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Posts from the ‘Reflections’ Category

The Archive in Decline: The Emergency of Archival Collections in Italy

By Marina Iní (@MarinaIni_)

During part of the last academic year, I travelled to several archives and libraries collection in the Italian peninsula for my PhD fieldwork. It has been an extremely rewarding experience on the research side, but it was also thought-provoking.  I saw with my own eyes the disheartening situation of different Archivi di Stato (Italian National Archives, usually one per provincial capital), Archivi Storici Comunali (City Archives) and other public archival collections and libraries.

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The Politics of the Archive: reflections, observations and challenges

By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)

One rainy winter day in 2016, I was navigating the cavernous halls and corridors of the British Museum, looking for the Department of Prints and Drawings. I had arrived to examine two seventeenth-century engraved frontispieces depicting Saint Augustine, the early Church Father, for an MPhil project on the reception of Augustine’s works. When I finally located the correct floor, I was hailed down by a museum guard at the entrance: ‘Madam, this is not the tourist section’ they volunteered. I mumbled an explanation about an appointment with the Curator of Prints—which presumably got muffled, because the staff repeated (this time louder and slower): ‘Maadamm, NO touurissts here’, making a wide crossing-arm gestures to clarify. Something about my age, gender or the colour of my skin and hair, signalled tourist, not researcher.

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Angela Davis in conversation: legacies, lessons and reflections on resistance, justice and hope

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27) and Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn

We were both lucky enough to attend two events with the revered black communist scholar and activist Professor Angela Davis in March and April. The first was held at the Southbank Centre in London for International Women’s Day as part of the Women of the World festival with the centre’s former Artistic Director Jude Kelly CBE and the second in Cambridge in conversation with Scottish Poet Laureate Jackie Kay organised by Decolonise Sociology. Both conversations reflected on Davis’s life and work, her iconic status as a black activist, and the legacies and futures of social activism.

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Daydreaming in Linoleum: Postwar Advertisements and Domestic Fictions

By Kate Schneider

Every era has material nova that signal the newness of the present age. In the 1930s, it was the shine of early plastics such as Bakelite and celluloid that made them attractive modern surfaces. But in the 1950s and 1960s, domestic daydreams about ideal homes were played out in the medium of linoleum. First manufactured in 1863 — transforming linseed oil and other raw natural matter into mechanically flattened sheets — its inventor Frederick Walton acknowledged that linoleum might not rank in importance with Watt’s steam engine, but he hoped that ‘many housewives will […] bless my memory in the future, although my name will be forgotten.’ And it was as part of the postwar aesthetic of ‘damp-cloth’ consumerism that linoleum — ‘easy on the nerves and feet’ — came to be the ground on which an aspirational domesticity could be built.[1] We can read postwar linoleum adverts as a way into understanding the appeal of domestic fictions of the time, and as powerful proposals about the home.

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The Congo’s and Belgium’s shared past, present and future

By Eva Schalbroeck

As a historian, I strongly believe in studying history for its own sake, rather than from today’s perspective. As someone who devours news from every type of media outlet, I cannot help but see the connections between the news on the Democratic Republic of Congo and my research on Belgian colonialism. Barely a day passes without news from the Congo. A simple search on Google brings up numerous stories, almost all about conflict, disease and violence. A lot of ink has flowed about the continuing political unrest in the DRC following the presidential elections in December 2018. There seems no end to the stories about the struggle against ebola. Then there is the sad story of the shooting of a ranger in the Virunga national park, barely months after its reopening.

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Who do I think I am? – My experience with AncestryDNA

By Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown)

Thanks to programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? there has never been more interest in family history. Since the turn of the century, family historians have started to look beyond traditional records such as the census, and birth, death, and marriage indices to new scientific methods. DNA tests are now being used to shed light on ethnic or biogeographical origins and to identify genetic relatives.[1] In 2017, more people took an ancestry DNA test than in all  previous years combined. Moreover, it is estimated that by 2022, the genetic testing market will be worth approximately £261 million. The ease and reasonably low cost of heritage DNA tests has made this technology accessible to everyone. So, with that in mind, I decided to give it a go.

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“Separate but equal”? The challenges of life as an African American under Jim Crow

By Zack Rose (zr239@cam.ac.uk)

Under the Jim Crow laws (1877-1950s), segregation based on race was legally justified in the United States.1 The key Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v Ferguson (1896) was that it was not unconstitutional to enforce racial segregation, so long as segregated facilities were “separate but equal”.2 However, it is well known that the services available to African Americans were extraordinarily inferior and underfunded. By examining three modes of travel, this post hopes to shed light on the realities that African Americans faced under the Jim Crow system.

