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Posts from the ‘Reflections’ Category

A familiar tune: the Proms affair highlights Britain’s reluctance for critical self-reflection

By Daniel Adamson (@DanielEAdamson)

Controversy was caused by the recent announcement that orchestral versions of Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory would feature at the Last Night of the Proms, in a break with the traditional singing of the anthems. Eventually, this decision was reversed by the BBC.  According to the broadcaster, the original change was made in response to COVID-19 restrictions. However, concern had previously been raised that the lyrics of both patriotic songs contained troubling references to Britain’s history of imperialism and slavery.

Boris Johnson dismissed the decision of the BBC, demanding instead that ‘we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history’. Johnson’s rebuke was symptomatic of a trend which is endemic within British public historical memory: a concerted reluctance to engage in critical self-reflection.

It could be argued that Johnson’s reaction represents an avoidance technique which, in turn, betrays an acknowledgement of the difficult conversations to be had. Consistently, national historical narratives within the United Kingdom have avoided meaningful engagement with problematic aspects of the past. The Coronavirus pandemic has allowed society the time for existential debate. It is troubling, therefore, that the inability to grapple with uncomfortable facets of British history is still afflicting those in the highest offices of power.

A case in point: British Holocaust memory

A dearth of national reflexivity is perhaps no more pronounced than in the sphere of British Holocaust consciousness. The British response to the Holocaust in the 1930s and the Second World War was, at best, ambiguous. Certainly, there were redemptive episodes during this period of history. The Kindertransport scheme in 1938-39, for example, facilitated the passage of thousands of child refugees from Europe to the United Kingdom. However, British efforts were also marked by apathy and inaction, both in the social and military responses to the persecutions in mainland Europe. This was illustrated by the prolonged obstinance evident in governmental responses to the refugee crisis of the 1930s.

Despite this, public memory of the Holocaust has only recently begun to engage with the incommodious strands of British involvement. In the immediate post-war years, mainstream discussion of the Holocaust as a whole was limited. In turn, the subsidiary issue of the British response was largely occluded from public view.

Even as the general sphere of Holocaust remembrance grew in the United Kingdom throughout the 1990s, critical appraisal of the British response to the genocide did not feature heavily in public memory. Although the inaugural Holocaust Memorial Day occurred in the United Kingdom in 2001, the historian Donald Bloxham has noted how the narrative presented failed to ‘turn the mirror around’1. Little mention was made either of how Britain responded to the Holocaust, or whether more could have been done at the time. In other words, a sense of historical and geographical detachment between Britain and the Holocaust facilitated the pervading tendency of British society to ask difficult questions of its past.

Naturally, there are several factors which are likely to have contributed to the limited critical engagement with the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust. The issue is placed within the wider framework of public memory of the Second World War. Triumphalist narratives of British victory in 1945 have overshadowed most other contemporary issues. The entrenched impression of British involvement in a ‘good war’ is not easily compatible with more discerning evaluations of national actions during the conflict. The typically ‘black-and-white’ nature of public memory offers little space for gradation within theorisations of Britain’s complicated history.

In 2016, a school-based survey conducted by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education found that some ‘34.4 per cent incorrectly believed that the Holocaust triggered Britain’s entry into war and a further 17.6 per cent of students thought the British drew up rescue plans to save the Jews’2. In the same survey, nearly ‘23.8 per cent’ also incorrectly thought the British government did not know about the Holocaust until the end of the war in 1945’

More promisingly, recent historical research has started to erode the stubborn lack of self-reflection within British Holocaust consciousness. Through the collection of Kindertransport testimonies, Jennifer Craig-Norton has shed light on the unpleasant experiences of some refugee children once they had arrived on British shores3. Elsewhere, Gilly Carr is spearheading a reassessment of native complicity during the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands4. Some 22 islanders from Jersey alone are believed to have died following deportation to Nazi concentration camps and detention centres. In the weeks since the BBC Proms controversy, the National Trust has published an equally provocative report on links between its historic properties, colonialism, and slavery.

In conclusion, the BBC Proms affair brought into focus an entrenched reluctance within British society to confront troubling elements of our national history. Whether concerning slavery, colonialism, or the Holocaust, for the most part British historical consciousness has displayed a distinct unwillingness to acknowledge less triumphant moments in the ‘Island Story’. This is not a phenomenon limited to the United Kingdom. In East-Central Europe, Holocaust complicity remains a continual bone of political contention. Likewise, France has long struggled to reconcile narratives of victory in the Second World War with those of Vichy collaboration.

Recent events – namely Black Lives Matter and the Coronavirus pandemic – have provided a crucial opportunity to redress an imbalance in British historical consciousness. As a society, the United Kingdom is at a juncture where it is possible to complicate the past. There is a chance to acknowledge where mistakes have been made. However, if those in political power continue to rebuff attempts at historical re-evaluation, there is only limited hope for the development of more nuanced interpretations of the rich history of Britain.  

References:

  1. Quoted in Pearce, in Sharples, Caroline, and Olaf Jensen. Britain and the Holocaust : Remembering and Representing War and Genocide, (2013), p.203.
  2. Foster, in Pearce, A., Remembering the Holocaust in educational settings (Routledge, 2018), p.241.
  3. Craig-Norton, Jennifer. The Kindertransport : Contesting Memory. (2019).
  4. For example, see Carr, G. (2016). “Have you been offended?” Holocaust memory in the Channel Islands at HMD 70. Holocaust Studies, 22(1), 44-64.

Image: ‘Proms in the Park’ by Neil Rickards in the Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Proms_in_the_Park_2.jpg

Knitting the Archives

If you walk into any charity shop, you are more than likely to find, somewhere, a box or folder full of old knitting patterns. The majority of people would overlook these – to those that cannot knit, the sheets look like indecipherable code, but even to those that can, the patterns are considered dated. But these publications are an archive of everyday material culture of their own, which merit engagement.

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How (not) to communicate historical research

By Davide Martino

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.

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Victim Personal Statements: Are We Restoring a Wrong Right?

By Kevin Bendesky

Beginning in the 1960s, the Victims’ Rights Movement had profound impacts on English law. One result, Victim Personal Statements (VPS), raised the important question of whether the victim should have the chance to say how the crime affected them. A VPS happens after the adjudication of guilt, but before the sentence is determined. It is not supposed to influence the sentence, yet judges often refer to the VPS in their sentences.[1] Some studies demonstrate that the statements do not harshen penalties; but still, victims report that they sometimes hope their VPS will affect the sentence.[2] Clearly, then, the VPS is still a topic of debate. The Victims’ Movement was grounded in the common desire to “restore” the rights of crime’s many victims.[3] But what was there to “restore”? A careful retracing of the victim’s role in English history complicates this effort.

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Teaching Around Trauma: The Holocaust in Primary School Education

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

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Doing History in Public Review of 2019

Editor of DHP Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown) looks back at 2019.

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.

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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