Breaking Histories @ Shuffle: A Round Up

Caroline Nielson talking at Breaking Histories

Caroline Nielson talking at Breaking Histories

Well, what an event! The week long Shuffle festival is now over and with it the two Breaking Histories events. These events saw eight historians talk about a particular aspect of their research that they felt should be more widely known and discussed – you can see the call for participation here.

Historians spend a lot of time talking to each other, the holiday seasons, particularly summer and Easter, are chock-a-block with conferences, symposium and workshops. These are fantastic and important for us to share, challenge and discuss ideas. However, opportunities to talk directly to the public are few and far between and I was hoping that Breaking Histories would give historians, particularly new historians such as PhD students and early careers, a chance to talk about history in an unusual setting.

The Homestead Pavilion for the first Breaking Histories event

The Homestead Pavilion for the first Breaking Histories event

And Shuffle certainly provided an unusual setting! Located in the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, which is also 31 acres of woodland, these historians were part of festival celebrating film, art, food and nature. The theme of this year’s festival was Migration, Movement and Place and gave us plenty of scope to explore the modern relevance of our work.

The first event was on Saturday 25 July in the Homestead Pavilion. We had a great mix of talks with Anna Robinson talking about neighbour complaints in the early 20th century, Caroline Nielson on asylums and mental health patients during the First World War, Bob Taylor on concepts of knowledge in Ancient Rome through the lens of the work of Pliny the Elder, and concluded with Rosa Kurowska Kyffin from Beyond Past on a schools oral history project looking at Velvet Fist, a socialist, feminist choir.

We were all delighted with how engaged and interested the audience was and questions varied from questions about family history to relating the control of knowledge in current debates around intellectual property!

Rosa Kurowska Kyffin from Beyond Past, another speaker, Bob Taylor can be seen in the audience.

Rosa Kurowska Kyffin from Beyond Past, other speakers, Bob Taylor and Anna Robinson can be seen in the audience.

The second event was on Saturday 1 August in the Ecotherapy Grounded Den. There was a fair bit of confusion on our location as we’d been moved from the billed Migration Pavilion and I think some of the Shuffle team thought we were in the Homestead Pavilion again. Unfortunately I think the confusion led to a smaller audience, but it didn’t dampen the discussion and we had a great mix of talks. We had Judith Garfield from Eastside Community Heritage talking about the fantastic collection of 2600 oral histories from the East London community, Richard White discussing the project ‘Honouring Ester’ as part of Forced Walks which transposed a Nazi death march into the English countryside, Stephen Woodhams looked at the work of Raymond Williams and the use of different written forms to tell history and finally Sam Patterson discussed the work of the Stepney Tenants Defence League and notably their role in ensure tube stations were opened as air raid shelters during the Second World War.

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I think one of the surprising outcomes from this series of talks was how well they connected with each other. From hidden stories of migration and movements, quickly forgotten or ignored, to looking at different ways to communicate and discuss history either through artist-led performative act of walking or the use of creative writing. I think the discussions could have continued for a long time, but we had to move out of the way for a talk on genes!

Sam Patterson taking questions

Sam Patterson taking questions

Communities came out as a strong theme across both weekends, communities as a subject of research within asylums or council estates, to a source base for oral histories having migrated from a particular place, to a particular place or emerging through political movement or choir, to communities created through the creative practice of history in the act of walking or collaborative work.

Overall, I think we had an audience of 45 people over the course of the two events, which I think is fantastic! I hope the talks have encouraged people to think about history differently and possibly inspired some future collaborations. I certainly learnt a lot, (did you know the borough of Redbridge has the largest Jewish community in Europe?). I hope we can repeat the experience at next year’s Shuffle festival and would be interested in hearing ideas of other ways of using the Breaking Histories model for other events!

Finally, a huge thank you to all the speakers and everyone who attended an event. I couldn’t have done it without you!

Some useful links:

Shuffle Festival

Raphael Samuel History Centre call for participation for Radical Histories Public History Festival

Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Beyond Past – oral history project on Velvet Fist

Eastside Community History

Forced Walks

History Today review of Samantha Patterson’s book on the history of Stepney

Here are some more photos from the two events:

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The Post Office and Sunday Deliveries – a historical perspective

The British Postman was a newspaper produced by a sabbatarian group, the Workingmen's Lord's Day Rest Association. [POST 111/52]

The British Postman was a newspaper produced by a sabbatarian group, the Workingmen’s Lord’s Day Rest Association. The image shows a postman working as local residences go to church in the background. [POST 111/52]

It has recently been reported that the now privatised Royal Mail is going to start delivering post and opening delivery offices on a Sunday. This has been billed as ‘new’ and ‘innovative’, however it would be more appropriate to bill it as ‘returning to its roots’, because post on Sunday is nothing new.

