Becoming a Public Historian: Kim Singh-Sall

In this series, Dr Jessica Moody, unit co-ordinator of the third year Practice-Based Dissertation option, interviews students about their projects and experiences of this unit. The Practice-Based Dissertation was first introduced at Bristol in 2020-21 and enables students to produce a practical, public-facing ‘public history’ output as well as a 5000 word Critical Reflective Report.

In this interview, Jessica talks to Kim Singh-Sall about her project.

JM: Let’s start from the beginning, what made you choose the Practice-Based Dissertation over the standard Dissertation?

KS: When we did the History in Public project briefs last year, I found that I really enjoyed doing public history and wanted to take up the opportunity of creating a project instead of coming up with just a brief. Creative ways of telling history are not only fun, but also gives you the opportunity to approach history from a much more personal angle, which I wanted to explore in my dissertation. We do so many essays, so I thought taking the practice-based dissertation would make me feel more inspired about my dissertation!

Image shows Kim smiling at the camera, wearing a hat

JM: Could you tell us about your public history project?

KS: I created a short podcast series about the life and legacy of Sophia Duleep Singh. She was the youngest daughter of the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, but was born and brought up in England and was Queen Victoria’s goddaughter. She was an English socialite and became a Suffragette. I wanted to tell her story, as she is a largely unknown figure in both British and Suffragette history, but also because she was a British-Punjabi woman, like me. My approach was therefore very personal, as I framed the podcast around identity, specifically relating to nationality and ethnicity. I drew on Sophia’s and my own experiences to help tell the wider story of what it means to be part of two worlds and balance two identities. I supported my podcast with an Instagram account where I posted episode recaps, recommendations for further readings, and photographs.

JM: Why did you want to undertake this project?

KS: This project felt very personal to me. I came across Sophia was I was about 15 or 16 and it was the first time I really saw myself in history, so it feels full circle to do my dissertation on her. I also want more people to know about her, especially British-Indians, because it is so important that people get to see themselves in history.

Image shows a portrait of Sophia Duleep Singh, with her name ‘Sophia’ and the subtitle ‘A History of Belonging’

JM: What did you enjoy most about the Practice-Based Dissertation?

KS: I enjoyed how creative I could be: from writing the scripts, to designing the Instagram posts, to finding the musical interludes in the podcast. It really allowed me to tap into different skill-sets and create something I’ve never done before. I also really enjoyed that it was public facing, because my drive behind the dissertation was wanting more people to know about Sophia, so it felt really great to have people listen and learn about her, possibly feeling some of the things I felt when I first came across her.

JM: What did you find challenging?

KS: I found writing the scripts to be a challenge, because I had to ensure I was being informative, while personal, writing in a way that would lend itself to people listening, rather than reading. I also found recording my audio quite challenging because I definitely over-thought my ‘podcast voice’ and had never edited audio before so it was a lot of trial and error. I’m not very good at navigating technology, so that was a big challenge!

JM: Did you come across any problems that you needed to address or solve?

KS: My main problem was something I discovered once I’d created the output when I was collecting feedback as I found that no one over the age of 60 had listened. That could mean both a technology and language barrier. I was targeting British-Indians, and definitely relied on my family and family connections to get listeners, but most of the first-generation British-Punjabis don’t speak native English and may have found it difficult to listen to the series.

JM: What do you feel you’ve learnt from this process?

KS: Beyond the technical aspects of writing, recording, and editing a podcast, I’ve learned how to make telling history accessible and engaging to an audience who might otherwise not engage with history. The process has spurred me to want to do similar projects in the future as I’ve seen how creative and gratifying it can be to put something out into the world.

JM: What do you think public history needs more of? Do you have any reflections or advice from your project for public historians?

KS: I would say that public history needs more personality and emotions. My project was very personal, and I think it made for a stronger historical communication and engagement with my audience. Not only is it cathartic for historians, but I think it is more interesting for audiences too. Sometimes we might think infusing our historical research or outputs with our own personal reflections, anecdotes, or stories might seem to be overstep, but I think now more than ever that’s what people are looking for. Public history is a great medium to make people feel seen in history, and adopting a personal approach is an effective way to do so.

JM: What advice do you have for students just starting the Practice-Based Dissertation?

KS: Trust the process! The prospect of creating something and putting it out into the world might seem daunting, but it’s a process and isn’t as scary as it seems. I’d say it’s important to have confidence and conviction in yourself – that what you’re creating deserves to be shared. Also, take advantage of the incredibly cool opportunity you have to do literally whatever you want about whatever topic you want. Be creative and have fun with it! On a more practical level, I’d recommend doing a lot of the public history readings for your report in the first term, as well as researching your actual historical content, so in the second term you can really focus on your output before doing your report.

JM: How can people find out more about your project?

KS: You can find the podcast on Spotify and follow the Instagram!

Featured Historian: Lorenzo Costaguta

In the latest in our series on historians here at Bristol, we caught up with Lorenzo Costaguta to talk race, class and socialism.

