Featured Historian: Janek Gryta

Dr. Janek Gryta  is a Lecturer in Modern European History. His research focuses on the Holocaust and its impact on postwar Communist Poland, but also Europe more broadly. He writes about the history and memory of death camps, and about heritage sites, museums and memorials, and has more recently starting exploring the histories of health spas in Communist Europe. His book Jews and Poles in the Holocaust Exhibitions of Kraków, 1980-2013: Between Urban Past and National Memory has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Hi Jan! Can you tell us what Jews and Poles in the Holocaust Exhibitions of Kraków is about?

This book analyses how the Holocaust has been remembered in Kraków, the cultural capital of Poland, from the 1980s onwards. There are many assumptions about the memory of the Holocaust in my home country. My colleagues often insist that it is an artificial memory imposed on Poles by Western Europeans after 1989. They claim that no one in the relatively anti-Semitic country wanted to remember the Holocaust and that Poles trying to join the European Union were asked (forced?) to ‘become more European’ by remembering the Jewish Genocide.

Tracing the history of the museum exhibitions in Kraków I tell a different story. I show how local activists have been working hard to recover the memory of the Holocaust from at least the early 1980s onwards. They wanted to use the memory of the suffering of Poles of Jewish origin to remind their compatriots that Poland was not always a monoethnic state and the openness and tolerance are important aspects of being Polish.

portrait of Dr. Janek Gryta

Happier times: a library!

How did you become interested in memory of the Holocaust?

I was always very interested in memory and its relationship with history.

From my early undergraduate years, I wondered how the research of professional historians is translated into what people know and remember about the past. I think I was always a bit frustrated with the fact the people don’t actually that know much…

When I approached my MA supervisor, Professor Jan Rydel from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, with that idea, he suggested looking into the memory of the Holocaust, as it is a socially very sensitive and important topic in Poland. It snowballed from there.

First, I looked into the history and memory of the Nazi death camps that were located in Poland. Then, I moved to a far more ambitious project. When I started my PhD, I had a vision of writing a complete history of postwar memory in three different Polish cities. Fortunately, my supervisor, doctor Ewa Ochman from Manchester, quickly popped that bubble and helped me shape my idea into something more manageable.

I ended up focusing on Kraków only, writing about the heritage sites, monuments and museums in the city. In the past couple of years, I worked only on the museums to finally publish the book.

What is the importance of the memory of the Holocaust today?

Remembering the Holocaust in Poland, but also across Europe, is important not only because it enshrines a tragic fragment of European past in stone. It is also used to redefine what does it mean to be Polish or, for that matter, European. The heroes of my story grapple with big questions: who were the people killed during the Holocaust? What do we owe them? Were the victims part of the Polish nation, were they Polish Jews? Or were they some different, separate group that only happened to live in Poland?

If we admit that some of those Jews were indeed Poles, we can ask what exactly is the definition of Polishenss? Does one have to be ethnically Polish to be part of the nation?

Moreover, if we say that Jews living in Poland were Polish, then we have to ask ourselves, have we done enough to help our co-nationals at the time of need? Thinking about the plight of minorities of the past, we can take a leap from the past to the present. Are we doing enough now to support members of our nation who are somehow not like us? Are we supporting, in fact, do we owe any support to present-day minorities?

Some of those questions are specific to Poland but people ask similar questions globally. Looking into how we failed Jews during the Holocaust can help us redefine obligations we have towards ostracized or suffering minorities in the present.

What advice would you give to a student interested in memory studies?

Be prepared to get disappointed.

Looking into how our societies fail to tackle problems from our pasts is hardly the most cheerful topic. You’ll have to be ready to get disenchanted with humanity on a daily basis.

On a more practical note, chose the strand that interests you the most. In memory studies, we can analyse space and memorials. We can tour museums. We can study films. It’s an interdisciplinary field which is in equal measures fascinating and daunting so be ready for a great (and challenging!) adventure.

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

A good dissertation is a submitted dissertation. A very good dissertation is a defended dissertation. Can I say that? Or is it giving a bad example and setting the bar low?

(Editor: You can say that, Jan.)

Ok. Well. It is true, though. As historians, we always push ourselves and always try to become better. There is always another book we can read, a different archival collection we can consult. Being able to stop in the right place is very important. We have to deliver something (an essay, a dissertation, a book) that is good. The best it can be at that particular moment in time. But we have to reconcile ourselves with the fact that our writing is never going to be perfect because ‘perefect’ doesn’t exist. And this is fine. Maybe master Yoda was wrong after all. Maybe trying is enough.

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

I’m half-minded to say the Witcher saga which I’ve revised last Autumn. I’m Polish so I feel I should promote Polish fantasy. But I also suspect this question is not about my procrastination strategies but about my scholarship. So, I think I’ll go with Leisure Cultures and The Making of the Modern Ski Resorts a fascinating edited volume about … the history of skiing. It has a chapter on skiing and James Bond which is the most amazing topic ever. But it is also an inspiring read about modernity, tourism and environment; a set of problems that are topical and important to a lot of us.

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

This is an easy one. I always wanted to experience life in a medieval castle. I’d have to choose the right moment very carefully though. More plagues, religious prosecution, sieges, famines are not something I want to face. If there was a moment in time when life was peaceful, stable and safe then I’d be in!

So maybe, this question wasn’t easy after all… 

Falafel King or Eat a Pitta?

