In our latest blog Darcey Johnston, a first-year English and History student at Queen’s University Belfast, discussesKnockbreda Parish Church, Waddell CunninghamandIrish links to the slave trade:
Like many of us, during the first lockdown in April 2020 my house began to feel cramped. Each day became more monotonous, and I felt perplexed at how to keep myself sufficiently entertained without morphing into a fully-fledged couch potato. To combat this metamorphosis, I forced myself to take advantage of the limited, once-a-day excursions permitted from our home.
I decided to follow a local heritage trail, ‘Memories of Castlereagh’, set up in 2015 by the Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The trail marks out historical locations in the area through signs, and one such sign exists outside Knockbreda Parish Church.
Knockbreda Parish Church
Historically, the building of Knockbreda Parish came at the request of the Duke of Wellington’s great grandmother, Lady Anne Middleton. The land was provided by her son Arthur Hill-Trevor, the 1st Viscount Dungannon. Consecrated in 1737, it has remained nearly identical to its original design 284 years ago.
The parish has also served my family for generations. My parents and my maternal grandparents were married in the church, and according to my grandmother, her own great grandmother was a member of Knockbreda Parish. Although having walked through the graveyard hundreds of times, much of the church’s history has eluded me. At one point the church became a ‘fashionable’ place to be buried with some of Belfast most prominent and controversial figures. One such prominent figure being Sir Charles Lanyon, the architect of Queen’s University. Another person buried there is controversial figure Waddell Cunningham.
Waddell Cunningham was born in 1730 in County Antrim, but he spent his youth in New York. By the mid-1750s, he had become a predominant merchant trading in items such as Irish linen, an industry that was especially successful in Belfast. Cunningham also partnered with affluent Belfast businessman Thomas Greg, who would later become Cunningham’s brother-in-law. Notably, Greg’s mausoleum is only metres away from Cunningham’s in the parish’s graveyard.
Cunningham smuggled items and used his ships to transport small clusters of enslaved people throughout the islands of the West Indies. Later, when Britain gained the Caribbean Island Dominica after the Seven Year’s War (1756 –1763), Cunningham and Greg purchased a sugar plantation on the island, which he named ‘Belfast’. However, Cunningham only returned to Belfast in May 1765 after a couple of serious incidents in New York – one related to rioting landing him a short jail sentence, and then a later accusation of assault.
Cunningham strengthened trade links within Belfast, importing ‘rum, herrings, hemp, timber, brandy, almonds, gin and chemicals for bleaching’. Cunningham also became the first president of the Harbour Board and the Belfast Chamber of Commerce’s founding president. Reportedly in 1784, Cunningham attempted to gather support in setting up a Belfast company for slave trading, giving Ireland more direct involvement in trading African enslaved people abroad. However, by this stage, the Abolishment Movement, which endeavoured to end slavery, had begun to gain significant momentum within Britain and Ireland, and the idea was rejected.
Despite no slave trading company developing in Belfast, Cunningham was a significantly wealthy man and his trade aided the growth of Belfast’s ports and attributed to the local economy. On the heritage sign, there is a description of a local myth that, upon Cunningham’s death, two lions were placed in his tomb for a week to prevent body snatchers. I must admit that as a local I have never heard this legend. I can also find no evidence to legitimise the claim. Still, I do question the hypothetical wisdom of leaving a fresh meaty cadaver in the protection of two starving lions.
What this legend does tell us is that Cunningham’s reputation in his community has lasted for centuries among the people of Castlereagh. Equally, anyone reading his epitaph on the mausoleum may leave impressed by Cunningham’s ‘integrity as a merchant’ and his ‘generosity as a patron’. Without the heritage sign the extent of Cunningham’s involvement in the slave trade would be omitted from public knowledge.
Black Lives Matter and the ‘Irish Myth’
In April 2020, when I was on the heritage trail, I could have never foreseen the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder that May and the social media surge of support for the Black Live Matter campaign. Around this time, there was a resurfacing and sharing of old memes on the ‘Irish Slave’ myth on social media platforms, promoting the pseudohistorical view that a large proportion of Irish were similarly sold as slaves.