Lorenzo Costaguta is a Lecturer in U.S. History. He is a historian of race and class, with a focus on socialist movements in the United States and Europe. At Bristol, he teaches on radicalism in the United States, labour, race, capitalism, and the American empire.

Portrait picture of Lorenzo Costaguta, smiling, wearing glasses and a shirt in front of a brick wall

Hi Lorenzo, thanks for joining us! What’s the title of your new book? What’s it about?

The working title of the book is Regardless of Color: Race and the Origins of American Socialism.

It is a history of American socialist racial thinking in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. In the book, I argue against the idea that socialism “didn’t exist” or was irrelevant in the U.S. I contend that the American socialist movement was alive and well, and that one of its distinctive feature was its fixation on race.

In the late nineteenth century, American socialists—the vast majority of which were European immigrants—widely debated socialist organizing across racial and ethnic lines, with the objective of creating a genuinely egalitarian society. Although they were rarely successful in their attempts to go beyond their ethnic enclaves, they laid the foundations upon which a distinctively interethnic and multiracial movement was built in the twentieth century.

 

How did you become interested in the study of socialism and race in the United States?

I guess that what attracted me in the first place was the key question I discuss in my book, namely the long-standing historiographical riddle about why the most capitalist country in the world didn’t produce an equally powerful left-wing/labour social movement.

In the process of researching and writing my book, I found some of the answers I was looking for. Socialism in the U.S. did exist, but its history developed according to the features of the country. The multiethnic and multiracial composition of its working class set it on a path that differed from its European counterparts; capitalist and governmental repression suffocated its chances to grow.

The centrality of race as a crucial aspect of my project grew as the research progressed. In part, because I found myself reading extensively about immigrant United States, in a period in which the boundaries between race and ethnicity were extremely loose and imprecise, as scholars of whiteness have shown. In part, because I realized the extent to which race and class march alongside in shaping labour relations in the U.S.

Black and white portrait and photograph of Peter H Clark

What is the importance of the history of socialism in the U.S. today? And how important is it to study its history in relation with race?

It’s curious because when I started my Ph.D. in 2012, the first question would have been very difficult to answer. At the time, left-wing politics was almost non-existent in the U.S. I mean, it was there, but surely it didn’t feature in the national news.

Then in 2016 came the first Bernie Sanders primary campaign, and after that the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush and many other progressive politicians, the boom of the Democratic Socialists of America, the second Bernie Sanders campaign, and so on.

We now live in a moment when democratic socialist politicians are a powerful group in the Democratic Party and have national relevance and visibility. I invite you to look at the racial and ethnic composition of this group: its diversity is a key ingredient of its success. Studying American socialism, and intersecting it with a focus on race, is crucial to understand how we got here.

 

What advice would you give to a student interested in socialism and race in the U.S.?

First of all, I would tell them: excellent choice!

Secondly, I would invite them to broaden their areas of interest and read both about the crucial importance of race as an organizing principle of the history of the United States and about the glorious, but also tragic, history of radicalism in the U.S. Socialism is one of the many strands of political activism that made the country into what it is today. From the movement to abolish slavery to suffragism to gay rights to environmental activism, American radicals really did shape the history of the country.

 

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

Something that my PhD supervisor once told and that really stayed with me: that history writing is all about rewriting. The first version of your paper is just the beginning of the process. Only through extensive rewriting you will get to produce excellent scholarship.

This is something I repeat very (too!) often to my students, although I do not expect them to use five years to complete the revisions of their essays, which is the time it took me to revise my PhD into a book….

 

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.

It is a Pulitzer Prize-winning sociological study that follows the story of eight families in Milwaukee as they try to make ends meet in a housing system designed to make profit out of them with complete disregard for their personal conditions. A devastating account of the reality of poverty, displacement and suffering of millions of Americans today. The book has links with many periods of the history of the U.S., but its real value is the light it sheds on modern-day U.S.—a rich country with mind-blowing levels of poverty. And the methodology of the study is so incredibly fascinating: Desmond lived for years with the eight families, sharing every aspect of their lives, before writing the book. The level of compassion and care with which the book is written made me really think about what we academics and students can and should do to contribute to our societies’ welfare.

 

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

The amount of possibilities is something that makes my head spinning.

I will stick with my area of academic expertise, and I will say North America before the U.S. existed. A paradise lost. Imagine seeing the San Francisco Bay when the area was inhabited only by the indigenous people and perhaps a handful of Spanish colonists, knowing that one day it would become the global centre of economic production of the world, and one of its most humanized and polluted areas…

 

What’s your must-do Bristol experience?

I moved to Bristol fairly recently, so I am still very much in love with some classic spots of the city. I live close to the Downs, and when the weather was better I spent so much time there! And the Clifton bridge area is fantastic…

 

What are you working on next?

A couple of years ago I started working on a project on socialism and race in the Second International (1889-1914).