Can I admit, I’ve never tried any of those? I know. Eat a Pitta is basically a Bristol institution. In fact, there is one just around the corner from my place so I should have visited. But there is also another place which is even closer to my flat and that is where I normally end up going: Pinkmans. Pinkmans is the place to try.

I’m Polish so I’m very picky when it comes down to bread. Pinkmans sourdough is amongst the best breads I’ve ever tried.

But what is truly addictive is their chocolate and salted caramel sandwich cookie…

What are you working on next?

Right now, I’m writing one last article stemming from my PhD project.

At the same time, I’m deciding on the next big project. I’m torn between three ideas as different as the memory of the Second World War, history of Carpathian spas, and history of persecution of Jews by ethnic Poles during the Holocaust in Kraków. So, to answer your question I can only say… watch this space!

Stranded in Antarctica

view of Shackleton's hut

Shackleton’s hut

Getting stuck in Antarctica is not quite as exciting as it sounds, writes Dr. Adrian Howkins.

Most of the time it involves checking monitors, being driving to and from the runway, and just sitting and waiting.  But at the very end of my recent extended stay at the US McMurdo Station I had an opportunity to visit Ernest Shackleton’s ‘heroic era’ hut at Cape Royds.

For a polar historian, it was an evening that made the delay seem worthwhile.

I was in Antarctica working with the soils team of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site.  We were visiting sites of former scientific field camps in this predominantly ice-free region of Antarctica to collect soil samples to see if we could detect any continuing environmental legacy of human presence, thirty or forty years after the structures were removed (the initial results suggests that we can).  It was a very productive and enjoyable season until bad weather and mechanical problems with the plane delayed my flight north to Christchurch in New Zealand for almost a week.

On what turned out to be my last evening in Antarctica, some colleagues from the McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER were flying by helicopter to Cape Royds on Ross Island to take samples of the soils and ponds around the site of the hut of Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-1909.  Knowing that I had done the training to be a ‘hut guide’ for entering the three historic huts in and around McMurdo Station (Captain Scott’s huts from the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, and Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds from the Nimrod expedition) they invited me along so that they could see inside.

Adrian Howkins poses in an Antarctic hut

Not as fun as it looks, or so Adrian claims.

I’d visited Shackleton’s hut a couple of times before on previous trips to Antarctica.  But the experience of stepping back in history as you enter the hut never gets old.

The Cape Royds structure feels light and airy, especially in comparison to Captain Scott’s two huts.  The different designs of these early twentieth century huts have been used to highlight the different leadership styles of these two famous Antarctic explorers, with Scott’s naval discipline reflected in the compartmentalised design of the Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans and Shackleton’s more egalitarian leadership style reflected in the more open plan layout at Cape Royds.

Such comparisons are not entirely fair, since Shackleton’s hut would have seemed a lot less light and airy when it was crowded with men in the middle of the darkness of the Antarctic winter.  But the architectural choices made by the two explorers can still tell us something about their differing approaches to Antarctic exploration.

Photo of shelves in Shackleton's hut, stacked with tins and provisions

Corned beef and lemons: a balanced diet

The Royds hut is full of the material culture of early twentieth century exploration, which has been painstakingly restored by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust.  Tins of corned beef, canned fish, and ‘Irish Brawn’ give us clues about their diet.  A jar of decayed pickled lemons demonstrates an awareness of the dangers of scurvy, which had blighted Shackleton’s first trip to Antarctica on Scott’s Discovery expedition.  Copious quantities of table salt hints at the need to preserve and eat penguin and seal meat as a supplement to the diet of canned food.

Less obvious as a historical source are the ice-covered ponds located near Shackleton’s hut. The biologist on the expedition, James Murray, collected samples of algal mats, which he deposited with the British Museum of Natural History on return from Antarctica.  The microscopic diatoms contained in these samples can be used to compare the Antarctic environment in the early twentieth century with the Antarctic environment today.  Most of the diatom populations in the ponds remain largely unchanged.  The only pond where there has been a major shift in diatom taxa is Pony Lake, immediately in front of the hut.  We initially thought that this might have been caused by the presence of humans at Cape Royds, but it appears that the change is more likely the result of fluctuations in the local penguin population.

close up of sampling from the algal mat in the pond at Cape Royds

Penguins did this?

As I flew back to McMurdo Station from visiting Cape Royds I reflected on the feeling of being delayed in Antarctica.

Home feels a lot further away when your efforts to get back are being frustrated, even just for a few days.  On Shackleton’s third expedition to Antarctica on board the Endurance, his ship sank and his men ended up spending four and a half months stranded on Elephant Island with only a small chance of rescue.

In the event all members of this expedition were saved, and Shackleton gained a reputation as the Antarctic explorer who ‘never lost a man’.  Getting back to Bristol a few days late pales in comparison to the experience of these early explorers, but it still offers a timely reminder of the power of the Antarctic environment to frustrate the best laid plans.

Featured Historian: Will Pooley

Will Pooley is Lecturer in Modern European History. His research explores popular cultures, folklore, and witchcraft in modern France. He is particularly interested in creative historical practices, such as history through games, theatre, poetry, art, and creative writing. 

What’s your new book Body and Tradition in Nineteenth-century France about?

The book is about trying to understand what it felt like to be an ordinary agricultural worker or artisan in nineteenth-century France. What were the bodily experiences, and how did ordinary people use their own bodies?

Headshot of Will PooleyTo answer those questions, I used this huge ethnographic archive collected by the folklorist Félix Arnaudin in a small area around his hometown, between about 1870 and 1914.

