Energy Narratives in Past Energy Exhibitions

In our latest blog, Dr Hiroki Shin, Vice-Chancellor Illuminate Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast, discusses how museum exhibitions have historically presented energy narratives:

The recent news on California wildfires has been a vivid reminder that a concerted response to climate change is becoming ever more urgent, despite a temporary dip in global greenhouse gas emissions due to the decline in international travel and forced confinement measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst the ongoing world health crisis, the talk of green recovery is already widespread. Green recovery, as an attempt to shift the course of the economy onto a sustainable path in a way that may be unimaginable in normal times, is highly relevant to the culture and heritage sectors, which have been directly hit by closure of public spaces and restrictions on mass gatherings. For museums, green recovery presents an opportunity not only to accelerate a decarbonisation of their everyday operations but also to engage more fully with the cultural shift that climate adaptation entails.

Over the last three decades, climate change has gradually entered public cultural domains. Museums were initially cautious in introducing exhibitions about climate change, which was considered a highly politicised subject. However, with the mounting scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change, pioneering exhibitions such as the American Museum of Natural History’s Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast (1992) started to address what was increasingly recognised as a global challenge. According to the Museums & Climate Change Network website, which lists over 70 climate change exhibitions that have been mounted since 1992, climate change has become a major theme of exhibitions across countries, especially in the 2010s, one such example being the Atmosphere gallery at the Science Museum, London (2010).[1]

Atmosphere gallery, Science Museum, London.

Among the diverse challenges that the climate crisis poses to museums, this blog entry contemplates the intellectual challenge of transforming the energy narratives that are presented in museums. Implicitly or explicitly, science-themed museums have long maintained the narrative of energy-intensive progress in their public offerings. In this narrative, great technological innovations and achievements – from the steam engine, the self-combustion engine and the gas turbine to the jet engine – were taken as indicative of humankind’s increasing control over the earth’s energy resources, bringing with it economic growth and a rising standard of living and social well-being. In today’s age of decarbonisation, the idea of energy-intensive progress is being strongly contested, and a number of museums have begun exploring alternative ways of talking about energy’s past, present and future. For instance, at the exhibition Climate, the Experiment with Planet Earth at the Deutsches Museum (2002), visitors were told that coal-driven industrialisation ushered in the climate problem.[2] The association between historical industrialisation and the climate problem has now become commonplace, but in the early 2000s museum context, the statement marked a drastic departure from the conventional narrative of technological progress. The story of energy-intensive modernity is losing its appeal to an increasing proportion of museum audiences, who associate fossil fuel more with its negative consequences than with a bright future. Notwithstanding, chronologically sequenced stories around the development of carbon fuel technology remain the standard narrative style in science-themed museums, which is becoming increasingly at odds with the growing visibility of climate-related topics.

How has the narrative of energy-intensive progress come to be so firmly entrenched in museums? According to historian of technology David Nye, it was in the expositions, world’s fairs and museums in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the connection between the idea of technological progress and energy technology found its cultural expression in popular media. No technology could better represent the utopian vision of the future that was afforded by the diffusion and intensified use of modern energy than electricity (note that back then, electricity was mostly generated by burning coal). In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, electricity came to the centre stage in a series of high-profile international exhibitions, from the Paris Exposition of Electricity (1881) to the Chicago World’s Fair (1893). The inventions of the electric lamp and the telephone were soon followed by a host of electrical applications in factory production, transport, entertainment and domestic life. By the early twentieth century, as Nye remarks, electricity had become ‘a visible correlative for the ideology of progress’.[3] In these exhibitions, electricity was not just a subject matter for display, but an integral part of the very technology of exhibition. For instance, the rapid succession of development in electrical illumination from the arc light, incandescent light, floodlight and neon light made exhibition designers realise that variable artificial lighting allowed them to manipulate visitors’ gaze and create special effects by highlighting objects, defining perspectives and creating ambience. Electric illumination, sound recording, moving displays and film projection ushered in the age of multi-media display in modern exhibitions, and they were all grounded upon – and suggestive of – energy-intensive technological progress.

World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago Ill.: a pavilion.
Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-51872.

The belief in carbon-driven progress can equally be found in early ‘environmental’ exhibitions. In November 1881, a smoke abatement exhibition opened in South Kensington, London. The driving force of the exhibition was two social reformers, Ernest Hart and Octavia Hill, who were supported by a group of engineers, scientists, medical experts and public health campaigners such as Edwin Chadwick and Edward Frankland. The exhibition brought the problem of atmospheric pollution and smoke-caused health hazards to the public cultural domain by drawing upon the format of the public exhibition. Although the event, which attracted 116,000 visitors, paved the way for organised anti-smoke campaigns (which eventually led to the clean air legislation of the 1950s), it came short of challenging the fundamental issue of environmental degradation originating from fossil fuel use. The core message of the exhibition was that atmospheric pollution from industrial and domestic coal consumption could be sufficiently addressed by the use of what contemporaries called ‘smokeless’ fuel and technology, the prime example of which was the concentrated production of gas and coke at gasworks that were built away from the city centre. As Peter Thorsheim argues, the technological solutions presented by smoke abatement campaigners were simply to transfer one form of pollution to another, a message particularly welcomed by the gas industry, which was vying to replace house coal in the domestic fuel market; for the organisers and the nearly 230 exhibitors that presented their smoke abatement innovations in the exhibition took for granted an energy-intensive future.[4]

Wembley British Empire Exhibition, an elevated view of exterior of the Coal Mine exhibit (1924).
London Metropolitan Archives, City of London (Collage: the London Picture Archive, ref 283603).

The assumption that future generations would be able to harness ever greater amounts of energy resources was implicit in early discussions on energy resource conservation. The British Empire Exhibition, held in Wembley Park, London, in 1924–1925 when European nations were still reeling from the devastation of the First World War, showed a curious mix of optimism and concern about the world’s energy reserves. Along with new technological inventions – the British gas industry organised a display on ‘smoke abatement and byproducts’ – the exhibition presented to its visitors the vast resources of Britain and its dominions. Underlining coal’s symbolic status as ‘the chief source of our national wealth’, the exhibition had ‘Wembley’s own coal mine, a full-size colliery, with complete underground workings and head gear’, suggesting that the empire had both the rich energy reserves and the means to recover them.[5] The event’s generally optimistic future projection was not without concerns stemming from the uncertainty regarding future energy availability. Experts knew well, by the 1920s, that coal was hardly an unlimited resource, even for coal-rich nations like Britain. The increasing realisation of global resource problems was manifested in the inaugural meeting of the World Power Conference (WPC), which was organised as a part of the British Empire Exhibition. This was ‘the first international conference to consider the further development, conservation, and most economical use of the power resources of the world’, establishing an international platform for energy experts to discuss energy problems based on a large-scale survey on the world’s energy resources.[6] Faced with accelerating industrialisation and energy consumption in the world, energy experts present at the conference realised that what seemed to be an abundant energy reserve might run out much more quickly than they had previously imagined. In the exhibition and the WPC, an abundant energy future was still in sight, but it stood on tenuous ground.

Resource conservation took on a completely different meaning during the Second World War. In Britain’s wartime exhibitions, the belief in an abundant energy future was temporarily suspended, being replaced by an acknowledgment of the need for self-imposed resource constraints that were vital for the survival of the nation. As with other nations engaged in the war, energy conservation was an urgent issue for the British government, as fossil fuel – coal and oil – was essential to maintain its war machine. As part of the national drive for fuel economy, the Ministry of Information organised a major exhibition entitled Battle for Fuel in October 1942, which opened at Dorland Hall, London, and subsequently toured the country, with installations in Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow. The exhibition appealed to the public to curb their fuel consumption to support Britain’s war effort, explaining that every piece of coal saved in the domestic household contributed to manufacturing weapons for soldiers and driving tanks, warships and fighter planes. Visitors were given practical advice on fuel saving with displays of appliances, visual panels, information films and at an enquiry bureau and cooking demonstrations that provided instructions, for instance, for how to cook Brussels sprouts and shredded cabbage in ten minutes with a minimum use of gas.

