Drawing from the Foreshore

Sophie Charalambous, 'On the Foreshore'

Sophie Charalambous, ‘On the Foreshore’

The Thames foreshore is a mysterious place. It’s full of history but also dangerous. A potential treasure trove of historical artefacts, but unpredictable, where the sands can give way and the tide can change quickly.

As a historian interested in London I’ve always had an appreciation for the importance of the Thames, but my interest in the foreshore was only really aroused whilst working for the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London. The Tower is one of the most iconic images of the Thames foreshore and through a project looking at archaeological finds I discovered the fascinating history of armouries and gun manufacture that took place just in-front of the Tower, on the foreshore. In this project I worked with four amazing volunteers to repackage and catalogue this collection of artefacts that had not been touched since the 1980s. I became fascinated and blogged about it for the Royal Armouries here, and as part of the Day of Archaeology here.

One thing I love about history is that when you find something that intrigues you, it’s likely that you’ll find a whole group of people equally, if not more, curious that you. I subsequently came across the Thames Discovery Programme, who run FROG, and, of course, the Mudlarks.

More recently, I’ve discovered an artist with an obvious fascination with the foreshore. Her name is Sophie Charalambous and she currently has an exhibition called ‘From the Foreshore’ on at  Jessica Carlisle until 8 March.

Sophie Charalambous, 'Pageant'

Sophie Charalambous, ‘Pageant’

Jessica Carlisle, who is curating and hosting the show, has described Sophie’s work as a ‘poetic interpretation’ of the foreshore, and I agree that the images appear to capture that magical quality of the foreshore. They are almost wistful, portraying a single moment somewhere between the past and present day.

If you’re keen to know more, Sophie Charalambous will be giving an artist’s talk on Saturday 7 March at 3pm. The gallery is on Kinnerton Street, just off Knightsbridge, and the exhibition runs until 8 March.

The Revolution will be Digitised: part 1

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We are quite clearly living through a revolution, the digital revolution. We can’t move for it, it’s infiltrated into so many parts of our working lives and leisure we’ve almost stopped being amazed or confounded by the possibilities or the consequences.

Almost, I say because I have been to the ‘Digital Revolution’ exhibition at the Barbican in London. My strongest feeling about this exhibition was that it was a lot of fun. From playing Tetris on an original Game Boy and watching how the film Gravity was made, to seeing my shadow sprout wings and shooting robots with my mind. I had a lot of fun. And that was only the first part of the exhibition!

The exhibition is spilt into three areas across the building and the first section is by far the longest with the most to say. It was a real novelty to be able to not only see but use and play with original games consuls, and as you can probably tell the Game Boy was my favourite. Why? Because I had one of course! Though novelty and nostalgia are not the only interesting aspects of the exhibition and the development of games and art feels pioneering and democratic. The best example of this has to be the system that was to become the internet, Tim Berners-Lee’s Enquire system. It doesn’t look like much but just look where we are now!

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The exhibition moves into the present and consequently the future as the screens slowly disappear and the digital world becomes more reactive. The big finale is a room in the basement which is dark a part from a few beams of light. It is quickly apparent these are more than spotlights, they are lasers and they dance and explode at your touch – so much fun!

All of this was exciting and though the exhibition focused on games and art it made me think about what these developments could mean for the wider world. The technology linked to the game using eye movement and brain power appears ideal for people with severe paralysis. Could the artwork that gave my shadow wings be used to any benefit in discussing issues surrounding body-image or self-image?

I have no idea. What I do know is that it got me excited about the possibilities for museums and how the digital revolution can help us look at the world, objects and ourselves a little differently. Museums are using digital to increasing effect and it is becoming clear that interactives no longer need to be these touchscreens on gallery, they can be much more.

I’m obviously not the first to think this and there is already great work being done to explore the possibilities. The V&A commissioned a games designer in-residence, whose final game should be released soon. I’m totally fascinated by the Battle of Bannockburn heritage centre where visitors are emersed in the history of the battle, its characters as well as its arms and armour then invites you to play out your own Bannockburn. Derby Museums have taken the ethos of creating and collaborating to it’s core in the Re:Make Museums project at the Derby Silk Mill, asking visitors to be creators and help shape the museum, they’ve even agreed to host MuseomixUK this year!

I think museums can demonstrate some of the best ways the digital revolution can work, encouraging collaborative and inclusive participation. I also think they are well placed to discuss the darker side, the issues surrounding surveillance, abuse, theft, privatisation of data and civil liberties. The issues that are not necessarily easily understood but are of increasing importance as we spend more of our working and leisure time in the digital realm. But let’s end on a positive note and get excited about the future of digital and the future of museums! Long live the revolution!

