By Max Long (@max_long), interviewed by Cherish Watton (@CherishWatton), Series Editor
Historian Highlight is a new series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students researching in unprecedented times. In the fourth post in the series, Max Long explains his research into the representation of ideas about nature in the mass media during the interwar period.
What are you currently researching?
My PhD looks at how ideas about nature were represented in the mass media of interwar Britain. I’m focussing on non-fiction film and radio, but I’m interested in a wide range of media: magazines, books, posters, photographs, cigarette packets, and zoo guides. The project concentrates on the ‘popularisation’ of ideas emerging in natural history, zoology, botany and related life sciences.
Films and radio broadcasts about animals, plants and microbes, for instance, were widespread during the interwar period, precisely when these media were starting to reach an audience of millions.
I’m really interested in the reactions, opinions and even participation in these films and broadcasts by ‘ordinary’ listeners and viewers. Did they affect the way people thought about the ‘natural world’? About the ‘urban’ and the ‘rural’ environment? About the British Empire?
On the other hand, what was it about radio and film that made them especially suitable to represent nature? How did producers, writers, directors, broadcasters use modern communications media to represent nature to their audiences? These are some of the questions I’m interested in.
What led you to research this topic?
It was quite a roundabout process, definitely not a model to follow! I was lucky enough to spend a year as a visiting student at Princeton University, where I took a course on the ‘History of Sound’ with a really inspiring professor called Emily Thompson. I noticed that a lot of the scholarship in this field concentrated on ‘urban’ places, which were often treated as synonymous with ‘modern’. I didn’t know this at the time, but a few scholars were already beginning to interrogate that assumption.
I began to collect twentieth-century examples of ‘modern technology’ which were being used to represent natural environments. The list rapidly got quite big, so I decided to focus only on Britain.
I also happened to read an interesting book on communications media and the history of anthropology, Savage Preservation, by Brian Hochman. This got me thinking about the links between media technologies and empire, and the payoffs of looking at more than one type of media.
What’s the most interesting historical material you’ve read, listened to, or watched in the last month?
I’ve been reading Julia Parry’s book The Shadowy Third. Parry found a stash of letters documenting a long affair between her grandfather, Humphry House and the interwar writer Elizabeth Bowen. It really captures that sometimes uncomfortable, even spooky experience of delving into the lives of people from the past. Parry’s characters, and their sources, objects and places repeatedly ‘speak back’ to her, as she unravels the story behind the letters.
What’s one of your favourite historical sources?
I’ve recently been spending the money that normally I would use for traveling to archives on collecting a mini archive of my own, composed of random sources that I find cheaply on the internet. Recently I bought two heavy volumes containing several years’ worth of the London Zoological Society’s popular 1930s magazine, Zoo. It’s been really exciting to flick through the pages. The material is much broader than you might expect – aside from stories about zoo animals and how they are looked after, they printed images taken by readers and answered questions on how to care for domestic animals. Yesterday I came across a long feature interview with David Lloyd-George, most of which is spent profiling the former PM’s dogs.
And what’s the best or most unusual experience in an archive?
Time really slips away when I’m in an archive. I once went to the Imperial War Museum to listen to the taped oral history of Margaret Thomson, a film director from New Zealand who lived in London in the 1930s. I was so engrossed by her story that I listened to her for three hours, only to be kicked out of the archive at closing time just as she was beginning to reach the relevant bit for my research!
A few weeks ago, I did a virtual archive consultation at MIT, where the archivist could speak to me while the camera focussed on some documents that I requested to view. Zooming into an archive is definitely not something that I would have expected to experience a couple of years ago.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian?
My undergraduate supervisor, Sian Pooley, encouraged me to pursue my interests and not to worry too much about whether my work ‘counted’ as doing history.
And the worst?
I think a lot of PhD students are constantly being told that their project is either ‘too broad’ or ‘too niche’. But that hardly counts as advice. Anyone that tells you that the only way to do a PhD is by working unhealthy amounts is giving you bad advice.
What’s your must-do Cambridge experience?
I was fortunate enough to visit the David Parr House about a year before it opened to the public as a house museum. An unassuming little terraced house on Gwydir Street, this residence belonged to an Arts and Crafts workman and his family at the end of the nineteenth century. An intricately decorated time capsule, it has now been turned into a museum – hopefully they’ll be able to reopen soon!
Images taken by the author.