It is a straightforward expansion of my first book, whose aim is to explore how socialist movements across the world addressed racism at the turn of the twentieth century. The project identifies the socialist Second International as one of the first transnational spaces of confrontation on ideas of race for workers across the world. Founded in 1889 as a loose federation of socialist parties and trade unions, the International gathered workers from Europe, the U.S., parts of South America, Asia and Africa. While socialists rarely discussed race as a distinct issue, they debated closely aligned notions, such as colonialism, immigration and imperialism. By reconstructing these debates and decentring the history of the International through the inclusion of subaltern and colonial voices, my hope is to recast the period in which the Second International existed as a crucial moment when the racialisation of global working-class ideologies took place.

Sounds amazing! We look forward to seeing it… and thanks for joining us, Lorenzo!

Featured Historian: Vivian Kong

In the latest in our running series on historians in the department, we hear from Vivian Kong, Lecturer in Modern Chinese History. Her research to date has focused largely on interwar Hong Kong, especially on how the city’s global connections and multiethnic urban setting shaped the identity politics and social dynamics there.

Hi, Vivian, thanks so much for joining us! Can we start by asking: what are you working on? What’s it about?

I am now completing a book entitled Multiracial Britishness: Global Networks in Hong Kong, 1910-45, which is adapted from my PhD thesis. In the book, I use Hong Kong as a case study to highlight the diversity of ‘races’ that lived in the British Empire, and how such diversity enriched and complicated notions of Britishness. I use Chinese- and English- language archival records, autobiographical writings, and oral history to explore how residents of different races understood the multivalent concept of being British. The book explains when, why, and how one would engage with the civic sensibilities, material benefits, and legal entitlements of being British. It also examines how the global dispersal of cosmopolitan ideals and rising nationalism shaped the development of Britishness in the interwar years.

Image shows a cityscape at night in the background, lit up skyscrapers. Vivian stands in the foreground.

That’s really interesting. So, how did you become interested in the topic of Britishness?

When I first started my PhD, I thought I’d be writing a thesis on the British community in interwar Hong Kong. But the more I read, the more I realized what being British meant was a question of political, legal, and media debate and dispute, especially for a multiracial colony like Hong Kong.

That I moved to the UK for my PhD in September 2015 also mattered too. The Brexit debates and Britain’s increasing turn inwards during the past few years pushed me to see that the meaning of Britishness is still a question of debate and dispute. It also made me ponder at what points one form of Britishness might be more relevant than another. This all made me become more interested in the question of what being British means…

…the rest, as one might say, is history!

What is the importance of Multiracial Britishness today?

While we’d like to think Britishness is less racially defined than in the timeframe of my book (1910-45), questions such as what British values are and who gets to be British are still being asked and contested often enough in public discussion. Seeing how Britishness existed in multiple, varied forms in colonial Hong Kong, where whiteness was supposed to matter most, gives us insights in thinking about what it means to be British today.

The book, in showing how colonial subjects embraced, used, and remade conceptions of Britishness based on their needs and experiences, also reminds us that Britishness meant much more than whiteness. Being British was not only the monopoly of those who were white and/or from the British Isles. Complex multivalent interpretations of Britishness by colonial subjects are just as important to understanding and defining Britishness and imperial culture as those made by the ‘colonisers’. It also helps us appreciate not only the compatibility of Britishness with other existing identities, but also the issues many face as they engage with Britishness.

Multiracial Britishness also helps us understand more about Hong Kong today . Even as the ‘handover’ in 1997 marked the end of British colonial rule over the city, Britishness still matters to many Hong Kongers.

In summer 2020 the UK government announced a new pathway for Hong Kong residents who hold the British Nationality (Overseas) passports to settle in the UK with their dependents. My book reminds readers of the long history of engagement that Hong Kongers have made with Britishness, and also, sadly, how racism had at times obstructed such engagements. It offers us timely insight into the historic course of Hong Kong’s social development, and Britain’s commitment to Hong Kong and its citizens.

What advice would you give to a student interested in Hong Kong history

As someone who’s committed to study Hong Kong history from a global approach, I’d say read widely and make sure you read beyond Hong Kong history. Given the city’s global connections, there’s no way we can understand its development and social dynamics comprehensively without contextualizing the city within wider socio-political trends.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

It’s very hard to decide on one! I have two: one book and one archival document.

There is the wonderful book, The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey, by Julia Laite. Very well-written and what an inspiring and innovative work!

The other is a school dinners menu I came across by chance in Kresen Kernow during my research trip to Cornwall this summer. It listed out the meals that the school pupils were getting in 1937. This has nothing to do with what I went to the archives for – but I love how it gives me some insight into the day-to-day life at the time, and also how the pupils of the Liskeard County School in 1937 had a very potatoes-heavy diet!

Image shows a list of foods from this school menu

What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?