Anniversary Events – what are they good for?

‘Lights Out’ project to mark 4 August led by 14-18NOW

You may feel that we’re flying high in our journey of First World War commemoration, but I’m afraid we haven’t even taken off yet.

We are currently being taxied to our take-off point, flicking through the in-flight magazine, enjoying a few themed exhibitions, BBC documentaries and dramas and perhaps indulging in a puzzle book participating in the National Archive’s hugely successful Operation War Diary crowd-sourcing project.

Hopefully you’ve taken in enough to know that Britain entered the war on 4 August 1914, and it is that date, one hundred years later, that we’re scheduled for take off.

The opening of the refurbished Imperial War Museum on 19 July will mark our acceleration down the runway but we’ll know we’re in the air during the government planned memorial services in Glasgow, Westminster and Belgium, as well as the 14-18NOW art project ‘Lights Out’. An art event designed to echo Sir Edward Grey’s ominous words “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

With at least four years of commemoration activities, this is a long-haul flight bound to have a mix of blockbuster in-flight movies and turbulence. But what will it all mean by 11 November 2018. Where will we land and will it be a safe landing?

In an attempt to make some sense out of this an AHRC research network has been set up between the Universities of Birmingham, Cardiff and Sheffield and involving heritage partners Historic Royal Palaces and National Library of Wales to investigate the significance of centenary commemoration. I recently attended one of their conferences at Hampton Court Palace and was fascinated by the topic.

Papers were given by a range of organisations and institutions including some of the big players in the First World War commemorations such as Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Heritage Lottery Fund and the Imperial War Museum. (Unfortunately the BBC weren’t represented, as their input would have been fascinating, but we did discuss anniversaries on TV.) Also, refreshingly, the day wasn’t just about the First World War and we heard about plans for the Peterloo anniversary in Manchester, the Power Rangers made a surprising appearance and as a reminder that the war wasn’t the only thing to happen in 1914 the Komagata Maru Incident was also discussed, a moment often forgotten in Canadian and Indian history. The bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade was also referred to continuously throughout the day.

I could spend a long time going through each paper and discussing what I took from each, but in fear that this would make a very long blog post I’ll try to summarise the main points.

– Anniversaries aren’t going anywhere, we’re obsessed with them! From two pound coins to TV they feature in public understanding of history, and have been an increasing feature in recent years.

– A parallel change in the public understanding of history has been the emphasis on experience exemplified by the success of the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are’. This is useful for us to use aspects of family history or local history to engage with possibly new audiences, but could this mean we forsake the macro or political history? Does that matter?

– It is important to remember that as heritage organisations or universities we do not own the history we are trying to communicate. Topics, especially like the First World War or Peterloo or the abolition of the slave trade, are very personal and we need to trust people to make their own sense of this history through the gateways they chose.

– Evaluation was important to everyone involved from DCMS and HLF to the universities, museums and archives. DCMS and HLF have their desired outputs and will try to measure success against these. I was introduced to the logic chain, and DCMS said they would like to meta-evaluation but it sounds like getting evaluations out in the middle of the four years to inform later events will be challenging. HLF will work with Sheffield Hallam University on their evaluation.

– Everyone felt it was important that academia and heritage organisations keep up a dialogue throughout the anniversary events. Many new resources and sources will be unearthed and made available and it is valuable for the latest scholarship to be shared as widely as possible.

– Especially with so many cuts in so many areas it is great to have a lot funding available for First World War projects, as well as anniversaries more generally. HLF noted that through the First World War funding they have had a lot of first-time applicants, but large and small, new fundraisers and well-seasoned, it’s clear we’re all taking advantage of the available funding. But keeping track of the outputs and the current scholarship from all of this is difficult. For the First World War commemoration the number of organisations working in partnerships is huge and it is important to sustain those relationships after the project.

– Diverse stories are important, the fact that the First World War was a global conflict needs to be reflected in our work. There are also links outside of the conflict that can be examined and could be used for community projects, the Komagata Maru Incident is a perfect example.

– Finally there was some concern that we just move from one anniversary to the next, following the funding and the publicity to fund projects and attract audiences. It was felt there needed to be some longer legacy, that for many museums and archives the carefully prepared resources created for the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade are now in drawers and cupboards. Though I don’t think we need to lament too much on this. I think one of the legacies of those events has been the success of UCL’s ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ project. It is possible that the bicentenary events laid the groundwork on knowledge to help people understand the background and importance of this database, and hopefully work like this will continue.

More events by the network are due in the forthcoming months and I will follow them with interest. In the meantime I have a lot to think about and will enjoy looking at how my work as a PhD student and museum professional can use anniversaries to promote the public understanding of history.