Battle for Fuel Exhibition, Dorland Hall, London, 1942.
© Imperial War Museum, D 10635 (left), D 10632 (top right), D 10633 (bottom right).

Despite the austerity of its theme, the exhibition turned out to be a popular event, attracting 750,000 visitors, an impressive figure for an exhibition held at the height of a major military conflict. A visitor to the Manchester installation remarked that it was ‘a gaily coloured and cheerful affair – quite different from any of the MoI exhibitions’, and it featured cartoons, instructive rhymes and comical films.[7] Nevertheless, visitors, who were confronted with questions written on large banners such as ‘Are You a Fuel Saver?’, ‘Comfort or Guns?’ and ‘Warmth or Victory?’, clearly got the message – the Mancunian visitor kept the note that ‘bathing in water up to the neck’ was to be avoided. There was no hint of a bright energy future; instead, the exhibition’s strong message was that energy saving was a civic duty. At the exhibition opening in Manchester, Commander King-Hall, stated that energy saving was ‘one of the greatest tests ever put upon the voluntary system in Great Britain, because it was a direct challenge to every citizen to prove to friends, oneself, and the enemy that for the sake of the free way of life we could do all things necessary for victory and because it provided everyone inescapably with a daily and continuing opportunity of linking himself through some form of self-sacrifice with the men of the fighting forces’.[8]

If we look back from the age of climate crisis in the twenty-first century, the propaganda during the total war is not entirely foreign to us. Many of the practical messages presented at the Battle for Fuel exhibition resonate with the recent call for ‘smart’ energy consumption – the exhibition was accompanied by a national campaign to encourage energy users to read their gas and electricity meters to regulate their energy use. Reviving wartime propaganda may not be an appropriate or effective strategy to tackle the climate crisis today (there is, in fact, ongoing scholarly debate about the policy relevance of wartime mobilisation strategy for climate change action)[9], but studying past exhibitions, both progressive and non-progressive, can help us imagine an alternative mode of talking about energy without resorting to the naïve hope of an abundant and carefree energy future. Simon Bushell et al., in their recent article advocating ‘a good strategic narrative’ for transforming the public attitude towards climate change, identified wartime campaigns such as the ‘Dig for Victory’ – another Ministry of Information wartime propaganda effort – as an exemplar of community-level mobilisation. They argued that the memorable wartime propaganda underscored the crucial importance of creating a powerful narrative that would drive community-level involvement ‘to achieving the behaviour changes climate change mitigation requires’.[10] The Battle for Fuel campaign had an equally effective narrative in wartime Britain on energy conservation, a topic of direct relevance to today’s climate crisis.

The Battle for Fuel was by no means an isolated example of exhibitions presenting less energy-intense visions of society. Topics such as energy conservation, peak oil, resource depletion, energy crises, the ‘limits to growth’ and green futures appeared in public exhibitions and museums in the late twentieth century, although they were largely overshadowed by the more prevalent theme of carbon-driven progress. Rediscovering the alternative visions in past exhibitions can help us imagine a new mode of talking about past technological development and alternative energy futures – an issue that any serious discussion on green recovery for the museum sector needs to confront. The existence of alternative narratives in past exhibitions also serves as a testimony to the fact that museums already have the capacity to challenge what seems to be a deeply entrenched narrative of energy-intensive visions in public culture.


[1] https://mccnetwork.org/exhibitions

[2] Nature, 24 April 2003. Accessed 28 October 2020 at doi:10.1038/news030421-4.

[3] David Nye, ‘Electrifying Expositions, 1880–1939’, in Robert Rydell and Nacy Gwinn (eds.), Fair Representations: World’s Fairs and the Modern World (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1994), p. 143.

[4] Peter Thorsheim, Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006), ch. 9.

[5] G. C. Lawrence (ed.), British Empire Exhibition, 1925: Official Guide (London, 1925), p. 110.

[6] ‘World’s Power Resources’, The Times, 1 July 1924. On the World Power Conference, see R. Wright, H. Shin and F. Trentmann, Power, Energy and International Cooperation: A History of the World Energy Council, 1923-2018 (Oekom, 2019).

[7] ‘Manchester Fuel Economy Exhibition’, 25 November 1942, TC68 Fuel, 1937–47, Mass Observation Archive, SxMOA1/2/68/3/B.

[8] ‘Critical Phase in the Battle for Fuel’, The Guardian, 24 November 1942.

[9] For example, Laurence Deilna and Mark Diesendorf, ‘Is Wartime Mobilisation a Suitable Policy Model for Rapid National Climate Mitigation?’, Energy Policy 58 (2013), pp. 371–80.

[10] Simon Bushell, Géraldine Buisson, Mark Workman, Thomas Colley, ‘Strategic Narratives in Climate Change: Towards a Unifying Narrative to Address the Action Gap on Climate Change’, Energy Research & Social Science 28 (2017), p. 47.

The Making of an exhibition…

In this week’s blog, artist Alison Lowry discusses her ‘(A)dressing our hidden truths’ exhibition, currently on display at the National Museum of Ireland:

In 2017, Dr Audrey Whitty was invited to open my solo show ‘(A)Dress’ at the Millennium Court Arts Centre in Portadown. In this exhibition I wished to examine issues that can be hard to talk about – issues that can effect our whole society, such as rape, domestic violence and childhood abuse.

Audrey was taken with what she saw and persuaded the National Museum of Ireland to bring the show to Collins Barracks in Dublin and alongside new work, this created the exhibition, ‘(A)Dressing our hidden truths’

After the official  ‘go-ahead’ was granted, I had 6 months to create the new site-specific pieces. The new work would examine the legacy of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. Thankfully I had already started my research, as I had presented an installation piece about the Laundries at an art fair in the Saatchi Gallery in 2018.

Presenting the work in a museum context I felt obligated (but not by the National Museum of Ireland) to give a clear account of how the various institutions operated. Compared with presenting work in an art gallery, I felt that there was less room for ambiguity and interpretation. It was clear that I needed to have survivor testimony running throughout the exhibition, as this was not my story to tell. Testimony came from a mixture of pre-recorded oral testimonies (for example, those undertaken by Justice for Magdalene’s Research over the past number of years) and first-hand accounts given to me during interviews.

The exhibition tried to represent Ireland’s ‘history of containment’, so ,to this end, the walls were painted one dark, rather somber, colour. This also helped to draw the visitor’s attention to the spot lit artworks, survivor testimonies and soundscapes in each area. I am very proud of the many collaborative works in the show, as working with other artists can bring many  unexpected  outcomes and can always help you see things in a new light.

The Magdalene Laundries operated in Ireland from the eighteenth century to 1996. It is estimated that 30,000 Irish women went through the laundry system in that time.

Originally, their rationale was to rescue and rehabilitate ‘fallen’ women, but by the twentieth century their ‘inmates’ included a range of unfortunate women. These included young women who arrived from mother and baby homes who were being punished for their ‘sins’, victims of rape and incest, females with learning disabilities and girls and women sent by the courts. The laundries became commercially driven and their ‘inmates’ were used as free labour by the religious orders who ran them.

The regime was harsh and unrelenting. On entering a laundry the girl or woman’s name was changed, her possessions were removed and she was given a uniform to wear. Women were expected to work long hours in awful conditions with very little food. Talking was forbidden and punishments were frequent.

Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children (Luke 23:28)

The Irish State enabled the Magdalene laundries to continue running all those years.