Get fish-n-chips from Clifton Fish Bar and eat it on the lawn near the Clifton Observatory with the Suspension Bridge in view. That’s where you’d usually find me on Saturday afternoons in summer.

What are you working on next?

A book about a Eurasian woman, and the web of family relationships she had in Britain, Hong Kong, China, and Singapore… Born in late 19th century Hong Kong, the protagonist had quite an eventful life. She moved to Cornwall at the age of 10. She was an award-winning artist and photographer in her early 20s, a V.A.D nurse during WW1, and a hotel and boarding house owner in interwar London. In 1937, under suspicion of brothel keeping, she and her husband were deported to Hong Kong, from where they moved to Singapore to join her in-laws.

The book will follow her and her family’s life journeys, and examine their connections with colonial policing in Hong Kong, Christianity in Republican China, overseas Chinese diasporas, and London’s interwar economy. It will explore racial politics, womanhood, and the meaning of respectability in the twentieth century.

We can’t wait! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Vivian.

Disability History Month Snapshots: Fitting and Misfitting

In the third of our posts for Disability History Month, Lena Ferriday writes about the novelist Dinah Craik.

In 1881, at the age of fifty-five and six years before her death, novelist Dinah Craik took a sixteen-day excursion around the Cornish coastline. Craik’s reflections on this experience, recorded in a published travel journal, bring to attention a range of narratives regarding differently abled bodies which converged at the nineteenth-century coast, which became seen as a space which emphasised a linear pathway from illness to health, which differently abled bodies did not conform to. This post highlights the way in which discourses of different abilities have historically relied on the fit, or misfit, between body and environment.

Image shows a dark print of the cliffs and sea.

Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, ‘An Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall’ (London: Macmillan and Co, 1884) p. 15.

Nineteenth-century medical discourse attested to the coast as a therapeutic space. Physicians often prescribed visits to Cornwall for a ‘change of air’, expecting that the cold, strong, fresh winds would arrest the patients’ bodies from the state of ‘melancholy’ with which they had been diagnosed. For Craik, indeed, the Cornish coast was a corporeally nourishing space. ‘The air so fresh and pure, yet soft and balmy’, she recalled ‘it felt to tender lungs like the difference between milk and cream. To breathe became a pleasure instead of a pain.’ Concurrently, however, discourses of adventure culture considered coastal landscapes an ideal place for testing the corporeal capabilities of bodies, the difficulty of navigating them integral to their appeal.

In neither discourse, however, did the differently abled aging body cohere with the landscape. It could not be ‘cured’ by the coastal air, nor its capabilities attested to by navigation across the the cliffs. Indeed, Craik wrote extensively of the continual reminders of her body’s limitations posed by the landscape of the coast, which caused her discomfort and pain. For her younger travelling companions, ‘the picturesque or romantic always ranked second to the fun of a scramble’ as the ‘descent to this marine paradise […] seemed difficult enough to charm’ them. In comparison Craik was incapable to move across the cliffs, and even as she sat watching the others ‘scrambling into the most inaccessible places’ she was physically ‘uncomfortable’, negotiating her feet with ‘the long grass to prevent slipping down the slope’.

Whilst Craik was not socially marginalised by way of her body’s abilities, her reflections highlight the extent to which discourses of medicine, health and recreation constructed the coast as a space only physically able or healing bodies could cohere with, and from which the differently abled were excluded.

Reflections on Disability History Month

 

This Disability History Month, writes Dr. Andy Flack,we would do well to remember that the past is not always a foreign country.

Injustice, exploitation, and pain are happening today, and they can be stopped.  Indeed, Disability History Month (November-December), like the International Day of People with Disabilities (3 December) is a present danger to people living with disabilities.

Perhaps let me qualify that: I’m an historian, and I love history for its own sake. This gives me a particular perspective on the present. Both events tend to fetishize the celebration of ‘super-human’ feats of resilience, of overcoming, on the one hand, while heavily implying that the material marginalisation and suffering of people with disabilities is a thing of the past on the other. Tokenistic, and not infrequently designed and delivered by ‘Normals’ (and often ignoring the desire of people with disabilities to be at the heart of conceptualising and delivering such events), these events risk doing more to silence than to empower.

Whatever happened to ‘Nothing about us without us’…?

Image shows artwork by Elizabeth Thomsen which reads 'Nothing About Us Is For Us Without Us'

“‘Nothing about us without us is for us…'” by Elizabeth Thomsen https://www.flickr.com/photos/92987904@N00

People tend to avert their gaze from the ‘problem’ of disability.

The fact that COVID deaths have been sickeningly high among people with a range of physical and learning needs creeps into the news cycle, but soon enough will be conveniently forgotten. It’s eugenics in action, see, nature red in tooth and claw. The same is true of higher education institutions.

