Enduring War: A review

So I am currently in London, part way through the first of a mad pair of weeks encompassing a meeting, two conferences, a couple of days in the archives and two days with the BBC at the Great Yorkshire Show. To ease myself in, I began Monday morning with a wander around the Enduring War exhibition at the British Library.

This is an ambitious exhibition, given the size of the space it occupies. Divided in to six sections, from the ‘The Call to Arms’ to ‘Grief and Memory’, the exhibition not only tries to tell a complete story of the war, but as a contributing partner in the Europeana 1914-1918 project, attempts to do it from an international perspective. Inevitably, some things are missed, while others are under-analysed. For instance, the caption to one photograph ends with the statement ‘There was an increase in Protestant church attendance in Britain in the first weeks of the war but, for a number of reasons, this was not sustained.’ There is no indication as to possible reasons why church attendance was not sustained, leaving this viewer with a sense of incompleteness.

In fact, the section on ‘Faith Under Fire’ is possibly the least satisfactory of the six. The claim about the prevalence of protective charms and rituals is never really demonstrated, in part because the use of the library’s resources places limits on what is available for display. The original manuscript of Ruper Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ in the first section is extraordinarily moving, but there is no equivalent of, say, Adolphus, the mascot who has become the face of the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds. Excellent use is made of posters, particularly in illustrating the Russian perspective, and the use of ANZAC trench journals makes a double point with an elegant lightness of touch. Nonetheless, the material on display does not consistently feel capable of carrying the full breadth of the story that the exhibition is attempting to tell. Indeed, so broad is the narrative that it isn’t always evident what the curators understood by the exhibition’s subtitle, ‘Grief, Grit and Humour’.  All three elements are addressed episodically but don’t really feel as if they are the central thread of a coherent narrative.

Having entered the exhibition from the side, and followed the chronological path to the dead end around a corner in the separate space that houses the section on ‘Grief and Morning’, I ended my visit by deliberately walking back around to look at the audiovisual displays at the front entrance. And here the exhibition managed to produce what was for me its most powerful and moving display through its series of video booths of montages of postcards from the front, the accompanying audio just the messages scrawled on each one. Very simple, yet entirely mesmeric, the displays demonstrate the art of the everyday that, as much as the war poets, artists and musicians whose work is, once again, presented throughout the exhibition, defined the First World War as a profound cultural experience in Britain and across Europe.

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Library time

So, another hiatus in posting here while I have done battle with my next conference paper, this one on representations of shell shock as immaturity across 20th century British popular culture.  It is the third paper I have written on the subject.  Every time I write the proposal for the paper I think what a brilliant idea it is; every time I actually sit down to write the paper itself I find myself doing vicious intellectual battle and wondering how I could think there was any mileage in the concept at all.  Still, I must be doing something right as both the previous tilts at this particular windmill have been published. And this is a conference paper, so I am going to leave it intentionally (honest, guv!) rough in the hope of getting useful feedback.  Given that the conference is being attended by what feels like all the world-class historians of shell shock available, this could be either a very good (or very, very bad) idea.  We will see. I am going to write the second draft next week.

This seemingly endless struggle has been interspersed with some work more directly related to what I am paid to do.  I spent a fabulous week in the Army Medical Services Museum (about which I intend to write a much longer blog shortly) and gave a paper to the Legacies of War seminar series. (Like the majority of those papers, it will be on-line soon here.)  This was another rough draft and the feedback was immensely useful so I am hopeful that, when I actually get around to rewriting and expanding the paper, there will be some hope of publishing it.

