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 Value of Collaborative Doctoral Award Studentships – some thoughts

It’s not often that you get a chance to reflect and think about where the value in a particular funding stream lies. As a student with a Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDA) from the AHRC, I was delighted to hear a conference had been organised to do just that. What made this conference more interesting was that it had been organised by students like me, and not the AHRC, the universities or institutions who have been part of shaping the scheme.

The day was split into three, origins, innovations and legacy. The first session had Ian Lyne from the AHRC, academics Margot Finn from UCL and Trustee of the V&A, and Alastair Owens from Queen Mary University, and a CDA student, Jade French. The second session focused on the variety of projects CDAs can produce with presentations from past and present students. The final part of the day looked a legacies and had a mix of academics and heritage professionals that included Alexandra Goddard, now at the British Library Goddard focused on her work at the Geffrye Museum, Bill Sherman from the V&A and the University of York, Kevin Moore, director of the National Football Museum, Farah Karim-Cooper from Shakespeare’s Globe and Eithne Nightingale a current CDA student.

More details of the programme and points for discussion can be found on the CDA Value website.

I think the organisers did very well at trying to balance out a mix of presentations and discussion and from the first session it was clear many people in the audience had questions and experiences they wanted to share.

I was interested to learn that the model for the CDA had been borrowed from the sciences and were originally designed ten years ago to meet the perceived gaps in knowledge observed by cultural and heritage institutions. In the ten years CDAs had been running it had become clear that there is no specific model for a CDA. They could be part of a heritage institution or other cultural institution, designed by the either a university, the cultural institution or by the student. Jade French was a perfect example of the project originating from the student and so able to design a process and area of study. This is very different from my experience of applying to a university to study a fairly vague topic and being given free reign in an archive.

As part of the origins discussion I thought one of the most important points raised was by Margot Finn (who raised many other important issues), that ultimately a student has to complete a PhD, and as part of this the University has a responsibility to train and prepare the student to create and write their own academic projects. At one point the audience was asked if they planned to pursue an academic or heritage career post-PhD, and the split was about 50:50. Consequently it was evident that important questions need to be asked about how well the CDA can train students for either. Though because they are all so different, I think it is important for the students to communicate their ambitions to the university and cultural institution and look for ways to develop their training.

An advantage of the CDA that was outlined was the access for students to these institutions, and from my own experience I would argue the CDA experience is partly what you make of it. Use these contacts and don’t be afraid to ask for help or training. Having said this a reoccurring theme or question that was asked was about the nature of collaboration, and even power, where did it originate and how did the student fit into this? Some CDA projects have an outline of work at the cultural/heritage institution and ideally that needs to fit with the student’s ambitions (hopefully discovered at the interview) and also be allowed for within the scope of the PhD. The funding currently lasts for three years and it can be very difficult to train in another discipline and conduct research in that time let alone write up a PhD. So yes, it is what you make of it, but this has to be negotiated within the parameters of the demands of a regular PhD workload and the needs of the institutions you work with.

From my own experience, to ensure I maintained some practical museum experience I started my PhD part time and worked at a museum alongside my research. This was useful as it gave me time to explore my research area and find my research questions and topic for my PhD, but it did give me more distractions and it felt the PhD was dragging at times. To help develop my relationship with the heritage institution my CDA was with, the British Postal Museum and Archive, I decided to undertake the Associateship of the Museum Association. This involved a work-based-project and I completed this with the BPMA. I am yet to have my professional review, so I’ll have to let you know if that was ‘successful’, though I can say it did develop my knowledge and skills in a particular area of the BPMA’s work that I wouldn’t have encountered without the AMA.

I am still working on my PhD and so I was very interested in the final session on legacies. From this discussion it was evident that collaboration and skills of working across institutions will be valuable in the future job market. I was also happy to hear that both Sherman and Moore had experience of working both at museums and academia, and that these are two careers can collide. Unlike many of the audience I haven’t decided, or don’t want to choose, between academia and heritage, and I hope there is scope for work across the two. I see the development of public history as part of this and I think it is an area CDA students should be increasingly aware. One of the main advantages of a CDA is supposed to be the opportunity for students to have an outlet to the public, to gain experience in public engagement and sharing their research with the outside world. I think that this can sometimes take some time to be realised, especially as PhDs can be slippery beings, designing an exhibition on your topic might only appear possible after you’ve submitted. However, I think CDA have a unique position standing between universities and cultural institutions to understand the challenges and opportunities of using research to engage the public.

All in all it a useful and interesting day. As JD Hill identified in his final reflection, there are still areas to be explored further. The AHRC have announced that funding for future CDAs will be for longer than three years, meeting one criticism that has followed the programme for the past decade. However, other issues around funding remain. When a studentship is granted the amount is based on the location of the university not the partnered institution. So a student could be partnered with a London based museum or archive, and so need to be based there to do research, but because their university is outside of London their funding will be without the substantial London weighting. It is also important to think about how this stream of funding can be exclusive, prominently granted to large cultural institutions with a heavy focus on heritage, where as smaller institutions could benefit as could other humanities subjects such as philosophy, law or media studies. There is also the struggle with pulling all of this new knowledge together, do we need an online platform to share resources, challenges, methodologies and discoveries?

Hill concluded with the idea that CDAs had changed the nature of knowledge coming out of universities. I’m not sure if this is true, but from my day in a room full of academics, culture professionals and students I did feel that we were at the forefront of an important shift in producing research, and that we need to ensure students feel empowered to do more with this and meet their ambitions.

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?