While there were Irish migrants who laboured in terrible conditions as ‘indentured servants’ in America, there was a clear legal distinction between servants and enslaved people. Africans were deemed as ‘lesser’ beings under a racial ideology predicated by the colonial slave trade. The Irish have historically suffered under British colonialism but, as journalist Rory Carroll states, the ‘notion of Irish slaves is disinformation spread online by white supremacists […] to puncture black people’s anger over slavery,’ and derails the message over current systemic racism that is prevalent in our contemporary society. 
What we can learn from historical figures like Cunningham is that although Ireland had little direct involvement in the slave trade, there were numerous Irish merchants and other wealthy Irish families who did profit from these slave-fuelled plantations. It is the lack of awareness of the Irish involvement in the slave trade within mainstream public history that is why more local heritage trails and historical events are needed to educate the public and prevent the likes of memes being used to spread potentially harmful historical misinformation.
The Future of Heritage
If you follow the ‘Memories of Castlereagh’ there are suggestions on the signs for a more interactive experience; a QR code that links to a website, a pdf to download, and even an app. However, nearly six years on from the trail’s establishment the website page is not available, the pdf is nowhere online, and the app is no longer found on appstores. It seems that these signs are all that remain.
Although the council has other heritage projects running, I believe these kinds of trails are extremely beneficial. Heritage trails are not only for tourists, but they are also invaluable for educating communities through encouraging engagement in local history. In my case, my family and I would have remained ignorant to the connection between our local church and a plantation in the Caribbean.
I can only hope that these signs are maintained, or that the project may be revamped by the council in some way. I fear that if the signs disappear so might Cunningham’s reputation as a slave trader, and for future generations of Knockbreda Parish this piece of our past might be forgotten.
 Bill Rolston, ‘“A lying old scoundrel”: Waddell Cunningham & Belfast’s role in the slave trade’. History Ireland, XI, (2003). p 26.
 Nini Rodgers, Ireland, slavery and anti-slavery: 1612-1865. (Basingstoke, 2007). p 148.
 Bill Rolston, ‘“A lying old scoundrel”’. p 26.
In our latest blog Bronagh McAtasney, a QUB MA in Public History graduate, discusses the Ulster Television (UTV) archive and her work as a Film Cataloguer for Northern Ireland Screen:
When I tell people I watch old television for my job, they are intrigued and think it sounds like a lovely job. And the truth is, it is. It is both a joy and a privilege. Every day, I delve back in time to Northern Ireland in the 1960s and see the stories of those times come to life. I catalogue the Ulster Television (UTV) archives in a project run by Northern Ireland Screen and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), and funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI).
I work on television footage from the beginning of UTV in 1959 to 1969. The early 60s was truly a different time, pre-Troubles but as I work chronologically through the digitised film cans, I see glimpses of things to come. Civil rights protests and social issues are only beginning to find voice, industrial unrest and a faltering economy are having an effect on the lives of the people living here, and the political status quo is coming under challenge from the Northern Ireland Labour Party and a young preacher called Ian Paisley. With hindsight, it is poignant to watch footage of new restaurants, international stars coming to perform and the excitement of horse fairs and new playgrounds. Knowing now what is to come at the end of the decade, I feel a sadness in seeing how life once was. But it is important these stories are told. There are clues to the future here and these television films provide an insight beyond nostalgia.
I came to this career in a truly circuitous way. Two years ago, I worked in administration for a charity but I felt an increasing restlessness and urge to learn more about how to talk about the past. I had started to take part in projects with PRONI and developed a (healthy?) obsession with the lives of so-called ‘ordinary people’. I wanted to learn how to contribute to our understanding of our past. When I heard of the Public History MA at Queen’s I knew it was for me, so I quit my job and plunged headfirst into full-time study, something I hadn’t done since graduating from Queen’s with my politics degree in 1992.
I loved it. I loved meeting people with a similar passion, I loved walking around Queen’s, sitting in the library and learning how to articulate and explore history. I struggled too, finding the change to study and writing at a Master’s level difficult and frustrating but I had the support of others, now friends for life.
And now, I have found a place I belong. The BAI project is fascinating and the team at Northern Ireland Screen are so encouraging. I do not just catalogue the films but I have learnt how to edit them and been allowed to create outreach projects and contribute to policy development. For me, this is what public history is all about; making the past accessible to everyone and using these archives as a starting point for conversations and learning.