Historically the Post Office had always operated on a Sunday, there were a few anomalies the most significant being London, but the rest of the country were able to send and receive mail on a Sunday.This was a well defended Post Office principle during the nineteenth century, a government department that championed its convenient and efficient service for the people of Britain. The Sunday service only ended in the First World War due to attempts to cut costs and pressure on the diminished postal labour force.

My PhD looks at the nineteenth century Post Office and my recent work has focused on this Sunday service and an active and occasional powerful campaign to stop the regular postal deliveries on a Sunday. This campaign was led by people labelled as sabbatarians, who felt that God had decreed that no work should be done on a Sunday. Work included the work of the Post Office’s sorters and letter-carriers as well as the reading and writing of letters by businesses and individuals. For the campaigners they saw this as much as a humanitarian and protective issue as religious.

The sabbatarians campaigned hard, and their biggest success was in 1850, when they managed to secure the legislation they desired ending all Sunday deliveries and collections. The success was short lived as a political backlash called for an inquiry and the Act was amended to allow local postal districts to chose if they wanted the service on a Sunday or not. Individuals were also allowed to opt-out of a house delivery on a Sunday if they could not gain a majority support.

Religion was obviously important in the arguments to end Sunday work, and went hand-in-hand with campaigns to close museums, shops and public houses on a Sunday. But the arguments to keep the service are similar to the ones put forward to restarting the service today, those of convenience and providing an efficient service.

Some of these arguments can be found in the petitions that survive from the nineteenth century stored in the British Postal Museum and Archive. They are from local areas to the Post Office requesting their Sunday deliveries are re-instated. In 1897 the district of Gorton (without the City of Manchester) stated that
‘grave inconvenience has frequently been caused by the non-delivery on Sunday of important private letters (especially in cases of sickness)’ [POST 14/22].

For the people of Maindee near Newport, Monmouthshire in 1856, it was more a matter of business for a growing area.
‘Many of the undersigned are so connected in business as to require immediate attention to their Correspondence and consequently are obliged to send special messengers on Sundays for their letters, thus proving the necessity of a Sunday delivery’ [POST 14/80]

As previously mentioned London was an anomaly and had never received a general postal delivery and collection on a Sunday. It was consequently used as an example in the sabbatarian campaigns and any perceived threat to the sanctity of London’s Sunday was fervently defended. A newspaper article of 1839 stated:

‘if in that great emporium of trade and wealth, which within its circumference embraces more than the population of some nations – if in this huge overgrown capital, the seat of Government and legislation – if there the Post Office may be shut on the Sabbath, without public loss or inconvenience, it would seem to follow that it may be shut anywhere and everywhere else.’ 
[Caledonian Mercury, 21 January 1839]

However, even this was countered with arguments that Londoners simply used the post offices on the edge of the metropolis to send important messages. Furthermore, with changes made to the service to ensure provincial post offices could reduce their hours on a Sunday work had to be done in London, such as sorting and transmitting mail.

The move to reopen post offices across the country for the convenience of the public could be seen as a return to the Post Office’s Victorian values, but I feel that what the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) have stated is also significant. They welcome these changes but make clear that the Sunday work would be voluntary and on a higher scale of pay. I think this is the real legacy of the nineteenth century. Religious principal may have been the bedrock of the Sunday Labour campaigns of the nineteenth century but they were also part of a movement that promoted the welfare of the employee within the corporate aims of profit and efficiency.

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/

A Tale of Three Conferences

The winning photo from the Social History Society Conference photo competition

I do love a conference.

What I particularly love is that they are a type of event that is not restricted by topic or audience. They could easily just be elitist events for historians to get together and show off how amazing their research is, and this can happen, but even the big conferences are not just for or about the history elite. Most give time and space for students and new researchers to present their work, others are dedicated solely to the work of students and my favourite type of conference are the ones open to everyone, the type that actively welcome those outside academia.

