Mr D. is the History teacher to whom I owe my passion for the subject. A historian of Byzantium, he was nonetheless able to take us through late medieval civic government in the Low Countries, and the politicisation of historical memory in the twentieth century. Among his teachings, there was one I always struggled to relate to: his extreme diffidence towards Wikipedia. Recently, however, I am starting to think that he may have had a point.
By Sam Young (@Samyoung102)
Minnette de Silva was a remarkable individual. Sri Lanka’s first female architect and the first Asian woman to join the Royal Institute of British Architects, she pioneered the development of a ‘Regional Modernism’ style of urban design throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In Plastic Emotions, Shiromi Pinto intimately explores the life of this often forgotten but nonetheless influential figure in architectural history, focusing on de Silva’s struggles in a turbulent post-independence Ceylon and her passionate (if speculative) relationship with famed Swiss-French Modernist Le Corbusier. A heady mix of art and romance, Plastic Emotions has been praised for its gripping portrayal of two fiercely intelligent individuals brought together by a shared belief in the transformative power of architecture, resulting in a story as beautiful as it is desperately sad.
However, in focusing on the romantic element of Pinto’s novel, reviewers have often overlooked its strength as an exploration of the psychology of Modernism itself. Loosely defined as an adherence to ‘functionalism, rationalism, and the elimination of “useless” decoration’, Modernism as an architectural style was grounded in the early twentieth-century belief that society could be revolutionised via the application of technology and rational thought to urban space. Through her deeply introspective narrative, Pinto shows the reader how de Silva and Le Corbusier both allow themselves to be swept up by the utopian mentality of Modernism, placing all their trust in its socially transformative powers. She has Le Corbusier hint at this sense of devotion in an imagined letter to de Silva: ‘We architects must be idealists. We construct not just individual buildings, but whole cities. We plan cities, and in doing so, change lives.’ To Pinto’s characters, Modernism becomes an empowering faith, giving them the intellectual and emotional drive to construct a perfect world.
Yet Plastic Emotions does not simply portray Modernism as a positive, motivational force. By committing themselves wholeheartedly to the Modernist revolution, de Silva and Le Corbusier also become vulnerable to its fragilities. Chief among these is the alluring belief that a single skilled individual can transform the world, regardless of practicalities. De Silva’s dream of developing a ground-breaking architectural form that combines Modernist rationality with the elegance of traditional Sri Lankan design is constantly frustrated by an ugly mix of cultural sexism, sectarian violence and the uninformed whims of her clients. The easily flattered Le Corbusier readily accepts the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to design the brand-new city of Chandigarh, but soon finds his monumental project undermined by bickering colleagues and shoddy local construction methods.
Their grandiose dreams under threat, the Modernists retreat into a kind of snide, elitist bitterness. When a friend warns de Silva about mounting tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils, the architect calmly sips her wine and remarks ‘We’re artists. We stand above such petty arguments.’ Meanwhile Le Corbusier, experiencing delays in the Chandigarh project, angrily dismisses his design team as ‘incompetent, lazy, treacherous wasps.’ Such outbursts demonstrate the weakness of the Modernist mindset: by pursuing wildly utopian goals, Modernists only set themselves up for disappointment. Modernism is thus presented by Pinto as total and all-consuming, providing its devotees with the motivation to achieve great things but also with the inevitable sense of failure that comes from setting one’s sights too high.
This depth of psychological exploration elevates Plastic Emotions above most other historical fiction. Rather than simply placing her story in front of a two-dimensional historical backdrop, Pinto instead gets inside the mentality of the era, mapping out her characters’ thoughts in a way which allows the reader to connect with the lost historical mindset of Modernism. Much like Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (1992) or Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist (2016), Plastic Emotions gets inside the heads of revolutionaries, envisioning how they interacted with a now-vanished ideology on a psychological level. Through this approach, Pinto helps us develop our emotional understanding of figures whose legacies still surround us today, preserved forever in concrete.
 MacLeod, ‘Modernism’, 3.