For future events of The Significance of the Centenary network: http://thecentenary.wordpress.com/key-events/

Music and Museums

David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A

For a number of months ideas about music and museums have been floating around my head. I think it was the David Bowie Is exhibition, at the V&A, that kickstarted this process and since a jumble of ideas and observations have been bouncing around. This blog is an attempt to make some sense out of them.

Now, the obvious difficulty in the relationship between museums and music is that music is not a thing. It is not a tactile object we can grab hold of and put on a wall, in a case or on a plinth. It adds to our lives in so many ways, but is difficult to physically contain and present.

Possibly because of this I think one of the most fascinating areas of historical research is in the history of music. BBC Radio 4 made a wonderful documentary series called Noise: A Human History on the history of sound, and through that I have come to understand that music has always been an important part of human communication. It satisfies a basic human need. I didn’t manage to catch all of the series, but what I did I really enjoyed, and I think part of its success was because it was on radio. A medium devoted to noise, I would listen to it before going to sleep so I could relax and dedicate my ears to it.

Also, the recent BBC season on the Sound of Cinema is fantastic. I’ve particularly enjoyed Neil Brand’s series The Music that Made the Movies for drawing out the emotive qualities and value music brings to images, and its use can completely change our understanding of a scene. (My personal favourite was regarding a scene in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ where music that was deemed too sexually suggestive had to be replaced by sentimental strings for public release.)

Lates at the Science Museum, image from DCMS blog

However, TV and radio are multimedia channels, designed to carry music. A museum is not one of these places. Music is more often seen in a museum space during a function, whether that be a private hire or, increasingly, a Lates. (I find silent discos at Lates interesting as juxtaposing the traditional quiet atmosphere with rebellious dancing). Exhibitions might have a soundscape, adding to the atmosphere, but not really a soundtrack.

This is where the ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition really interested me. I thought the headphones that picked up sensors and started playing music (and sometimes speech for extra content) in different places really worked. Every now and again I felt I had missed something or the signal didn’t seem very strong, but the technique came into its own in the section projecting different Bowie concerts. Depending where you sat determined which concert you heard, and there were normally three playing on a different wall simultaneously. I got the impression people had been, and could be, there for hours.

In the other areas of the exhibition I did feel that the music added to the objects, particularly costume and other memorabilia. It added a layer of context that text could not bring. Nonetheless, in this blockbuster exhibition it was the marriage of sound and visual that worked best for me.

The Clash exhibition, Berwick Street

The Clash exhibition, Berwick Street

In stark contrast to the Bowie exhibition (for which I did queue for a number of hours), a few weeks ago I walked into an exhibition on Berwick Street, depicting the career of one of my all time favourite bands, The Clash.

This was not in an accredited museum, but was in a small shop just off Oxford Street. The budget for The Clash exhibition was considerably lower, and rather than getting your own headset, the band’s music were playing out of speakers. This gave the exhibition a bit more of a community feel to it, as you caught the eye of a fellow fan singing along whilst peering into the glass letters that spelt out, you guessed it, The Clash, to see their memorabilia. Similar to the Bowie exhibition, some of the most interesting objects, for me, were the books and record sleeves that had a influence on their work amongst the gig paraphernalia and hand-written song lyrics.

In a way both exhibitions suited each artist, Bowie’s was considerably more dramatic and grand, where as The Clash was a bit more do-it-yourself. Though both had really interesting techniques to convey their message, I loved the cases displaying The Clash’s guitars were made to look like see-through flight cases. Also the online presence for each exhibition is interesting, the V&A produced a thoughtful podcast that discussed the challenges of curating the exhibition, see a link here. The Clash curated an online exhibition complete with interviews and music, streemed through Spotify.

The Oramics Machine is a unique electronic instrument invented by Daphne Oram (1925-2003).  Copyright: Science Museum

The Oramics Machine is a unique electronic instrument invented by Daphne Oram (1925-2003). Copyright: Science Museum

For these exhibitions music is central and needed music to animate their objects. Similarly to this, my first museum volunteer role was at the Handel House Museum and I’ve always loved that they hold recitals there. Music can bring topics to life in other ways, and I have to mention the Science Museum’s Oramics and Electronic Music project and exhibition. This was the first project in the Science Museum’s Public History department and I think it worked so well due to the music element. The type of music brought together enthusiasts who had a shared love and though the exhibition was clearly important, the project also had a strong online presence which widened the community and build enthusiasm for the project, partly helped by a competition for people to create their own from a number of samples.