I’ll quote Lennard J. Davis at length: ‘…so much of left criticism has devoted itself to the issue of the body, of the social construction of sexuality and gender. Alternative bodies people this discourse … But lurking behind these images of transgression and deviance is a much more transgressive and deviant figure: the disabled body.’ Davis does not here articulate the assumption that such criticism assumes a norm of physical (and mental and psychological) ‘able-bodied, heteronormative, white, normalcy, nor does he directly address race here, but racialized bodies are a critical part of the diversity agenda.

Since disabled people are culturally constructed as the ‘ultimate deviants’, it is not surprising that higher education institutions choose to ignore (or pay tokenistic attention to) the challenge disability presents to a culture that is built on ablism at its extreme. Everyone in the academy is part of the hegemony of ablism – of ‘merit’, ‘high achievement’, ‘ultra-efficiency’, of one-size-fits-all.

What are universities doing to mark Disability History Month?

Is it being deployed as a means of purple-washing away questionable practices? And what about the International Day of People with Disabilities? We need to ask whether any events have been co-created with disabled people themselves to reflect the realities of the world in which they find themselves?

In some ways my institution does good work in rendering the ‘diversity agenda’ visible – gender and BAME pay gaps for instance – but when this is combined with the silence about, or relegation of, other issues of critical importance to peoples’ lives, nothing is achieved except the creation of new ableist hierarchies, new hegemonic marginalizations, new oppressions, new ways of pitting people against each other, and new ways of inflicting pain.

At many HE institutions, the muffled whispers of and about disability are thunderous.

The discourse and practical implementation of ‘reasonable adjustments’ rests on a very subjective view of what is indeed ‘reasonable’, and when there is no protected central budget (the kind of ring-fenced budget that most large organisations worth their salt have…) then the question of what is ‘reasonable’ and what is not becomes one framed by unnecessary and potentially discriminatory financial decisions.

Let’s be under no illusions: people suffer because of these approaches to difference.

They’re not just annoyed and upset for a while (though that’s bad enough). They suffer.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t mark events such as Disability History Month, or, indeed, the International Day of Disabled People.

Something is better than nothing, after all.

See the Disability Employment Charter here

Disability History Month Snapshots: Sister Elizabeth Kenny

In the second of our Disability History Month Snapshots, Dr. Stephen Mawdsley discusses Sister Elizabeth Kenny and the Transformation of Paralytic Polio Treatment in 1940s America.

Australian nurse Sister Elizabeth Kenny reformed polio treatment in America. Poliomyelitis (polio) is caused by a contagious viral disease that attacks the motor neurons of the spinal cord, which can lead to paralysis of the limbs and respiratory muscles and, in some cases, death. Until a safe and effective vaccine was licensed in 1955, many Americans lived in fear of recurring epidemics. Before the 1940s, most medical treatments for paralytic polio were rudimentary and based on limb immobilization and surgery. Such methods were expensive, painful, and often provided limited effectiveness.

Black and white photograph shows Sister Kenny crouching down to talk to two children.

Minneapolis, Minnesota. Sister Kenny with Winifred Gorman (right), an infantile paralysis patient, and Winifred’s sister who has come to the Elizabeth Kenny Institute to see her on visitor’s day. By Jack Delano, 1943, Library of Congress, U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs

Medical orthodoxy in America was challenged by Sister Kenny, who had previously devised an approach for treating polio based on experience tending to patients in remote regions of Australia during the 1930s. She devised a method that rejected limb immobilization; instead, it employed massage, physical therapy, and hot wool compresses applied to afflicted limbs to reduce spasms and muscle atrophy. Survivor accounts from the period often describe the smell of hot wool and the feeling of the compresses on the skin.

 

American physicians were initially unconvinced by Kenny and her method because it challenged decades of precedent. Nevertheless, her approach to polio treatment prevailed due to her dedication, philanthropic alliances, and evidence base. With the assistance of America’s foremost polio charity, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (March of Dimes), Kenny established a professional training and treatment centre to disseminate her method across America. She traveled widely and later expanded the initiative through the establishment of the Sister Kenny Foundation. Kenny’s method proved to be an important milestone in the treatment of polio paralysis and showed the value of therapeutic innovation.

 

Further reading: Naomi Rogers, Polio Wars: Sister Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine (Oxford, 2014).

 

Disability History Month Snapshots

In the first of our snapshot posts for Disability History Month 2021, Dr. Andy Flack discusses the life of Julia Pastrana.

Julia Pastrana, a First Nations Mexican woman, was born in 1834. She died only twenty-five years later, having lived with a genetic condition known as hypertrichosis terminalis and which, in conjunction with other medical conditions, manifested as a series of physical characteristics – including the hyper production of hair and the swelling of lips and gums – which thoroughly inscribed her body with a gendered, racialized, and speciesist Otherness. This triad of perceptual lenses intersected in transformative ways. In popular discourse, Pastrana was thoroughly ‘freaked’, becoming known as the ‘Bear Woman’, the ‘Ape Woman’, or simply the ‘Nondescript’, and displayed across Europe and North America in the ultimate theatre of stigmatic staring: Even in afterlife, her body was embalmed, ‘freakish’ deviance captured to satiate the probing curiosities of mid-nineteenth-century scientific communities.

