Wednesday, 24 February 2010

First Impressions: Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey

by Kathryn Hadley

‘Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey’ opens today, February 24th, at the National Gallery. The exhibition charts the career of the French artist Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) and highlights in particular his masterpiece The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833), depicting the death, in 1554, of the 16-year-old who had been Queen of England for just nine days. Following its rediscovery in 1973, the painting was first exhibited at the National Gallery two years later.

The exhibition is unique in two respects. Featuring a series of the artist’s preparatory drawings, as well as a selection of comparative drawings and prints by his contemporaries, the section entitled ‘Lady Jane Grey’ reveals the work and sources behind his masterpiece. The exhibition also brings together seven of Delaroche’s other great historical paintings on loan from collections across the world, revealing some of the major influences and themes of his work.

Delaroche first visited England in 1822. He returned to London five years later to prepare for his work on The Princes in the Tower (1830). It is believed that he visited the Tower of London itself and that his visit inspired his two further Tower compositions – The Execution of Lady Jane Grey and Strafford on his Way to Execution (1835). In the aftermath of the French Revolution, English history was a powerful muse to represent and reflect upon recent events in France. Delaroche notably depicted numerous scenes of imprisonment and execution from the British past to draw parallels with recent upheavals in French history.

Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554) inherited the crown following the death of Edward VI on July 6th, 1553, but her reign ended on July 19th when her Catholic cousin Mary led a successful counter-coup. ‘The Nine Day’s Queen’ was tried for treason and sentenced to death. She was imprisoned in the Tower and beheaded on February 12th, 1554. Within six months of her death, however, she was reinvented in the Protestant propaganda of the time as a martyr and victim of Catholic tyranny.

Delaroche’s depiction of Jane Grey is based on a contemporary eye-witness account. It is immensely tragic and heavily influenced by the theme of martyrdom. The 16-year-old is blindfolded and supported only by Sir John Brydges, the lieutenant of the Tower, as she fumbles for the block. Her white dress vividly stands out against the sombre background of the painting, highlighting her innocence and vulnerability, and the tragedy of her execution is further emphasised by the gestures of her swooning and distraught ladies in waiting.

Martyrdom is a prevailing theme throughout Delaroche’s work. A similar use of symbolism and light to depict the tragedy of martyrdom is notably evident in his later depiction of Marie-Antoinette, who was condemned to death on October 16th, 1793, in Marie-Antoinette before the Tribunal (1851). His painting was, once again, based on contemporary drawings and documentary reports and, similarly to Lady Jane Grey, all that stands out against the dark background is the martyr’s silver grey hair, white shawl and pale face.

A second major influence on the artist was the theatre. The influence was two-fold. From the 1820s, there was a general fascination with period reconstruction in France and a growing tendency in French theatre to draw on pictorial forms with plays divided, for example, into ‘tableaux’ as well as acts. Several of Delaroche’s works, including Lady Jane Grey and The Princes in the Tower, were notably recreated on the stage. But Delaroche was also himself influenced by the cultural trends and theatrical conventions of the time. In Lady Jane Grey, for example, the queen is depicted with outstretched hands in accordance with the conventional theatrical gesture used to portray female martyrs. It is believed that the artist may even have used an actress, Anaїs Aubert with whom he had become romantically involved, as a model for the queen.

Multiple facets of Delaroche's career are put forward in this fascinating exhibition. From the influence of contemporary artists and the cultural context of 19th-century France, where English history was used as a medium to comment upon contemporary political events, on his grandiose historic paintings, to Delaroche's own subsequent influence on artists in France and abroad, 'Painting History' also offers a glimpse of the man himself and his intimate relationship with Anaїs Aubert through a display of some of his letters to the actress.

Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey
February 24th – May 23rd
The National Gallery
Trafalgar Square
London WC2N 5DN
Telephone: 020 7747 2885

- Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833
© The National Gallery, London
- Paul Delaroche, Portrait of Mademoiselle Anaïs, 1832
Private Collection
- Paul Delaroche, Marie-Antoinette before the Tribunal, 1851
The Forbes Collection, New York

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Habsburg legacy in Austria and Kipling in India

The abandoned Imperial Crypt beneath the city of Vienna
The Imperial Crypt, 10 metres (33ft) beneath the city of Vienna, is the burial site of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (1640-1705) and of 146 of his Habsburg relatives. However, the site has been largely abandoned by the Austrian government, which still appears to be struggling to deal with the legacy of its Habsburg past. In April 1919, the Austrian government enacted the Habsburg Law. In the words of Walter Mayr in Der Spiegel, ‘the Habsburgs were dispossessed of private property held in family funds, denied the right to run for election, and forbidden to remain in Austria, unless they renounced in writing their claims to the throne and their affiliation with the deposed dynasty’. Today, the Austrian government is still ignoring pleas to preserve the site.
Read the full report.
In In the Blood - The Secret History of the Habsburgs Andrew Wheatcroft examines how an 18th-century succession crisis unlocked a tale of dynastic obsession and myth-history in Austria's first family.

Kipling’s legacy in India
Rudyard Kipling was born in the Dean’s Bungalow in the grounds of the Sir JJ School of Arts in Mumbai in 1865. Plans to turn the house into a museum have sparked considerable protest and have recently been suspended. Andrew Walker discusses the author’s controversial legacy in both Britain and India on the BBC’s Today programme.
In Kipling, Kim and Imperialism Fred Reist and David Washbrook explain how Kipling's view of imperialism was more complex than is usually supposed.
The author also pointed to cracks in the imperial facade at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Denis Judd explains in Diamonds are Forever? Kipling's Imperialism .

1938 comic book sells for £1million
Yesterday, a 1938 edition of Action Comics No 1, the first comic to feature Superman, was sold for $1 million (£646,000) on the US auction website Comic Connect. The sale was over three times higher than the previous record price for a comic book, which was sold for $317,200 (£205,000) in 2009.

Sir Trevor Lloyd-Hughes: press secretary to Harold Wilson
Trevor Lloyd-Hughes died last week, aged 87. He was press secretary to Wilson in Downing Street from 1964 to 1969. Prior to his position in the press office, he was the political correspondent of the Liverpool Daily Post. In 1961 he also became the paper’s first wine correspondent. Following Labour’s defeat in 1970, he was knighted and founded his own lobbying company specialised in government-industry relations.
His obituary is published on the website of The Times.

Israel’s plans to add West Bank shrines to heritage list may halt peace negotiations
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently told his cabinet that two major religious sites in the West Bank would be added to the country’s heritage list and included in a £103 million restoration plan. In the Bible, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried; Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem is the traditional gravesite of the Matriarch Rachel and is one of the holiest sites in Judaism. The announcement has sparked protest from the Palestinian Authority. The BBC reports.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Review and win one of the latest history books

Every month, we offer our readers the opportunity to review some of the latest history publications and to have their review published on the History Today Books Blog. Here is our selection for February. To submit a review, please send an email to Kathryn Hadley (k.hadley[at] specifying your choice of book. We will then send you the book with a one-month deadline to send us your review. Books will be sent on a first come first served basis. (Unfortunately, we are unable to send out books to the USA).

Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary, Miri Rubin (Penguin)
A study of how Mary’s status has evolved – in religious writings, art and architecture and at vast public festivals - from virtual unknown to virginal icon and ultimately God-like figure, as Christianity established itself as a global faith over the centuries.

Choose Your Weapons, Douglas Hurd (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Beginning with the last ministerial duel in British political history between Castlereagh and Canning, this history of the British foreign policy and the role of Foreign Secretary from 1807 to 1956 focuses on eleven Foreign Secretaries, including Lord Salisbury, Anthony Eden, Austen Chamberlain and Sir Edward Grey.

Hitler, Ian Kershaw (Penguin)
A single edition paperback of the author’s two-part biography of Hitler first published in 1998, which traces the story of how an art student from an obscure corner of Austria rose to unparalleled power and destroyed the lives of millions.

The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus, ed. A. J. Woodman (Cambridge University Press)
An assessment of the work and influence of Tacitus, whose account of the Roman Empire in the first century AD has been fundamental in shaping the modern perception of Rome and its emperors.

The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, Jeremy Rifkin (Polity)
This new interpretation of the history of civilisation considers the evolution of empathy and the ways in which it has shaped our development and is likely to determine our fate as a species, from the rise of the first great theological civilisations, to the ideological age that dominated the 18th and 19th centuries and the merging dramaturgical period of the 21st century.

