150 years at the heart of Island life

What a year it has been for the Société Jersiaise! 150 years at the heart of Island life. And though curiosity, preservation and the pursuit of knowledge has been the organisation’s main goal, it has also achieved something else entirely along with it: the nurturing of a community with an incredible legacy and a bright future.
So, how exactly does the Island’s oldest heritage organisation stay true to its roots whilst keeping itself relevant in the modern day? That’s the question at the forefront of Société CEO Rebecca Bailhache’s mind.
At this time of year, we often find ourselves reflecting on the year gone by and making plans for the year to come. And that could not be more poignant for the Société as it’s 150th anniversary year comes to a close. I sat down with the Société CEO to get her round-up of this milestone year for the organisation and found out what’s on the horizon…

MM: What significance has the 150th anniversary year had for you as CEO and the organisation more broadly?

RB: The anniversary year has been an incredibly busy and fulfilling one. There have been plenty of opportunities to meet our Members and hear about the work of the Sections and I am always amazed at the variety of subjects and areas of interest which we cover. We have put on many events this year, including special ornithology walks, a fundraising quiz, two conferences, a celebration of Jèrriais, Adolphus Curry Day, Victorian Day and an Open Day. We also held our Scenic Lanes competition and had two series of Lunchtime Talks in the Spring and Autumn. We participated in the parades on Liberation Day and at the Battle of Flowers, and the Section activities have been running throughout the year. All of this demonstrates the value we continue to provide to our community and the expertise our members have in a wide range of subjects. We have been lucky enough to have received excellent coverage for all our events from the JEP as well as developing a dynamic presence on social media which is essential to promote our profile. It should be noted that the enormous contribution made by volunteers is significant, and much of the work achieved is done by these Members.

MM: What have been your highlights from the 150th anniversary celebrations?

RB: The ‘Past, Present, Future’ conference in June was my personal highlight because it was the first conference I have organised as CEO! As a learned organisation, it is important to bring people together to share and disseminate accumulated knowledge and experience, and it was gratifying to gather an eminent group of speakers for a day’s immersion in culture and heritage talks. I believe the occasion was thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended, and it was a lively social occasion too. Victorian Day was also a wonderful experience, dressing up and stepping back in time to a gentler way of life, enjoying demonstrations from our Sections, music and dance performances interspersed with storytelling in English and Jèrriais. The Open Day was also a highlight, gathering together a significant amount of our Members representing all the Sections and allowing them to catch up with each other and showcase their work to the public.

MM: The theme for the celebrations has been ‘Past, Present, Future’ how do you feel that theme resonates now we’re coming to the end of the anniversary year?

RB: The theme ‘Past, Present, Future’ is a brilliant theme, as it is always relevant, moving as we are, constantly, through time. The mission set out by our founders 150 years ago is just as relevant today, if not more so, given the fast pace of development and the ever-increasing strain on our limited land and resources. There is a lot to look forward to, and as we enter 2024, we are looking forward to embarking on many projects which will enhance our offerings. There are challenges too, with limited resources and funding, but we are determined to continue the work and bring the Société to the forefront of Island life again.

MM: The Société Jersiaise is the Island’s oldest heritage organisation, what is it about the Société that you think holds the key to its longevity?

RB: More than anything it is our Members who create a community of like-minded people and who share a passionate interest in the Island. Events like the conference where our speakers delivered a wide range of fascinating talks on diverse topics from History & the Constitution, Archaeology, Biodiversity, the Environment and Culture & Heritage demonstrate the breadth of interests, and there is no other Island organisation which covers so many subjects. The panel discussions which followed were thought provoking and enlightening. The commemorative publication of the conference will be published in the first quarter next year. We continue to publish new material every year. One remarkable example we published in 2023 was ‘Le Premier Livre de l’Histoire des Isles’ by Jean Poingdestre which lay undiscovered for 3 centuries! The Société is still full of gems waiting to be uncovered or rediscovered…

MM: What would be your main message to the public about how they can get involved and support the Société’s future?

RB: The most obvious, and easiest way is to buy a membership, as this funding supports the day-to-day operations of the organisation. But also key to our survival and thriving is the involvement of our Section Members who are constantly researching, monitoring and surveying the various aspects of our natural world and man-made environment around us, whether in Marine Biology, Botany, Ornithology, Mycology, Entomology or Architecture to name but a few! Our Field Archaeologist continues research into sites on the Island, gathering previously unknown information and collaborating with our nearest neighbours in the other Channel Islands, Normandy and Brittany. Our Library’s unique collections are a researcher’s delight, and there is potential to reach further afield and share more of interest. The Photo Archive also has a line-up of projects waiting to be completed when resources allow. We welcome volunteers in all our departments and encourage people to get in touch if they would like to learn something new and contribute to a unique and special organisation.

MM: Looking ahead – perhaps not as far as the next 150 years – but into the Société’s future, what is on the horizon for the organisation?

RB: As an organisation, one of our primary aims is to encourage research and disseminate information, and we have already discovered that our online digital collections reach far beyond the Island, so we are keen to continue to digitise our collections, reaching an ever-wider audience. We are also dedicating much time and effort to bring us up-to-date on office management and infrastructure to support us in an increasingly digital world and to gain greater efficiency. We are very keen to support our Sections too, helping to seek funding for their projects where necessary and looking at ways to develop connections and support their research work. Their contribution to the Société is not to be underestimated.

There is much potential yet to tap, and many of our collections are not widely known, such as a Botanical collection of specimens which dates back to the 17th century, marvellous collections of photographs in the archive to digitise, preserve and promote, and a fountain of knowledge in the Library. Our Field Archaeologist has an extensive plan of exciting excavations and fieldwork which will give us insights into how and where our ancestors lived, as well as plans to engage more with other organisations, sharing our research and deepening our understanding. The Photo Archive is working on resources to share in the education sphere, reaching more students and connecting them with our culture and heritage. We shall continue to digitise and preserve, publish and research well into the foreseeable future.

Whilst the 150th anniversary celebrations may have drawn to a close, the tireless work of the Société’s staff and Members continues on. If you’d like to find out more about how you can support the Société, click here.

Written by Martha Macdonald

In this series, Freelance Writer Martha MacDonald will delve into the archives and meet with the researchers, sample the Sections and celebrate all that the Société brings to our Island.