Over the space of four weeks in March/April 2014 I managed to attend three conferences. Two were hosted by esteemed academic history journals and the third was a small one day event specifically aimed at graduates. All aimed at an academic audience, (the ‘public history’ style of conference I mentioned above occur less often but I hope to attend Unofficial Histories again this year, my blog about last year is here And if you know of any others do let me know).

After attending these conferences I wanted to use this blog to think about and share my experiences of the different events, particularly in the context of being a PhD student, in the hope that they might be useful to others.

I’ve learnt many new things and met many interesting people at conferences but they can also be exhausting and expensive occasions, so sending in a paper proposal or attending can be a big decision. As a PhD student I’m normally lucky enough to get a reduced rate to attend and some societies offer funding. Though I do worry about how much this cost will go up once I’m no longer a student, but the financial burdens for early career researchers and historians (or ECRs) is for another time.

The three conferences were the Economic History Society Conference (EHSC) held at Warwick University, the Social History Society Conference (SHSC) held at Northumbria University and the London Nineteenth Century Studies Seminar Graduate Conference held at Senate House, London. I was presenting a paper at the latter two, and had decided to attend the EHSC with the idea that I might submit a paper to it next year.

Paper Proposals

Now, submitting papers is an interesting process and can vary between each conference. For the EHSC you need to submit something by the September before the conference, which is normally in March. Being organised is key, especially as they also tend to want the full paper by December. There was no way that was going to happen at the end of 2013 for me, (but I’m hoping to submit something this year). Having said that I did submit my paper proposal to the SHSC in October. I knew I would have more time to write the paper in the new year, but I also felt that the topic was much better suited to the SHSC than EHSC.

The themes and aims of the conference are important, there is definitely not a one size fits all approach to paper proposals and considering both of these conferences are quite large annual events I wanted to feel confident in my research. In contrast the London 19th Century Studies Graduate conference was advertised as a friendly student focused event, so my paper proposal for this leaned towards ‘work in progress’. I wanted to use the pressure of the event to make me focus back on the areas of current work for my PhD but also try out a few ideas and see if the other students had any thoughts on this.

Presenting Papers

Regarding presenting papers the EHSC and SHSC take different approaches. For EHSC the new researchers start the conference which  is useful as it (hopefully) produces a friendly (and sympathetic?) environment for new researchers together, and also gives the judges a chance to see and assess the new researchers prize at an allotted time. The SHSC integrate established and new researchers together which is slightly scary but also gives you a great opportunity to meet established historian in a similar field if you’re presenting together. I also think it gives a bit more credence to the student’s work and potentially gets you a bigger audience. Saying that the new researcher sessions I went to at EHSC did appear to be attended by established historians who had decided to go to sessions to see what the new blood was doing. The EHSC also print your paper in the huge conference booklet so even if people don’t manage to attend the new researchers papers they can still read them.

Both EHSC and SHSC wanted twenty minute papers, but the 19th Century Studies Graduate conference was just ten minutes. I’m still quite new to writing and giving papers, and fitting what you want to say in 20 minutes is hard, so I found the 10 minutes a real challenge. I also didn’t put together a PowerPoint presentation as discussing slides in my 20 minute paper had pushed me over the time limit. Though the advantage of the 10 minutes is that it really makes you focus and simplify. It’s always important to think about your audience and assuming they know nothing about your topic I found helped me filter what was important.

I was impressed how many people talked to their PowerPoint and didn’t read from a script at the EHSC conference, that is something I’d like to eventually do. Some presenters also did this at the SHSC conference, but I think most of us read from a script, which also happened at the graduate conference. Seeing so many great presentations also brought home how much I need to work on my style and nerves, I had a tension headache after my 10 minute paper, but hopefully confidence will come with the more papers I give.

The Social Side

A part from the scholarship one of the most important aspects to these events is the socialising. Meeting people and chatting, discussing research as well as academic life and any other topics is not only useful for ‘networking’ but also for learning more about life as a historian.It can often feel that everyone knows everyone else at these events, but the only way you get to know others is by talking to them. I’m still awful at going up to strangers and talking to them, but constantly amazed at how receptive most people are.

