used the term during his recent visit to the UK to distance himself from criticisms he’d made of Theresa May in a - recorded - interview with the Sun, and also to dismiss a press conference question from his great media adversary CNN. Yet at the same press conference he claimed to have publicly predicted the Brexit vote before it happened, at an event at his Turnberry golf course in Scotland - but that event actually happened after the referendum result was already known. Fake news, folks, fake news, as the president himself might say.

The Empress of Britain is a steam traction engine held at the Museum of East Anglian Life. It was used for carting timber and stone in the early 20th century. The timber was felled in Costessey Woods and transported to saw mills in Norwich. Engines of this type were used to transport goods of all kinds and news would have travelled from place to place with them. A steam engine may be used to pull the travelling exhibit when it goes on the road.
Picture: Museum of East Anglian LifeThe Empress of Britain is a steam traction engine held at the Museum of East Anglian Life. It was used for carting timber and stone in the early 20th century. The timber was felled in Costessey Woods and transported to saw mills in Norwich. Engines of this type were used to transport goods of all kinds and news would have travelled from place to place with them. A steam engine may be used to pull the travelling exhibit when it goes on the road. Picture: Museum of East Anglian Life

Others have jumped on the bandwagon too, with European Council president Donald Tusk labelling Mr Trump’s claim that the EU and US are foes on trade matters as, you guessed it, fake news. The term is so ubiquitous it’s even entered the dictionary and was actually named word of the year by Collins last November after its use increased by 365% since 2016.

But is the phenomenon of fake news really that new? Or has information always been distorted, spun and misunderstood as it was shared - and is the very term fake news part of an attempt to spin a viewpoint too?

It’s a question the Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket is exploring through a new project called Fake News in the Age of the Horse, which will look at how information was shared before modern technology - often on four hooves - and how reliable it was.

Curator Caitlin Peck is leading the project and says it will cover the 19th Century and the first part of the 20th Century, when news largely travelled by ‘four legs’.

This project will look at news on all scales; everything from village gossip at the local shop or blacksmith’s to news brought by travelling fairs and ideas from East Anglia that went on to change the world, such as the crop rotation system that revolutionised agriculture.

“This ‘news’ went around our region and beyond, with things that were exported abroad and through farm workers travelling vast distances to work,” says Caitlin. “We’ll be looking at telegrams, letters, ballads and songs to find out what people would have been talking about, from personal to local and national events.

“The modern concept of ‘fake news’ has very much inspired this project and perhaps will get people thinking about the stories and histories they hear and what they can actually rely on.”

The museum will use objects from its vast collection to delve a little deeper, including a knife grinder’s barrow, milk floats from Booty and Sons at Timworth, a Boots delivery bicycle and fairground carousel rides.

The project will culminate in a show-stopping interactive exhibition that will tour rural communities throughout Suffolk and Norfolk as well as parts of Essex and Cambridgeshire, in the summer of 2020. Possibly pulled by a horse or a tractor, it will be inspired by travelling fairs and circuses and, says Caitlin, will create quite a stir wherever it goes.

Among the stories - and songs - it will look at are those that get told repeatedly and how reliable the information in them is, such as the infamous Red Barn Murder of Maria Marten by her lover, William Corder, at Polstead in 1827.

“Things often get distorted in the telling, sometimes accidentally and sometimes deliberately,” says Caitlin. “One of the things we are looking at is whether it was easier to distort things in the past than it is now. In some ways it undoubtedly was because there wasn’t the recording devices there are now but, on the other hand, with the way information is shared now, through the echo chamber of social media, people can be very quick to form opinions.”

Volunteers are needed to help the museum digitise records of its vast collection to help identify artefacts for the fake news project, which is funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund and The Headley Trust. The museum also wants to hear from people with ideas and memories of life in East Anglia to inform the project and will be running a series of activities between now and 2020 with that in mind.

It is also hoping to work with communities the travelling show will visit to incorporate something specific to them in their ‘leg’ of the tour.

To find out more visit www.eastanglianlife.org.uk or call 01449 612229.

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