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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100 Minories Pop-Up Museum

100 Minories Pop-Up Museum Tour

100 Minories Pop-Up Museum Tour

There are a lot of pop-ups in London, so many in fact there is a dedicated London Pop-ups website to find the most recent creations. They cover restaurants, shops and clubs, there are also art exhibitions, the most recent lists is an exhibition of ‘Breaking Bad’ character portraits that popped-up in February. However, though museums are often the location for these pop-ups, it’s not often that you see a pop-up museum.

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to go and visit one. The 100 Minories pop-up museum showcases the discoveries of an archaeological dig that took place before construction at 100 Minories, a patch of land just north of the Tower of London. The location of the dig is enough to spark my interest, but I also love the idea of a pop-up museum, and it is something that is very well suited to archaeological digs. These digs are normally temporary, they occur within a finite space within a finite amount of time and then must pack up and leave. The temporary nature of the research suits a temporary exhibition, and allows the exhibit to be close to where the action took place, something so valuable when you’re trying to imagine how the space was once used and the people that walked those streets.

100 Minories Pop Up Museum display

100 Minories Pop Up Museum display

The museum of display panels and temporary cases are kept within one of my favourite sections of the old London Wall, a space just off Cooper’s Row in a hotel car park. This isn’t directly next to the site, but the explanation boards and particularly the tour are very good for helping you get a sense of your position in relation to the site. The history presented is a wonderful example of change and adaptation in London. The oldest parts of the site date back to the London ditch, the defensive moat situated outside of the Roman and Medieval London Wall. The ditch was filled in and by the seventeenth and eighteenth century we have houses and warehouses on the site. There are hints of different land uses, with a reminder of the close accommodation between animals and people. From the Georgian period and into nineteenth century saw huge upheaval for the site as it was flattened and redeveloped, a fate that appears to be continually repeating itself following Second World War bomb damage and obviously the current construction work.

I don’t want to give too many details of the history as there is a lot for you to discover for yourself, if you have the chance, but I will mention a couple of areas I found particularly interesting. The site is an area that was on the boundaries of the Tower authority and City of London authorities, and there is a possibility the project has turned up evidence of the medieval boundary seen through methods of maintaining the London ditch. I find the subject of the Tower Liberties fascinating and not only is physical evidence of a possible medieval boundary line of interest but also the implications for administration and maintenance of the site. I wonder how much input the Tower had on the continual redevelopments of the area. As part of this, I was intrigued by something that simply featured as a sentence on a panel. The site was first flattened for redevelopment in the Georgian period and it was noted that they have yet to find evidence of a local reaction to this. What happened to the residence? Were there protests? With some much similar activity going on all over London at the moment in the name of regeneration and improved housing, it is a notable reminder how London’s landscape has been continually changing for hundreds of years, and how the voices of the displacement and removed are often lost in these stories.

There is so much scope in this project and it’s great to see so much being done with it. If you have a chance to explore the project’s 100 Minories website you can see there are plans for a work of creative writing, a digital iterative map and importantly the archaeological findings will be shared on an online Archaeological Recording Kit (ARK).

Today is the last day of the pop-up museum and I strongly urge you to pop along if you can. The museum is up from 12pm until 5pm and there are tours at 12:30pm and 3:30pm.

Breaking Histories @ Shuffle Festival Line Up

Breaking HistoriesI’m really excited to announce the line up for Breaking Histories at this year’s Shuffle Festival.

As you’ll see we have a great mix of periods and topics for an event that will be a fantastic showcase of some of the exciting research and projects.

Breaking Histories joins a vibrant and varied festival and for more information and to book tickets please see the Shuffle Festival website:Shuffle Festival 2015 Programme Breaking Histories will be free and you can just turn up, but you should be able to book free tickets soon as well.