Music can bring a space and history to life. It also had the power to evoke unique reactions – songs can have very personal meanings for people.

But could music work for exhibitions that are unrelated to the practice or performance of music?

I think it could. The idea first occurred to me on a train listening to Everything Everything album ‘Arc’, and I had images of playing it in a exhibition planning meeting saying “I want this exhibition to make people feel like this.” (Yeah, these are my daydreams). I have also since discovered that some museums and archives have their own Spotify playlists. The Ministry of Curiosity’s blog discusses the subject here. I think this is a fantastic idea. Many of these lists are based on theme – songs related to libraries, songs related to London etc. But this could perhaps work with emotions as well? I want this exhibition to make people angry, happy or sad. Or perhaps to add an extra layer of context? Source and record songs that would have been sung locally, from execution ballads to music hall. Or as with cinema could pop music also work to build atmosphere and extra meaning to our visual displays?

I’d be interested in your thoughts on music in museums. I think the possibilities for music in museums are endless, so here’s to more music in museums!

Useful links:

Here is a link to a conference report in which Merel van deer Vaart talks about the project (opens a PDF): http://www.york.ac.uk/ipup/projects/audiences/science.html

Ministry of Curiosity’s blog on museums on Spotify: http://theministryofcuriosity.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/prancing-to-playlists-museums-on-spotify.html

The Clash online exhibition or Radio Show: http://www.theclash.com/thisisradioclash/

V&A ‘David Bowie Is’ podcast: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/v/v-and-a-podcast-curating-pop-music/

Modern Relevance of Rapiers: a visit to the Wallace Collection

apier of Christian II, Elector of Saxony, The hilt probably made by Marx Bischhausen of Dresden, the blade Solingen, c. 1605-7, Rüstkammer, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden on display at Wallace Collection’s ‘The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe’

What do Early Modern gentlemen and modern street crime have in common? Well I wouldn’t have thought much until I recently visited an exhibition at the Wallace Collection.

After reading the review of the Wallace Collection’s exhibition ‘The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe’ in the Museum Journal, I knew I had to visit. As promised the objects on show were exquisite and though the exhibition may appear quite small for some people, I think this helped convey the magnificence of the items on display. Items not only from the Wallace Collection, but also the V&A, Royal Armouries, Glasgow Museums as well as collections from Vienna and Dresden.

What I was surprised about was the familiarity of some of the themes brought up in the exhibition. These blades were not only violent weapons but they were fashion accessories and symbols of status. They went with a style of dress, obviously some elaborate suits of armour, but also a gentleman’s everyday look, beautifully demonstrated in a portrait of Robert Dudley, famous for being one of Elizabeth I’s court favourites. These are themes that are sometimes mentioned in reports on modern-day youth knife crime, and it did make me wonder if this is something that could be explored further.

I was impressed to discover the Royal Armouries have a literature review titled ‘Tackling Knife Crime’ published in 2006: http://www.royalarmouries.org/assets-uploaded/documents/RA_Literature_Review_on_Knife_Crime.pdf (opens a PDF document), and it highlighted to me the possibilities that historic collections of weapons could have in looking at and (maybe) addressing knife crime in the UK. There are obviously far more to youth violence that fashion and status, but any way to get the public and children thinking and talking about can’t be a bad thing.

‘The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe’ is free and open until 16 September. See more information here: http://www.wallacecollection.org/collections/exhibition/93

The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe

Victorian Photos of Hackney Residents: Volunteering at Hackney Museum

The Great Atroy, Image from the 'Peculiar Portraits' at Hackney Museum from Culture24.org.uk Copyright held by Anderson/Four

This is just a quick post about some work I’ve been doing for Hackney Museum. I have been volunteering with the Collections and Exhibitions Manager and had the pleasure of cataloguing a collection of photos by the Hackney photographer, Arthur Eason.

The story behind these photographs, as well as the content, is fascinating. Over 2000 glass plates were discovered several years ago in derelict school in Hackney. These glass plates were in their original boxes and accompanied by the photograph studio’s original office stationery. From this it was discovered that the  plates were from Eason & Co. studio, run by Arthur Eason, and based on Dalston Lane. With no clue as to how they got to the school or who had owned them between the closure of the studio in the early 1900s and the discovery in the early 2000s, their life as objects remains a mystery. We know that the majority of images are from the 1890s and were taken in Eason’s Hackney studio.

Most of these images are portraits and they represent a rare historical window to life in Victorian Hackney. Subjects include newly wed couples, family portraits, possibly to celebrate a child’s birthday or other life milestone, and also promotion photographs for music hall acts. These promotional images even include some Victorian photography trickery with additional effects added by drawing on the negative.