Bari, Shahidha, ‘Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto review – an architectural romance’, Guardian, 20 July 2019 <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/20/plastic-emotions-by-shiromi-pinto-review> [accessed 2 February 2020]
Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 13th edn., trans. by Frederick Etchells (Oxford: Architectural Press, 2001)
McLeod, Mary, ‘Modernism’, Histories of Postwar Architecture 1.1 (2017), 1-10, <10.6092/issn.2611-0075/6726> [accessed 2 February 2020]
Pinto, Shiromi, Plastic Emotions (London: Influx, 2019)
Wallace, Jane, ‘“Plastic Emotions” by Shiromi Pinto’, Asian Review of Books, 6 August 2019 <https://asianreviewofbooks.com/content/plastic-emotions-by-shiromi-pinto> [accessed 9 February 2020]
By Alex White (@alex_j_white)
On the 8 February 2020, the British Museum became the site of a mass protest for climate justice. The target was the multinational oil and gas provider BP, a long-term partner of the British Museum and the sponsor of a new flagship exhibition entitled ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’. According to the organisers of the protest, the activist group ‘BP or not BP?’, the company’s sponsorship of historical attractions is a form of ‘culture-washing’ which draws attention from their exploitation of the natural world and their support for authoritarian regimes. At the same time, the exhibition’s showy, uncritical style distracts from more contemporary debates within the museum – such as the status of artefacts acquired through colonial force. This combined critique of donor and recipient is particularly interesting: while the protest is primarily a climate demonstration, it also represents an elaborate and inclusive exercise in public history.
For the past one hundred years, Irish parliamentary politics has been dominated by two political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. This is now no longer the case. Ireland’s recent general election saw the left wing party Sinn Féin emerge as the third ‘big party’ in Irish politics, gaining more first preference votes than either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael (both centre right). Witnessing the frustrations of an electorate faced with a housing crisis and overcrowded hospitals during a period of alleged economic recovery, pundits and politicians alike identified a thirst for change. The election has produced a complicated political landscape, in which no single party has enough seats to form a majority. Weeks if not months of coalition talks are now likely. And whilst many are more focused on the future than the past, these three parties share a complicated, overlapping history. This shared past may still impact upon their ability to form a government together.
DHP were invited to speak at the Public and Popular History seminar on 5 February 2020. We sent along our Editor, Stephanie Brown, and member of the editorial team, Laura Flannigan. Also, on the panel was Dr Robert Saunders (Queen Mary London), who is a prolific author on nineteenth and twentieth century British politics, including his acclaimed book Yes to Europe: The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain (2018).
I was recently invited to user-test Wiley Digital Archives’ (WDA) platform which holds digitised archives from various societies including The Royal College of Physicians (RCP), The New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (RGS) and The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI). The WDA platform is a wonderful resource, bringing together numerous collections and enabling cross-referencing across multiple archive collections.
Founded as University College, Bristol, in 1876, the awarding of a royal charter in 1909 allowed the University of Bristol to officially come in to being. In that time, the institution had earned a reputation as a trailblazer in the higher education of women. During the College’s first year, there were 69 women day students registered, compared to 30 men. In 1882, outgoing Professor J. F. Main declared that Bristol ‘had been the first amongst the colleges of England to open its doors to all persons anxious to obtain instruction within its walls, without any distinction of sex’. With this strong legacy of gender equality, it is perhaps not surprising that, in 1913, the women of the university began to think of forming a Women’s Suffrage Society. At a meeting held on the 11th of February of that year, a motion that such a society be formed was passed by 34 votes to two, and the meeting ended in the hope that ‘this Society will be formed during the present term.’
By Clemency Hinton (@clemencyhinton)
Guided tours are part and parcel of today’s tourism industry. In fact, there are over 1,800 registered professional tour guides in the UK alone. Tour guides (also known as rangers, couriers or interpreters) can be traced through history, leading one scholar to describe guiding as likely to be ‘among the world’s oldest professions.’ The World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations defines a ‘Tourist Guide’ as a qualified person who ‘guides visitors in the language of their choice and interprets the cultural and natural heritage of an area.’ However, guides have existed long before they became part of a recognised profession.
By Alex White (@alex_j_white)
It’s a sunny day in rural England. A football team is practising on the field outside, a group of schoolchildren are queuing for lunch, and I am working as a teaching assistant as a class of nine-year-olds learn about the Holocaust for the first time.
The room is quiet, and I can’t help feeling tense. The teaching of painful histories always carries emotional baggage, forcing educators to balance the need for factual accuracy with the risk of causing lasting trauma. This is particularly true for young children: their emotional capacities are still developing and many can struggle to separate themselves from traumatic events while others will fail to engage empathetically at all. At the same time, however, the schoolroom has been depicted as a formative space where educators can introduce complex topics in a mediated and emotionally appropriate manner. When schools refuse to teach ‘difficult’ histories, they run the risk of exposing pupils to misinformation from less secure sources. For a topic as emotive as the Holocaust, this can have particularly dangerous consequences.