This final clip shows perfectly how this can be achieved. As part of the BFI’s Coast and Sea project, Malojian’s Stevie Scullion worked with filmmaker Colm Laverty on a series of audio-visual collaborations that creatively repurpose content from Northern Ireland Screen’s Digital Film Archive, with a video created to accompany each track on the album, Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home.
In our latest blog, Sam Guthrie discusses his work as the Cataloguing Officer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project hub at National Museums Northern Ireland:
I remember spilling spools of tape out of a clear cassette as a child. Watching the light rebound off its reflective, magnetic coating like water caught in sunlight. ‘Maybe, I’m paying penance for that childish destruction now?’ I think, as I listen to Tommy Cecil of Rathlin Island describe the story of a local fisherman’s marriage to a mermaid.
Ulster’s oral histories and folktales are a pleasurable penance, however, and they’re the bread and butter of my work as the Cataloguing Officer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project hub at National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI).
I came to the project by way of my studies as a student on the Queen’s University Belfast MA in Public History. I chose the programme as a means of segueing between the career I had found myself in — project and events management — to the career I really wanted in history and heritage. I was particularly attracted to the programme’s focus on practical industry experience and the numerous opportunities made available throughout my studies and in Belfast. From January 2020 I volunteered for NMNI on the UOSH project and was successful in joining the team full-time in October.
NMNI has been participating in the UOSH project, funded via the National Lottery Heritage Fund and led by the British Library, since 2018 and as a small team we aim to persevere and digitise 5,000 recordings from our own collection and those of our project partners based in Northern Ireland and on the Isle of Man. When the project wraps up, we will have established the leading digital sound archive on the island of Ireland; an invaluable resource for researchers, especially public historians seeking to find new sources and resources to utilise in their interrogation of our past narratives.
Our team consists of four members focused on three interrelated work processes; cataloguing, digitisation, and rights clearance. Effectively our work process is to identify, preserve, and record audio formats at the greatest risk. In practice we identify and catalogue each physical item, carefully stabilise these — when required — and preserve them in high-fidelity digital formats. We then listen to and create summaries of each, and seek out the legal rights holders and subjects for future publications permissions. It’s a painstaking process and relies on each of us balancing a best practice approach with our need for efficiency. It’s a heritage-meets-workflow approach that still makes time to engage with the material and appreciate its context and value.
More specifically, the focus of my role is two-fold (well, two-and-a-half-fold). First, I’m tasked with the physical cataloguing of the various analogue formats and any of the ephemera that comes with them. This has meant cataloguing everything from early twentieth-century metal-plated-discs (from the Manx National Heritage collection – these turned out to be from the colourful London-based Edison Bell company but that’s a story for another time…) to Mac hard-drives from 2010 (these drives were from the Somme Museum collection and despite their seeming modernity they were especially tricky and highly at-risk of obsolescence).
Second, I’m tasked with listening to and recording catalogue summaries of the content of each of the recordings themselves, which is by far the most pleasurable aspect of the role to any podcast addict. Increasingly, with deadlines looming and hours of digitised audio building, this has meant training and supervising an outstanding team of volunteers (including more than a few students from Queen’s) to support this endeavour. We couldn’t complete this project without them and their efforts are already bearing fruit as we close in on completing a number of large collections. Working to the British Library’s own MARC standard we approach our cataloguing work with the eventual researcher in mind taking the time to record key subjects and topics, highlight items of significant interest, and cross reference important facts. I’m impressed how long can be spent debating the spelling of a local townland in Antrim or the capitalisation of quasi-folkloric figures. It’s work that my training as a historian has prepared me for and, I’ve got to admit, that my inner detective is thrilled with!
Our work is detailed and often myopic but as the project approaches the homestretch we find ourselves beginning to ponder its legacy. While the British Library promises an eventual web-player, which should make around 100,000 recordings available on-demand, not all of our material will be made available. This is not for want of importance but often due to audio quality or the sensitivity of material. Our collections house incredible diversity with numerous items recording everything from butter making practices to shipwrecks on Rathlin Island; from curious healing cures on the Ards Peninsula to the War of Independence in County Tyrone; from the story of Belfast Celtic FC to the history of Quakerism in Northern Ireland. While our target still stands at 5,000 items digitised and recorded we’ve only touched the surface of our sound archive at NMNI (and barely the surface of the disparate collections of sound across NI). Now, our attention turns to the next steps of NMNI’s role in the UOSH project, not least of which is spreading the word of the invaluable digital archive we have been quietly building. It is a resource that should be promoted and made accessible to researchers from numerous fields but especially those interested in public history, Ireland, and Northern Irish society.