Arnaudin’s an interesting man in some ways, but what really interested me was the people he collected folklore from and photographed. I wanted to understand their stories, songs, and proverbs. So, I use the tools of comparative folklore to explore they talked about sex, work, and body parts.

What do werewolf stories, for instance, tell historians about how the rural population thought about identity and transgression? How does analyzing dialect speech help us to understand a bodily culture that was quite different from our own?

How did you become interested in Arnaudin and French folklore more generally?

I owe the interest in folklore to David Hopkin, who first suggested folklore as a research topic to me when I was a master’s student. I did a master’s thesis on one storyteller and singer from the Massif Central, an illiterate woman named Nannette Lévesque.

Book cover: Body and TraditionFor my PhD, I wanted to do something much more ambitious. I was going to compare three folklorists from southwestern France – Arnaudin, along with Jean-François Bladé, and an interesting folklorist named Antonin Perbosc, who had very unconventional politics, and collected a lot of obscene folklore. But when I was about 14 months into the PhD, I knew I would only have time to do Arnaudin’s work justice… so that’s how I ended up with the subject of this book.

What is the importance of this research today?

Everyone has a body: it’s the definition of being human. And one of the things about embodiment is that our own experience and expectations of the body can seem deeply ‘natural’ to us. The ways we use and talk about our bodies become automatic, invisible.

I’ve always thought that one of the things history can do is to challenge that seeming naturalness. Even our very recent ancestors felt differently in their skin. They described and understood their bodies differently. They had different expectations and fears of their flesh.

How different I am from a shepherd born in 1815 might not seem a burning issue, but I think that part of the value that history has for the wider society is that it highlights some of these differences, and makes them visible. It’s a reminder that what we experience as ‘normal’ for our bodies now is not necessarily what other people around us are experiencing. And that’s a message that some people need to hear more than others, because their unspoken assumptions are normalized and taken for granted in all sorts of ways in everyday life.

If bodies were different in the past, they can also be different now, and they will be different in the future. That’s the message I have always taken from work by scholars like Barbara Duden, Lyndal Roper, Annmarie Mol, and even Michel Foucault. 

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

There’s so much exciting work being done in the intersecting fields concerned with bodies in the past. I was always fascinated by the new work on anthropometrics, for instance, even though I never did any of that kind of research. Anthropometricians like Deb Oxley and Jane Humphries have used historical and archaeological records of body sizes and weights to investigate questions such as the effect that the Industrial Revolution had on the health of workers, or the ways that families divided limited resources when they did not have enough to eat…

But my advice for someone interested in the history of the body would be two things. First, get to grips with the philosophical and theoretical work on the body. When I started this project ten years ago, I found Lisa Blackman’s short introduction The Body pointed me in the direction of lots of useful things.

The other thing I think I would advise anyone who wants to be a historian of the body is to use practice as research. Cooking historical recipes, trying historical clothing, even imitating movements, gestures, and work can be a really important way of grappling with the difference of the past.

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

‘You’ve got enough.’

I have a running conversation with one of my colleagues at Bristol, Julio Decker, about not overdoing research. I’ve been working on a database of material collected from historical newspapers for the last six years, and I have too much material. But [in the time before COVID19] every few days, I [would] say to Julio, ‘I really want to go and visit this archive to find a few more cases’, or ‘I just need to spend a few hours nailing some of these details down in some online newspaper records’.

And Julio says to me, ‘Stop it. You’ve got enough.’

That’s great advice. There’s such a temptation to just keep collecting and hoarding material.

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

I really loved David Shields’ Reality Hunger, which was a present from a colleague, the playwright Poppy Corbett, who has been working with me on my latest project.

It’s a provocative book made up of lots of little short sections, organized into broadly thematic chapters. There are no quotation marks or footnotes, but the afterword explains that some of the material is actually taken from other writers. The book is about this hunger for reality that has dominated lots of cultural forms for the last generation or so – from memoir, to documentary, reality TV, and hip-hop.

I think it has a lot to say to historians about history as part of the same cultural impulse, a desire to ‘tell it like it really is’ but to do so in a way that is artful and compelling.

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

This is a tough one! I don’t think I would really much enjoy visiting many of the people I research. I’m not sure we would even be able to understand one another: I taught myself to read the Gascon dialect Arnaudin recorded folklore in, but I can’t speak it!

I’d be quite interested to attend a nineteenth-century criminal trial in France, though. I’m working on criminal trials at the moment, and sometimes the newspaper reports give vivid impressions of courtroom dramas. Sometimes you want to know more. It would be fascinating – as well as probably quite distressing – to sit in on one of those cases, and see how they played out.

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

Chilli Daddy’s is a Szechuan restaurant with a few branches, and a stall at St Nicholas’ Market.

If you haven’t tried it, you should definitely have the soup noodle first. They offer it in a spice rating of 1-5. I’ve never tried higher than 3!

What are you working on next?

The newspaper database and court cases are research from my current project on crimes of witchcraft in France from 1790-1940. It’s a big topic, and I’m halfway through an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant to work on ‘creative histories’ based on this material. You can read some of the things we’ve been up to here: https://creativewitchcraft.wordpress.com

Featured Historian: Victoria Bates

Dr. Victoria Bates is Senior Lecturer in Modern History, with research interests in the modern social history of medicine and the medical humanities.

A picture of Dr. Victoria BatesHi Victoria, could you start by telling us about  your new research project?