As it is New Year’s Eve, let’s take one final look at 2019, before the resolutions of 2020 begin. In fact, it was a resolution that kicked off 2019 for DHP. Veganuary saw Greggs launch their vegan sausage roll and they quickly struggled to keep up with demand. Piers Morgan called the bakery ‘PC-ravaged clowns’, however, Zoe Farrell uncovered the long history behind veganism.
In The accomplisht cook (1660), the English chef Robert May recommended to his readers a feast ‘to be used at Festival Times, as Twelfth Day [of Christmas]’. All the budding cook had to do, May explained, was to construct – in pastry – a castle, a ship laced with gunpowder, a wine-filled stag impaled with an arrow, one pie containing live frogs, and another live birds. Once served, it was simply a matter of persuading ‘some of the Ladies’ Read more
Alexis Soyer was a nineteenth-century celebrity chief. Born in Mieux-en-Brie in France in 1810, Soyer fled to England during the French Revolution of 1830. He quickly became a public figure, publishing books like The Gastronomic Regenerator: A Simplified and Entirely New System of Cookery and The Modern Housewife or, Ménagère.
By Abigail Gomulkiewicz
This pendant is a salamander set in gold with blue enamel. The salamander’s body is formed from a baroque pearl and it holds an emerald in its mouth. Although the provenance is unknown, the salamander imagery was something quite often gifted by men at court to Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). In fact, the salamander actually appears in more offerings than the oft-studied phoenix or pelican. Mr. Thomas Hennage, for example, gave a gold jewel tablet with a salamander in opal on it while Charles Smythe presented a small salamander jewel with rubies, diamonds, and pearls. Mr. Carmardenn also offered a silver and gilt bodkin with a salamander pendant in mother of pearl.
By Meg Roberts (@megeroberts)
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as industry and population swelled, an enduring fear of ‘idleness’ as a morally corrupting and irresponsible vice took on new significance in both Britain and America. This fear could almost be described as an obsession. Across print and material culture throughout this period, the indolence of ‘idleness’ was contrasted with the aspirational diligence of ‘industry’.
By Savannah Pine (@savannah_pine)
Robert Fitzwalter’s seal-matrix is a typical early-thirteenth-century seal-matrix. Its imagery proclaims his identity through an equestrian figure brandishing a sword, which represents that he was a part of the elite warrior class, and through a shield displaying his coat-of-arms (a fess between two chevrons), which signifies his membership within a familial group. However, in contrast to other elite laymen’s seal-matrices, Fitzwalter placed another man’s coat-of-arms on his seal-matrix – the mascles arms depicted on the shield which is underneath the horse’s neck. That heraldic device belonged to his ritual brother, Saer de Quincy, earl of Winchester.
By Maggie Kalenak
Botanical specimens like the ones pictured can be found in archives all over the U.K., delighting the unsuspecting reader by tumbling out of 19th century envelopes. Whether to a family member, friend or sweetheart, flowers and leaves were frequently tucked into letters to further personalise the experience of their recipients. In the 1870s John Sibree from Yorkshire sent his fiancee, Cissie, leaves he pressed in order to share autumnal walks with her despite their long distance relationship. In return she would send her responses in envelopes full of violets, their fragrance scenting the paper, giving John a full sensory experience and building their intimacy by creating shared experiences through their floral exchange.
By Martin Crevier (@Crevier__Martin)
This carving of a Sphinx came to the British Museum in 1896 from Haida Gwaii, a Pacific archipelago off the coast of what is today the Canadian province of British Columbia. The artist, Simeon Stildha (1799-1889), was a chief of the Haida people, the islands’ indigenous inhabitants.
This wooden wheelchair was the often invisible, but invaluable, aid to President Franklin Roosevelt during his years of political prominence. Cobbled together from a standard kitchen chair with bicycle wheels attached, this wheelchair was designed to be discreet, light and mobile. Unlike the bulky and obtrusive counterparts of its time, this wheelchair allowed FDR to somewhat conceal the lower body paralysis he had experienced since the age of 39. It sits today at the Home of FDR, the National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York.
By Zara Kesterton (@ZaraKesterton)
In recent years, it has become fashionable to talk of an ‘archival turn’ in history, in which the site of record-keeping has itself come under scrutiny. At the same time, material history has risen to prominence as an intriguing counterpart or companion to the paper-trail left by written documents. As someone who became fluent in the visual language of a museum long before I encountered academic history, I like to think of a fashion gallery as something that can be ‘read’ in similar ways to an archive, combining the perspectives of both historiographies.