The graduate conference was just for the day and due to the headache I wasn’t able to stay for the wine, but thankfully the day had been well designed with lots of breaks for sorely needed coffee and biscuits. The other two were over the course of a few days and there were evening events organised with, of course, a conference dinner. At both I just went to the conference dinner, but I think attending all the events would be useful for meeting people and was often a bit jealous when people discussed the other social events. Cost is obviously an implication but you could tell both conferences made a point of trying to put on cheap or free events and twitter is a fabulous tool for organising a #tweetup and the like. I’ve found twitter increasingly useful at these types of events, there is normally a hashtag to follow and increasingly I’ve started conversations with complete strangers with ‘Do I follow you on twitter?’. (Thankfully I have been right and not just sounded weird.) Twitter is also a useful way to keep in contact with other conference delegates you’ve met but don’t really have a reason to email.

What have I learnt

So what do I take from this? With so many types of conferences going on there is bound to be something that will fit your topic, but consideration is needed concerning the audience and demands of the conference. Breaks and social occasions are just as important and the schedule for papers. If students and new researchers are going to be kept separate ensure the students’ papers are well advertised and at a good time. Finally social media is a great tool to meet those at the conference as well as those who couldn’t attend.

I’ve tried to summarise some thoughts here and hope other students, historians & non-historians find it useful, but please share any other thoughts or comments you have about attending conferences and history related events.

Lived-in history or Museum Living

Me presenting Warwick Castle

Me presenting Warwick Castle

Over the summer whilst visiting two historic houses, of sorts, I started to think about the relationship between visitor, objects and space.

The ‘houses’ were Warwick Castle and Somerleyton House in Norfolk. Clearly the buildings themselves are objects, and often the main reason for the public to visit. As large objects the way visitors move around the buildings can be important for interpretation. It can build a relationship based on access and feelings of exploration.

But they also hold historic objects and in that sense act as museums, so where and how objects are located within them are important. As set dressing or telling a story in their own right, these objects contribute to the atmosphere of the room or house, because their location is within a house or homely setting the visitor is presented with, I think, a different set of questions, than if the objects were on display in a museum. Principally “what would it have been like to live in this space with these objects?” or “would I want or have these objects in my home?”.

In both cases the buildings themselves were magnificent and I completely recommend them as places to visit. Obviously, they were very different with very different stories but both firmly situated in the history of England and Britain as a whole. Warwick Castle dates back to the eleventh century, it was home to the Kingmaker, the Earl of Warwick famous for his role in the War of the Roses, and in more recent times it was the home to Frances “Daisy” Greville, Countess of Warwick, a socialite and long term mistress of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.

Somerleyton Hall

Somerleyton has 17th century origins with links to royalists who prospered after the Restoration. However, it’s current design has more to do with the 19th century and the birth of railways, as it was bought and redesigned by Samuel Morton Peto, civil engineer and railway developer. Following the bust years of the railways the house was bought by the Crossleys, manufactures of Crossleys Carpets and it remains in the hands of that family today, a symbol of the rise of some of these industrial families.

The Royal Weekend Party, Warwick Castle

A part from the historical and design differences, the principal difference between these two historic houses is that one is solely a visitor attraction, run by the company that also looks after Madam Tussaud’s, the other is still a family home. Though at Warwick there have been attempts to recreated rooms for a weekend party in 1898, hosted by Frances Countess of Warwick. Rooms are dressed, wax figures stand in place and very few areas are blocked off, giving visitors free reign to explore rooms, read text or listen to recordings. They pull you into the late Victorian scandals, and made me feel like a ghost wandering through these people’s lives. Also,this immersive technique made you feel like you could touch objects. As a curator-in-training I felt very conflicted about it, but my friends (two of whom work in the sciences and the other a professional kite-surfer – I kid you not) didn’t feel this way at all.

In contrast, at Somerleyton, you were taken round by a guide, preventing as attempts to be too nosey. There were also those tell-tale signs of a lived in house, principally the family photos (and being a stately home also portraits and buffs). Even in the dining room, with the exquisite dining set, you could imagine a family having a dinner party there. In this room one of the pieces of art had been removed to be in an exhibition in Norwich, acting as a reminder that many of these objects could be in a museum, but were, instead, used and enjoyed by a family.

