It’s All About The Confidence

I have just returned from a rallying pep talk from two of my wonderful lecturers about confidence and realised how much of a nose dive my confidence in my academic work has taken in recent months. Warning: this is a more personal blog post, but the intention of this blog was always to be to a space where I could discuss my experiences as much as interesting historical stuff I have learnt, so here goes…

Recent events in my life have knocked me off balance – ruined by groove, upset my mojo, so to speak – and my confidence in my work has suffered. I doubt everything I write, lack assertiveness in my convictions and, as you may have noticed, the blogging went on to the back burner.

And now my dissertation is looming ever closer, and let’s just say that it’s all got a bit more real and the panic has started to set in.

But I have had an epiphany, so to speak. I have realised that when it comes to academia – shock horror – brains is not everything. You need the confidence to go with. Without it you may as well be writing in invisible ink. And as a female in academia confidence is everything, you need to have balls to get your voice heard.

I am so inspired by the females I have been surrounded by in academia, they are intelligent, funny, insightful, empathetic and above all confident. They are wonderful historians. If I could emulate just some of that I know I would be a hell of a lot happier with my work.

So, while I am still a little shaky in my own confidence I am going to take some advice I heard today and fake it until I genuinely feel happy enough to say “THIS IS MY WORK AND YOU’RE ALL GOING TO LISTEN TO IT AND LOVE IT!”

Conan Doyle vs. Kipling in the Question of Spiritualism

Since the arrival of spiritualism in Britain people have been curious about it. Many went out of their way to prove it untrue, like Houdini, while others resolutely believed in it. (WikiCommons)
In an anonymous letter to The Courier in 1919, the fashion for communicating with the dead was captured in a description of “mothers and friends of fallen soldiers resorting to table-rapping, creakings, automatic writing through the medium of the planchette, Ouija, heliograph etc. in the hope of once more communicating with their loved ones….” 

The basic principle of spiritualism was the ability to communicate with those who had died. Through the skills of the medium, the spirits of lost loved ones could be talked to and sometimes, it was claimed, even touched.

The idea of communicating with the dead took hold in the UK with the arrival of medium Mrs Hayden from America in 1852. While the 1870s were seen as the ‘Golden Age’ for spiritualism, when it was enjoyed as a fad amongst the middling classes, it was during World War One that the movement saw an unprecedented revival. As contacting the dead once again became popular because so many had lost loved ones in the fields of the Western Front and further.

Arthur Conan Doyle photographed with a spirit (WikiCommons)
The famous author and creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, was an avid believer in spiritualism. His attempts to contact the spirits of killed soldiers began early in the war after the loss of his brother-in-law at the Battle of Mons in 1914. With his wife, Jean, he set up séances in an effort to speak to those beyond the grave. He was unwavering in his belief that intelligence could exist separately from the body and that the dead could speak to the living.

His commitment was such that, at the height of his fame with Sherlock Holmes, he decided to stop writing fiction. Instead he took up far-reaching tours to promote spiritualism and wrote extensively on the subject. Which was surprising for a man who created such a rational and scientific character in Sherlock Holmes, don’t you think?

However, on the other side of the fence was another literary heavyweight, Rudyard Kipling. Like Conan Doyle he had also lost family to the war, his only son Jack died at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Yet he was sceptical of the mediums who claimed to speak to the dead. After the First World War he wrote a poem called En-dor which warned mothers against attempting to contact the men they had lost in the war, denouncing mediums as fraudsters and con-artists.

“And that those who have passed to the further shore
May’ be hailed–at a price–on the road to En-dor.”

Rudyard Kipling, unlike Conan Doyle, was dubious about mediums and did not believe in spiritualism. (WikiCommons)
In a letter to his American publisher, Frank Doubleday, in 1918 he describes the poem as: “A direct attack on the present mania of “Spiritualism” among such as have lost men during the war. It ought to be quoted extensively in the U.S. especially the third verse and the last. It will provoke a great deal of protest and discussion…”

Kipling was wary of those claiming to speak to the dead, and despite his own losses from the Great War he showed no inclination to engage with mediums and contacting the departed.