The Wobbling Pivot, China Since 1800: An Interpretative History, Pamela Kyle Crossley (Wiley-Blackwell)
This history of China since the 18th century focuses on the delicate relationship between central government and local communities and reveals how developments can be explained through China’s swings between centralisation and decentralisation, between local initiative and central authoritarianism.

The Last Empress, Hannah Pakula (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
The story of the life of Soon May-ling (1897-2003), or Madame Chiang Kai-shek as she was known, who, acting as the advisor, English translator, secretary and champion of her husband, was at the centre of the founding of modern China.

Who Was Jacques Derrida?, David Mikics (Yale University Press)
An intellectual biography of Jacques Derrida, a full-scale appraisal of his career, his influence and his philosophical sources, and the first attempt to define his crucial importance as the purveyor of ‘theory’, the phenomenon that has had a profound influence on academic life in the humanities.

Vietnam Declassified: The CIA and Counterinsurgency, Thomas L. Ahern Jr, (University Press of Kentucky)
A firsthand account of the CIA’s involvement in South Vietnam in an effort to combat the Viet Cong and earn the allegiance of South Vietnam’s rural population, which illuminates the basic flaws of the US government and CIA policies that directly contributed to the communist victory.

Friday, 19 February 2010

History should be reinstated for all GSCE students: ‘Its lessons are invaluable’

History should be reinstated for all GSCE students: ‘Its lessons are invaluable’
In The Telegraph, Editor Jeff Randall condemns the gradual disappearance of history from the curriculum in many state schools. He argues that history has much to teach us in today’s financial crisis and that the political challenge facing Cameron is not dissimilar to that faced by Churchill in 1951.

What was Charles I wearing on the day of his execution?
According to the Mail Online, historians and forensic scientist are to carry out DNA tests in an effort to solve the mystery of what Charles I was wearing when he was beheaded. Experts have long-believed that he was wearing a blue silk waistcoat which has been in the care of the Museum of London in 1925. The tests may provide an answer to their questions…

A short history of The Observer: the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper
The Observer was launched in 1791. A video clip on the website of The Guardian charts the newspaper’s history.

Comparing JFK’s love letters to modern sex texts
With the upcoming auction of John F Kennedy’s love letters to his Swedish lover, Alexander Chancellor argues in The Guardian that the future president appears far more ‘modest, solicitous, dignified, almost romantic in his womanising’ than today’s ‘celebrity sleazebags’ such as Tiger Woods or Ashley Cole. Chancellor may be right, but just how valuable is such a comparison?

Death of the last Canadian WW1 veteran
John Babcock died yesterday, February 18th, aged 109 in Spokane, Washington. He signed up for the Canadian military, aged 15, having lied about his age, and trained in Britain with the Young Soldiers’ Battalion. He never saw action, however, because the war came to an end before he reached the legal age of 19 to fight.
Read the article published on the website of the Toronto Star.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

First writing system dates back to prehistoric times

Prehistoric Writing
It is traditionally believed that first the writing system dates back 5,000 years. However, according to the latest research, Man may have first sought to communicate through symbols rather than pictures 40,000 years ago. Markings found in the Chauvet caves in southern France have previously been ignored, but they may be evidence of a form a written code, which is believed to have been familiar to all prehistoric tribes in France and possibly even beyond.
Kate Ravilious reports in the New Scientist.

John F Kennedy’s secret letters to his Swedish lover up for auction
The BBC reports on the upcoming sale of John F. Kennedy’s collection of love letters to Gunilla von Post written in the 1950s. The letters are being auctioned by Chicago-based Legendary Auctions and are expected to fetch up to $100,000 (£65,000).
Further information and images of the letters are available on the website of Legendary Auctions.

What Granny did in the war
In the New Scotsman, Jackie McGlone tells the story of Mona Kedslie McLeod who was a member of the Scottish Women’s Land Army during the Second World War. The Land Girls were largely forgotten in the aftermath of the war, but they are now the subject of a new exhibition, ‘Land Girls and Lumber Jills’, at the National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Mysterious ancient clay figures unearthed in Ghana

by Kathryn Hadley

Manchester University announced yesterday, February 16th, the discovery of 80 ancient clay figures in Ghana by archaeologists from the universities of Manchester and Ghana. The sculpted human and animal figures, which are believed to be between 1,400 and 800 years old, were unearthed last month from a series of mounds in a remote region of Northern Ghana near the village of Yikpabongo. The 30km square area is so densely packed with a series of mysterious mounds that it took just two weeks to excavate the 80 figures.