But in February 2013, Enda Kenny acknowledged this wrong and apologised publicly in the Dáil to all those affected. Here is an excerpt from his speech:

“The Magdalene Women might have been told that they were washing away a wrong or a sin but we now know, to our shame, they were only ever scrubbing away our nation’s shadow.

Today, just as the State accepts its direct involvement in the Magdalene Laundries, society too has its responsibility.

I believe I speak for millions of Irish people all over the world when I say we put these women away for too many years because we put away our conscience.

We swapped our personal scruples for a solid public apparatus that kept us in tune and in step with a sense of what was ‘proper behaviour’ or the ‘appropriate view’ according to a sort of moral code that was fostered at the time, particularly in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

We lived with the damaging idea that what was desirable and acceptable in the eyes of the Church and the State was the same thing and interchangeable.

Therefore, I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, the government and all our citizens deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them and for any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalene Laundry”.

These are their names, Numbers 13:4
The real names of the women that were incarcerated in the Waterford laundry at the time of the 1911 census
Reproduced with kind permission from ‘The Magdalene Names Project’ at Justice For Magdalene’s Research 
Instead of the fragrance there will be stench; instead of a sash, a rope; instead of well-dressed hair, baldness; instead of fine clothing, sackcloth; instead of beauty, branding (Isaiah 3:24)
In the background a list of all Industrial Schools in Ireland and an oral testimony from Catherine Whelan talking about punishments she received whilst working in the Good Shepard Laundry
Since Irish Independence it is estimated that 10,000 women were forced into servitude in the Laundries in the Republic of Ireland. The last Laundry closed in 1996.
Here, 10,000 paper dolls spill out of church offertory plates. The paper dolls have been cut from (replica) £5 notes, that happen to bear the image of Catherine McAuley – the founder of the Religious Sisters of Mary.
A Nations Shame
Sheets embroidered with an inscription from the ‘Magdalene Seat’ at St Stephens Green in Dublin
Connie Roberts, the author of ‘The Cardigan’, grew up in an Industrial School in Ireland.
This collaborative work embeds her poems into the glass cardigan
Brigid Dolan was admitted into the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, in Tuam, Co Galway, twice. These ‘homes’ housed unwed mothers until they delivered their babies. The babies were frequently adopted, often without any parental consent. The death certificate of one of Brigid’s sons was uncovered by Catherine Corless, and his remains are believed to be in the mass grave discovered at Tuam and currently under investigation by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. It is still unclear as to where her other son may be, or if he is even dead or alive.
Home Babies, 2017
An installation of 9 glass Christening Robes with audio, commemorating the 796 children from the Tuam Mother and Baby Home  ‘buried’ in underground burial chambers; at least some of which were used to receive human sewage.
Photograph by Peter Maloney
A New Skin, 2017
A sculptural piece that explores ‘rape culture’ in today’s society. Leatherwork by Úna Burke
This collaborative video piece with artist Jayne Cherry is a performance work in which Cherry attempts to take 35 steps in heavy glass slippers to illustrate how hard it is for women to leave abusive relationships. It attempts to illustrate the statistic that on average a woman will be assaulted 35 times by her partner before she will call the police.

Between the exhibition’s opening in March 2019 and its temporarily closure (due to the Covid pandemic in March 2020) the show received an estimated 265,802 visitors.

Dr Audrey Whitty, Head of Collections and Learning at the National Museum of Ireland, has this to say about the public’s  response to the exhibition:

“Since the opening of the ‘Alison Lowry: (A)Dressing our hidden truths‘ exhibition in March 2019, the public reaction (documented through a series of visitor comment books) has been nothing short of overwhelming. The general response has tended toward what can only be described as purely visceral – raw emotion and guilt that people, those who in many cases were our most vulnerable of fellow citizens, could have been treated in such abominable ways. Other feedback and commentary has focused on the powerful impact such seminal art, such as that created by Alison Lowry in particular, can have on the road to justice for the many thousands of women, children and families affected and by descent still affected, as well as the need for collective and state memorial, justice and knowledge. Many statements by museum visitors have also been those of gratitude that Alison Lowry has produced such master works thereby highlighting the themes and events behind their inspiration, and a sense of the start of righting wrongs by their actual interpretation and display in the National Museum of Ireland”

The Museum has since reopened its doors to the public and the exhibition comes to an end in December 2020.


Alison Lowry is a visual artist living and working from her studio, ‘Schoolhouse Glass’ in County Down. She graduated from University of Ulster in 2009 and has since won numerous awards for her art work, including a residency at the world famous Corning Museum of Glass. She is especially interested in how art can help to narrate and investigate aspects of our collective history and also how it can be used to tackle subject matter that can make us feel uncomfortable. Her current exhibition, ‘(A)Dressing our hidden truths’ at the National museum of Ireland in Dublin will continues until the end of this year.

Diabetes in Twentieth-Century Northern Ireland: Through the Patients’ Eyes

In this week’s blog, Lauren Young discusses her PhD research on the the history of diabetes in post-war Northern Ireland:

Diabetes, both Type 1 and Type 2, became increasingly common throughout the twentieth century in western countries. This was due to the epidemiological transition from infectious to chronic illness, changing western diets and the ‘new public health’ that emerged internationally from the 1970s.[1] The number of people living with diabetes in Northern Ireland currently is 100,000, 5.7% of the population.[2] Further afield, since 1996, the number of people diagnosed with diabetes in the UK has risen from 1.4 million to 3.5 million, according to research carried out by the organisation Diabetes UK. By 2025, diabetes prevalence in the UK is estimated to rise to five million.[3]

In today’s society, diabetes is becoming a huge health concern along with other chronic conditions that need to be managed by the patients themselves. Diabetes Type 1 was relatively rare until the post-war period. Type 2 has become increasingly common as a result of increased life expectancy and lifestyle change in recent years. Indeed, diabetes is now considered epidemic.[4] As Martin Moore outlines (in relation to England), in the post-war period outpatient clinics came to be viewed as particularly beneficial for providing regular and long-term interactions between doctor and patient to work on managing their condition better. In line with broader trends towards patient-centred therapy, lifestyle and risk factors, from the 1970s particular emphasis was placed on patient education and self-management.[5]

 

 

Insulin syringe
Insulin Syringe – National Museum of American History

My PhD thesis will provide the first historical research project on diabetes in twentieth-century Northern Ireland, with an emphasis on the post-war period. It will also provide an insight into what it was like to live with diabetes from the patient’s point of view. Medical history today is bombarded with works on the successes of twentieth-century medicine and medical men. But there are very few, if any, accounts of the experience of medicine from the patient’s perspective. Historians now should be working to bring through the patient voice in medical history, which is exactly what my thesis aims to do.

This thesis is an oral history project. In order to gain an insight into the patient experience of living with diabetes in Northern Ireland, I will interview patients who were diagnosed in the years following the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948. I will interview people of various ages and aim for an equal balance of both male and female participants. By interviewing diabetic patients who were diagnosed and treated during the twentieth century, I aim to find out how diabetes services and treatments changed through time after the establishment of the NHS. This will cover areas such as the change from injecting with syringes to the introduction of popular insulin pens in 1985, as well as the advancements in diagnosis techniques in hospitals. Questions will also cover areas such as the patient’s relationship with their doctor and diabetes healthcare team.

NHS
National Health Service Leaflet, May 1948 – The National Archives

A key theme in this research will be finding out what it was like to live with diabetes in twentieth-century Northern Ireland. Interview questions will acknowledge the difficulties of living with diabetes and the social stigma that was attached to the condition at this time. For example, a story I heard of recently revealed that a man who was diagnosed with diabetes in the 1960s felt the need to hide his diagnosis from his employer. Following an episode of hypoglycaemia in the workplace, his employer found out about his condition and this resulted in the patient losing his job. I aim to find out if this was a common problem for patients in Northern Ireland, as well as other social circumstances attached to their diagnosis. Whilst this research looks at the history of diabetes in Northern Ireland through the eyes of the patient, I will also record interviews with both doctors and diabetic nurses. The aim of this is to learn more about how their practice of treating diabetes changed during the twentieth century, as well as how their relationship with patients changed through time.