Library Shoot 58 (2)I also spent a really enjoyable Saturday morning in Special Collections, working with writers from Snowgoose.  Legacies of War is working with writers from the project to research a series of monologues based on the civilian experiences of the First World War in Leeds which will be performed on camera and available for festivals, as an educational tool and to view on-line.  The Saturday session I helped facilitate was an opportunity to introduce the writers, who were unfamiliar with working in historical archives, to the holdings of the Liddle Collection.  The Liddle catalogue is something of a mystery, even to professional historians with archival experience.  Add to that the complexities of copyright law and queries over the reproduction of images and the potential for intimidation is quite high.  So it was a complete joy to help this group quite literally get their hands on original documents and objects. Library Shoot 42 Library Shoot 24 (2)An hour in and everyone was engrossed in their research, a sight I found remarkably rewarding.  It was also a pleasure to be able to offer advice to someone whose research interest is likely to take her beyond Special Collections and into the city archives and other resources that I am not familiar with.  Helping someone to plot the map for a research journey is almost as exciting as plotting your own, I discover.

Library Shoot 53 (2)

My work for Research for Community Heritage has, to date, been somewhat confusing and occasionally unnerving but the interactions with the community research groups have, as this last experience exemplifies, been enormously rewarding in unexpected ways.  (On a similar note, some work I have done with Headingley LitFest has made me view Park Square in Leeds in an entirely new light.)  There are aspects of the project that make an unanswerable case for community engagement by the academy. More thought needs to be given about the ways in which such engagement integrates with other academic responsibilities, especially for early careers researchers, but the engagement itself offers enormous potential rewards for all involved.

(Photo credit: All photographs are by Laura Whitaker of www.definingbeauty.co.uk)

AHRC ‘Connected Communities’ Showcase: 12th March, 2013

I have been spending the last several weeks frantically writing, something that may come as a bit of a surprise to any regular readers out there.  At the beginning of February I realized that I had three months to write three conference and/or seminar papers, plus several planning documents, so I have had to get my head down.  The results of my industry are drafts of a variety of things, including a call for papers that you will be seeing a lot more of in the future, I suspect.

In between writing and the general demands of family life, however, I also seem to have spent a great deal of time in London, mainly in relation to the AHRC and HLF-funded Research for Community Heritage project that I am now a postdoctoral research fellow for (this is in addition to my Wellcome fellowship which is on-going).  The project is part of phase two of the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme which is funding some 200 projects bringing together community groups and academic institutions in a variety of ways.  After a session on public engagement for postdoctoral fellows which I attended last week, this week I found myself in London again for a showcase event which allowed me to get a much better sense of the breadth of the programme, as well as bringing me into contact with an extraordinary range of highly engaged (and engaging) individuals.

The day started with a series of short presentations from representatives of the AHRC and the programme’s leadership fellows, followed by a key note address from David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science.  This sought to emphasize the importance he, as minister, placed on humanities and social science research which he believed to be a ‘bold, significant, world-class participant in UK research’.  He also labelled as ‘unfair’ the impression that the humanities had less connection with the wider world than the sciences.  I couldn’t help feeling there was an element of the lady protesting too much with this. Should the government really need to reassure arts and humanities researchers that they are just as important as all the big scientists and their funding, ring-fenced with funding for the sciences was safe?  If so, it must be down to the impression given by the policies and pronouncements of said government.  The message was also rather undermined by the answer given to a question from the floor about how arts and humanities researchers might influence policy, to the effect that ministers might be accessed via the chief scientist of each department.  Apparently this included social scientists.  I am not sure this was of much comfort to various groups whose excellent work in the arts, often in collaboration, was on display.

The bulk of the remainder of the day was an opportunity to explore the projects whose work was showcased around the venue and participate in breakout sessions.  I missed the session which involved weaving small circlets but did go to a showing of the Imperial War Museum’s film ‘Whose Remembrance?’, based on their on-going project into the black and colonial history of the world wars.  This was fascinating, not only because it tied so beautifully into last week’s Legacies of War seminar from Santanu Das, but also because of the questions it raised about how communities can be encouraged to engage with archives which, all too often they feel excluded from by institutional gate-keepers.  Given that communities are often the very sources that these archives spring from, this is something that needs to be tackled, something that I hope to contribute to through my work with groups involved in Research for Community Heritage.  Making sure that the Liddle and Bamji Collections here at Leeds are better known and fully exploited by all interested communities has suddenly become a very important part of what I am trying to do.  And I was very excited to make the acquaintance of  Cliff Pereira who worked on the Bamji Collection when it was still held in Sidcup.  My one reservation about the session was the rather London-centric nature of the discussion of archival resources.  Given the community-based nature of the research that Connected Communities supports, local and regional archives and their accessibility to community groups really needs to form part of the discussion.