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/

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

Peopling the Past – NMM Conference

National Maritime Museum, image from http://www.NMM.ac.uk

A few weeks ago I went to a conference at the National Maritime Museum called ‘Peopling the Past‘. The conference hosted papers from a variety of speakers including academics, postgraduate students and museum professionals and the aim of the two days was to look at the variety of techniques in which museums use people in generating, displaying and communicating the stories held by their collections. The conference saw over twenty speakers discussing their different areas of interest, and I won’t try to convey all the topics that were covered. I will just provide a short overview of some the main themes and papers that I particularly enjoyed.

Transcribe Bentham Project at UCL

Putting people into museum exhibitions and displays can happen in a variety of ways, in the first session on the first day issues of crowd sourcing and co-curation, as well as oral history were discussed as ways people can contribute to content in museums. This could all come under the banner of Public History an increasingly popular theme in academic and museum circles, and The Participatory Museum was mentioned as a good place to start when looking at the possible roles the public could take in museums, roles that include creators, collectors, critics, and spectators. Museums seem  to be increasing their work in these areas, demonstrated by the Imperial War Museum, which will be launching a project, in time for the centenary of the First World War, that looks at combining their information on War Memorials along with their wider collection and encouraging the public to access and contribute to this information. This comes off the back of some very successful crowd sourcing initiatives including the Transcribe Bentham Project, (of which I went to a talk earlier this year) and Zooniverse. Know of any others out there? (Update: The Porthcurno Telegraph Museum has launched a Virtual Volunteers programme, looking at ways remote volunteers can contribute and help the museum, see here for more info:http://www.porthcurno.org.uk/page.php?id=286)

Ellie Miles brought up some very interesting points looking at the Museum of London’s modern galleries, which has pockets of public participation, though they may not be immediately obvious. I discovered that the under-floor display which includes the much publicised desiccated cat, was co-curated with members of the public, and I began to wonder how integral this was to the display – was it enough to do the outreach programme and involve members of the public but then not provide any on gallery interpretation of this? Miles also highlighted the Brixton Riots Community Project, a project that was created due to the lack of museum objects related to the riots and consequently worked with young Brixton locals to collect the oral histories from those that were there. This sounds like a great idea and highlights one of the possible ways oral histories can assist museums in issues and topics that physical objects may be hard to come by. However, due to the project running out of money, the recordings are not on display – a great opportunity missed it seems. (Though it is worth noting that the oral histories and more information on the project are online, so arguably find a great audience than simply being on gallery. See http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Get-involved/Collaborative-projects/Brixton-Riots/ for more info.)

Half-Timer by Patti Mayor, 1906. Portrait of Annie Hill, from the Industrial Revolutionaries exhibition at Harris Museum and Art Gallery

Another theme was the untold stories of people in history, which I thought was covered extremely well by the conference by predominantly looking at children’s histories. Laura Briggs talked about the recent exhibition at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston that looked the Industrial Revolution through the biographies of individuals, including one of the child workers which potrayed as an interesting contrast to the intimating figure of the famous entrepreneur, Richard Arkwright. Dr Simon Sleight’s paper followed on well from this as it specifically looked at the subject of child labour as represented in museums and asked why so many of these exhibitions took the moral high ground without addressing contemporary issues of child labour from child actors to sweatshops. Finally Kim Tao from the Australian National Maritime Museum demonstrated the political and emotional power of displaying and discussing untold stories through their exhibitions relating to child refugees and migration. Their exhibition ‘On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants’ has worked with and helped some of those child migrants who came to Australia from Britain, and preceded the national apologies from British and Australian governments for their role in the scheme. The exhibition demonstrated the capability museums have in being able to have a very personal impact along with presenting the larger international implications of an issue. I very much recommend the ‘On Their Own’ website to learn more on the topic: http://www.britainschildmigrants.com/

On a lighter note there were other very interesting points raised focusing a lot more on the role of objects and material culture. I was enthralled by  Prof. Adriana Craciu’s paper that looked at the ‘Franklin Relics’ and the changing ways they were interpreted and displayed from the first expeditions to find Captain Sir John Franklin’s ship and crew, lost in the Arctic. I felt this paper had links to my own study of the Atlantic Submarine Telegraph’s material culture, and was particularly interested in how Victorian society portrayed these as relics, at a time when traditional Catholic relics would not be shown in Protestant Britain. Also the idea that the mystery of the expedition grew with the absence of textual explanation of events was interesting, suggesting the objects gain more significance without written context.

Traditionally Motor Museums have very static displays. From Somerset Tourist Guide website

Along the theme of presenting objects, Jenifer Clark presented on the very interesting difficulties faced by transport or motor museums. Traditionally motor museums have tended to act as a temples of worship to the aesthetics of the motor vehicle, often visited by enthusiasts, often not those looking for a social history, and consequently displays can be very static with a very whiggish interpretation. Clark argued that the silent voices for these museums were those killed or injured in car accidents, and asked the question of how can victims be acknowledged or represented in display.

Following the varied and often emotional topics of the two days I left feeling pretty tired, but excited about the amazing work being done by museums around the world in presenting and including people in history, whether they be historical or contemporary. Furthermore I felt confident of the worthwhile contribution academics are making to how we view museums, their exhibitions and the wider social context. I’ve only discussed a few of the papers discussed, but here is a link to a list of all the papers given to give you an idea of the sheer range of speakers and topics (opens PDF): http://www.nmm.ac.uk/upload/pdf/Peopling_Past_Programme.pdf

Finally leaves me to thank the National Maritime Museum for a really great and thought-provoking two days.