Lauren Young is a history PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research focuses on the history of Diabetes in twentieth-century Northern Ireland, with a particular emphasis on the changing patient experience of treatments and services since the establishment of the NHS in 1948.


[1] Alexander Mercer, Infections, Chronic Disease and the Epidemiological Transition: A New Perspective (University of Rochester Press, 2014), 5.

[2] “Diabetes in Northern Ireland,” Diabetes UK, (accessed 8th August 2019) https://www.diabetes.org.uk/In_Your_Area/N_Ireland/Diabetes_in_Northern_Ireland

[3] “Diabetes in Northern Ireland”.

[4] Robert Tattersall, Diabetes: The Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 84.

[5] Martin Moore, “Food as Medicine: Diet, Diabetes Management, and the Patient in Twentieth Century Britain,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 73, no. 2 (March 2018), 153.

 

 

 

 

 

Carrickfergus and ‘The History of Ordinary People’

In this week’s blog, QUB student Lily West discusses the Public History MA’s recent class trip to Carrickfergus Museum to learn more about best practices and how to display history.

On 13 November, Queen’s Public History MA class travelled together to the Carrickfergus Museum and Civic Centre in County Antrim. Our aims were to speak to staff, learn more about the museum’s goals, look around the displays, and offer feedback. We spoke with the curator, Shirin Murphy, and she gave us a talk on the museum and what it hopes to accomplish in the future.

Carrickfergus 1
Fig. 1: The outside of the museum. Source: https://discovernorthernireland.com/Carrickfergus-Museum-Carrickfergus-P9032/

After touring the museum for a little less than an hour, we went back to speak with her again, this time about our feedback and potential routes the museum could take in the future. As a learning exercise, this activity not only helped us learn what to look for in a public history site but also hear from an expert on how to balance long-term improvement goals with what is realistic.

‘Our labels are too small… we know’, curator Shirin Murphy joked, laughing, as soon as the topic of feedback was approached. She went on to explain that, while the museum wants to update its labelling system to make them easier to read, it’s more prudent to wait and do so in the future alongside major overhauls of the museum displays.

Other than the labelling, however, most of our feedback was directed towards things that could be added rather than changed. The museum offers an overview of the history of Carrickfergus, one of the most archaeologically explored places in Northern Ireland. It explores that history from medieval times to the modern period. There were various prehistory tools, many of them made of bone or otherwise damaged material. For items from earlier times that have no modern equivalent, or that we don’t automatically recognise as tools to perform a function, we said it might benefit to have audio-visual guides showing how they were used in the past.

Carrickfergus 2
Fig. 2: One of the museum displays. Source: https://www.nimc.co.uk/find-a-museum/museum/profile/carrickfergus-museum/

The museum itself is incredibly well-organised, with a focus on the “experiences of ordinary people” in the town’s history.[1] The rooms have calming low lighting, avoiding the harsh fluorescent lighting that can make it hard to focus in other museums. The labels are brief but informative, giving relevant information without getting too wordy. There are various audio-visual displays and interactive opportunities, providing an easy way for visitors—especially children—to engage in the history.

One of the most valuable parts of our visit was undoubtedly the talk with Shirin Murphy. She spoke candidly and helpfully with us about the realities and logistics of building up a collection and deciding what goes on display. She also spoke about handling the difficulties of juggling public expectations and governmental standards with the museum’s own goals. At all times, things like budgets, accessibility, and inclusivity must be kept in mind.

Carrickfergus 3
Fig. 3: One of the museum displays. Source: https://www.midandeastantrim.gov.uk/things-to-do/museums-arts/carrickfergus-museum-and-civic-centre/carrickfergus-museum/

Beyond the issues of navigating public history expectations, however, she also spoke at length about the massive potential for success. We discussed the various interactive opportunities in the museum, including the ongoing, popular “Minecraft at Carrickfergus” activity. This collaborative effort allows visitors, especially children, to recreate early modern Carrickfergus using the online game, getting them involved in the practice of historical models.

Overall, this class visit proved to be incredibly helpful in giving us hands-on experience from experts on how to navigate the complicated, ever-growing field of public history. From seeing successful technological and audio-visual techniques such as the current Minecraft project, to giving and receiving feedback on how sites like the museum can move into the future, we learned more about the realities of modern-day museums and how they remain accessible, engaging, and relevant.


Lily West is an MA in Public History student at Queen’s University Belfast with a particular interest in medieval and early modern Europe, and in particular women’s history


[1] “Carrickfergus Museum.” Accessed November 27, 2019. https://www.midandeastantrim.gov.uk/things-to-do/museums-arts/carrickfergus-museum-and-civic-centre.

North Belfast Old to New

In this week’s blog Katy Allen, Community Archive Coordinator of Great Place North Belfast, discusses how this National Lottery Heritage Fund project will deliver heritage-led regeneration and allow communities to explore their own heritage:

Discussion of North Belfast typically focuses around issues of division. Today the area remains dominated by the boundaries between ‘orange and green’ and exploration of local history tends to concentrate on the violence of more recent decades, with its connotations of flashpoints and interfaces.

However, as is often the case in Northern Ireland, the violence of the Troubles is just one part of North Belfast’s long, intricate history. The Great Place Project aims to challenge modern associations by uncovering and promoting the area’s history and heritage offerings. Great Place North Belfast is just one element of a broader Heritage Lottery funded project that aims to use the social opportunities of heritage to facilitate and support regeneration across Northern Ireland.[1]

Distribution Map
‘Map of the distribution of Catholic population in Belfast from 2001 census’, CAIN. The black lines roughly denote the areas covered by the Great Place Project. (accessed November 20, 2019). http://cain.ulster.ac.uk/images/maps/2001religionwardsbelfast1.jpg

The Belfast Charitable Society has identified and brought together fifteen key local heritage sites to create the North Belfast Heritage Cluster. It is the Great Place Project’s role to support these organisations and increase public access to the sites, their archives, and their stories. As an example of increasing public access, from now until the end of March 2020 the Belfast Orange Hall will be running free public tours. For more information and how to book see our Facebook page.

To have any chance of delivering heritage-led regeneration we need to first uncover the history of each Cluster member. This means sorting through any items that are held on-site, identifying the connections between the members, and discovering whether additional sources are available elsewhere. Whilst the initial archive scoping exercise is estimated to be completed in six months, developing the archives, creating exhibition material, and increasing local engagement will be a much longer-term project.

map.jpg
Map showing the location of the fifteen members of the North Belfast Heritage Cluster. (Accessed November 20, 2019) http://greatplacenorthbelfast.com/.

The North Belfast Heritage Cluster comprises of fifteen religious, cultural, community, and educational organisations. Here are just a selection:

Belfast Cathedral: St. Ann’s, Donegall Street. Now the resting place of Edward Carson, the Cathedral was built around the old parish church (over a period of 80 years) and is home to the ‘Spire of Hope’.

Patrick’s School, Donegall Street. Built in 1832, it was the first Catholic school in Belfast.

Patrick’s Church & Parochial House, Donegall Street. The Parochial house is the oldest inhabited building in the city.

Frederick Street Quaker Meeting House, Frederick Street. The meeting house has housed the Quakers since 1839 and charts their contribution to Belfast from 1799 to the present day.

Clifton House, Clifton Street. Home to Belfast’s oldest charity (Belfast Charitable Society was founded in 1752) and is the city’s oldest working building.

Clifton Street Cemetery, Clifton Street. The final resting place of many United Irishmen – including Henry Joy McCracken – as well as prominent local families, and victims of the Irish famine, Blitz, and Troubles.