Outside the breakout sessions there were 30-odd stands presenting information about a huge variety of projects.  Many involved mapping and I had long and potentially fruitful discussions with researchers from Birmingham and Bristol about how to present images and information relating to historical geography in an interesting and accessible way.  I ended the day with a fascinating conversation with Paul Crawford from University of Nottingham about health versus medical humanities which gave me some exciting new ideas about how to frame aspects of my own research.  The focus on community activity and expertise within healthcare implicit in health humanities is something that chimes with my long-term interests in the role of families in supporting disabled service personnel.

The formal schedule concluded with round-table discussion about how the Connected Communities project  could evolve in order to achieve ends that will include, as hoped by Keri Facer, one of the programme’s leadership fellows, a change in how universities approach and structure research in the arts and humanities.  Few definite conclusions were reached, but points were raised about interactions with other funding bodies, the need for spaces to share failures and discuss difficulties as well as celebrate achievements, international connections between communities, how resources can be made visible and accessible and, again, that question of how the research being undertaken might affect public policy.

All in all, it was a stimulating, if exhausting day (not helped by the cancellation of my train ‘due to technical failure’ which made it that much longer).  Quite apart from all the ideas generated for the various research projects I am engaged with, and the potential for at least one, if not two, new sources of funding for the Legacies of War project, it was my first experiment with live tweeting a professional event.  I am still not sure I have worked out how to do it.  I certainly wouldn’t want to try at an academic conference as I think I might do injustice to a denser, more complex argument simply through lack of proper concentration.  And I owe a huge apology to my friends and family who, through the linking of my twitter feed and Facebook page, were subjected to a stream of posts of little or no interest outside my professional sphere.  Yet again the question of the work/life balance raises its ugly head in the most unexpected places.

The Wood for the Trees

The Wood for the Trees

 

And what, you may well ask, has been happening with my official research project in between watching Parade’s End and musical tributes to Richard III?  Quite a lot as it happens, mainly involving list making.

 

The terrifying and exhilarating part of being at this early stage of a research project is the sheer number of potential sources and useful books that emerge as you start to delve into the subject.  No one, and I really mean no one, has written about the RAMC Other Ranks.  There is plenty of stuff about doctors and nurses but stretcher bearers and orderlies and ambulance drivers get a passing mention by academics or are completely subsumed in discussions of conscientious objectors.  Which isn’t to say that they didn’t write about themselves.  Many did, most notably Ernest Hemingway and Ward Muir, as well as many, many others whose letters and memoirs were never published but are now accessible in various archives.  All of which leaves me with a book and sources list that is now running to seven single-spaced pages and counting.

 

Even more excitingly my list making has uncovered the pleasing fact that the Special Collections at the Brotherton Library now includes the recently donated Bamji Collection of medical books relating to the First World War.  Having applied for my grant on the basis of the well-known Liddle Collection of First World War documents and artefacts, to suddenly have all this directly related material at my fingertips feels like serendipity.  Part of me is aching to get into the archive to start uncovering what it there.  Part of me is also scared.  How much of this mass of material will actually be useful remains unknown and it will take a lot of very hard work to properly investigate, assimilate and understand it all.  As I say, terrifying and exhilarating.

 

So I have been procrastinating on actually digging into the archive by making other lists: lists of speakers for a seminar I am helping to organise (although one of my co-organisers has proved to be list-maker extraordinary and put my efforts shame), lists of potential contributors to a special issue of a journal that I am trying to put together, lists of related projects and the bodies that might help fund them, lists of potential topics to be included in a call for papers for a conference I want to run.  At some point I am going to have to start actually doing something about these lists – reading books, sending e-mails, writing articles and reviews.  But that will have to wait for next week.  In the meantime I am revelling in all the exciting possibilities that my lovely lists represent.