Entrance Hall, Somerleyton

Nonetheless, there must be a responsibility that comes with living amongst ‘museum’ pieces, and this really hit home, so to speak, in one area in Somerleyton, the hallway at the entrance of the house. We came in from the side, so the entrance hall was the third or fourth room, this gave it a more shocking effect as it didn’t seem to fit in with the other areas that felt very lived in. Consequently, for me, it was the most powerful in giving the sense of the house in a different time and was a reminder of how tastes can change. The halfway was a hunting trophy area, with two stuffed polar bears proudly displayed alongside a hippopotamus skeleton head, skins of white tigers and a jockey weighing-in chair. I’ve seen many stuffed animals in museums but it was the home setting that I found unnerving. Yes, this was part of the family story and also part of the house’s history that men in high society at this time would go on hunts and effectively display their achievements or spoils. It’s difficult for us today, so aware of endangered animals and the devastating human impact on nature, to be confronted with this voyeuristic hobby. But it also made me ask myself would I want that in my family home? No. But it was very thought provoking inclusion, and possibly a very brave one add well. It certainly provided a greater talking point for my partner and I, compared to a sofa where the Queen apparently sat and ate lemon cake.

In contrast I didn’t find anything in the ‘home-setting’ in Warwick controversial. Though we were probably most shocked by the bedroom where noises were played from behind curtains of the four poster bed.  You really felt like you’d walked in on a rather intimate moment.

I really enjoyed both and thought the interpretation techniques used were powerful for different reasons. Warwick gave you that feeling of freedom that you were an invisible visitor walking through a family drama at the turn off the century. In Somerleyton we were welcome guests given insights into a family history amongst a family that clearly cared for their history.

They left me wondering how much of a compromise it is to live in a museum piece and how the conflicts curators have over display and interpretation could enter into your daily life. I love what I do, but I’m not sure if I’d welcome the pressure of it entering into my home. It also emphasised the importance of studies into the history of the home – it can tell us so much about how people used space and can reflect their feelings about themselves and society. Not to mention the possibilities of tackling controversial topics.

These two examples are clearly of the higher classes of society, but through a number of collaborative PhDs and work done by museums like the Geffrye Museum website, investigation continues to be done in this area.

United in History: A personal experience of collaborative research in museums and academia

The International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Towards the end of 2012 I received an invitation to join a panel at the upcoming International Congress of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine looking at collaboration between universities and museums.

The symposium was called ‘Research in Science Museums: The State of the Art’ and I was part of the first panel, ‘Museum-university collaborations: an ideal marriage?’. The symposium had been put together by Rebekah Higgitt (Royal Museums Greenwich, United Kingdom), Tim Boon (Science Museum Group, United Kingdom), Martin Collins (Smithsonian Institution, United States) and Helmuth Trischler (Deutsches Museum, Germany). The panel I was part of was principally coordinated and chaired by Rebekah Higgitt.

My contribution to the panel was to give a student’s perspective. During my MA I had completed an internship at the National Maritime Museum looking at submarine telegraph cables and I have blogged about it here. Being part of the panel gave me a chance to think about what I had done and where I was trying to go with my work between academic study and museums. As the number of Collaborative Doctoral Awards or Partnerships as they’re now called are growing maybe we need to think more about the role and benefits for the student in this. Consequently I thought I’d blog my paper and welcome your thoughts and contributions.

Finally I should thank Rebekah Higgit and Tim Boon for asking me to part of the panel and the amazing conference that is ICHSTM, and also to the British Society for the History of Science for the funding to attend.

________________________________________________

In danger of sounding like a cliché I came to the decision that my future lay in history whilst travelling. I had finished an undergraduate degree in history at the University of Liverpool but was clueless as to what career I wanted to pursue; after briefly dabbling in music industry I decided to follow an ambition to go travelling.

An excuse to get my travel pictures out: Cuba's Museum of Revolution

An excuse to get my travel pictures out: Cuba’s Museum of Revolution

Somewhere between Cuba’s Museum of the Revolution and Boliva’s Coca Museum, I realised that museums excited me as a way of connecting the public to history; informative and inspirational, conventional and controversial, museums can help us understand our world today. It was only when I was back in the UK that I realised I wasn’t the only person to have this revelation and that building a career in museums was, and still is, very competitive. Eventually I realised that to develop a career working with collections I needed to do an MA.

After much deliberation I decided on an MA in Historical Research at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR). I knew I wanted my dissertation to use museum objects, so when I spotted the National Maritime Museum’s paid internships I jumped at the chance.

Commemorative Medals for the laying of the Atlantic Cable made by Tiffany. Image copyright Royal Museums Greenwich.

My dissertation looked at the material culture surrounding submarine telegraph cables, and I soon discovered that though I wasn’t short of objects; the NMM collection is varied and I found relevant objects in the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, the Science Museum and the Museum of Freemasonry. Finding objects wasn’t hard, but what I did find challenging was how to focus my work with these objects into a research question. Fortunately I found great support from the NMM and the IHR, and both supervisors were able to offer background and museological/historiographical reading and I eventually settled on looking at the transitional identity of the Atlantic Telegraph cable through these collections.