Julia Pastrana, “the nondescript”, advertised for exhibition. Colour woodcut. Wellcome Collection.

Pastrana was one among countless people – think Joseph Merrick, Stephen Bibrwoski – whose physical appearance rendered them objects of fascination and, not infrequently, disgust. Leading Disability Studies scholar Lennard J. Davis argues that ‘we live in a world of norms’ and that these ‘norms’ are cultural constructs with histories that need to be excavated. The modern ‘freakshow’ is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of an idea of what it meant to be ‘normal’ – to have a ‘normal body’ – at any particular point in time. And in Pastrana’s afflicted body, we find multiple and intersecting deviations from the supposedly standard types of the Victorian age. In her case, transgressions of gender norms (body hair) combined with culturally and historically contingent ideas of femininity and racialized physical stereotypes to position her as something not-quite-human. At the same time, her unavoidable humanity, captured in the movement of her body and the sound of her voice, meant that she could not be understood as not human (animal) either. ‘Bear woman’, ‘Ape Woman’, ‘Nondescript’; these terms meant that she could be seen as both, a liminal being whose apparently animal inferiority made her eminently exploitable. A commercialized vision of life at the margins. ‘Freakshows’ were alien worlds for the Normals.

Pastrana’s life resonates for people living with disabilities today, for the freakshow is not behind us. The token disabled person, who is thrust forward to speak on behalf of physical deviance, is still a spectacular attraction for the Normals. Public spaces often remain sites of penetrative staring, and animalized disabled lives are formed, figured, and ended at the intersections of gendered, racialized – and many other – experiences and stereotypes.

#PhDone! With Dr. Alice Would

In the latest in our #PhDone! series, we catch up with Dr. Alice Would, who recently finished her doctorate in the department.

Alice received funding from the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWWDTP) to undertake her PhD at the University of Bristol and the University of Exeter. She passed her viva in September 2021 and is currently a teacher in both History and Liberal Arts at Bristol. In December she will start as a Research Associate on Dr Andy Flack’s project ‘Dark-dwellers as more-than-human misfits.’

Portrait picture of Alice, with sunglasses on her head, rural background

Q: Hi, Alice! First of all, congratulations on your successful viva! Can you tell us a bit about what your doctoral research was about?

Thank you! My thesis was an environmental history of taxidermy in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Much of the historiography on natural history sees these creatures as static, frozen specimens, and as completely controlled by human culture.

By engaging with sensory studies, and theories on agency, embodiment, and materiality, I argued that taxidermy was still lively and mobile in death. I also talked about time, and how the more-than-human world has its own temporalities which meet and intersect with human conceptions of time. This is evident in taxidermy, which is always bound up in the processes of decay and restoration – with being eaten by insects and conserved with a needle and thread.

To try to get beyond the museum focus of most scholarship on natural history, I explored the movement of skins and specimens through trade networks: from skinning in the hunting field, and transportation in barrels of brine, to recreation on the taxidermist’s table and display in frenetic Victorian exhibition spaces. I undertook archival research in four museums in the South West, and in the Bodleian, and my source base included hunting diaries, taxidermy handbooks, newspapers, museum reports, and correspondence.

To try to get some hands-on experience, and to learn about the sensory aspects of taxidermy, I also completed a one-day taxidermy course.

Image shows an extract from the Pall Mall Gazette October 3 1884, with the edges of print text surrounding a cross-section of a lion, labelled with the letters A to G. The original caption reads 'How to set up a lion'

‘How to set up a lion’, in case any readers wanted to give taxidermy a go and have a dead lion to hand.

Q: Eeep. How did you become interested in taxidermy?

It’s a bit of a weird story! Some of my family used to live in Bristol, including my great-grandmother. She was a servant for a family in Clifton and would take their children to Bristol Zoo – this is in the 1930s. Because of the connections of the family, she and the children had the opportunity to walk the famous gorilla, Alfred, around the zoo with his keeper. Taxidermied Alfred is now on display in Bristol Museum, so I was intrigued when I learnt I had a family connection to him!

I was already interested in environmental history by this point, so I decided to develop a project researching the animality of the taxidermy in Bristol Museum. This became my MPhil project. My PhD took this further by exploring the liveliness of taxidermy on the journey to and beyond museum sites.

Q: Any top tips for lunch spots near your archives/libraries/museum collections/the Bristol University campus?

Near the campus, Eat a Pitta is always a great option, and you can sit and eat in Brandon Hill with a fabulous view. This also goes for Pinkman’s sough-dough-nuts, which you could have for lunch if you ate enough of them. I also have a soft spot for Beijing Cooking Pot, on Perry Road, especially if you’re feeling really peckish. For anyone researching at the Wellcome Library, the King of Falafel stand just outside Euston is phenomenal.

