Doing some hands-on history

This week, I started volunteering at the Centre for Computing History, a small museum here in Cambridge that records the social history of computers and computing, especially in Britain. It has a load of old arcade machines and games consoles that you can play, a classroom where they run computing workshops for students, and lots and lots of items from the history of computers. If you’re at all interested in the history of technology, you should definitely go.

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The infamous ET landfill story, including some of the actual landfill!

Anyway, in addition to the usual setting up tables and moving things around, I’ve been working behind the scenes sorting out archive and collections material — which at present just means storing and labeling stuff in a new storage space. But that provokes some very interesting thoughts about digital heritage, which I hope to write about in more detail soon. For now, I just recommend that you check it out if you haven’t!

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This 1970s office represents the era when computers started to appear in ordinary offices.
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Doing some hands-on history

Trip report: Discarded History

Seems like ages since I’ve done one of these, doesn’t it?

The little exhibition space attached to the Cambridge University Library doesn’t seem to get a huge number of visitors; it’s mainly people who are already visiting the library, I think. I understand why: it’s not very big and it’s not really near anything else. But that’s kind of a shame, because every time I’ve been there they have good exhibits.

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Today I was at the library returning some books, and since I had half an hour to spare before a tutoring session I decided to see what was on downstairs. I wasn’t disappointed. The exhibit currently there (until 28 October) is of manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah, and it’s fascinating. This collection of hundreds of thousands of Jewish manuscripts accumulated over centuries in a genizah, which is a special storeroom where worn-out manuscripts are kept, sometimes in preparation for being buried in a cemetery. These ones weren’t buried, though; they just piled up in the synagogue storage for centuries until being brought to the UK in the 19th century.

Now, the original scholars who identified and collected these texts were interested in their religious content, but that’s not what this focuses on. There are appeals for charity, prenuptial agreements, lists of brides’ dowries, letters, government documents, school exercises, doodles, cheques, family letters, medical recipes, good luck charms and lots of other documents relating to the daily life of the Jewish community in medieval Cairo and elsewhere. Some of them show the Jewish community being mistreated by the Muslim authorities or by the crusaders — Jews from the community of Ascalon are trying to raise money to ransom prisoners taken by the Franks, for instance — but others depict a society in which Muslims, Christians and Jews are coexisting peacefully if sometimes uneasily.

Text-based exhibits are interesting, aren’t they? I mean, I don’t read Hebrew, let alone Hebrew on restored medieval documents. These things could have been napkins for all the difference it makes to me. Yet I found the stories they revealed much more compelling for being in the presence of the original documents.

I think my favourite story from the exhibit was that of Karima al-Wuhsha, a wealthy Jewish businesswoman who was having an affair with a married man. When she became pregnant, she was worried that he would deny paternity so she arranged for witnesses to catch them in the act. She got kicked out of her synagogue by scandalised neighbours, but documents attest to the pious generosity shown in her will.

Anyway, it’s just a one-room exhibit, so you probably won’t go out of your way to see it, but if you ever do find yourself around the UL, it’s well worth stopping in.

Also, the free guide that you pick up from the rack by the door contains tons of source text rather than just pretty pictures. Recommended!

Trip report: Discarded History

Trip report: Colour

Today we headed over to the Fitzwilliam Musem for Colour, its exhibit of illuminated manuscripts with special reference to, er, colour. It was good!

Like other Fitz exhibits we’ve been to lately (especially Death on the Nile), it included a lot of focus on the technology and materiality of manuscript illuminations, rather than just considering them aesthetically. That’s always something I’m interested in, so good there, although I would have liked to have seen something on their social role. I mean, obviously they were high-status gifts, but how were they used, how displayed?

There were also some good mentions of the afterlives of these items, being passed around, cut up, copied, forged, sold to art collectors, vandalised to get the previous metals and so on. All very interesting.

I think my favourite piece was the alchemical scroll of George Ripley. I had seen images from it (or from others like it), but they don’t give you the impression of how huge it is. You really have to see it.

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There was also a very cool image of the Battle of Clavijo on a Spanish patent of nobility that looked like something out of a Warhammer book (I know, I know, other way around), and a lovely image of a melancholic man. Anyway, if you’re in the area, you should go and see it; it’s informative, it’s not too large and it’s free.

Trip report: Colour

Trip report: Alice in Wonderland

I was feeling sorry for myself about how I didn’t have anything to write about today. “Gee,” I thought, “I wish I’d just done a single post on the Kibbo Kift Kindred and save the British Library’s Alice in Wonderland exhibit for a second post.” And then I remembered that that’s what I did. Nice.

Anyway, on Saturday I had some time to kill because my wife was buying some new skates for roller derby. The skate shop is near St Pancras station, so I popped over to the British Library and checked out the Alice exhibit. It isn’t very big — it’s not in the big exhibit space, but the little one up on the mezzanine level thingy.

So, it’s the British Library, which means it’s got all kinds of cool stuff like the manuscript and the rare first edition with crappy printing. It’s not in a very big space, and since I was visiting at lunchtime on a Saturday, it was very crowded. I only skimmed the later arty stuff, but even if I had done the whole thing I don’t think I would have taken more than about twenty minutes or so.

Alice-in-Wonderland-009.jpg I think the thing that was the most interesting to me was the extent to which Alice was a brand, with Carroll heavily involved in the merchandising, right down to the official Alice in Wonderland stamp albums and stuff like that. I’m not up on the history of children’s literature, but was it the first such brand? I genuinely don’t know.