Belfast Orange Hall, Clifton Street. It is the largest purpose-built Orange Hall worldwide and the starting point for the city’s annual 12th July parade.

Indian Community Centre, Clifton Street Established in 1981 for the growing Indian community in North Belfast.

UniTorah: Annesley Street Synagogue, Somerton Road. Former synagogue and Mikvah (ritual bath).

Malachy’s College & The O’Laverty Library, Antrim Road. Oldest Catholic grammar school in Northern Ireland (1833) – notable alumni include Eoin Mac Neill and Major John MacBride – and has strong links to Gaelic revival.

Carnegie Oldpark Library, Oldpark Road. Opened in 1906, it was one of three libraries gifted by Andrew Carnegie to the city of Belfast.

North Belfast Working Men’s Club, Danube Street. The Club was founded in 1894 as a recreational space for mill workers by the linen merchants of the day and is still operating today.

Duncairn Complex: 174 Trust, Duncairn Avenue. Incorporating the old Duncairn Presbyterian church, halls, and manse into the Duncairn Centre for Arts and Culture.

Despite the diverse range of organisations involved, our initial archive scoping has revealed that there is an abundance of shared – and often uncharted – history, demonstrating that North Belfast’s past is more intricate than residential divisions suggest.

As one example, just by looking at the members of the cluster we are able to chart patterns of immigration into the area. Starting with the Quakers in the late eighteenth century; the growing Catholic community during the nineteenth century; the Jewish community in the early twentieth century, and the Indian community in more recent years.

cluster.jpg
Images of cluster members (clockwise). The view inside St. Patrick’s Church, the Belfast Orange Hall, and Clifton Street Cemetery.

For this project, the precision of archival practice comes somewhat secondary to understanding the local history, building relationships, and ensuring each member has the practical tools they need to progress.

Whilst they operate together as a Heritage Cluster, the members have vastly different aims, priorities, and visions for the future. Some members want to create a comprehensive, catalogued archive that will be stored on-site while others simply want to understand more about the history of their building and how it has been used over the years. The challenge – and it’s no small feat – will be creating a cohesive plan of action for all fifteen Cluster members and ensuring that each organisation is satisfied with the eventual outcome.

For more information and updates on the Great Place Project in North Belfast visit our website.


[1] Elizabeth Crooke discusses the pros and cons of this approach in ‘The Politics of Community Heritage: Motivations, Authority and Control’ International Journal of Heritage Studies 16:1-2 (2010): pp.16-29.

Katy Perry and the Evangelicals

In this week’s blog, Professor Crawford Gribben (QUB), discusses Katy Perry’s recent court case and the historical relationship between the cultural artefacts of American evangelicalism and the cultural mainstream: 

It has been a bad summer for Katy Perry. Fending off several allegations of harassment, she has also had to deal with the fall-out of a court case that overturned accepted ideas of musical plagiarism to arrive a surprise decision concerning what might be her most famous song. The court in Los Angeles determined that her hit song, “Dark horse” (2014) – the first song by a female artist to achieve one billion hits on Youtube and Vevo, and a number-one hit in the United States and several other countries besides – copied elements of an earlier song, “Joyful noise,” by an evangelical rapper called Flame, who now stands to win damages of $2.7m.

The case illustrates the complex relationship that exists between the cultural artefacts of American evangelicalism and the so-called cultural mainstream. While faith-based rapping may not be a widely recognised musical idiom in many other parts of the world, it is an element of one of the largest and most commercially significant musical sectors in the United States. There, the genre of “contemporary Christian music” has become very big business, representing a market sector that is larger than classical, jazz and new age combined, and which is defined by its lyrics rather than by its style. Emerging in the 1970s, and with a history documented by scholars such as Heather Hendershot, contemporary Christian music has generally offered a sanctified alternative to the most popular musical preferences of the day, creating musical products that reflect the aesthetic of rock’n’roll without embracing its less than respectable values, emulating rather than innovating, in an effort to provide alternative patterns of consumption for Christian teens. This genre has become a metaphor to explain the derivative relationship between Christian artists and those they mimic. Christian pop offers a pallid and generally slightly dated reflection of the angst and energy of the secular hit parade, and in its evisceration of rock rebellion it captures the lacklustre aspiration of a community that too often wants to be of the world without actually being in it. Following broader cultural trends, and finding ways to accommodate itself to the tastes and preferences of the mainstream, contemporary Christian music might provide a perfect metaphor to describe the current state of American evangelicalism.

Katy Perry almost certainly knows this. She has had more experience than she likely prefers of contemporary Christian music and the movement from which it emerged. Growing up in an evangelical family, she first sought fame within this world of religious rock. Her first album, Katy Hudson (2001), focused on the struggles faced by believing teens in an unbelieving world. But the album was not a success. Released by an evangelical label just as it ceased operations, Katy Hudson sold fewer than 200 copies, becoming an ironic collector’s item. In the years that followed, Katy Hudson morphed into Katy Perry, and “I kissed a girl” (2008), her first release with a new deal from Capitol, and a break-through success, signalled more than a musical change of direction. Katy Perry’s meteoric rise to stardom came after she left behind her creatively limiting background.

katy-hudson.jpg
Katy Hudson (2001)

But, as recent the verdict of the Los Angeles court suggests, the relationship between the artefacts of evangelicalism and those of the so-called cultural mainstream is beginning to change. An increasing number of secular creative artists are looking to the evangelical world for inspiration. In musical preferences, as in other creative fashions, the church has long emulated the world, but, increasingly, the world is also emulating the church. The distinction between the church and the world is breaking down. Nowadays, the similarities that exist between evangelical and mainstream cultural products might just as easily be explained by the mainstream’s emulation of evangelicalism. The question might not be “why does the devil have all the good music,” as Salvation Army founder William Booth wondered, Christian rocker Larry Norman quoted, and Cliff Richard covered – but “where did the devil get the good music from?”

Of course, although the point has not often been noted, the world has been emulating the church for a very long time – and that, as historians including Randall J. Stephens have recently argued, explains how gospel music mutated into the language of rock’n’roll. We are all familiar with the movement from sanctuary to stage of acts from Elvis Presley to Evanescence, and of the telling similarities between pioneering pianist Jerry Lee Lewis and his televangelist cousin Jimmy Swaggart. But the relationship between the music of worship and the commercially worthwhile extends to individual songs too. One of the most blatant instances of similarity might be the almost identical melodic structures of the popular religious song “Give thanks with a grateful heart” (1978) and “Go west,” most famously recorded by the Village People (1978) and the Pet Shop Boys (1993).

Randall Stephens.jpg
Randall J. Stephens, The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll (Harvard, 2018).

This phenomenon is evident in popular literature too – and sometimes in the most unlikely ways. From 1995 until 2006, two evangelical authors published a series of prophecy novels which sold over 65 million copies and were read by one in nine of the American population. The Left Behind series was encoded with the politics of the war on terror as much as it reflected a popular end-of-the-world-view that circulated among around 100 million American believers. The claims of this apocalyptic theology were precise – predicting a schema that involved the rapture, followed by a seven-year tribulation, during which the antichrist would rise to power and initiate the most awful scheme of persecution in human history, which would be followed by the second coming of Jesus Christ, the one-thousand years of his millennial rule over the world from Jerusalem, the judgement of the wicked and the inauguration of the new heavens and earth. Secular reviewers found this narrative abhorrent, and struggled to understand what social and political implications might be, though that did not stop a re-make of the series’ first film adaptation being released with Nicholas Cage in a leading role. But commercial publishers took note of the appeal of these themes, and the early interest in this prophetic scheme as it was parodied in The Simpsons gave way to more serious explorations of its implications for sexual politics in incredibly popular television shows such as HBO’s The Leftovers. The idea of the rapture is now a mainstay of American popular culture, a referent that circulates widely and far outside the boundaries of the movement from which it emerged. Perhaps the point is not that evangelicals are meant to be in the world but not of it, nor that evangelicals too often find themselves of the world without being in it, but that the distinction between the church and the world that these familiar in-group mottos presuppose is slowing withering away.