In addition to these there are fascinating images of Asian and Chinese people in both national and Western dress. It is thought that most of the images are of international Salvation Army delegates in Hackney to attend the International Salvation Army Congress of 1894. This is supported by the fact that many of the subjects have Salvation Army badges, but it is also supported by the Eason’s connection to the Salvation Army.

The Easons were very active within the Salvation Army; Arthur’s father, John Eason, was a close friend of William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army, and Arthur went on a missionary trip to China in early 1880s. The relationship between the families was clearly maintained and there are even photographs of Booth’s grandchildren within the collection.

I have been cataloguing Hackney Museum’s collection of Arthur Eason’s photographs, preparing them to be accessible through their online catalogue and so accessible to more people. This is a fantastic resource of the public and historians alike and I hope they are used in the future to tell many stories, from life in Victorian Hackney, Victorian photography and the history of the Salvation Army to name a few! Until then I will continue to catalogue to attempt to ensure they can be found by as many people as possible.

Update: I should note that the legal owners of the copyright of the images belong to Bridgit Anderson and Jim Four, who kindly donated copies of some of the images to Hackney Museum.

The images are up on Hackney Museum website now – go to their collections website (http://museum.hackney.gov.uk/home) and search ‘Eason’ and they’ll appear. Have fun!

Links:

Hackney Museum: http://www.hackney.gov.uk/cm-museum.htm

Salvation Army History: http://www1.salvationarmy.org.uk/uki/www_uki_ihc.nsf/stc-vw-dynamic-arrays/576D5B691C7BD8978025704A0055741F

‘Treasures of Heaven’ at the British Museum

The statue reliquary of St Baudime had never left France before its inclusion in the exhibition. The British Museum

Yesterday, 9 October 2011, the British Museum’s exhibition ‘Treasures of Heaven’ finished. I was lucky enough to catch it before it finished, and though I appreciate a review after an exhibition has finished isn’t always the most useful, I hope this post can convey a flavour of the exhibition and some highlights from it.

The exhibition looks at the role of the relic in Christian worship in the medieval period (300 AD – early 1500 AD), and as the tag line suggests medieval saints and devotion, as well as relics, are strong themes throughout this exhibition. My interest in the relic comes from my recent research into collections of submarine telegraph cables, and I believe that sections of cable often became like relics for certain communities. From spending so much time studying these sections of cable I was almost surprised by the small number of relics themselves on display. Instead the majority of objects were the reliquaries, the receptacles that both protected and represented the relics.

These reliquaries could be stunningly beautiful, demonstrated by the object that greeted you at the exhibition entrance, the bust of St Baudime. This reliquary was made in France between 1146AD and 1178 AD, and was created to hold a relic of St Baudime’s blood. This object, like many others, was displayed in it’s own individual case, enabling the visitor to get a few of all sides of the object, to take in the craft and beauty of the object. St Baudime’s reliquary had clearly had a slightly turbulent life, the jewels that once adorned it had been removed, and so too had to the object’s heart, the relic itself. However these loses didn’t seem to take away the life of this object, and it is understandable why this type of reliquary is called a ‘speaking relic’, St Baudime does look to be in mid sermon.

The exhibition followed a chronological trail, after marvelling at St Baudime I was sent back in time to the classical period, and the very beginning of the Christian passion for relics. Early relics were closely associated with Christ and most famously Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, is associated with finding the relics of the cross Jesus died on. With this in mind it is interesting to think about the trajectory of these early objects, moving between centres of power, first to Constantinople and eventually to Western Europe. This trajectory not only highlights the changing world powers, but underlines the importance of these objects and the perceived power they held and projected on to their possessor.

St Conall Cael's bell. The British Museum

Not all reliquaries were gold or ornate objects, though these objects did get the longest pause from the exhibition visitors, and it was intriguing to witness the changing trends and adaptations the reliquaries undertook. There were some very small and personal objects, made to be worn, there was a recycled Walrus bone chair leg that was adapted to become a reliquaries, and an Irish fad for creating bell shrines. The bell shrines consisted of a metal cover for the simple bell which was said to have belonged to a local saint, the sample shown had belonged to St Conall Cael, and on close inspection you could see where the metal had been smoothed out by the many hands of pilgrims.  The biggest influence in one of these changes came from the Second Council of Nicea in 787AD which declared all altars must hold a relic. This clearly had an influence on the design of altars, but also made small travelling altars a sacred equivalent to a large church altar, though clearly the origin of a relic may have an impact on its popularity. With the cult of saints and the relic craze came the creation of celebrity saints, and the exhibition acknowledges this with a sample of the many relics circulated for some of these famous saints, such as Thomas Beckett.

