By Daniel Adamson (@DEAdamson9)
The Pyrrhic Wars; the crossing of the Rubicon; the witch hunts; the sinking of the Titanic. Modern parlance is littered with examples of historical events that have accrued a metaphorical value superior to the weight of their historical realities. In public spheres, there is more interest in deploying historical events for what they symbolise, rather than what they actually were. The Dreyfus Affair is one such case in point. In 1894, the French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason, having been accused of passing classified documents to the German military. Protracted division and debate subsequently embroiled French society, as competing parties contested the validity of Dreyfus’ conviction. Eventually, in 1906, Dreyfus was exonerated upon retrial and the identification of the true culprit (Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy).
By Max Long
My first encounter with moving image archives took place in a windowless room in the basement of a building in London. I was there to view a selection of natural history films. I had watched similar films online, but here I could load, spool, and wind up the films myself. Films are the principal source in my research, but prior to my PhD, I had little experience with the medium. Here I was left alone with two towering piles of 35mm and 16mm films, and an unexpected lesson in the materiality of film technology.
By Sam Collings-Wells (@Sam_cw_)
‘And they hide their faces / And they hide their eyes / Cause the city is dyin’/ And they don’t know why’.
These lyrics from Randy Newman’s 1977 ‘Baltimore’—later made famous by Nina Simone’s justly celebrated cover—perfectly captured the spirit urban life during the mid-1970s. Historians would later pinpoint the variety of forces that were killing America’s cities: the flight of industry to the suburbs; increased manufacturing competition from emerging economies in the Global South; a deeply racist housing market which served to entrap people of colour within these decaying urban cores.
Yet as Newman’s lyric suggests, for many Americans the causes of urban decay were far more nebulous.
In seeking out explanations, some might have turned to the intense contemporary debate amongst sociologists, urbanists, and politicians. For others, a rather more seductive interpretation of the urban crisis was emerging, one which they could absorb from the comfort of a suburban movie theatre. Read more
By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)
Within the first month of 2019, historians were treated to not one but two blockbuster movies: The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) and Mary Queen of Scots (dir. Josie Rourke). Both grossed millions of dollars in the short time since their worldwide release, reminding us that film is by far the most accessible form of historical representation for expert and non-expert audiences alike. In their immediate afterlives, their success and significance are open for debate. As Natalie Zemon Davis has reflected of her own role in bringing sixteenth-century France to the big screen, ‘it’s up to historians, those who have participated in the film and those who have seen it, to bring to the debate both an understanding of the possibilities of film and a knowledge of the past’. In this spirit, last month The Cambridge Public and Popular History seminar invited the historical consultants of these new films, Professor John Guy (Fellow in History at Clare College, whose 2004 book My Heart is My Own was adapted for Mary Queen of Scots) and Dr Hannah Greig (Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of York, and consultant for The Duchess, Poldark, and The Favourite, amongst others) to discuss their experiences.