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Fad or philosophy? The old debate over the consumption of animals

By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)

Veganism seems to be the word of the moment. As we come to the end of ‘Veganuary’, it is estimated that a record-breaking number of individuals signed up to ditch meat and dairy for the month, with 14,000 people signing the pledge on 30th December 2018 alone.[1] As scientists are urging us to cut back on animal products, animal rights ethics are coming into play with environmentalism to create a seemingly unstoppable train. However, whilst some people see this as a fad, veganism, or at least the philosophy behind it, has a long history.

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Uncomfortable History: Modern Skull Collecting

By Jeremiah J. Garsha (@jjgarsha)

It is comforting to think of the collecting of human heads as existing in the distant past. When visitors to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford marvel at the shrunken heads display, they do so under a combination of alterity and distancing. The process of shrinking the heads renders them distinguishable from life-sized heads, as does their distant geographic origins as creations by Amazonian ‘tribes’ bought by Victorians as souvenirs. Visitors to art museums also encounter human heads. Dubbed memento mori, the appearance of skulls in early modern European works of art was a leitmotiv reflecting mortality. Viewers of these paintings can relegate even this artistic practice as existing in a removed history, like the objects themselves.

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20. An Entry for Refuge: the Khoja caravanserai door

By Taushif Kara (@taushif)

Of the many ornate wooden doors spread throughout Zanzibar’s ‘stone town’ – and there are many – the one I find the most intriguing, and indeed the most beautiful, is the door to the Khoja caravanserai, built in 1892. The door itself opens to a musafarkhana, a hostel of sorts, meant to house Khoja travelers (a trading community from western India) who would arrive in Zanzibar from around the Indian Ocean littoral. Countless migrants and their families would pass through this door upon arrival, usually after what was often a long and treacherous journey by sea. Crafted in a style that is quite unique to the island, with intense floral carving juxtaposed with beautiful calligraphy and ominous brass studs, the door is at once both welcoming and intimidating. Arabic inscriptions exist alongside Gujarati and English, a testament to the polyglot and diverse nature of the island.

While it is indeed very beautiful, that’s not really why I chose it; in fact, it is quite mundane – doors are everywhere! This one, however, despite its ornamental grandeur, was meant to do something relatively humble: provide a space of shelter to those on the move.

Image: Door to the Khoja caravanserai in Zanzibar, author’s own photograph.

18. Fragments of Clay Pipes found on the Banks of the River Thames

By Sarah Sheard, Artist, Edinburgh (@sarahofthenorth)

I did not like History at school. Maybe it was the way it was taught, but if that were true, I wouldn’t like Art either, and now that is what I do– I am an artist in Edinburgh. I remember visiting the Tate Britain and seeing Mark Dion’s Tate Thames Dig – a two-sided cabinet filled with items he and a team had collected while mudlarking (scavenging in the river’s banks for items of value). I loved these collections because of what they looked like together – and because these fragments were now items of value – not for what they told me about the history of the Thames. I found my own collection of fragments of clay pipes, which I keep under a bell jar. Whether it is through this collection, or my assortment of 50 pence pieces, or all the art I have ever made, maybe I like history after all. Maybe all I am trying to do is create my own history.

Image: Collection of fragments of clay pipes, author’s own photograph.

14. A Bank Cheque for £146.17.9

By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)

Sometimes doing history feels like you are beginning with a completed painting, quilt or jigsaw and trying to go back to the start to figure out how the paint got on the canvas, or where the thread came from, or whose hands completed the jigsaw. Was it one person or a group of people? How long did it take them? I study global humanitarianism during the Great Irish Famine and lots of the things I discover lead me to ask these kinds of questions. How on earth did a ship sailing from Hawaii to British Colombia donate money to Ireland during the Famine? I know that this happened, but I don’t know how. I am now trying to figure this out. In fact, most of these things happen because of people’s relationships with one another and the wielding of power and profits. The British Relief Association was the largest organisation involved in famine philanthropy, amassing hundreds of thousands of donations from people across the world. I have been researching its committee-members, one of them is named John Prescott, a banker. I found his old bank cheque from 1871 and bought it for £4. It is not a piece in the particular jigsaw I am trying to disassemble, but holding it in my hands feels as though, at least, I am not holding nothing.

Image: Bank Cheque, Messrs Prescott, Grote, Cave & Cave, 1871, author’s own photograph.

 

Mike Leigh’s Peterloo: Inequality and resistance in nineteenth-century British society

Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn) and Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland) review Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo which came out earlier this month.