After the succession of these objects of devotion I found one of the final sections particularly intriguing – relics beyond the medieval period. We are all familiar with the Reformation, the iconoclasm and exile of Catholics from the rising Protestant powers. However what I didn’t know much about was the creation of relics surrounding the execution of Charles I, or that upon his son’s coronation with the restoration of the English monarchy, that Charles I was made a saint. For several years Charles I was the only saint in the Church of England, however Queen Victoria did not approve and he was eventually decanonized! (I was honestly amazed by this by this nugget of information.)

The final section of the exhibition was a short film looking at related themes, ‘Remembering & Celebrating’, ‘Devotion’ and ‘Cult of Celebrity’. With images of Stalin and Mother Theresa the exhibition was brought up to the modern day, however it made me think about the value of an object. It felt we could only appreciate modern acts of devotion through media, and though I’m sure there are many objects that could represent these themes in the modern day the absence of them underlined the scale of the circulation of relics in the medieval period. In the dark hushed gallery, with the sound of church music helping to create a serene atmosphere, it is easy to forget that contact to relics was an integral part of life, part of the everyday as well as part of acts of devotion such as pilgrimage. They were familiar as well as sacred, and some were more important than others. Is there a modern day equivalent or does that even matter, what do I consider sacred – my mobile phone, a sentimental piece of jewellery or anything at all? Whatever your conclusions I certainly felt better off having seen the medieval treasures, and trying to come closer to an understanding of what they felt was sacred and powerful.

The Artist-Scientist in the history of the Submarine Telegraph

Samuel F. B. Morse’s painting “Gallery of the Louvre” from Art Knowledge News

Previously I’ve briefly discussed some thoughts on the links between art and science through the telescope of history. Through my research into the history of submarine telegraphy I’ve been struck by a continued link, and not just through representations and display, but through professions.

At least two telegraph engineers (that I’ve come across so far) had a previous career as an artist before turning to a life of experiment and science. One is probably one of the most famous men linked to electrical telegraphy, Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse’s career as a painter brought him to England in 1811, where he studied under Washington Allerton, and was eventually allowed into the Royal Academy. Morse went back to America in 1816 and enjoyed a successful career painting portraits of many prominent politicians. In 1830 Morse decided to return to Europe to improve his painting skills, and it was on this trip that he began to develop his concept of the single-wire electric telegraph.[1]

The second artists turned engineer was John W. Brett, one of the pioneers of submarine telegraphy. . In 1831 it appeared he was on the cusp of breaking through as an artist himself, but in October, a few days before the infamous Bristol riots, a fire broke out that destroyed his entire collection which included his own work as well as rare works he had acquired.[2] It appears that this personal disaster spurred Brett on to achieve success in an alternative way, through study and collecting Old Masters, this wide-ranging collection of fine art was highly credited and Brett consequently loaned works to exhibitions held in Manchester, the South Kensington Museum and the Royal Institution of British Architects.[3] However this wasn’t the only source of his fortune, like many people Brett’s imagination had been ignited by the recent success of the overland telegraph. In a conversation with his younger brother, Jacob Brett, it was suggested that if cables had been laid underground, why not underwater. The seed had been sown, but France wasn’t the first location the brothers wanted to connect via submarine cable, in 1845 Jacob Brett registered a company to unite Europe and America, when this was deemed too risky and large a scheme for such a young business the Bretts suggested a cable between England and Ireland, but this was declined by the British Government. According to the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography an agreement was eventually made with the French government in 1847 and it was decided to lay a telegraph cable between Dover and Calais.[4] A cable was eventually successfully laid in 1851, and was the first international submarine telegraph cable.

I’m sure there are many more artist turned scientists, there is after the Jungian Archetype of the Artist-Scientist, of which Wikipedia suggests Su Song, Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin (another pioneer of electricity). Perhaps it is the showman ship early electricity experiments encouraged, or the creativity of invention that attracted the cross-over, or perhaps it is some sort of psychological trait and there are many modern and ancient examples that I haven’t discovered yet.

Collecting Cables

From Sheerness to Valentia, on board Brunel's paddle steamer 'Great Eastern'. Copyright National Maritime Museum. The NMM got some cable samples thrown in when they bought this at auction!

Last week I got into the National Maritime Mmuseum’s institutional archives, held at the LTE stores, to try and find out a bit more about the provenance of some of the cables now at the NMM. As with most museum archives the records held on objects were a bit hit and miss, some had a large file full of correspondence, and others didn’t even have a file, well not one I could find!