Q: Let’s talk about the viva itself. What would you advise someone who is preparing for their own viva?

When preparing for the viva think about big themes, overarching questions, and any problems – these kinds of things will likely be helpful for lots of different lines of questioning.

I did a mock interview with my supervisors the week before, and this was handy for getting used to speaking about the thesis. I was very used to writing about the topic but speaking about it feels completely different!

I’d also recommend thinking carefully about the words in your title and coming to the viva prepared to explain these choices to your examiners.

Q: What’s next for you? Where can we find your research now?

In December I will be starting as a Research Associate on Dr Andy Flack’s project ‘Dark-dwellers as more-than-human misfits’, exploring perceptions of the adaptations of nocturnal and dark-adapted animals. I’m really excited about this – Andy’s research combines lots of my interests in sensory, animal, and environmental histories. I’m also very pleased to be staying in Bristol for the time being!

I have an article called ‘Tactile Taxidermy’ in Environment and History. I’ve also written blog posts and essays for History Today, Environmental History Now, and the White Horse Press, and hope to turn my thesis into a monograph in the not-so-distant future.

 

Featured Historian: Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones is Lecturer in Modern British History. She is a social and cultural historian, and most of her work looks at themes around gender, sexuality, and the history of science and medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her current research looks really closely at print culture, thinking about how the public engaged with scientific ideas about sex through magazines, advice texts, and the news.

Portrait picture of Dr. Sarah Jones, smiling

What’s the title of your new article, and what’s it about?

My latest article is ‘Science, Sexual Difference, and the Making of Modern Marriages, 1920-1940.’

In it, I look at how advice texts in the early twentieth century discussed sexual difference, and specifically the idea that men and women had specific, and very different, roles to play in the marital bedroom. I essentially show that during a period of great upheaval and anxiety, advice authors argued that notions of sexually passive women and sexually active men were biologically mandated – even if they didn’t provide much proof for those claims, or make use of much scientific evidence at all.

In doing so, they cobbled together material to try and show that heterosexual marriage was right, natural, somewhat inevitable, and that anyone who strayed away from this was abnormal or even pathological.

Long story short, it is about how apparently ‘scientific’ ideas were marshalled to uphold a particular, quite conservative sexual status quo during a moment of real social change. This all speaks to my broader interest in ‘popular’ sexual science – I’m slowly putting a book together called The Science of Sex Advice: Popular Sexology in Print.

How did you become interested in histories of sexual science?

I’ve been interested in the relationship between sex, science, and print culture for a long time.

My PhD looked at how print culture facilitated sex radical networks in Britain and America, and particularly how ‘free lovers’ on both sides of the Atlantic used scientific ideas and rhetoric to challenge the idea that orthodox marriage was a good idea. After that I was a research fellow on a project called Rethinking Sexology at the University of Exeter, where I started working on popular sex advice and magazines. As part of that I spent a lot of time reading some of the brilliant new scholarship on sexual science, and also camping out in archives in both the US and UK to work through some amazing primary materials – stuff like sex advice pamphlets sold in vending machines and train station platforms for a couple of cents a go, slightly racy texts sold through mail order in the back of newspapers, and expensive manuals written by scientists and sexologists that were apparently only for the eyes of ‘professionals and academics.’ There’s such fantastic work being done on histories of sexual science, including some exciting new bits of scholarship on how the public engaged with science when making sense of their own sex lives. I hope my work can be part of those conversations

Magazine feature titled 'The Mysteries of Sex Frankly Revealed!' includes text reading 'Banish Fear Prevent Disease End Self Denial and Stop Worrying Conquer Ignorance and Overcome Shame, as well as images of puzzled men and women, and a doctor figure showing a couple a book entitled 'Sex Harmony and Eugenics'

What is the importance of the history of sexuality today?

I think, for me, there’s so much to be said about how an engagement with science has shaped the way we think about sex. It might seem like a bit of a niche topic, but actually the way we talk and think about sex – even today –  is absolutely replete with scientific ideas.

Why, for example, do we often use terms like ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ (which emerged from nineteenth-century sexology) to categorize ourselves? Why are some people so obsessed with looking for a ‘gay gene’?

Why are we told that certain sexual behaviours and identities are good or bad for our health, or are perhaps ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’? Part of my work speaks to these kinds of questions, thinking through how and why science has come to have so big a role in how we understand, discuss, and experience sexuality.

More broadly, I think that in a fraught social and political moment histories of gender and sexuality are more important than ever. I’ve been lucky enough to work with scholars trying to use history to find more helpful and inclusive ways to do sex education in schools, and to help young trans and non-binary people navigate the modern medical system. Historians in the field have been called on to shape policies around things like access to abortion, gay marriage, and how to tackle sexual violence. Doing histories of gender and sexuality helps us develop our understanding and appreciation of the past but, beyond that, engaging with that history also allows us to gain new insights into urgent and timely issues in the present. 