Mike Leigh’s Peterloo recounts the weeks leading up to the infamous massacre of peaceful working-class protestors by the yeomanry at St Peter’s Field, Manchester on 16 August 1819. It is hard to identify a single protagonist, Leigh presents the viewer with a naturalistic bird’s-eye view, sweeping from mass meetings chaired by self-proclaimed ‘radicals’, young and old, male and female, to the intimacy of a husband and wife discussing the upcoming march in bed before going to sleep. Read more

The Wagah Border: a site of uncomfortable contradictions

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

The Wagah (or Wagha) border is the Punjab border between India and Pakistan. It is approximately 29 km from the town of Lahore on the Pakistani side and 27 km from Amritsar on the Indian side. Whilst undertaking archival research in Lahore, I was told about the daily lowering of the flags ceremony or parade which takes place at the border. I attended the parade one weekend alongside hundreds of other spectators. These border ceremonies are popular tourist attractions on both sides and are well attended by eager residents and visitors, especially on weekends and national holidays. Other parades, such as the Beating Retreat ceremony on Independence Day, are also held at the border. For me, as an historian of South Asia and a British Pakistani without the patriotic zeal of my fellow spectators, the parade was a bizarre tableau of contradictions.

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Fascinating Fieldwork and Excavation at Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan

by Emily Tilby | (emct3@cam.ac.uk)

When I found out that I would be taking part in this summer’s season of Excavations at Shanidar Cave I was really excited as the cave is so important in our understanding of Near Eastern Prehistory and Neanderthal behaviour. I was also slightly nervous as this would be my first experience taking part in a full archaeological dig. The site is located in Northern Iraqi Kurdistan, around three hours north of Erbil. The cave itself sits within the valleys and the foothills of the Zagros mountains, specifically on Baradost mountain, after which one of the Upper Palaeolithic technological industries discovered at Shanidar was named.

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Gowns for ‘Sweet Girl Graduates’: The Evolution of Academic Dress

By Georgia Oman

While academic dress has been around for a long time, it is only more recently that the wearing of it in Britain has been permissible for more than a small but powerful elite. Until the 1830s, there were only two universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge, and academic dress was a part of their students’ daily lives. Indeed, until 1965, undergraduates at Cambridge had to wear gowns when going to lectures, supervisions, or into town after dusk.[1] As Paul Deslandes notes, academic dress was about more than just wearing a fancy gown – it was a visible symbol of student identity, as well as university privilege, insider status, and masculinity.[2]

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The challenges and potential of Lahori libraries and archives

By Mobeen Hussain | (@amhuss27)

On my first visit to the Punjab State Archives in Lahore this summer, I met with the archive’s Director, Mohammed Abbas Chughtai, who explained that the archive and its libraries have received fewer visitors after the events of 9/11 due to concerns about safety in the country. The archive does, however, receive some non-native and international scholars, and the Research Officer and Director were eager to help as well as point visitors in the direction of other useful resources. Coupled with this enthusiasm is the “chai and chat” culture of Pakistan; before delving into your research, you may well spend some time waiting, chatting, and being introduced to people. While researchers, including myself, will be in a rush to get started, these conversations have proved to be fruitful and a great way into the history and archive culture of Lahore. For instance, through conversations with the Director of the State Archives, I found out about materials at the Punjab Public Library and ended up spending a lot of time there. Indeed, the archives and libraries provide a snapshot of the vast archival and scholarly landscape of Lahore and are great, untapped treasure troves.

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‘[W]ho so wyl a gardener be’: arboriculture in late medieval and early modern commonplace books

By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)

Recently, while on the hunt for signs of the reception and expression of legal ideas and practice in late medieval and early modern writing, I had cause to dip into some of the commonplace books surviving from the period. A ‘commonplace book’ has been generally classed by historians as an idiosyncratic, miscellaneous compilation of transcribed and original materials, usually in manuscript form. Surviving examples of these books were produced by urban merchants, country gentlemen, monks and village priests, amongst other now-anonymous scribes. Though their contents vary from professionally-copied poetry and literary works to scribbled accounts, family histories, and household recipes, I was struck by a particularly niche common theme: arboriculture.

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Bagging a bargain in the Renaissance: questions surrounding the ethics of shopping and consumption

By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)

In recent rhetoric, the ‘rise’ of consumerism has been challenged. Our throw-away culture has led to a multitude of problems for the environment, as well as issues surrounding body-image, debt and over-corporatisation. In a recent article, George Monbiot, for example, argued that ‘regardless of what we consume, the sheer volume of consumption is overwhelming the Earth’s living systems’. Whilst the scale of this problem and its issues are in many ways unique to our age, questions surrounding the ethics of consumerism are certainly not new and our passion for acquisition is one which has its roots deep in the past.

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