However, from the files I did get a look at, there did seem to be a pattern emerging; the cables themselves were not something the keepers of yester-year found exciting. More often than not the bits of cable appear to have been acquired along with other objects, and was often just listed on an inventory list or, my favourite, appeared as a condition for acquiring a painting at auction. (It appears the presentation box of cables wasn’t listed along with the painting and just suddenly turned up on the later paperwork, I imagine the Museum was very surprised).

Interestingly some of these objects were family papers, or other items, linked to men that either worked in the cable-laying industry or had another maritime or naval connection. It is generally assumed that the section was acquired in their line of work, though I found it interesting that one set of objects were part of an Admiral’s collection of ‘relics’.

Another large group of cables came from the Royal Artillery Museum along with a number of ship models, I think, and I’ve found documents relating to transfer of the ship models, but not the cables. A book on ship models at the NMM does detail that a number of objects were transferred over as the Royal Artillery Museum realised they had a lot of objects not related to artillery in their collection, but I seem at a dead-end for paper work related to this.[1] Furthermore the Royal Artillery Museum couldn’t find any documentation related to the move either (though I have to commend them on the speed at which they got back to me!)

Overall I’ve learnt a valuable lesson about the difficulties in obtaining an object biography of particular objects, you’re often relying on the administration principals of past policies of a museum, and record keeping culture, like collecting culture, changes over time. Some of these records seem to portray the perceived importance of what the object represents and the larger story it can tell rather than an interest in the object’s individual story. This leaves me at looking for the bigger picture myself, but taking into consideration the individual clues left by the object, in this case clearly pointing in the direction of the cable repair ships in collecting and possibly disseminating the sections of cable.


[1] B. Lavery & S. Steohens, Ship Models: Their Purpose and Development from 1650 to the Present, (London, 1995)

The Chartists’ ‘Dangerous Experiment’: The National Petition of 2 May 1842 through a Chartist Engraving

Procession Attending the Great National Petition of 3,317,702, to the House of Commons, 1842. © The Trustees of the British Museum

I have spent the past month writing an essay about the 1842 National Petition, specifically looking at the engraving above to see what that can tell us about it. I’ve handed in the essay, but thought I’d share a few ideas from it.

On Monday 2 May 1842 London was host to one of the greatest events of popular political theatre in its history. A procession of approximately 100,000 people,[1] littered with banners and flags with a soundtrack provided by bands from across the country, escorted a National Petition from Lincoln’s-inn-Fields to the Houses of Parliament. The petition was the Chartists’ second National Petition calling for political reform and its largest to date, claiming a staggering 3,317,702 signatures and weighing over 2 cwt. (or 305kg).[2] The Chartists produced three National Petitions in total, all of which were unsuccessful, but compared to the previous petition of 1839 and the subsequent petition of 1848, the 1842 petition was a unique moment in the Chartist movement. Arguably more political; it had more demands than the other petitions, calling not only for the infamous six points of universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, secret balloting, removal of the property qualification for MPs and a salary for MPs; but also for the repeal of the Poor Law Act and the repeal of the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland.[3] It was also unique in its delivery and reception; the Chartists called it their ‘dangerous experiment’ and Parliament acknowledged it was ‘not an ordinary’ petition.[4]

So what does this engraving tell us?

The ‘1842 Petition’ engraving was given away as a free gift to subscribers of the Chartist newspaper, The Northern Star, [5] and was clearly a celebration of the petition. The central three images are  indicators of this celebration, showing the size of the procession that accompanied the petition through London to Parliament; the size of the petition, that had to be carried by several people in the procession and dwarfed the Table before the Speaker, and also the National Convention, the Chartist organisation put together to administer the National Petition.

Northern Star front page. Chartist Ancestors website.

These images have clear links to the petition and can tell us something about how Fergus O’Connor, a Chartist leader and owner of the Northern Star, wanted the petition to be represented and remembered. The National Convention is respectable and orderly, sitting around a table, in many ways mirroring the layout of the Parliament. This isn’t surprising when we look at the National Convention as a sort-of ‘alternative parliament’,[6] whose policies and procedures followed those the Chartists wanted Parliament to adopt. [7] One contrasting feature of the National Convention and the House of Commons is the body language of the men. Some in the National Convention are looking out at you, others look hard at work, however most in the House of Commons sit with their arms folded, perhaps showing their ambivalence to the National Petition that sits in front of them. The National Convention seems to be more inclusive and hardworking; this image suggests that perhaps the House of Commons could learn a few things from the National Convention. This is further underlined by the fact that the central image of the procession (as well as the two children at the forefront of the image) are walking away from Parliament and towards the National Convention.