I have just started a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship called ‘Sensing Spaces of Healthcare: Rethinking the NHS Hospital’. The project rethinks healthcare environments through the body and the senses, focusing on how places have felt rather than how they have looked. The historical part of the project will consider how NHS hospital sensory environments (or ‘sensescapes’) and the perception thereof changed as a result of new design trends, architecture, materials, technologies, nature and human behaviours. This history is just one part of the research, though, which is a complex 4-7 year project with many components. As well as the historical and archival research, there is a strand of the project (led by the project RA – Rebecka Fleetwood-Smith) working on site in hospitals (Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and Southmead Hospital in Bristol). This part of the project will use participatory arts to understand and improve people’s sensory experience of hospital spaces.

How did you become interested in this area of research?

I actually get this question quite a lot because my PhD was on a quite different area of medical history (sexual forensics in Victorian Britain). The project has long roots, so I will try to keep the answer short but with apologies it is difficult to do so!

During my PhD I was co-lead on two projects together broadly called ‘Medicine, Health and the Arts in Post-War Britain’ that included a conference, exhibition, workshop series and edited collection. My interest in this area of research at first related to the roots of the ‘medical humanities’, as a named field of academic enquiry, and its relationship to the history of arts and health. I also became interested in the development of different professional areas (art therapy, hospital arts and the arts in medical education) and their use of similar language (the idea of ‘rehumanising’ medicine through the arts).

I was inspired to conduct further research: why was there a perceived need to ‘rehumanise’ medicine in the post-war period, and why was there a turn to the arts, as a tool to do so? In 2013 I received a small grant from the Wellcome Trust to conduct a small study of late twentieth-century multidisciplinary medical education in the UK. In 2014 I was awarded scoping funding from the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute to look at archives in the UK and USA relating to all three areas (art therapy; arts in medical education; art in hospitals). Of these topics, I found myself most drawn to the history of hospital arts; this subject opened up interesting questions about the relationship between arts, design, space and architecture.

I soon became immersed in spatial theory, new materialism, and sensory studies as well as in histories of art, architecture, and design. I found myself moving away from a human-centred approach to design and perception, and thinking more about space as dynamic and as co-produced between the different objects and people in it. Art is just one of these objects, so I moved my focus to the sensory as a better way to think about space and the ways in which it is made through interactions between people and environments. I was fortunate to receive University of Bristol Strategic Research Funding to develop this work (2017) and to spend a month as a visiting scholar at the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University in Montreal (2019).

Alongside this research I engaged in a couple of projects working with artists, designers, smell technicians and others. One of the projects involved designing a sensory prototype called InTouch and the other was about the non-visual aspects of nature and wellbeing, for which we created an ‘immersive experience’. These projects also got me thinking a lot more about the impact of my work and collaboration with non-academic partners, and is why my new project has a large design and prototyping element. Overall, I am always trying to push myself out of my comfort zone!

What is the importance of this research today?

Design is a pressing issue in healthcare. Poor hospital design impacts staff, patients and visitors, and critiques of hospitals are increasingly widespread. The project’s findings will feed into a rethinking of current and future hospital design, including the development of design interventions for healthcare environments.

The historical research can help us to rethink the root causes of perceived sensory problems. For example, my work so far on the history of hospital ‘noise’ has shown that it has long been defined in social terms rather than in terms of volume. Perceptions of noise have changed over time in line with societal change, ranging from attitudes to race or gender to ideas about privacy. Understanding the societal aspects of such change can help us to think more creatively about solutions to noise as more than an engineering problem.

The part of the project working with GOSH Arts and Fresh Arts at Southmead will pinpoint sensory challenges for specific types of hospital user/worker or hospital spaces, which might range from sensory under-stimulation to sensory overload. In turn, these challenges will form the basis for sensory design solutions through a prototyping and development process in collaboration with artists, designers, charities and NHS Trusts. These outputs will be produced with and of value to all those who use hospitals, from patients to professionals. We are also working with Architects for Health to develop a hospital building note around sensory design. Overall, the project offers a novel approach to the history of healthcare spaces that helps us to rethink hospital histories and their relevance to current-day design.

What advice would you give to a student interested in this area of research?

Talk to me! I would love to work with more PhD students or postdoctoral researchers interested in this area of research. I would be particularly keen to see some comparative or international work in this area.

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

I took Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations away for a weekend to read for leisure, but it turned out to be extremely relevant to my research. It has a section that captures her sensory experience of hospitals, and which addresses this subject explicitly in a way that I have never seen before. For example, she describes noticing the sound of air conditioning after weeks in hospital; the sound becomes extremely aggravating to her, but nobody else can hear it. I found it not only a really engaging book, but also a useful reminder that we need to think about the sensory environment of hospital as dynamic, and as different for every person in them (or even for the same person, on a different day).

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

I have never come up with a good answer to this question – how could you possibly choose from all of time and place? My possible answers have ranged from an iconic music concert to solving some great historical mystery or crime or visiting an extinct species. I know that I should pick something related to my research, but I do not think it would be a historic hospital if I wanted to return with my health intact… 

What’s your must-do Bristol restaurant?

I love Korean food, so Sky Kong Kong is my classic Bristol ‘go to’ when people come to visit – it is small and serves really interesting food, with a personal touch, as well as being very good value.

What are you working on next?

This UKRI project is going to take up most of my time for the next few years, so first job is to organise a launch event for it. I’m also co-leading a couple of really interesting, interdisciplinary networks funded by the Wellcome Trust: one on the senses and health/care environments and one on the intersections between medical and environmental humanities. We have lots of workshops, writing retreats and conferences coming up for those over the next two years and I will be really excited to see what comes out of our collaborations. Watch this space on both!