Human skulls were also discovered in the mounds. Dr Benjamin Kankpeyeng from Ghana and Tim Insoll from Manchester University believe that they may be the sites of ancient shrines. It is hoped that studies of the number, context and arrangement of the figurines will provide an insight into the ritual practices and beliefs of this ancient society and deepen our understanding of what remains a relatively unknown and little-researched page of African history.

In the words of Professor Tim Insoll:

‘These finds will help to fill a significant gap in our scant knowledge of this
period before the Islamic empires developed in West Africa. They were a
sophisticated and technically advanced society: for example some of the
figurines were built in sections and slotted together.’

Dr Benjamin Kankpeyeng further explained:

‘The relative position of the figurines surrounded by human skulls means the
mounds were the location of an ancient shrine. The skulls had their jaw bones
removed with teeth placed nearby - an act of religious significance.’

However, illegal excavation of the treasures means that archaeologists are in a race against time to ensure the safety of the remains.

Residues of material were also discovered packed into holes within the figurines. What exactly was put into the holes - medicinal substances, blood or other material from a sacrifice - is unknown, however. Some of the figures have been brought back to the UK where Professor Insoll is due to carry out further analysis of these residues in an effort to uncover more clues about the society.

The burial sites have been repeatedly excavated over the past 25 years. The first excavation took place in 1985 with others in 2007, 2008 and 2009 carried out by the University of Ghana. Nevertheless, many questions remain unanswered.
Insoll explained:

‘There are still many questions remaining: some of the figurines were
deliberately broken and placed besides body parts. Why?’

Kankpeyeng added:

‘What is interesting is that the people now living in this area seem to have no
connection with the makers of the figurines. That would suggest that that they
have more in common with peoples living in other parts of West Africa - but we
need to do more work before we can be certain.’

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Saving Haiti's Cultural Heritage

The Fight to Save Haiti’s Archives
Members of the International Council of Archives (ICA) in Haiti have formed a crisis cell entitled ‘Heritage in danger’ on the fringes of the official commission for the evaluation of buildings and reconstruction. They have recently issued a statement listing some of the most urgent requirements in order to save the country’s archives and cultural property. Wilfrid Bertrand is the National Archivist of Haiti and Jérémy Lachal is the Executive Director of Libraries Without Borders, who is currently on mission in Port-au-Prince. Both stressed the pressing need for tarpaulins in order to protect the records that are currently lying on the ground and risk being destroyed during the forthcoming rainy season.
ICA explained that it is urgently trying to get these materials out to Port-au-Prince. It is also working with the Blue Shield Network, the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross, which was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War to protect cultural heritage during armed conflicts. The two organisations are currently trying to collect hard information as the basis for an initial report on damage to cultural property in Haiti. The report is due to provide an indication of the resources that will be needed to safeguard the country’s cultural heritage.
For further information, visit the websites of the ICA ( and Blue Shield (

Bhutan: An Eye to History
More than 80 photographs charting the history of Bhutan were on display until the end of last month at The National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi. The images included photographs of Rinpung monastery in Paro taken in 1864 and of the King and Queen of Bhutan at the Red Fort during their first state visit to India in 1954. There is a slideshow of some of the photographs on the website of the BBC.

Hitler’s secret relationship with Eva Braun
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper concluded that Eva Braun was ‘uninteresting’. However, the first academic biography of Eva Braun: Life With Hitler by the Berlin historian Heike Görtemaker and published at the end of the month by CH Beck refutes traditional views of Braun and Hitler’s relationship.
In Der Spiegel Online Klaus Wiegrefe provides an insight into the realities of the couple’s secret relationship. The article also features a slideshow of images of Eva Braun and Hitler.
Kate Connolly also reports in The Guardian.

Light on Japan’s ‘Unit 731’ experiments
In 1989, a mass grave was discovered during construction work in Tokyo’s district of Shinjuku. The grave contained human remains which are believed to have come from ‘Unit 731’ where the medical research team of the Imperial Japanese Army carried out gruesome human ‘experiments’ on more than 10,000 people per year. Authorities in Tokyo recently announced plans to study the remains in an effort to address this dark, and previously ignored, page of Japanese history.
Julian Ryall reports in The Telegraph.

