This week’s object, isn’t really an object, but a group of animals. Our final year undergraduate student Ben Eagle explains how these earthworms have inspired his history dissertation.
Earthworms have only recently become an historical interest of mine although I have had a soft spot for them, working and walking in the fields of the Essex landscape, as long as I can remember. As some of the oldest animals on the planet they fascinate me as much as they fascinated Charles Darwin who published a lengthy treatise on earthworms in 1881. These particular worms, a family of 80 eisenia foetida, a species of compost worm, were kindly given to me by a fellow Bristol undergraduate. They connect me to the soil and to the past, both personally and intellectually and they have inspired me to both pursue environmental history and to push boundaries in my writing, particularly relating to how we can study the natural sciences alongside the humanities.
The fourth object in our series is a picture frame purchased by Dr Jill Payne at Ashton Gate Flea Market a couple of years ago. It came with a free photograph…
I bought this with the aim of re-purposing its honestly-crafted little frame, barely registering the faded image itself. Once home, though, the emptiness of its provenance resounded loudly. I like uncluttered surfaces, but these craftspeople and their business proprietor (?) defy me to either remove them from their casing or put them out of sight: a scant trace of something that someone, somewhere, sometime, wanted to record.
This week Dr Victoria Bates shares one of her Grandfather’s pennies and her interest in telling the stories of things often overlooked.
This coin from 1902 is one of my late grandfather’s coin collection, with which I was always fascinated as a child. I spent many an hour inventing stories about the journey of these coins, the different people who had spent them, what goods and services they had been used to purchase, and how they made their way to my grandfather. This particular coin is also representative of my more general approach to history. It has never been the big histories (or the valuable, shiny coins) that capture my imagination but rather the supposedly prosaic histories (and worn, common coins), which bring with them the stories of how people thought, lived and behaved in the past.
by Dr. Andrew Flack
Taking ‘Animals and Empire’ from the seminar room to the computer screen was a process that taught me a great deal about the nature of public impact and, in the absence of my having previously led a diverse team of scholars, the importance of effective communication and collaborative cohesion within and beyond the academy.
‘The Empire Needs Men!’, World War One Recruitment Poster (c. 1915).
Arising from a conference hosted by the University of Bristol in June 2013, it quickly became clear that the array of cutting edge research papers delivered had significant potential to both set the evolving agenda for research into human-animal interactions in the modern world, as well as having the ability to engage the public in an innovative arena of academic endeavour with substantial implications for the contemporary world. In the months before the conference, the Animal History Museum, based in Los Angeles, contacted me to propose a new form of exhibit for their webspace; that which brought an academic perspective on human-animal interactions to the public in an engaging and accessible way.
One of the major challenges in taking a body of research into the public arena was ensuring cohesion across the exhibition so that there was a clear narrative. Each author arrived with their own particular research area and style of communicating the fruits of their research. Ensuring consistency across contributions, without stifling the individuality of the pieces, was a process that was ongoing throughout the almost year-long curation process. Furthermore, writing for public dissemination is quite different from writing for a journal or scholarly monograph, and a central part of my role was ensuring that research findings were clearly and engagingly communicated, while retaining the clear sense of scholarly integrity that was to characterise the exhibit as one with roots in serious and rigorous academic research.
‘Animals and Empire’ is the first exhibit of its kind to be commissioned by the Animal History Museum.Both the Museum and the exhibition team were learning as they went along, assessing what was working and what was not, and this required a great deal of patience and persistence (for which I am eternally grateful…!). The Museum hopes that this exhibit will provide a rigorously tested model for future exhibits of this nature.
Following on from our first object last week, our Head of Department Prof. Tim Cole describes how a piece of litter discarded in the Lake District sparked an interest in the past…
I glimpsed this bottle walking along a sunken lane in the southern Lake District when I was eight years old. I don’t know if that is when I decided to become a historian, but it certainly was part of a process of fascination with the past. Unearthing it from beneath moss and soil felt like connecting not just with the ‘past’ but with the unknown person who tossed this bottle to the side of the track a hundred or so years earlier. It is the everyday actions of ordinary people – in often times extraordinary contexts – that has occupied, and continues to occupy, my historical imagination.
As part of the Past Matters festival of history that we have been running at the Department over the last few years we are focusing on objects. Things that have meaning and value to people. Over the coming year some of our PhD students and members of staff will be working with different communities and groups in Bristol on a variety of exciting projects. As part of the those projects we will be producing postcards of objects important to the people they will be working alongside. And you’ll be able to follow them on this blog, under the title Past Matter (see what we’ve done there…). But whilst these various projects get off the ground, we thought we’d start with ourselves. So, over the next few weeks we’re going to be posting photographs of some of our own objects, taken by our Deas Scholarship PhD student Vesna Lukic, with brief explanations of why they are important to us.
To kick things off, here’s Dr Jonathan Saha, specialist in colonial Burmese history, and his Burmese bookend…
This bookend was given to me by a friend who studied with me when I did my MA in Asian History. It was made in Burma and is a Chinthe, a mythological lion-like creature. His father had been in the country many decades earlier and had acquired it. It reminds me of the camaraderie of my MA experience, and the friends I have made on the journey to becoming a historian. It is also a tangible artifact from Burma’s past that, appropriately enough, keeps my academic history books upright on their shelf.