Featured Historian: Grace Huxford

Dr Grace Huxford is Senior Lecturer in Modern History. She is a social historian of modern Britain, specializing in the Cold War period and with particular interest in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Korean War. She is an oral historian and currently conducting an oral history of British military communities in Germany (1945-2000). She was recently interviewed on BBC Radio 3 about the project as part of a special programme on post-war Germany, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – you can listen to the interview here.

Grace Huxford

Hi Grace, can you start by telling us what you are working on at the moment? What’s the British Bases in Germany project about?

Between 1945 and 2019, Germany was home to many thousands of British service personnel and their families. Initially sent there as a post-war occupation force, the British military quickly became part of the frontline against a possible Soviet invasion. These bases form an important element of Britain’s post-1945 military history, but they were also unique and complex social communities. My project explores the experiences of those who lived and worked on the bases – not just service personnel, but their partners and families, as well as the wide range of support workers, professionals and volunteers who ended up there. My postdoctoral research assistant, Dr Joel Morley, and I interview people as part of this research – we’ve spoken to over 60 people so far with a range of experiences and memories. These interviews will form the foundation of our research and future publications.

How did you become interested in this area?

I’ve long had an interest in social history of the Cold War and my PhD and postdoctoral research examined the varying responses to the Korean War (1950-3) in Britain, which resulted in my book The Korean War in Britain: Citizenship, Selfhood and Forgetting (2018). The Cold War is such a long conflict, much of it about watching and waiting – no more so than in west Germany, where British and NATO forces trained for an invasion that never came. I was interested in how that situation affected people, from service personnel to their families and civilians on the bases.  I also came across many references to Germany in the material I looked at for my book on Korea: though no units were directly posted from Germany to Korea, I got the sense of how important Germany was for the British military. It was at the centre of a constellation of bases across world that had developed as part of imperial strategy and during the Second World War. Another aim of my research is to examine what living in Germany meant for people other than service personnel too. This is an important area of what is sometimes called Critical Military Studies – acknowledging that the military’s influence stretches far further than the lives of fighting troops alone.

What is the importance of the British bases project today?

Apart from a few remaining units and offices, British Forces in Germany closed its last bases in 2019. It’s therefore a really important moment to analyze their historical significance, as well as the impact Germany had on the British military and understandings of military life. One of the most fascinating aspects (and challenges) of using oral history as a method is that the present context shapes the interview too – so our project explores how people viewed British communities in Germany after the end of the Cold War and closing of the bases as well.

What advice would you give to a student interested in oral history?

Oral history has both practical and theoretical elements – you need to think about both when planning and analyzing interviews. There’s a great deal of helpful advice out there already on oral history: the Oral History Society (UK) has some great advice pages about getting started with oral history interviewing and important ethical and legal issues, like obtaining full consent and thinking about how you will store your eventual interviews. I also really like the Oral History Review’s blog, which has some great articles from oral historians reflected on all sorts of topics like recording equipment and personal dynamics, to suggestions of reading.

I’d also encourage students to think about the time available to them (and to their narrators) and to remember that quantity does not necessarily mean quality. Taking the time to interview one person, to really listen to what they have to say and to analyze their testimony with care can be just as rewarding (both personally and intellectually) as doing a huge number of interviews. Alistair Thomson, for instance, has reflected extensively on his interviews with one First World War veteran, Fred Farrall – to great effect.

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

On the recommendation of a colleague, I read Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel The Idiot. It’s a semi-autobiographical story of a woman’s first year at university – some very funny and moving parts, but also some interesting reflections on what language means and its limitations. Plus, I fully empathized with the line: ‘what was Cinderella, if not an allegory for the fundamental unhappiness of shoe shopping?’ I hate shoe shopping.

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

It will still be there in the morning.

 Which historical figures would you invite to a fantasy dinner party?

Tough question. I’d probably invite some of the people I came across in my book on the Korean War, particularly some of the British anti-war activists. The Chair of the Stevenage New Town Development Corporation, Dr Monica Felton, was sacked for visiting North Korea during the war, but she always claimed she ‘did it for Stevenage’. I suppose I’d like to ask more about that. I’d also invite some of her critics too though, for balance, including someone called Christine Knowles who worked with the families of British prisoners of war. It would certainly be an interesting evening!

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

I love the walk along the Avon Gorge to Pill. It’s about 7 miles from the university, across the Suspension Bridge and takes just over two hours. Pack your sandwiches and enjoy the views. Then pop into a pub at the end and get the X4 bus home. And if you’re feeling adventurous you can do the full 23 miles of the Avon path! http://www.riveravontrail.org.uk/

Cycle path - Pill to Bristol © Linda Bailey cc-by-sa/2.0 ...

What are you working on next?

I’m going to be writing up my findings from the British Bases in Germany project – a few articles and a book. I’m also writing/thinking more about the history of military childhood. I’d also like to research more about where I live in Bristol, so need to plan a trip down to Bristol Archives!

 

Forest 404: A Chilling Vision of a Future Without Nature

by Professor Peter Coates , Professor of American and Environmental History, University of Bristol

Binge-watching of boxsets on BBC iPlayer or Netflix is a growing habit. And binge-listening isn’t far behind. Podcast series downloadable through BBC Sounds are all the rage (with a little help from Peter Crouch). Enter Radio 4’s ‘Forest 404’ – hot off the press as a 27-piece boxset on the fourth day of the fourth month. This is something I’ve been involved in recently: an experimental BBC sci-fi podcast that’s a brand-new listening experience because of its three-tiered structure of drama, factual talk and accompanying soundscape (9 x 3 = 27).

