History: an Art or Science? How different are they?

Conrad Shawcross is the Artist in residence at the Science Museum, London. The Science Museum is one of many scientific institutions that see a value in having artists in residence to engage their audience.

This is an age old question, and as I was trying to put together a presentation on it for University, I’m not planning on trying to answer it at length here.

But while mulling it over I began to realise just how intermingled the two disciplines are today.

History is a bit of a confusing subject, it sits under the branch of learning called Humanities (defined as the study of human culture), different History masters courses can get you a MA or a MSc, and funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council comes from the Science and Innovation Group, part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. None of these points help.

Most arguments of this nature seem to focus on whether or not History is a science, assuming that if you are not a science you must be an art. But I’m not entirely convinced they are exact opposites. Both generally speaking build on previous knowledge or thought, and Postmodernists are able to demonstrate cultural influences on scientific thought as much as artistic, I’ve included a picutre of a piece of work by Conrad Shawcross, and here is a link to an interesting article about Salvador Dalí’s relationship and interest in science. Some of the most interesting pieces of modern art can come out of scientific influences, and scientists can get inspiration or that spark from the arts. Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that even scientific discoveries have been influenced by cultural factors, and it is clear that some sciences are heavily influenced by interpretation. It seems to be increasingly important for science to borrow from the arts to help engage a wider audience with their work and from the large amount of ‘popular’ science books out by authors like Brian Cox and Robert Winston it seems to be a healthy relationship.

I’ll finish up with a letter by Gregory Petsko, a Professor in Biochemistry and Chemistry, recently published in the Genome Biology journal arguing that science needs the arts and humanities:

One of the things I’ve written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including – especially including – the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.

The rest of the letter can be found here.

This letter was written in reaction to the State University of New York at Albany deciding to get rid of its departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts. As cuts loom over the UK and both the sciences and arts feel the need to defend their purpose and position it is worth remembering the similarities and benefits of both.

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Marking 100 years since the Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street

H.S Harris Jewellers where the attempted robbery and the Houndsditch murders took place

At 3pm on 16 December 2010 a plaque was unveiled in memory of three policemen murdered on 16 December 1910; this tragedy is generally known as the Houndsditch Murders and 2010 marks its centenary.

The gunmen were Latvian revolutionaries who had come to London after the failed Russian revolution of 1905. They were attempting to fund further revolutionary movements at home through crime on London streets, this included the attempted robbery of the H.S Harris jewellery shop in Houndsditch on 16 December 1910 which led to the murder of three policemen.

This was a very well planned operation. The group had rented three of the properties on the Exchange to ensure secure access to the back of the building, and they had rubber piping and asbestos pads to assist in blowing the shop safe. It almost seems odd that they didn’t consider the noise they would make knocking through walls, which is what aroused suspicion and brought the police to their door.

Though a significant event in itself, it remains the highest loss of police life on a single day, the Houndsditch Murders is normally overshadowed by the Siege of Sidney Street.

Winston Churchill at the Siege of Sidney Street, Museum of London

The siege was between two of the suspected members of the group involved in the Houndsditch Murders and over 200 armed policemen. These Latvian revolutionaries held their own for so long that it was requested that the Scots Guards were called in.

Sounding like something out of a Hollywood 1920s American gangster film, the situation became even more surreal when Winston Churchill, the then Home Secretary, arrived on the scene. He was needed to give permission for the Scots Guards to be put into action, but no one expected him to turn up.

The Museum of London Docklands’ new exhibition London Under Siege: Churchill and the Anarchists, 1911 focuses on the unprecedented events of the Houndsditch murders and the Siege of Sidney Street. Taking their centenary as an opportunity to look at the historic and social context of these events in London’s history, the exhibition highlights early twentieth century debates on topics that are not unfamiliar today, including the levels of immigration and if police should be armed.

The exhibition opened in December 2010 and is well worth a look, here is my review in Culture24.

If the exhibition isn’t enough and you want to know more I would recommend the wonderful Old Bailey records online, which has the records of the trial of the suspected members of the Houndsditch group. BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme have also looked at the Siege of Sidney Street with extracts of oral histories and some archive BBC film looking at the Siege.

I have also discovered the wonderful world of the Songs from the Howling Sea, and they have produced a video and song in commemoration.

Hide and Seek, Songs from the Howling Sea

You can find out more about the Songs From the Howling Sea on their blog.

Enjoy!