Saturday 25 July 2015
History in its Place
Looking at the theme of place these talks will explore the history of human interaction through a London estate at the turn of the century to ancient Roman farms, through the prism of disability and across generations in a socialist feminist choir.
4pm-5:30pm
Breaking Histories 25 July 2015

Love Thy Neighbour: inter-neighbour relations and the syntax of complaint in early 20th century London

Anna Robinson (University of East London)

Asylums and their Communities: Mental Health Patients and their Families during the First World War

Caroline Nielsen (IHR, University of London)

Contested Knowledge in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.
Bob Taylor (Birkbeck, University of London)
Velvet Fist: Uncovering the History of the London Socialist Feminist Choir
Rosa Kurowska Kyffin (Beyond Past)

 

Saturday 1 August 2015
History Going Places
History is always moving and these talks will explore how, whether it is presented by experimental history trails or focused on the history of migration through the lens of community projects or works of fiction and biography.
4pm-5:30pm
Breaking Histories 1 August 2015

Moving Stories Judith Garfield MBE & Claire Days (Eastside Community Heritage)
Forced Walks: Honouring Esther….an instant case study Richard White (Bath Spa University/Forced Walks)
“but I am Price from Glynmawr” Stephen Woodhams
Stepney: Profile of a London Borough

Samantha Patterson

Shuffle Festival takes place in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. The nearest tube is Mile End and the entrance is on Southern Grove. We hope to see you there!

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For more details on the papers please see below.

Saturday 25 July 2015
History in its Place
Looking at the theme of place these talks will explore the history of human interaction through a London estate at the turn of the century to ancient Roman farms, through the prism of disability and across generations in a socialist feminist choir.
4pm-5:30pm

  • Love Thy Neighbour: inter-neighbour relations and the syntax of complaint in early 20th century London
    Anna Robinson (University of East London)

Anna has been researching the history of her flat – a one bedroom former tenement designed by Octavia Hill in 1903. Through this research she stumbled upon some letters of complaint in an archive. Through these letters Anna will reveal the main concerns and antagonisms between neighbours in the early 20th century.

  • Asylums and their Communities: Mental Health Patients and their Families during the First World War
    Caroline Nielsen (IHR, University of London)

In 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War, over 100,000 men, women and children lived in psychiatric asylums. Caroline’s research explores how the First World War fundamentally affected the lives of these vulnerable people and their families.

  • Contested Knowledge in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.
    Bob Taylor (Birkbeck, University of London)

Bob’s research is focused on a 1st century Roman scientific work called The Natural History. His interests include Roman knowledge and its construction by those who have left no written evidence. He asks how knowledge was generated and contested in a Roman farm, or before a battle in Macedonia, or in a herb-garden.

  • Velvet Fist: Uncovering the History of the London Socialist Feminist Choir
    Rosa Kurowska Kyffin (Beyond Past)

In 2014, Beyond Past, a social enterprise for youth oral history projects, facilitated interviews with the London based socialist feminist choir, Velvet Fist, by a group of year 10 Tower Hamlets pupils. Rosa will explore the history of the choir and reflect upon the potential of young people as community researchers and oral history interviewers.

Saturday 1 August 2015
History Going Places
History is always moving and these talks will explore how, whether it is presented by experimental history trails or focused on the history of migration through the lens of community projects or works of fiction and biography.
4pm-5:30pm

  • Moving Stories
    Judith Garfield MBE & Claire Days (Eastside Community Heritage)

Eastside Community Heritage has accumulated a fascinating collection of oral histories. As part of Shuffle they want to share some of the Jewish, Hungarian and Ugandan stories of migration they have collected. ECH will highlight the importance of oral history in gaining new insights into history and education.

  • Forced Walks: Honouring Esther….an instant case study
    Richard White (Bath Spa University/Forced Walks)

Richard will be discussing a project that used an artist-led performative and socially engaged public walk to transpose a Nazi death march on to the English countryside. This project sought to connect history with place to reveal obscured stories and generate contemporary responses. Richard will discuss the project, how they used social media and subsequent responses.