 Katy Hudson learned the hard way how limiting the evangelical market could be. But the court case surrounding Katy Perry’s biggest hit suggests that the influence of evangelical culture isn’t so easy to escape. And maybe that is because the artefacts of evangelicalism now litter the mainstream market – for these believers are in the world, and of it too.


Crawford Gribben is a professor of history at Queen’s University Belfast. You can find him online at @GribbenC.

 

Making Historical Board Games

In this week’s blog Dr Tim Somers, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Newcastle University, discusses his experience of designing historical board games and offers advice to budding game designers:

In early September I put on a board game open day at QUB’s Graduate Centre. It was an opportunity to showcase a couple of the games I’ve produced, based on my historical research, as part of a Northern Bridge Creative Economy Engagement Fellowship. The gameplay has been designed through a process of play-testing with members of the public and drawing upon the expertise of published board game designers – especially Nigel and Sarah Kennington at One Free Elephant, without whose support this project would not have been possible.[1]

 

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The central idea behind the project was that ‘playing’ with our research can provide fresh ways of thinking about the past and create engaging teaching and public history opportunities. Board games get people sat around a table together, taking part in a shared experience. And in contrast to digital games, players remain engaged throughout the experience because they have to learn and regulate the rules of a board game together. Board games are also an accessible place to start exploring game design, as they do not require advanced digital skills or vast resources (see below).

 

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At the open day visitors took part in a 6-player game of ‘The Royal Society’. In the game players are late-seventeenth-century curiosity collectors attending meetings of the Royal Society. This newly-formed society provided a venue for the production of scientific and antiquarian knowledge through the empirical study of objects. The game consists of a 90-card deck divided into 6 curiosity categories: flora, fauna, wondrous oddities, antiquities & exotica, prints & drawings, and rare books. Players takes turns presenting objects to the Royal Society, arguing why they are ‘curious’ enough to be admitted to the institution repository for posterity and further study; other players take turns voting on whether they accept these donations. The ‘President’ acts as the master of ceremonies and has special powers to influence other players’ decisions and votes.

It was enjoyable to watch the game being played without intervening. It’s structured to encourage a lot of discussion about the odd variety of objects that people collected in the past: from unicorn horns, to busts of Roman emperors. Players learnt about the blurred boundaries between art and science in the early modern period, the role of the ‘amateur’ and sociable clubs during the ‘Scientific Revolution’, and the influence of interpersonal and social relationships on the creation of knowledge.

One thing I took away from the session was that, if this game was played in a seminar setting, it would be a good idea to give the students a handful of cards beforehand and ask them to research their objects. The game would become a series of mini-student presentations. Aside from getting students to learn from one another, the game would provide its own amusing ice-breaker moments given the incongruous objects and the goal of puffing up the importance of objects such as ‘Henry VIII’s hawking glove’.

If you want to try the game out yourself, I’ve provided a download link for the cards and rules.[2] Or you can email me and I’d be happy to create a deck for you.

I would, however, strongly encourage giving game design a go yourself. Below I’ve attached a few tips (tailored for historians) to get you started.

Finding a Theme

Academics are often challenged to distill their research into a few pithy sentences (‘Elevator Pitches’). Making games is a similar process of abstraction. Pick out some key areas of your research to focus on and eliminate the unnecessary. In the Royal Society game, for example, I focused on emphasising the variety of artificial and natural objects in collections, and the role networks and social relations played in circulation and valuation of these objects.

Theme and Experience

Once settled on a theme, you need to craft the gameplay experience around it. In the best-selling game Pandemic, panic is caused by the sudden spread of viruses. Something similar occurs in The Great Fire of London 1666 (2010), as fire spreads unpredictably towards the players’ properties. My collecting game, on the other hand, encourages collaborative discussion. If, hypothetically, your game is about the underground radicals of the London Corresponding Society during the 1790s, you might want to create an air of suspicion between the players. “Are you the informer? How can I trust you?!”

The Mechanic is the Meaning

With these rough ideas, you can start identifying mechanics to help convey your theme and intended experience. For Pandemic, this involves adding ‘epidemic’ cards into the main deck to occur randomly. In my collecting game, I added the voting system. And for the informing game, you might give players ‘secret objectives’ that set one person against the group – as seen in the semi-cooperative game, Dead of Winter, for example.

Without going into too much detail, mechanics can be defined as an ‘interactive mathematical system’ that influences the flow of play (turn order, types of decisions), components (cards, dice, tokens), and ‘winning’ objectives (collecting sets of cards; player elimination, etc.), amongst other things. There are many mechanics to choose from. You can search games by mechanic on boardgamegeek.com and filter to see the highest-rated examples. While these ratings should be taken with a pinch of salt, they can help you learn about different types of mechanics (worker placement, card drafting, dexterity, etc.) and games that have used them successfully.

Ultimately there is no ‘correct’ mechanic; rather they are tools to aid the designer. As the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design (2012) discusses, well-utilised mechanics should do the following:

– allow players to tackle creatively situations based on clearly defined choices

– be intuitive enough to make the rules obvious without players frequently returning to the rulebook

– provide a sense of uncertainty over who’s going to win

– be informed by the theme

– make people want to play again[3]

Borrow Mechanics

In my experience mechanics are by far the hardest aspect of game design. Thankfully, no-one expects you to reinvent the wheel. Play a variety of games and borrow the mechanics from the ones you’ve enjoyed. Reworking mechanics into a new theme is a perfectly acceptable way to make a game – like changing up the chords of a pop song! The V&A’s videogames resident, Matteo Menapace, has even made a helpful guide to ‘hacking’ classic games: picking them apart and piecing them together into something new.[4] The familiarity of these mechanics has the added benefit of making your game easier to teach in a limited time-frame. One a version of my coffeehouse debate game thus drew upon two popular games, Blackjack (1700) and Braggart (2010).

Prototype & Playtest

All first drafts are terrible. The sooner you translate your ideas into physical components, the sooner you’ll spot problems and opportunities. Impose your games on friends, and then friends of friends. When you’re ready, look up a Playtest UK event on Meetup.com. At these events designers bring along their prototypes, often in the very early stages of development, for feedback. It might seem daunting to present your game to published designers, but these events are always welcoming – just make sure you test plenty of other people’s games too! The feedback is honest and informed by years of experience, which is something that cannot be replicated by playing with friends. Ideally, get other people to play the game while you watch. Make notes during gameplay and prepare some questions for feedback afterwards. Don’t act on feedback straight away, though. Often testers will point out problems and may come up with helpful solutions, but ultimately how you respond to the feedback should be dictated by your core motivation: engaging players with your research.

A note of caution: don’t spend too long on the graphic design during the early prototyping (of which I am guilty). Work smarter not harder! Save time and money by cutting out cards from paper and raiding other games for their pieces. There’s no point designing your final components right away, because you’ll inevitably make changes as you start playtesting. Having said that, the process of making things is inherently satisfying and can help you to visualise what you want to do.

Basic Design Tips

Designing and making prototypes is relatively straightforward. All it requires are the following:

– an inkjet printer

– A4-sized sticky label paper

– blank (or old) playing cards

– Affinity Designer (or Photoshop)

With regards to cards, at first follow the conventions of typical card layouts. This is important because players have expectations of what a card should look like based on past experiences. Sticking to those conventions will make your game more intuitive and easier to teach.

 

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To design a card on Affinity Designer, I created a template with 64×89mm dimensions and added 2.5mm bordering to make cutting and sticking easier. I chose textures and typeface that were thematically consistent. In the card above, I used ‘JSL Ancient’ and ‘English Towne’ – both free online – to imitate Roman and Gothic types used on prints at the same. Such prints were read in messy drinking settings, so I also used ‘coffee stain’ vectors to further communicate this coffeehouse theme (little touches matter!).