Fraudulent spiritualist practitioners certainly would have attempted to exploit those who had lost loved ones in the Great War and were searching for answers. These duplicitous practitioners bought mediums into disrepute and caused many to question the authenticity of the séance. Eventually the movement fell out of favour, and like any fashion fad it ran its course.

Or did it? There are still many people today who believe in spirits and communicating with the dead. Shows like ‘Most Haunted’ suggest that there is still an interest in the possibility of talking to those who have passed away. For many the idea of the afterlife and connection to it is as much of a comfort now as it was during World War One. So which side of the fence do you sit on? Team Conan Doyle or Team Kipling?

Modified from work submitted as part of my MA course at Kingston University

Getting ‘Appy: A Rough Guide to a good History App

We are currently in the ‘Age of the App’ in which every brand, institution and tech nerd has their own app. If history is to hold its place in the digital age then it needs to start interacting with apps.

Apps can be a great way to engage an audience with history and usually come in the form of heritage walks. Making use of audio and visuals they encourage their users to interact with their surroundings or look at something in a new light. When it comes to history there is nothing better than being right where it happened.

with the help of an app you can rescue prisoners from the Tower of London.@wikicommons
with the help of an app you can rescue prisoners from the Tower of London @Wikimedia commons

There are lots of different examples out there – like Escape the Tower, where kids (and adults, if you want to give it a go) have to run around the Tower of London collecting coins to free prisoners. And some slightly more academic, for example The Women’s  Library @ LSE output of Women’s Walks which has attempted to bring in archival material to the heritage trials, yet has somewhat (in my humble opinion) failed to bring the exciting material to life.

Because bringing history to life is something every history app should aim to do. Apps have the brilliant advantage to incorporate different interactive elements such a music, sound, images, maps and more. It is a real shame when you see an app that hasn’t quite achieved its potential

@William Hook, Flickr

Now, I don’t claim to be an app builder – I know nothing about the tech that goes into creating an app – but what I can claim to be is a user of these apps. A user that is very discerning in their needs. So here is my rough guide to what makes a good history app…

  1. A pretty and practical user face, because – lets be honest – no one is going to download something that look ugly and cheap. And they’re not going to spend longer than two minutes on it if it’s difficult to use.
  2. Free or a little charge as possible, the great thing about most of our museums and archives is that they are free and totally accessible. This ethos needs to extend to the apps they create.
  3. A good historical and contextual narrative, the app needs to have a focus and tell a story. If you’re creating a heritage walk you need to take users on a journey and leave them feeling as though they have taken away something new and useful from the app.
  4. Dramatic re-enactments are always fun and a great way of engaging people. No one wants to listen to a monotone voice drone on and on and one. Using multiple voices and actors makes it feel less like a lecture and can create a sense of being ‘in the moment’, experiencing history as it happened.
  5. Bring something new to the table, apps should not just be an extension of a website but something new entirely. Apps should make use of their interactive advantages to create an experience you cannot get anywhere else.

There’s so much scope for the use of apps in history and so many great attempts at engaging new audiences out there already. As more and more people become glued to their smartphones history needs to translate itself onto the small touchscreen.

In the Closet: Gay History at the British Museum

A few weeks ago I took a trip to the British Museum to have a look at their ‘desire and diversity‘ trail.

Ganymede was abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle.  But would you interpret this statue as a piece of queer history without the context? © Trustees of the British Museum

As they put it on their website:

“While evidence for same-sex (gay and lesbian) desire has often been overlooked in the past, museums and their collections can allow us to look back and see the diversity of human desire and gender throughout history”

This is all very true – problem is, unless you were to access this trail online there is nothing in the museum exhibitions themselves to suggest evidence of same sex desire. I would also argue that the online trail itself does not provide enough information for a real in depth analysis. Descriptions of the objects are brief and do not engage with various debates and interpretations. I was lucky enough to have a PhD student who specialises in the subject taking us around the museum but I have to wonder how much someone with a passing interest would get from the trail.

The tomb inscription of two Egyptian men, Hor and Suty. These two men are usually assumed to have been twins, but equally it could be assumed they were lovers. © Trustees of the British Museum

The problem with the history of same-sex desire is there really isn’t that much evidence of it. Bar the Warren Cup (a drinking cup depicting homo-erotic scenes, see it here), all the objects on the trail simply infer to same-sex relationships. In fact, unless you were in the know there is nothing about them to suggest their link to gay history. It is in the interpretation of these objects that they contribute something to the history of same-sex desire.