Try to imagine a world in which not only forests but every last trace of the natural world as we know it has been erased (almost……). This eco-thriller by Timothy X. Atack (credits include ‘Dr Who’) is set in the 24th century following a data crash called The Cataclysm (404 is also the error message you get when a website is unavailable). The action follows lead protagonist Pan (University of Bristol Drama alumna and ‘Doctor Who’ star Pearl Mackie), a sound archivist who uncovers some recordings from the early 21st century that grab and intoxicate her.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a project with the world-famous, Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council), exploring wildlife filmmaking over the past quarter-century. We wanted to include and support a creative dimension going far beyond the project’s more strictly academic and historical elements. Something poetic and performative that could take the study of nature at the BBC into new territory, and away from the visual. But the core theme remains the same: the value of the natural world and its representation in cultural form. This haunting drama focuses on that cultural value very closely by exploring an alien and alienating future world without nature – a world where the only memory of its former existence is preserved in Pan’s sound archive.

This is a deeply historical approach that re-unites me with a piece of research I published some time ago on what I called the strange stillness of the past – how sounds, both human and non-human generated, were overlooked by most historians. Me and my partners at the BBC and Arts and Humanities Research Council see ‘Forest 404’ as part of an emerging research area known as the environmental humanities. The starting point of ‘enviro-hums’ is the conviction that a scientific perspective, no matter how important, cannot do full justice to our complex and many layered relationships with nature.

The humanities and arts also have a big contribution to make, especially in helping us to appreciate the value of what ecosystem services researchers call cultural services. This refers to the so-called non-material benefits we derive from the natural world – its aesthetic value (beauty), how it inspires imaginative literature, painting and music, its spiritual significance, and its role in forming cultural identities and giving us a sense of place. ‘Forest 404’ confronts us with the brutal possibility of a world not just without forests and trees but even lacking a conception of nature. And it makes us think about how that absence impoverishes us culturally as well as the more obvious ecological dangers we face.

Accompanying the podcast is an ambitious online survey devised by environmental psychologists at the University of Exeter and operated by The Open University. Data on how we respond to nature has previously concentrated on the visual. This focus on natural soundscapes will add a fresh dimension to what we already know about how contact with nature benefits our physical and mental wellbeing. So give the podcast a listen. Then please do the survey. It takes less than 10 minutes.

 

Why are Indian earthquakes missing from history?

Dr Daniel Haines is Senior Lecturer in Environmental History and principal investigator on the project ‘Broken Ground: Earthquakes, Colonialism and Nationalism in South Asia, c. 1900-1960′.

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I first started thinking about earthquake histories because of an accident. It was 2014. I had just started a new job at Bristol, and decided to teach an undergraduate course on natural disasters in South Asia. Looking for ‘good’ disasters to include as case studies, I stumbled across this piece by Roger Bilham about a huge earthquake in Assam in 1897.

The article focused on Tom LaTouche, a British scientist in Kolkata with the colonial Geological Survey of India. The head of the Survey, Richard Oldham, sent him up to Shillong in Assam, near the epicentre, to find out more about the quake. LaTouche wrote extensive letters, to his wife as well as his boss, detailing what he saw.

The letters contained plenty on physical effects, but more intriguing were the incidental references to how people had experienced the earthquake. Usually these were other Brits that LaTouche came across, but sometimes also Indians.

It was clear that the earthquake had been huge, frightening, and calamitous to people across hundreds of square miles.

Why had I never heard of it before?

Over the following couple of years, I dug more into South Asia’s earthquake history, and gradually realised that big, destructive earthquakes are a common occurrence along the Himalayan arc.

The Gorkha earthquake in Nepal in 2015 was a tragically immediate reminder. ‘You must be happy to have a big new disaster in your area, Dan,’ one of my students said shortly afterwards. I wasn’t. But I did notice how vast the media coverage was, even in Bristol, thousands of miles from Nepal. The same was true of other recent South Asian disasters – the 2010 floods in Pakistan, or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Earthquakes and other calamities are not just horrible. They are also big news. But where were the historical earthquakes in the literature?

An earthquake that flattened Quetta (now in Pakistan’s Balochistan province) in 1935 also killed roughly 30,000 people. I did my PhD research on the next-door province, Sindh, in the 1930s-1960s. Quetta’s population included numerous Sindhis, and Karachi was the chief destination for refugees evacuated in the weeks after the shaking. Yet I don’t recall coming across any substantial reference to the earthquake, either in primary sources or in history books.

The 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake is better known, partly because two of India’s key national figures, Mohandas K. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi and the Nobel laureate Rabinranath Tagore, disagreed sharply over how to interpret its meaning. Gandhi favoured reading the earthquake as divine punishment for what he termed the sinful practice of untouchability in the Hindu caste system. Tagore preferred a secular approach that focused on natural forces.

Even here, though, the focus has been on the intellectual clash between Gandhi and Tagore’s opposed worldviews. Although leaders and volunteers of the Indian National Congress were instrumental in organising relief and reconstruction in Bihar, only the Indian historian Tirthankar Roy has analysed the earthquake’s broader effects.