I can only speak for early modern history, but these websites are useful for finding high-res images:

– The British Museum Collections online

– The Welcome Trust [https://wellcomecollection.org/works]

– English Broadside Ballads Online (their new high-res images provide a variety of woodcuts to illustrate all facets of early modern life)

– the National Portrait Gallery collections online

– for symbols, search free-of-charge ‘Vector’ websites

When printing out your cards, add your card designs onto an A4 document, fitting 9 per page. Print these cards onto A4 label paper. You can then cut-out and stick these designs onto cards of your choosing. The same process can be done when making boards. Create a template with the same dimensions as your board. Then, fragment this design into A4 pieces that can be printed on the A4 label paper. I used the ‘slice’ tool in Affinity Designer to do this.

If you intend to go further and get your cards produced by a manufacturer, note that cards are produced in multiples of 18 and therefore you might want to create decks in multiples of 18.

And finally, a few basic but essentials points. First, make sure your text is legible and large enough. Don’t make players squint! Second, if you’re using ‘flavour text’ to explain your historical content, be sparing. The rule-book might be a better place to add contextual information.

And finally, if you have cards doing different things make them look entirely different. This could be as simple as orientating one type of card as landscape rather than portrait. These unspoken visual cues help prevent unnecessary lags in gameplay. Often these issues come up during playtesting.

 

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For example, feedback from the open day led to more specific colour-coding for each of the six curiosity categories, rather than two colours (blue or green) for artificial and natural objects. This two-colour design decision was inspired by the historical theme, but it created unnecessary confusion and had to go.

***

We are seeing a greater diversity of games being produced than ever before. This year’s biggest hit has been a game about a goose causing havoc in a chocolate-box village (‘Untitled Goose Game’). But it’s still the case that a lot of historical knowledge learnt by students and the public comes from video games. Historians should therefore work towards shaping this influential gaming culture, pushing the boundaries of what types of history are represented in games beyond warfare or grand narratives of ‘civilization’. This is something that was stressed at a recent Edinburgh University workshop, ‘History, Medievalism and the Games Industry’. I hope this guide has been of some use in encouraging such activity, and please get in touch with any questions, suggestions or requests.


Dr Tim Somers is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Newcastle University. His book, Preserving the Ephemeral in Early Modern England: Sociable Collecting, Political Identity and Cheap Print, is forthcoming with Boydell & Brewer.

Email: timothy.somers@newcastle.ac.uk

Twitter


[1] One Free Elephant is an Edinburgh-based independent game design and publishing business. Their latest game, Microbrew, is a travel-sized, 2-player game about brewing and selling craft beer. It won “Best Overall Design” and “Most Innovative Mechanic” in a 2017 design contest hosted by boardgamegeek.com. Check it out here! [https://www.onefreeelephant.co.uk/Microbrew]

[2] somersmedley.wordpress.com

[3] For further useful resources I recommend the Ludology podcast [http://www.ludology.libsyn.com]; Mark Rosewater, ‘Magic: the Gathering: Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons Learned’ [https://youtu.be/QHHg99hwQGY]; and [http://www.leagueofgamemakers.com/building-your-game-mechanics-tips-from-the-league-of-gamemakers].

[4] https://medium.com/@baddeo

‘Our Place, Our Stories’: Mutah University Workshop, 17–20 June 2019

In this week’s blog, Dr Sue-Ann Harding, Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, discusses a recent three-and-a-half-day workshop, the first in a larger project ‘Our Place, Our Stories’: Schools and Community Public History Project at Tall Dhiban, Jordan: 

Mutah Workshop 1The first in a series of 4 workshops to be held over the next 11 months, the aim of this workshop was to train a group of undergraduate students from Mutah University to act as participatory research assistants with us on the larger community project in Dhiban. We chose Mutah because of the links we already had with the university: two of our alumni from QUB’s Centre for Translation and Interpreting are working there as lecturers, and Neil and Sue-Ann had already visited in November 2017 as part of a QUB international recruitment trip. We were also keen to work beyond the capital, Amman, the usual focus of national and international attention and resources, and work instead with a regional university.

Mutah Workshop 2

Mutah is relatively close to Dhiban – some of the students in our group were from there – so it made sense to draw on these local connections and use the event as an opportunity to recognise the talents and abilities of students who might otherwise be overlooked. Originally we hoped that students would come from different disciplines – English/Translation, History, and Tourism Studies – but various levels of English proficiency meant that students self-selected and, in the end, we worked only with those majoring in English and Translation.

Through a series of interactive sessions and practical tasks, we worked to introduce students to new ideas and provide them with opportunities to develop new skills in oral and public history methods. These included engaging with local places in attentive ways, influenced by Tim Ingold’s ideas on wayfaring and growing knowledge; interrogating preconceived notions of culture and heritage; using objects to tell stories of places and pasts; collecting and communicating stories to a range of audiences; and developing and curating exhibitions. We discussed and debated key concepts in public cultural heritage, such as place, narrative, translation and representation, and to key practices, such as working with material culture (e.g. objects), visual culture (e.g. photographs, maps) and oral history (e.g. recordings, interviews).

Mutah Workshop 3

We were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and interest of the students. Attendance over the three and half days was excellent, even on the Thursday when the usual public transport wasn’t running and students had to self-organise shared lifts and pick-up points in order to get to the university. Students readily worked together in pairs and small groups, overcame shyness to speak in English in front of the whole group, shared stories, offered opinions, participated in our activities – walking, photographing, bringing in an object from home, telling stories to each other, telling each other’s stories, devising a mini-exhibition of images, drawings and text – even when our requests seemed a little strange to them: “You mean, I should just walk around the university and take pictures?” Students were eager to show us photographs of their favourite places – villages, hills, green wadis and waterfalls – and to share with us their objects – mementos from family members, homemade gifts from grandmothers, large iron keys from family homes.

Mutah Workshop 4

What emerged from the final reflections that we asked students to write and submit during the final session of the week was their sense of enjoyment. Many commented on how much fun the week had been, how they had made new friends, how they had enjoyed working in groups, how happy they were for the opportunity to speak English with native speakers, how happy that we had come to teach them and that we were so kind and easy to talk to. This kind of feedback was completely unexpected for us. We had been concentrating on concepts and ideas and the students showed us that what they most enjoyed were new ways of teaching and learning.

One of the main aims of the workshop was to identify a select group of students to work with us on the remainder of the project in Dhiban. How we will actually do this given the enthusiasm of the students we have yet to figure out, but we look forward to returning to Mutah and working again with these young people. In the meantime, as a workshop legacy, we created a Facebook page to act as a shared space for everybody involved where we can continue to reflect on and curate experiences of our places and our stories.


This project is funded by the AHRC Newton-Khalidi fund and is led at Queen’s University Belfast by Dr Olwen Purdue, Director of the Centre for Public History, with Drs Neil Sadler and Sue-Ann Harding, Centre for Translation Studies, and at Liverpool University by project PI, Dr Bruce Routledge, Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, in collaboration with the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project and students from Mutah University.

‘Our Place, Our Stories’: Schools and Community Public History Project at Tall Dhiban, Jordan

In this week’s blog Dr Olwen Purdue, Director of the Centre for Public History, discusses her latest project which aims to encourage engagement with heritage  among marginalised communities in Dhiban, Jordan:

Heritage is an inheritance from a people’s past, a legacy to be protected, nurtured, and handed on. However, heritage can also be divisive or disempowering. Dominant or hegemonic narratives can drown out the voices of marginalised communities, or those without the means to articulate their particular understandings of their past. This is being addressed in many places with the emergence of public history as an important sub-discipline of history, encouraging collaboration with cultural institutions and the growth of community-led projects. Oral history has likewise emerged as a key methodology for collecting under-represented or less dominant historical narratives and articulating them to a range of audiences. These approaches to understanding the past are making rapid strides in the West, underpinning much important new historical research. They are, however, much less familiar in many parts of the Middle East, something this project seeks to address as it works among the people of Dhiban, Jordan.