You could say that queer history is based on assumptions. Take the tomb inscription of Hor and Suty – you can assume that it was two male lovers and therefore make it evidence of same-sex love. But that makes it a rather contentious piece of evidence which is why the museum won’t engage with that interpretation.

But all history is based on assumptions! While it’s easy to say that it’s only assumed they were lovers, somewhere down the line someone has assumed they were twins. It’s just that the later version is a more ‘accepted’ version of history. What you need to remember is that museums only show us one version or interpretation of the past.

An ancient Greek water jar depicting women, the woman reading is often identified as Sappho © Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition boxes in museums do not show, or tell, us everything about that past. Take the ancient Greek vase pictured. It is described as depicting women reading and writing. They fail to mention that the woman reading is often identified as the poet Sappho. Born in Lesbos, little is known about her life and only fragments of her poems remain. In a male dominated world she gave a voice to women – surprising then that her name is not mentioned in the museum cabinet at all! Her poems speak about intimacy with women and suggest that Sappho was a lesbian (the word coming from her home of Lesbos).

The desire and diversity trail shows a different reading of objects within the museum. Looking across different countries and societies we can see that desire and relationships are complex and varied place to place. There is no one ‘normal’ version of history and as historians we need to look beyond the interpretation presented to us.

The Forgotten Feminist: Mary Wollstonecraft


“Well behaved women rarely make history”, or so the saying goes. However, sometimes a woman can be so badly behaved that she can be written out of history. Mary Wollstonecraft is a prime example of this. Author of the ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in 1792 she was one of the first radical writers on women’s rights yet she is often forgotten in the mainstream telling of the women’s liberation movement.

Wollstonecraft was a proponent of the education of women, she believed that women were the weaker sex because men forced them to be that way through their lack of education. She argued that men did not consider women as humans and were more concerned with creating ‘alluring mistresses’ out of them than rational and reasonable thinkers. Wollstonecraft saw women’s subordination as a social problem, education was necessary but it was not enough, the values of society needed to be turned on their heads.

However, Wollstonecraft was not a fan of the fairer sex, despite campaigning for their rights. To her, women were silly, frivolous creatures and trapped in a perpetual childhood. Her writing does not sing of the ‘sisterhood’ of modern day feminists, instead it strikes a rather matronly, no nonsense tone. Wollstonecraft does not use pretty language, she does not attempt to appease her readers. Instead she speaks to women in a ‘masculine’ rational voice, imploring women to turn their heads from fashion and towards educating themselves to be rational creatures.

“Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man; for she must grow more perfect when emancipated” – Mary Wollstonecraft, The Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Title page from ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (WikiCommons)

So why is it that a woman who had so much to say on women’s rights should be forgotten in the women’s liberation movement?

The answer is that Mary Wollstonecraft was just too radical and badly behaved. Her colourful private life of affairs and illegitimate children ruined her reputation and after her death she was considered too shocking for even radical women. To speak in defense of Wollstonecraft was to be seen as a symbol of social disorder. Conservatives used revelations of Wollstonecraft’s life to discredit her feminist writing and these preconceptions persisted for a long time.

It was not until Virginia Woolf jumped to the defense of Wollstonecraft in the twentieth century that her image began to be somewhat repaired. Woolf emphasised the legacy of Wollstonecraft claiming “we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.” Unfortunately, even now Mary Wollstonecraft is not a name that is as widely known, as say Emmeline Pankhurst, despite her extraordinary voice.

To call Mary Wollstonecraft a forgotten feminist is perhaps too much of a modernisation. However, this is a women who had a lot to say on women’s emancipation and one has to wonder what course the movement may have taken without her first strident steps. It is just unfortunate that mainstream history does not choose celebrate her.

Re-Imagining: My Visit to the Black Cultural Archives

If stories do not have a place then do they really exist? Do they have any importance? The Black Cultural Archives has created a space for the stories of black women in Britain and has thus created a location for their heritage. Indeed the idea of roots and location is a running theme throughout the exhibition of ‘Re-Imagine: Black Women in History’. The exhibition cleverly challenges preconceptions and allows us to ‘re-imagine’ the experience of black women against the traditional ideas of black heritage. As this is a cultural archives the emphasis is on the arts, portraits and photographs line the walls and women from the entertainment industry are awarded with as much importance as the activists.