My current AHRC-funded research project, Broken Ground, is a partial attempt to correct the record. I’m investigating six earthquakes that shook various parts of colonial and postcolonial South Asia between the 1890s and 1950s, looking at their political, social and environmental ramifications. Such natural disasters are not only a humanitarian issue today, they were also an important part of the experience of colonialism, nationalism, and the post-colonial period for Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalis, Myanmar people and the British alike.

Looking beyond South Asia, earthquakes are surprisingly absent from environmental histories more generally. Historians have tended to focus on other types of hazard: storms, flooding, drought. These disasters usually recur much more frequently than major earthquakes, so it is easier – more satisfying? – to track the changing ways that humans and hazards have impacted on each other over time.

Meanwhile, a handful of historians have looked at the social implications of earthquakes, often with considerable literary and analytical success (find examples here and here). But these works tend to use post-earthquake reconstruction as a prism on local society and politics. The earthquakes themselves can seem more like jumping-off points for general history, rather than historical actors in their own right.

I’ve (just!) discovered Conevery Bolton Valencius’s compelling 2011 book on earthquakes in the early nineteenth century Mississippi Valley. Valencius argues that the earthquakes transformed the middle Mississippi region by turning the St Francis river’s hinterland –which had been a booming trading zone where Cherokees, Osages, Creole boatmen and white American settlers rubbed shoulders – into a swampy marsh. Contemporary American intellectuals wrote extensively about the quakes’ effects on the landscape and its inhabitants, but by the twentieth century this conversation was almost entirely forgotten. The quakes helped drive the region’s diverse population away, but subsequent frontier narratives cast the land as ‘always empty’. History had swallowed the earthquakes.

Perhaps the absence of South Asia’s earthquakes from historical narratives is also due to accidents of geography and timing. Assam’s two earthquakes, in 1897 and 1950, killed relatively few people directly (around 1,500 apiece) and did their worst damage away from the population centres of the plains. The 1905 event, centred on Kangra in today’s Himachal Pradesh, had a much higher death roll (about 20,000) but occurred up in the Himalayan foothills, a region which barely figures in the literature. The three earthquakes of the 1930s, in Bago (Myanmar), Nepal/Bihar and Quetta, coincided with the eventful rise of popular nationalism, the decline of colonial power, the Second World War, and then independence.

By studying all six of the earthquakes together, I hope to tell a coherent story about the changing relationship between the colonial state and its subjects, and between humans and the landscape that these earthquakes dramatically reshaped. Perhaps they were not as central to political changes in late-colonial India as I first thought. But they deserve a more prominent place in the region’s history.

 

A History of Bristol Reading List

Continuing our series of posts by new staff, Dr Mark Hailwood  (Lecturer in History 1400-1700) offers a ‘history of Bristol’ reading list.

 

Despite growing up just outside the city of Bristol, in nearby Portishead, my knowledge of the city’s history is pretty thin (my excuse is that I’ve always considered myself more of a rural historian). So, when I was appointed to my Lectureship here last summer I quickly took to twitter to canvas for suggestions of good books to fill me in. Now, I haven’t had the chance to read all of these yet, but taking inspiration from the ‘Marooned On An Island Monographs’ series that runs on my own blog, the many-headed monster, I thought I would share the top 5 suggestions that I have narrowed my initial to-read list down to. Of course, my choices reflect my own interests – both chronologically and thematically – so there is a strong early modern and ‘history from below’ flavour to the list.

 

1) David Harris Sacks, The Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450-1750 (1991) 

The story of Bristol’s transformation from a small medieval commercial city to an entrepot of early modern capitalism is, obviously, an important part of the city’s history – and Harris Sacks’ book is admired for approaching it in a way that identifies the connections between the economic, religious, political, social and cultural developments that made it possible. It’s big, it’s bold, and very much a traditional academic monograph, so it might not be the easiest place to start for uncovering Bristol’s history, but it is regarded as the go-to history of early modern Bristol – even if my colleague Richard Stone’s forthcoming book is set to challenge some of its key arguments (watch this space).

2) Madge Dresser, Slavery Obscured: The Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port (2001)

Bristol’s emergence as a major port city was in no small part a consequence of its involvement in the slave trade, and much of the city’s urban growth and built environment were funded by the profits of slavery. Although a number of more recent debates about prominent buildings in the city being named after individuals with strong links to slavery have achieved a high profile, the place of slavery in the city’s history has long been overlooked. But the research efforts of Madge Dresser have done as much as anyone to change that, and this important book provides a detailed account of Bristol’s relationship with slavery that is a must-read for anyone who wants to make an informed engagement with these debates.

3) Steve Poole and Nicholas Rogers, Bristol from Below: Law, Authority and Protest in a Georgian City (2017) 

As an unashamed advocate of ‘history from below’ I was very excited to hear about the publication of this book within a few weeks of my arrival in my new post. Poole and Rogers focus on the city’s ‘golden age’ between the Restoration and the riots of 1831, and explore the way that ordinary people contributed to the making of their city – often through conflicts with the mercantile elite that formally governed the city. Riots, protests, class conflict, the lives of ordinary men and women – it’s the kind of classic social history that any social historian wants to read about the place where they live and work.

 

4) Carl B. Estabrook, Urbane and Rustic England: Cultural Ties and Social Spheres in the Provinces, 1660-1780 (1998).