What advice would you give to a student interested in the history of sexuality?

Be careful when opening some kinds of primary sources in public areas.

I was working on a train once and the person in the seat next to me threatened to have me arrested. It wasn’t even anything that bad, but that’s public transport for you.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

Someone once told me that it’s a gift to be able to indulge your curiosity, especially for a living. Not always a particularly accurate depiction of my job, to be fair, but I try and remember it when I’ve got a huge pile of reading to do.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

That’s a tough one. History-wise, I really enjoyed Martha Robinson Rhodes’ article on Bisexuality, Multiple-Gender-Attraction, and Gay Liberation Politics in the 1970s, so probably that.

I’ve finally gotten around to starting Kate Lister’s A Curious History of Sex, too, which is really fun so far.  I also read some good books this summer that were very much for pleasure, not work. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi was mind-boggling (in a good way, I think) and I quite enjoyed Emily Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines. 

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

My official answer to this is that I’d go back to have a raucous dinner party with some of the Victorian sex radicals I studied as part of my PhD. However, the truth is that I’d go back to 1997 and watch the Spice Girls at Wembley again.

What’s your must-do Bristol experience?

I’m pretty new to Bristol so don’t have many suggestions, but so far I’d recommend Pinkmans for donuts and Bakesmiths for cinnamon rolls. All the major food groups covered, what more do you need?

What are you working on next?

Loads of stuff!

I’m slowly making progress on the book, and I’m also working a new article on the concept of happiness and how this has been connected to ideas about good sex. I’m starting a new project which looks to encourage people to engage with queer history though playing games, and am also doing research into how we can help students transition from school to university.

Should keep me out of trouble for a little while, at least…

 

PhDone! With Dr. Jiayi Tao

In the latest in this new series, we talk to Dr. Jiayi Tao about her doctorate, recently completed in the department.

Under the support of the China Scholarship Council, Jiayi Tao carried out her PhD project at the University of Bristol, passing her viva in September 2021. Her research interests lie in the history of international humanitarianism and modern Chinese history.

portrait picture of Dr. Jiayi Tao

Hi Jiayi: first of all, congratulations on your successful viva! What was your doctoral research about?

My doctoral research focuses on the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA)’s operations in China (1943-1947).

It is a brief but crucial episode for us to understand the rise of non-western actors in the history of internationalism and that of humanitarianism. As the first executive organisation of the United Nations, UNRRA had a far-flung scope. It was aimed at solving various post-war problems through international cooperation.

Black and white photo of trucks being unloaded

UNRRA trucks and gasoline being unloaded in Changsha, capital of China’s Henan province (UNA: S-0801-0011-0001-00007)

While historians have highlighted UNRRA’s role in dealing with Europe’s refugee crisis in the aftermath of the Second World War, we still know little about UNRRA’s cooperation with the Chinese Nationalist government, at a time when China was released from its one and only task of resisting Japan, a task that had lasted for eight years.

The distinctiveness of the case of UNRRA in China also lies in the fact that China emerged in the post-war era as a fully sovereign state, after the 1943 abrogation of the so-called ‘unequal treaties’ with imperial powers.

My thesis not only explores the ambition and capability of Chinese nationalists to utilise international aid, but also shows the response of Chinese civil society to changing Sino-foreign relations and the experience of foreigners who worked for China’s post-war relief and rehabilitation undertakings.

How did you become interested in the history of UNRRA in China?

I was initially interested in the history of post-war China. My Masters dissertation looks at the staff reorganisation and post-war rehabilitation of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service in the mid-1940s.

This research led me to the topics of rising nationalism and anti-foreign, notably anti-American, sentiment in post-war China. Just before 1945, the United States was still China’s most powerful and reliable ally and enjoyed reputation among Chinese public. I want to understand this rapid change in Sino-foreign relations on the ground, and I find that the scholarship of modern Chinese history has been almost exclusively focused on the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949).

I then shifted my focus to the UNRRA China Programme and sought to situate this case study in a broader scholarship of international humanitarianism.

Let’s talk about the viva itself. What would you advise someone who is preparing for their own viva?

I would say: don’t have prepared answers or try to guess what the examiners will ask, as some viva questions will always be unexpected.

But I think it is useful to try to conclude your key argument and key conceptual contribution. This is a step back to look at your thesis thoroughly, not just as an author but also as a reader. There are other tips that can help build your confidence, such as reading your examiners’ work and being familiar with your own thesis.

I would quote my supervisor’s words of encouragement for anyone who is preparing for viva: you have worked on this research for years and read more widely in this field than anyone else… including your examiners. So, whatever your examiners ask, you will have something to say!

Lastly, keep in mind that viva is a constructive process!

What’s next for you, Jiayi?

I will soon start a post-doctoral programme in the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. It is a new but exciting challenge. And I am working on developing a chapter of my thesis into a journal article, as well as developing a book proposal.

We look forward to seeing this work out in the wild! Thanks for talking to us today!