Katharina by Dürer.

The use of individual stories within a wider context makes the experience more real, more ‘human’ perhaps. In fact the early works of Dürer and Hollar, that show black women with a wholeness, realness and personality,  the famous painting of  Dido Elizabeth Belle and photos of Adelaide Hall and Kathleen Wrsama, helps to create this human experience. The exhibition aims to locate black women as far back in British history as possible, and even presents evidence of black women in Roman England. In doing so the exhibitions roots black heritage in the long history of Britain.

“I think that the Black Women’s Movement allowed Black women to feel acknowledged and recognised in that leadership role because Black women have always been driven and been leaders” – Judith Lockhart.

The exhibition presents all these individual women with a leadership status, from Dido Belle who is attributed to possibly influencing Lord Mansfield’s ideas of liberty, to the mysterious William Brown – the first black women to serve in the British Navy – to Baroness Doreen Lawrence. There is a clear statement to be made throughout the exhibition. Black women not only have a place in history but they have been active agents within it.

“A women’s agenda is no different from a community agenda” – Gail Lewis.

The exhibition not only places women’s history within a community history but also places the exhibition within the community through the use of oral testimonies throughout the audio guide. There is a sense of community, collectivism and – to use the word again – strong roots, that seem to be driving force behind this archive. It is my belief that sites of heritage, whether it be historic house, monuments or archives create an identity. Through the use of artifacts the archive has created a living history that a community of people can relate and connect to.

Dido Elizabeth Belle

My experience at the BCA was eye opening and thought provoking. So often I have been taught black history from the liberation movement perspective and is often limited to the political players. As someone who is interested in the lives and experiences of those often excluded from the mainstream telling of history I thoroughly enjoy this insight. However, the BCA serves more than the purpose of exposing the history of black women, it gives it a space and therefore turns it into a living history with which we can engage.

As Suzanne Scafe says an exhibition should make a statement and  aim to pique interest for further study. I know I certainly walked away from the exhibition with an eagerness to know more. Indeed this exhibition may help to inform my interest in the way women are represented in public history.

The Use of Blogs in History

As this is my first post to this blog I thought it might be apt to discuss what I think the purpose of this blog, and history blogs in general, should be. A discussion in one of my MA seminars in which we talked about the use of blogs got me thinking about how blogs should be approached when used in a more academic sense, currently a highly debated topic amongst historians.

I believe blogs are heavily opinionated and therefore we should not be looking to them as a source for cold, hard, historical facts. I do not think blogs should be a basis of knowledge but rather a discussion of it, a place where ideas and news can be considered and talked about from a very personal viewpoint. Therefore, I do not believe references or the rigorous presentation of evidence is necessarily relevant for blog posts.

Blogs, especially ones about any kind of academic study, should be used as an introduction or gateway to ideas and topics. A place where ideas can be mused over, clarified and developed. I intend to use this blog for very personal, reflective purposes as I work my way through my MA course. I would not expect anyone to use my blog as a source of evidence. In fact I will be very surprised if anyone even reads my ramblings on history, let alone agrees with or finds any relevance in what I have to say on the subject.

Just as we do not expect blogs to follow the rigours of grammar and language why should it follow an academic structure? Blogs are fundamentally entertainment, easy reading, and a diffusion of ideas in a concise and simple form. If we start to clog them up with historical jargon, complicated references and extensive bibliographies they will lose their quick accessibility.

Overall blogs – whether they are about history, food or fashion – are personal, reflective and heavily opinionated. As historians we should not hijack blogs and try to force them into something they are not. Blogs can be useful the spread of ideas, theories and news and I do not want to undervalue their importance. They create discussion and interaction with ideas, and that is great. If history is to find a place in social media it has to adapt to the medium. Those who use blogs should be do so as a springboard for ideas where they can be directed to more in depth and critical considerations of the topic. Blogs will never take over from books or academic journals but they can play a vital role in making those academic ideas more accessible.