In our latest blog, Dr Pete Hodson discusses how the development of a videogamewill help us to better understand the history of urban redevelopment in Derry-Londonderry.
The AHRC-funded project ‘Historical Urbanism’ based at Ulster University pulls together experts from historical, political and architectural backgrounds to understand the process and legacies of urban redevelopment in Derry-Londonderry. The project seeks to understand how cities have changed physically, and how this has influenced how people live, work, and move around the urban areas in which they live. This data will be used to inform urban design and planning in the future.
The project will deliver several outputs including 3D city models, a public exhibition (launching in Derry’s Tower Museum in 2021), an interactive website (including oral history archive) and academic publications. One of the more unusual outputs, discussed in this blog, is the development of a videogame recreating a long-demolished residential area of the city.
Derry’s housing stock was some of the worst (and most overcrowded) in Ireland after the Second World War. Piecemeal slum clearance was followed by largescale urban redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s. The Lecky Road/Rossville Street Redevelopment Scheme (1962-70) preceded the radical restructuring of the city outlined in the Londonderry Area Plan (1968-81). The Lecky/Rossville scheme saw 1,030 properties – housing some 10% of the city’s population – vested (compulsorily purchased) and demolished. Tightly packed streets of terraced housing were replaced by flat-roofed maisonettes in cul-de-sacs and three ten-storey tower blocks. By the early 1970s, against the backdrop of escalating civil conflict, the built environment of the Bogside was completely transformed. We decided to employ digital media as a means of conveying a sense of these seismic changes to the built environment.
The relationship between academic history and videogaming has received limited – though growing – scholarly attention. Carvalho makes the distinction between ‘scholarly games’ and ‘commercial games’ – essentially, the difference between research-led games versus those that combine historical texture with fictive elements (like Netflix’s The Crown, to use a recent TV example). Our Derry-Londonderry game falls into the former category. To be ‘scholarly’ in the context of videogame development does not require entertainment, surprise and adventure to be sucked from the finished product. Nor does our game strive to be a totally accurate historical simulation. It is, rather, an immersive educative experience that complements our other research outputs and ‘generate[s] understanding of historical context’.
From a research perspective, gathering the relevant source material for the game was remarkably similar to constructing an essay – albeit with greater value attributed to audio-visual material. Good quality film and colour photographs were needed to reconstruct the historic built environment. Two large architectural features are included in the game – Derry Gaol (demolished in 1971) and Long Tower Church – but otherwise the area consisted of relatively uniform terraced housing, with a few shop fronts. Archive cinefilm and newsreels were sourced online via YouTube and BBC Rewind. Websites including ‘Derry of the Past’ and Eamon Melaugh’s CAIN collection were trawled for photographs. Highly detailed land use maps were unearthed in the archives which complemented Ordnance Survey material. Oral history interviews also yielded strong place-based memories and allowed blind-spots in visual sources to be filled.
The gameplay area was eventually chosen on the basis of data quality and the size of our budget. Game development is a costly business. The gameplay area borders Bishop Street Without, Barrack Street, St Columb’s Wells and Howard Street in a loop around Long Tower Church. Whilst both Bishop Street Without and part of Barrack Street still form part of Derry’s streetscape (albeit heavily redeveloped) the rest of the area vanished in the early 1970s.
Belfast-based company Cupboard Games was chosen to develop the concept. Preliminary meetings highlighted the potential to go beyond mere 3D reconstruction of the historic built environment. Why not add interactive elements and give players some agency, rather than rambling aimlessly around digital streets? The basis of our game narrative was found at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). One of our juiciest archival finds was a bundle of protest letters written by Lecky Road/Rossville residents. These letters were sent by vested tenants to the Ministry of Health and Local Government at Stormont complaining about the lack of compensation for home improvements. Of the 625 houses assessed by Ministry inspectors only 13 tenants were initially found to be eligible for compensation. 199 decisions were subsequently overturned following vocal protest and re-inspection.