  • “but I am Price from Glynmawr”
    Stephen Woodhams

South Wales almost uniquely in Europe witnessed net in-migration in the decades around 1900. While the subject of continuous study, in South Wales that history is lived too through biography, the novel and poetry. The talk explores this interweaving of written forms through Raymond Williams’ acclaimed novel Border Country.

  • Stepney: Profile of a London Borough
    Samantha Patterson

Samantha’s focus is on a specifically defined area, Stepney, rather than the vague area of the ‘East End’ which is open to interpretation. Stepney, an iconic London borough situated in the heart of the East End, has many well-known associations and images, but would you knowingly associate them with Stepney?

Breaking Histories @ Shuffle Festival 2015 CFP

Breaking Histories @ Shuffle Festival 2015

Call for Papers

24 July – 1 August 2015

Would you like to share your research with the public and be part of a unique community arts festival?

This is an invitation for papers as part of a new history event during the 2015 Shuffle Festival in East London. Panels would include three 10-15 minute papers and time for general discussion. Panels aim to demonstrate the wide variety of research amongst history PhD students and early career researchers happening now.

The themes for this year’s Shuffle Festival are Migration, Movement and Place. Though a connection to these themes would be useful, what is more important is that the papers reveal a range of historical debates and discussions. Let’s show that historical research is breaking boundaries, breaking conventions and should be breaking news!

The Shuffle Festival is a week-long annual event in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. It involves film, science education, storytelling, performance art, architectural installations, walks, food, comedy and music. This year we’re adding history to the list!

Breaking Histories is organised with support from the Raphael Samuel History Centre (RSHC). The RSHC is a research and educational centre devoted to encouraging the widest possible participation in historical research and debate.

 

How to be part of the festival

Please send 100-200 words on your research and why you think it’s important (essentially what you’d like to talk about). It would be great if you could link your research to the festival themes, but it is not essential.

Please send this by Tuesday 26th May to Kathleen.mcilvenna@postgrad.sas.ac.uk

Please include your availability for the festival. We don’t have a set date but we will have an hour slot on a weekday evening or weekend daytime between Friday 24 July and Saturday 1 August 2015.

Links

Raphael Samuel History Centre http://www.raphael-samuel.org.uk/

RSHC New Historians Network https://rshcnewhistorians.wordpress.com/

Shuffle Festival http://www.shufflefestival.com/

RSHC logo 

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 Post Office in Everyday Lives in the First World War

“Last Post” panel with my research!

I’ve been researching the Post Office and its workers for a few years now. This research has obviously focused, prominently, on the nineteenth century and my PhD. Yet, thanks to the collaborative nature of my PhD, I’m able to venture into other aspects and time periods as requested by the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA).

Last year, unsurprisingly, I started to looking into the Post Office during the First World War. Due to the size and nature of the Post Office at this time (largest single employer in the UK, and the “friendly” face of government in every town and city) it has been fascinating.My research took me into the lives of the workers as I found reminiscences and oral histories and could compared these to the official records and reports. Experiences were varied and complex but involved men, women, boys and girls from all over the country.

As a result of my research I contributed to the ‘Last Post” exhibition displayed in physical form at Ironbridge, and also online here. I also gave a paper at the Anglo-American conference and a longer paper at the BPMA as part of their public talks programme.You can download my talk, along with some of the other fascinating talks in the series, as a podcast from here.

Most recently I’ve written a short blog for the new website for the ‘Everyday Lives in the First World War’ Research Centre. You can find it here. This is an amazing project that will look to further our understanding of what life was like at home for people during the conflict, from food to theatre, it’ll cover all sorts of topics and work with a range of groups and people in the process. You can find out more about the centre here, and do contact them if you’d like to get involved!

So, 2014 might be over, but it’s only the start of the First World War centenary, so keep an eye on the ‘Everyday Lives’ project for events, and if you’re interested in hiring the “Last Post” exhibition do contact there BPMA. You can find out more here.

I’m currently doing some work the BPMA on their war memorials collection, and I look forward to sharing more about that at a later date!

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.

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/

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.

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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