I really enjoyed working with the different museums and their collections, and was amazed at how each museum went out of their way to help me in my research. Furthermore, I felt I was able to build a relationship with these museums. As part of the paid internship at the NMM I had tangible outcomes which included updating their collections database, a blog post and a rather nervous paper at a lunchtime seminar. For Porthcurno, I used a week of my summer to volunteer in their educational summer programme whilst doing research. This was all valuable in widening my ‘hands on’ experience and meant I saw a different side to the museums, as well as helping me locate the different objects within the different museum cultures. I hope the trip and other outputs benefited them as much as it did my research and museum experience.

General Post Office, St Martins-Le-Grand, from The Illustrated London News, 1843

After completing my MA I realised how much I enjoyed research, and started to consider a PhD. The Collaborative Doctoral Awards looked like the perfect way for me to maintain the collaboration I initially explored through my MA dissertation, and I have since started a CDA with the IHR and the British Postal Museum and Archive looking at the Victorian Post Office. My PhD is currently very archive focused, but I am hopeful that my research will involve some of the BPMA’s museum collection. I believe each CDA is organised differently and as part of mine there is an expectation that I will work on a project for the BPMA for a certain number of days a year and I see my relationship with the BPMA growing as my PhD develops.

De-installation in preparation for the new 'Line of Kings' exhibition

De-installation in preparation for the new ‘Line of Kings’ exhibition

Though I have the luxury of being a funded PhD student, I have felt that gaining practical everyday museum experience was important if I wanted to consider a museum role after my PhD. Consequently I also work part-time as curatorial assistant of Tower collections for the Royal Armouries. Research is integral to museums but a PhD is unlikely to involve practicalities such as auditing a collection, arranging an object loan or providing a handling session for 10 year olds.

I believe there is a lot of value for both historians and museum professionals in museums and universities working more closely together. Not only for developing audiences and skills, disseminating knowledge, also enabling us to view collections and history differently, and importantly, funding is available. However, my only caution is where this leaves the student. I see myself as ‘hedging my bets’, I love history and I believe it is important and want to communicate this but am I being trained for academia or museums? Both, I hope. I believe CDAs were developed to give students more practical skills, but this could be dependent on how the institutions want to deliver the collaborative aspects of the PhD and how aware the student is as to what they want to get out of the experience. Perhaps the CDAs should take longer and involve a job role for two days a week, or perhaps the student should complete the Associateship of the Museum Association (AMA) alongside their studies.

I’d be interested in others thoughts on this but to end on a positive note I want to emphasise that it’s through collaboration that I’ve had some of the most rewarding experiences in the academic and museum world, and I think it is something we should all seek to encourage.

Tudorism Today

Plan of the Tower of London, 1597 from ‘On the Tudor Trail Website’

Recently, whilst doing some research into the Tower of London as a visitor attraction I came across the Victorian fascination with the Tudors, or the Olden Times.

Peter Madler has written a lot on this, and Peter Hammond has written specifically on the Tower, and I’ve found their work fascinating. The reign of Queen Elizabeth I, in particular, was held in esteem by the Victorians. Not only was Britain ruled by a long serving and strong Queen, it was also seen as the time the start of the modern era with the establishment of the Church of England and the great military victories including that of the Spanish Armada.

However the fascination of this period was more than nostalgic nationalism for ‘Good Ol Queen Bess’, it was also useful for the emerging political ideas of a greater political enfranchisement. It was seen as a time for the people, before the corruption of capitalism and greed, evoking an ‘imagined era of community, fellowship and national solidarity.’[1]

However there was also a darker side to the popular fascination with the Olden Time, and this was only strengthened with the rise of antiquarianism and the continued increase in circulation of printed material. Billie Melman has interpretation of the urban vision of Olden Times having aspects ‘in which conflict, danger and disorder were quite dominant.’[2]

These themes can be seen in the development of the Tower of London as a visitor attraction and strengthened through works such as William Harrison Ainsworth’s The Tower of London, published as a serial from 1840 it was a historical romance focused on the tale of Lady Jane Grey set in and around the Tower of London. As well as writings by Charles Knight who promoted the idea of a National Heritage belonging to the people and so should be accessible to the people in works such as London published in six volumes from 1841 to 1844. Due to works like these increasingly visitors wanted to see the dungeons, prisoner inscriptions on the walls and torture implements. Ainsworth & Knight had been advocates of greater access to heritage sites like the Tower of London from the 1840s but it was not until the 1870s, after the 1867 Reform Act, that there was a greater push for free access to the Tower originating around the area of Tower Hamlets. Easter Saturday 1875 became the first day for free admissions.