Although the title doesn’t give it away, this is a book focused on Bristol and its environs. Having grown up in the latter – in Estabrook’s definition the settlements lying within 12 miles of the edge of a major city, in Bristol’s case the area sandwiched between the Cotswolds, Mendips and Severn – I’m interested in this book’s exploration of the relationship between city and countryside in the age of the ‘urban renaissance’. For Estabrook the rural / urban divide ran deep in English culture, and even the inhabitants of rural settlements that sat in the shadow of the big city never felt at ease when they visited it. Hopefully I won’t suffer the same fate…

5) Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk (2017)

A bit of a curveball here – this is a work of historical fiction. But these too can help us to connect with the history of our homelands, right? Set during the early 1790s, against the backdrop of a Bristol house-building boom and the fallout of the French Revolution, Lizzie Tredevant negotiates married life and the loss of her radical writer mother. Probably best if I don’t give too much more away, but it is a skilful imagining of life in the Georgian city, and if nothing else there are lots of nice descriptions of walks on Downs in all weathers to inspire you to get out and explore the city for yourself.

If you’ve got your own suggestions of good books on Bristol’s history then please leave a comment below, as I’d love to have them.

A Historian in Antarctica

As the first of a series of blog posts from our new lecturers in 2017/18, Dr Adrian Howkins (Reader in Environmental History) reflects on a Christmas in Antarctica and introduces some of his research interests:

One of the best ways to guarantee a white Christmas is to travel to Antarctica.  Over the past few years, while family and friends back home open presents and tuck into roast dinners, I’ve found myself at the bottom of the world conducting fieldwork in a place called the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the largest ice-free region on the Antarctic continent.  Winter in the northern hemisphere is summer in the southern hemisphere, and this is the only time of year when it’s really possible to travel to Antarctica.  Getting there involves a long flight to Christchurch, New Zealand, and then eight hours on a LC-130 military aeroplane which lands on the sea ice close to McMurdo Station, the largest scientific research station in Antarctica.  After several days of safety briefings and orientations, fieldwork begins by flying forty miles in a helicopter out to the McMurdo Dry Valleys, where a handful of small field camps provide accommodation and laboratory space for the scientists studying this unique landscape.

What is a historian doing conducting fieldwork in Antarctica?  That is a question I’ve asked myself on more than one occasion, especially when the skies cloud over, the wind picks up, and it starts to feel really cold.  The short answer to the question is that since 2011 I’ve been one of a number of principal investigators on the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research site, which has been studying the cold-adapted ecosystems of this region for the past twenty-five years.  I became involved when the project was looking for someone to integrate some sort of “human dimensions” research into the scientific work of the site.  I suggested that in much the same way as the relatively simple ecosystems of the McMurdo Dry Valleys offer interesting opportunities for studying ecological processes, the relatively simple human history of the region offers environmental historians an ideal case study for examining the interactions of human activity, ideas, and the material environment over time, and for integrating this research into the ecological work.

A longer answer to the question of what a historian is doing conducting fieldwork in Antarctica takes me back to my graduate work at the University of Texas where I wrote a doctoral dissertation on the history of a dispute among Britain, Argentina, and Chile over the sovereignty of the Antarctic Peninsula region (on the opposite side of the continent to the McMurdo Dry Valleys).  Following an undergraduate degree in modern history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland I’d gone to Texas to study the history of British relations with Latin America, and I came across the dispute in Antarctica as an extension of the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas conflict between Britain and Argentina.  While conducting my research, I came to realise how important science and the environment were to the political history of the Antarctica Peninsula region, and I embraced environmental history as an approach that could integrate these different elements.  In my first teaching position at Colorado State University I published my dissertation work as Frozen Empires: An Environmental History of the Antarctica Peninsula (Oxford University Press, 2017) and I broadened my research to include the Arctic in a book titled The Polar Regions: An Environmental History (Polity Press, 2016).

This past Antarctic season in the McMurdo Dry Valleys I have been working with soil ecologists on a project to understand the environmental legacy of former field camps.  Field camps began to be established in the late 1950s by US and New Zealand teams working in the valleys, and then some have been removed as scientific priorities have changed and environmental awareness has grown.  This project began with historical research to collect images and reports that document the location and activities of these camps. We then used historical images to help locate the sites, and then took a series of soil samples in a triangular grid around the most impacted areas.  This work involved scooping samples of soil into a plastic whirlpak bag and then taking them bag to the laboratory at McMurdo Station to prepare for biological and chemical analysis.  Through a combination of historical and scientific research we hope to learn more about the impact of human activities in the region, which may be useful for managing the environment more effectively into the future.

Alongside my work in Antarctica, I have also developed an interest in the history of parks and protected areas more generally.  I have co-edited a collection titled National Parks Beyond the Nation: Global Perspectives on “America’s Best Idea (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), which examined how US national park ideas both influenced and were influenced by the experiences of other parts of the world.  I’ve worked on a number of projects involving US National Parks, including Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska.  At Rocky Mountain National Park we developed a program called “Parks as Portals to Learning,” which involved taking environmental history students up to the park for a week of intensive study based on the question of how insights from academic history can be incorporated into the practical management challenges of running a park.  I’m hoping to be able to develop something similar for students at the University of Bristol over the next few years.

A common theme in much of my recent work has been to ask how environmental history research can help to address some of the social and environmental challenges facing the world in the twenty first century.  In Antarctica, for example, it’s difficult to develop effective environmental management strategies without looking at the legacy of past human activities.  This concept of “applied environmental history” connects well with the University of Bristol’s strengths in public history, and offers opportunities for reaching out to partners beyond the University, at a variety of different scales.  It is an exciting time to be doing environmental history, and I’m very pleased to be at the University of Bristol.

Dr Adrian Howkins.