Dhiban
Dhiban, Jordan.

Tall Dhiban is one of Jordan’s most important archaeological sites having been the site of human occupation for around 6,000 years. Located 40 miles south of Amman and 12 miles east of the Dead Sea, this mound, which covers 30 acres and rises to 130 feet in height, was at various times the capital of the biblical kingdom of Moab (according to the Bible, the Israelites stopped here during the Exodus from Egypt), a Nabataean centre during the Roman occupation and a thriving city of the Byzantine Empire. Dhiban was subsequently conquered by the first Islamic caliphs, and then became an important centre of agriculture following the Crusades. The modern-day town of Dhiban, which sits in the shadow of the Tell, has a population of around 15,000 which is composed of peoples from many different backgrounds and origins. Many of these are migrants from Syria and other neighbouring countries, but the largest group are Bedouin from the Bani Hamida tribe who settled here in the 1950s. Economic hardship and social marginalisation is prevalent among these peoples, and their voices are rarely heard in the historical narratives of Dhiban, dominated, as it is, by the formal, academic history of the Tell.

3. Dhiban_Tomb_Exterior.JPG
Dhiban Tomb Exterior.

This project seeks to redress this balance, weaving the voices and stories of these communities, the people of modern Dhiban, into the historical interpretation of the Tell. Building on research carried out on a previous Wellcome Trust-funded project on heritage and wellbeing in inner-city Belfast, Heritage Connects, it aims to explore the connection between individual and community engagement with the past, social capital, and wellbeing among marginalised communities. By developing this research in the very different context of rural Jordan, the project will seek to better understand the different ways in which peoples and societies understand, reflect on, and communicate their senses of history and heritage, and explore ways of encouraging greater engagement with people’s own perspectives on the past and those of others. It will also examine the approaches taken to the formal teaching of History in Jordanian schools, and the extent to which, if at all, this facilitates or encourages multiple and diverse narratives to be heard.

11. Corner of podium for Nabataean Temple..JPG
Corner of Podium for Nabataean Temple.

One of the principle aims is to encourage engagement with heritage among local communities, and to build capacity among teachers, students, children, and local enthusiasts for capturing and communicating the rich and diverse histories of their people and place. A key element of this will be a local history project, developed with local school teachers and children in Dhiban. A series of workshops in schools will introduce teachers and their classes to methods of collecting and sharing their own histories and those of their families and communities through telling and recording each other’s stories, and digitally capturing images and artefacts. The year-long project will culminate in a community History Harvest event at which the children will launch an exhibition of their own work, and invite members of the community to come along to share their stories of their past and that of their people. At this event, which will coincide with the 15th anniversary celebration of the Tell project, the schoolchildren and their teachers will work alongside the project team and students from Mutah University to digitally capture images, artefacts, and stories from the local community.

Thus, this project hopes to engage the wider community, enabling multiple voices associated with Dhiban to be heard across socio-economic, generational, and gender divides. These perspectives and stories will be integrated with the work being carried out by the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project in the developing of the Tell Interpretive Centre, incorporating local perspectives into the signposting and narratives of the site. It will also build capacity for storytelling and history collection among local communities, allowing their voices to be heard in connection with this internationally-renowned heritage site.


This project is funded by the AHRC Newton-Khalidi fund and is led at Queen’s University Belfast by Dr Olwen Purdue, Director of the Centre for Public History, with Drs Neil Sadler and Sue-Ann Harding, Centre for Translation Studies, and at Liverpool University by project PI, Dr Bruce Routledge, Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, in collaboration with the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project and students from Mutah University.

Berlin: A Metropolis of Memory or Omission?

In this week’s blog, Martin Mulvenna discusses his recent field trip to Berlin as part of the MA in Public History at Queen’s University Belfast:

The spectre of the Holocaust haunts the streets of Berlin. In many ways the memory of the event itself has been transferred from the purely ethereal to the real, becoming an integral part of the city’s urban landscape, something which is effectively symbolised in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which disturbs the usual flatness of the city, its claustrophobic columns contrasting starkly with the exuberant width of the adjoining streets. However, whether this phantasm is evident to the public who go about their daily business in the city is another question.

Memerial to the murdered Jews of Europe.JPG
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

It’s a question that ran through my mind during the recent Public History field trip to Berlin as part of my MA at Queen’s University Belfast. The reason behind the trip itself was to understand how Berlin deals with its contentious past, and how its people remember a period of their past which many, if not all, would rather forget.  How does a city marred by its role as the one-time capital of the Third Reich face up to its past? Does it repress the painful memory, or does it dare to encounter and wrestle it?

In some sense this memorialisation of the civic space of Berlin is a natural by-product of the Sisyphean soul searching many Berliners undertook in the rebuilding of their city from the ruins of Second World War and later by the scars left by the partition of Berlin. How exactly could Berliners memorialise the victims of their past crimes, while distinguishing themselves from the perpetrators? This dilemma has thrown their history into a flux, exemplified by two neighbouring buildings separated by the Wall: the former Reich air ministry building which remains standing in all its totalitarian character, dominating its local skyline; and the one-time headquarters of the Gestapo, now demolished and turned into the Topography of Terror a centre of memory for the victims of Nazism, which barely rises to the horizon of one’s vision.

Reich Air Ministry.JPG
Reich Air Ministry.

The contradictory nature of these buildings is symbolic of the debate over how Berlin should memorialize the Holocaust. Is it better to keep these buildings standing as icons of guilt, so that the crimes of the past can never again be replicated, or will the destruction of these buildings along with the odious period they represent, prevent these sites from becoming places of pilgrimages by those who would resurrect such a period?

This raises the issue of guilt. The Topography of Terror deals with this in quite an explicit fashion: its concrete barren surroundings devoid of any foliage combine with the images of crimes it exhibits to create a sombre experience, reinforcing the utter nihilism and inhumanity of Nazi violence and the role ordinary Germans played in facilitating it, whether actively or though omission. While one might consider the morality of placing this collective guilt upon Germans, as the Topography of Terror reminds us, one must also remember that as we foreigners gaze upon the images on its wall and see only the faces of perpetrators, some Germans see the faces of their forefathers.

Topography of Terror.JPG
Topography of Terror.

Recent years have seen an effort to exonerate the collective guilt placed upon the Germans, particularly through a focus on German resistance to Nazism. This is given concrete form in the German Resistance Memorial Centre, which appropriately valorises the exploits of those who attempted to end Hitler’s regime. However, it is equally important to remember that many of those remembered in the centre, such as Colonel Von Stauffenberg, whose name is given to the street near the centre, acted not out of any altruistic motives to prevent the Holocaust. Furthermore, as our tour guide noted, many of those individuals and movements who made up the resistance weren’t brought down by the ruthless investigative capabilities of the Gestapo but by other Germans.

Occasionally one might stumble on the street, looking down to expect a loose stone only to find a small bronze plaque dedicated to a victim of the Shoah, as if the ground itself had grabbed your foot. Some of these plaques, especially those on the busy highstreets are visible, glittering if caught in the right light, while others languish in the less trampled parts of the city, only coming to the fore of the public imagination when enough blind steps have polished the bronze. The apparition of the memory of the Holocaust is alive in the city, always in the peripheral of one’s visions, haunting the corners of your sight as well as your mind. It is entirely up to the public to perceive this shade, any ignorance of it is willing, innocent maybe.


Martin Mulvenna is currently studying for the MA in Public History at Queen’s University Belfast.