The Tudors tv series, from IanVisits website

Whilst researching this area I was becoming increasingly aware of what appears to be our current fascination with Tudorism. This may be because my research coincided with the BBC Tudor series, and working at the Tower, you can’t really escape the Tudor influence. But there are other pointers, the popularity of the tv series, The Tudors; Hilary Mantel’s numerous award winning fictions on Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, as well as the Queen’s recent coronation anniversary leading to BBC programmes and academic conferences calling us all the New Elizabethans.

Attempts to answer the question of why we’re fascinated with the Tudors have included blogs that are also focused on Tudor history, see here and here for examples. And they often suggest it involves the drama and soap-opera-like quality to the period, the catastrophic changes that took place, the contrast of tyrannical and arguably good leadership, and also the strong presence of women often portrayed as tragic, heroic or tyrannical.

These all appear to be good reasons to hold popular interest, but you could probably find the same mix in other periods. In fact, due to my research I think we owe a lot to the Victorians for the continued presence of the Tudors in the popular realm. Arguable works like Mantel have their origins in the work of Ainsworth, fiction based on archival research and set in realistic settings – able to bring history to life for their readers. Furthermore through the work of architects such as Anthony Salvin heritage sites such as the Tower of London as well as other palaces and houses look more Tudor than they did in the eighteenth century. The nineteenth century increased the visibility of the Tudors in our popular culture, from continual adaptations of Shakespeare to historical fiction to stately homes.

Though it’s not all hand-me-down popular culture, I think the current interest and popularity in the monarchy is also a strong link. Arianne Chernock’s very interesting article (see here) asks why there has not been more critical writing of modern monarchy, with the exemptions including David Cannadine and Wendy Webster, arguing that monarchy still shapes contemporary politics and sensibilities. Fiction has tried to close the gap between the people and their Queen, to whom access is extremely limited, but perhaps integration of a monarchical past also fills that gap for some, a reflection of this appetite. In contrast to the use of the Olden Times as a golden age of the people to encourage political enfranchisement, perhaps a whiggish view has become stronger emphasising our distanced, charity giving royalty as better than the all-powerful murderous Tudor monarchs. In Frank Prochaska’s Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy he has argued that the Windsors have in fact helped to guide the British public towards acceptance of a more limited welfare state, through their increased philanthropic work. I find the question of how the portrayal of today’s monarchy contrasted with those of the past can shape our view of society and our place in it, is a really interesting one.

Finally our national curriculum probably has a lot to do with it as well. It is a topic that is currently studied at key stage 2 and, based on the reaction of my niece, appears capable of capturing the imagination. Also, something that was recently brought up in a recent discussion about history on television, people appear to want to watch topics they already have a familiarity with, and the Tudors is one of those.

The Tudor presence in our popular culture is so strong and constantly reinforced through fiction, heritage tourism and comparisons to modern day monarchy. Consequently it is probably one of the few areas of history that most people could feel some familiarity and the ability to give an opinion on the characters involved. So apart from complaining that yet another Tudor themed exhibition or TV programmed is on how could this interest be developed to the study of history’s benefit? I think it is through the views of monarchy and women that a connection between modern Tudorism and politics exist. In the period’s familiarity I see an opportunity for public history to encourage debate around this ‘well-known’ period and around modern ideas of monarchy and women in politics. In this sense I think the BBC programme looking at Anne Boleyn’s execution was useful in demonstrating debate on a historical topic, and it would be interesting to see how that was received by the general viewing public. Perhaps the next step could be to look at how these historical debates have been shaped and can shape contemporary views.


[1] P. Mandler, ‘Revisiting the Olden Time: Popular Tudorism in the Tim of Victoria’, Tudorism: Historical Imagination and the Appropriation of the Sixteenth Century, ed. By Tatiana C. String & Marcus Bull, Proceedings of the British Academy 170 (Oxford, 2011) p.14

[2] Billie Melman, The Culture of History: English Uses of the Past 1800-1953, (Oxford, 2006), p.124