The image of the procession presents another side of the respectable Chartists. This massive procession was orderly and peaceful; in fact it was a family friendly event, that encouraged as many spectators as there were marchers. This seems to be one of the key messages with the two children playing are at the heart of the engraving, just under the box containing the petition, and was supported by the news reports of the time. [8] Though what this image doesn’t include is equally as interesting as what is included. As mentioned one of the notable differences of this petition was that it was more political than the other National Petitions, however the additional claims, the repeal of the Act of Union with Ireland and the repeal of the Poor Law Act don’t feature. The traditional Chartist demands feature on the Petition box or on flags, but none of the more controversial images or slogans that were seen at demonstrations or even the Petition procession including tricolours, or caps of liberty. [9] This is very a conventional almost acceptable image of Chartism.

There are also very few women featured in the engraving, none seem to be in the procession itself, they are just spectators. The National Convention does have the image of two women at the back of the room, but their role is unclear. However we do know that women had an active role in Chartism and especially in the coordination of petitions, [10] in this way this engraving supports the Gentleman image of Chartism as described by Malcolm Chase in his analysis of the portraits issued by The Northern Star. [11]

Image of Mary Ann Walker, female Chartist, from Punch. Chartist Ancestors

One aspect that has really intrigued me is the inclusion of the London landmarks at the top and bottom of the engraving. The top row shows images of Temple Bar, Somerset House, Northumberland House, Whitehall, Richmond Terrace, Westminster Bridge, Westminster Hall, and the Houses of Parliament. The bottom row displays St Clements Danes, St Mary Le-Strand, Adelphi Theatre, Nelson’s Monument, the Admiralty, Horse Guards, the Treasury and finally Westminster Abbey.

These landmarks trace a route from Temple Bar, down the Strand to Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall to Parliament Square. At first I thought they must trace the route of the procession; however the actual route followed Lincoln-inn-Fields, Holborn, Museum Street, Russell Square, Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Pall Mall, Charing Cross, Whitehall on to Parliament Square.[12] It could be that this route was a last-minute change, but I would need to do more research to conclude this.

In any case there is still the question of why include these buildings. Most of the buildings can be seen as symbols of the ‘Old’ and ‘New Corruption’, symbols of aristocratic power, religious establishment and government. The juxtaposition of these grand and powerful buildings against the centrepiece of the petition procession presents a bit of a puzzle. It could simply be to give a sense of place; this momentous occasion occurred amongst some of the historic, political and religious landmarks of the capital, not any other city. Alternatively they could present the 1842 Petition with a sense of significance and grandeur, just as important as the landmarks, making the procession and presentation of the petition another London landmark. However the political significance of most of the landmarks suggests that it is more likely that by including these symbols of power, the Northern Star is saying the demands of the people, through the petition, is just as powerful. By aligning the procession and presentation with places like Horse Guards and Westminster Bridge, they are underlining the Chartist’s respect for the establishment and placing the Chartist procedures as part of the establishment. Through the constitutional rights of petitioning, they had a legitimate claim and deserved to be listened to and taken seriously.

I feel the significance and meaning of this engraving deserves more research, especially why the Adelphi Theatre is one of the landmarks included, it feels a bit like the odd one out in terms of theme. I feel like I’ve just started to uncover the deeper meaning, but hope to explore it more in the future. Feel free to get in touch if you have any further information or ideas!


[1] The Times, 3 May 1842, claim 50,000 attended, the Northern Star, 7 May 1842, claim there were ten times that number. D. Goodway, London Chartism 1838-1848 (Cambridge, 1982), p.50, estimates between 100,000 and 150,000.

[2] Times, 3 May 1842, conversion from M. Chase, Chartism: A New History, (Wiltshire, 2007), p.205

[3] M. Taylor, ‘The Six Points: Chartism and the Reform of Parliament’, in O. Aston, R. Fyson & S. Roberts, eds., The Chartist Legacy(Finland, 1999), p. 1

[4] Northern Star, 7 May 1842, & Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3 May 1842

[5] M. Chase, ‘Building identity, building circulation: engraved portraiture and the Northern Star’, in  J. Allen & O. R. Aston, eds., Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press (Cornwall, 2005), p.47

[6] D. Thompson, The Chartists (London, 1984), p.63

[7] Taylor, ‘The Six Points’,p.16

[8] Times, 3 May 1842

[9] Northern Star 11 May 1842, & Times 3 May 1842

[10] P. Pickering, ‘And Your Petitioner &c’: Chartist Petitioning in Popular Politics 1838 – 48’, The English Historical Review, 116 (2001), pp.381-3

[11] Chase, ‘Building identity’ p.32

[12] Northern Star 11 May 1842, & Times 3 May 1842