The original game concept involved a virtual reality headset located in a public exhibition. The Covid-19 pandemic and concerns about viral transmission quickly rendered this idea unfeasible. Our ‘Plan B’ was the development of a game capable of being played without the use of shared equipment. Barcode links from the public exhibition panels to the project website will instead allow a 3D videogame to be played on personal devices.
The game functions by using a map of the present to uncover that of the past. This allows players to grasp the sheer scale of urban redevelopment in this area of the city. Only Long Tower Church and a row of houses on Charlotte Street escaped the wrecking ball. Cupboard Games pitched the idea of a postal worker delivering some of these PRONI letters to/from long-demolished addresses. Players steer the avatar and can read these letters – and curt replies from the Ministry – to better comprehend the powerful emotions that can accompany urban redevelopment. The narrative invites players to think about power imbalances in the planning process (when applied, as in Derry, with minimal consultation and limited adherence to resident preferences).
The game allows players to gain a sense of working-class communities in the early 1960s. Information about this era was gleaned from oral history interviews. Working-class life in post-war Derry was characterised by high unemployment, poor quality housing, limited disposable income and a strong sense of neighbourliness and family loyalty. Player interaction in/around certain key spaces – notably the pawn shop, pub and Employment Exchange – will immerse players in the rich texture of working-class life. Players will be able to eavesdrop street gossip about housing conditions and redevelopment plans. Streets will be populated with people and a small amount of traffic to convey atmosphere – such as bread vans, street sweepers, newspaper sellers and lamplighters.
What can this videogame contribute, or tell us about Derry-Londonderry’s past? Software developers have ‘leveraged elements of history’ to anchor videogame narratives for over two decades. Recent additions include a Cold War themed Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed set in Victorian London. Whilst our intention, obviously, is not to compete with these multi-million-pound franchises, our videogame is a method of delivering ‘representations of ideas and theories’ about the past through digital (rather than textual) means. It offers older generations the chance to re-acquaint themselves with the city of their youth, and younger generations the opportunity to visualise the seismic changes to the social fabric and built environment of Derry-Londonderry since 1960.
Dr Pete Hodson worked as Research Associate on the AHRC-funded project ‘Historical Urbanism’ at Ulster University until January 2021. He now works on the UKRI-funded project ‘Museums, Crisis and Covid-19: Vitality and Vulnerabilities’ which is investigating how the museum sector will emerge and refocus in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.
 See Adam Chapman, Anna Foka and Jonathan Westin ‘Introduction: what is historical game studies?’ in Rethinking History, vol 21, no. 3 (2017), pp 358-71.
 Vinicius Marino Carvalho, ‘Videogames as tools for social science history’ in The Historian, vol 79, no. 4 (2017), p. 802.
 Jeremiah McCall, ‘Videogames as participatory public history’ in David Dean (ed.), A companion to public history (Hoboken, 2018), p. 409.
In our latest blog, Dr Hiroki Shin, Vice-Chancellor Illuminate Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast, discusseshow 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).
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. 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’. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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’.
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), 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’. 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.
Nature, 24 April 2003. Accessed 28 October 2020 at doi:10.1038/news030421-4.
 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.
 Peter Thorsheim, Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006), ch. 9.
 G. C. Lawrence (ed.), British Empire Exhibition, 1925: Official Guide (London, 1925), p. 110.
 ‘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).
 ‘Manchester Fuel Economy Exhibition’, 25 November 1942, TC68 Fuel, 1937–47, Mass Observation Archive, SxMOA1/2/68/3/B.
 ‘Critical Phase in the Battle for Fuel’, The Guardian, 24 November 1942.
 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.
 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.
In this week’s blog, artist Alison Lowrydiscusses 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.
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”.
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.
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. The number of people living with diabetes in Northern Ireland currently is 100,000, 5.7% of the population. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
 Alexander Mercer, Infections, Chronic Disease and the Epidemiological Transition: A New Perspective (University of Rochester Press, 2014), 5.
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.
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.
The museum itself is incredibly well-organised, with a focus on the “experiences of ordinary people” in the town’s history. 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
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.
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).
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.