Trip report: Alice in Wonderland

The other KKK

On this weekend’s brief trip to London, I saw a couple of museum exhibitions, both small ones but both interesting. I’ll talk about the first one in another post, but the second was an exhibit on the KKK at the Whitechapel Gallery — no, not the Ku Klux Klan, but another bunch of robe enthusiasts, the Kibbo Kift Kindred.

These guys are an interesting bunch — pacifist Romantic types big into physical fitness, ceremony, ritual, Old-English-ish neologisms and having all kind of crazy modern-art badges and totems. I love these totems — 60 years later these guys would have been painting these designs on the shoulder pads of their Space Marines. You can read their history here.

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Back in the 20s, the Kindred actually exhibited their stuff at the Whitechapel Gallery, so this is an interesting continuation. I think what really struck me about the whole thing was its amazing combination of crazy super-modern 20s design such as you might find on a Soviet propaganda poster with intentionally primitive-looking “tribal” stuff.

A couple of books on the subject came out last year:

That seems like the mass-market one; there was also a big tome called Intellectual Barbarians, but as far as I can see it’s not easy to find; even the gallery shop only had a display copy.

And then there’s this thing:

I have no idea.

Anyway, if you have the chance, I suggest you check it out. It’s a pretty small exhibit, but free and definitely interesting.

The other KKK

Still mad as hell about the War of the Spanish Succession

If you follow my gaming blog, you’ll know that I spent the weekend with my lovely wife in Barcelona, which was as beautiful and interesting as everyone always says it is.

In some ways, it reminded me of my trip to Budapest. If I’m in London or Paris or somewhere in the US or even Oslo or somewhere, I’m surrounded by monuments to a history that I’m reasonably, if imperfectly, aware of. But in Budapest I’d see some proud equestrian statue, walk up to it, see the name on it and be none the wiser.

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I know a leetle bit more about Catalan history than Hungarian history, but only a little; my knowledge really ends in the high middle ages and then picks up again with glancing references in Patrick O’Brian novels, which I think we can all agree is not too great. I did recognise the statue of Ramon Berenguer III, and even correctly identified that he was not the guy I knew about, who was Ramon Berenguer I, although I did not know that dude had twin sons and named them Ramon Berenguer II and Berenguer Ramon II (well, OK, he didn’t include the II, but you know what I mean). Listen, Ramon Berenguer el Vell, I don’t want to tell you your business, but that is super confusing.

Anyway, this came into focus when I visited El Born Cultural Centre, once the site of a city market and now a display of the foundations of a neighbourhood knocked down to build fortifications after the Siege of Barcelona.

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It was fascinating, but it revealed to me that I know pretty much nothing about the War of the Spanish Succession. In my head I just think of it as kind of the final step in that 17th-18th century transition that leads to France becoming Top Nation again. But of course that’s not what it means in Barcelona.

I wish I had taken a photograph of some of the placards describing the siege, because the only conclusion I could draw is that Barcelonans (is that a word?) are still pissed off about the War of the Spanish Succession. Obvious comparisons to other things that happened in the 18th century that people are still seething about suggest themselves, of course, but to me it was a valuable reminder of how much I still have to learn and how much the stuff I have to learn means to somebody somewhere.

So can anyone recommend a good beginner-level history of Spain? Would also accept history of Catalunya in particular.

Still mad as hell about the War of the Spanish Succession

Trip report: Ædwen’s brooch

So this past weekend my wife and I went to Ely to check out this new Aedwen’s Brooch exhibit. It’s an interesting thing: a late Anglo-Saxon disc brooch found in Sutton in the 17th century. It went missing for a bit, then surfaced in a private collection in the 50s and wound up in the British Museum. Now they’ve sent it to the local museum for a bit, which I think is rather a good idea. ps076851_l

So this is the brooch itself, although the image doesn’t give you a sense of the scale of the thing; it’s just under 15 cm across (nearly 6 inches).

The main notable thing about Ædwen’s brooch is that it has an inscription on the reverse — well, actually it has two! That’s how we know the owner’s name:

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So not only is it an inscription; it’s a curse. That’s good value for money; everyone likes a good curse. And not only that, but the second inscription is a runic inscription that doesn’t make any damn sense. That’s not uncommon for runic inscriptions; it may be because by this date the runes were not generally understood and were just for looks (although to the modern eye they don’t look like much — and they’re on the reverse of the brooch) or it may be because they were thought to be magical in some way.

The “mystery” referred to is what this piece was doing in a hoard — and you can vote on what you think the answer was, using little replica Anglo-Danish coins!

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As you can see, the boring but probably correct answer is well in the lead.

It’s a fascinating brooch, is what I’m saying, and they try to tie it in to helping people (particularly younger museum visitors) learn about the Anglo-Saxon period generally, although that’s not the focus of the museum as a whole.

As for the museum generally, it’s a good little local-history museum. It used to be a jail (so did the museum in Norwich Castle — seems like one of those things), and there’s a strange and humorous little diorama of prisoners arguing and/or repenting the night before a hanging — dummies and recorded dialogue and so on.

I did spot something a bit out-of-place in one display. Here’s an image of the Roman invasion of Britain:

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Now, in looking this up I learned that there actually is evidence for the manica in 1st-century AD Britain, but look at those guys on the right and the weapons they’re carrying. Do they look a bit … Dacian to anyone else?

Anyway, that’s a quibble. It’s an interesting brooch and I thought the exhibit was small but simple and enjoyable.

Trip report: Ædwen’s brooch