Monday, 15 February 2010

First Impressions: The White Ribbon

by Paul Lay

Today sees the release on DVD of Michael Haneke’s masterly meditation on the German past, The White Ribbon (Artificial Eye, £15.99). The drama, filmed in suitably austere black and white, is set in a small village in northern Germany just before the outbreak of the First World War. The atmosphere is fearful and conspiratorial. Quietly chilling figures of authority such as the main landowner, the doctor and the pastor (a brilliant central performance by Burghart Klaussner) stir grievance and resentment among the villagers against a backdrop of ‘accidents’, abductions and abuse. As the village threatens to tear itself apart, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and its promise of war comes almost as a relief.

Many critics have seen The White Ribbon as a mediation on Nazism, pointing out, for example, the similarity of the white ribbon worn by the pastor’s children as a symbol of wrongdoing to the yellow stars worn to identify Jews during the Third Reich (or even, as a symbol of purity, the armbands worn by the Nazis themselves). Such allusions are inescapable. But I was reminded more of recent studies of the witch crazes that scarred early modern Germany, with their mixture of arbitrary power, personal fiefdoms and sexual suspicion. Which makes the beautifully observed and tenderly performed romance between the village schoolteacher (the narrator of the film) and a young local woman all the more powerful.

Ultimately, The White Ribbon, like life, resists simple interpretation. And that is what makes it essential viewing for historians, whether they are interested in German history or not. For, like all history, it is bafflingly complex and never entirely knowable. The White Ribbon sits alongside Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975) and Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) as one of the greatest films ever made on the subject of history. It is essential viewing.

For further information on the 'Power of Women' in Germany during the Renaissance, read She-Devils, Harlots and Harridans in Northern Renaissance Prints , in which Julia Nurse shows how the demonic power of women was an important theme in the popular print of Germany in the 16th century.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Wannabe cavemen in the United States

Wannabe cavemen in the United States
Philip Bethge reports in Der Spiegel on the development of a Stone Age subculture in the United States. In the belief that men lived healthier lives in prehistoric times, members of the New York based group promote what they term ‘Evolutionary Fitness’. They practice leaping and sprinting as if they were still threatened by mammoths and wild animals and follow a strict diet of lean meat, fruit, vegetables and nuts.
For further information, visit our Prehistory focus page.

The history of the Berlin International Film Festival
The Berlin International Film Festival was introduced to West Berlin by the US military administration in the aftermath of the Soviet blockade. The first festival was celebrated in 1951 and was designed as ‘showcase of the free world’, a propaganda tool to bring glamour to West Berlin. Der Spiegel reports. The article is illustrated with a slideshow of images charting the history of the Berlinale.

Death of the inventor of the Frisbee
The Frisbee was invented by Walter Frederick Morrison in 1948. He died on Tuesday, February 9th, aged 90, at his home in Utah. The BBC reports. The article also features a slideshow of images revealing 60 years of the history of the Frisbee.

65th anniversary of Dresden bombing
Every year, since the 1990s, the German far-right has traditionally staged a march to commemorate the bombing of Dresden between February 13th and 15th, 1945. This year, anti-right-wing activists including leftist politicians and celebrities have sought to oppose the march. Steffen Winter reports in Der Spiegel on how the anniversary has raised complex issues about commemoration and how memory is exploited for political propaganda.
In Dresden Plus 93 Days the British veteran Dick Sheehy recalls his experience caught up as a POW in the Alllied bombing of Dresden.
In Sowing the Wind James Barker charts the RAF's wartime bombing campaign of Germany.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Mandela’s former office in Johannesburg: a derelict squat

Mandela’s former office in Johannesburg: a derelict squat
Chancellor House once housed Nelson Mandela’s law firm, which was the first black law firm in Johannesburg. The building is now in ruins and is occupied by squatters. There are plans to turn the office into a legal resource centre for young black lawyers. However, efforts to raise the necessary funds to relocate the squatters and legal negotiations have been dragging on for the past ten years.
Andrew Harding reports on BBC Radio 4.
For further information on the history of South Africa, visit our South Africa focus page.

The death of palaeography
Professor David Ganz from King’s College London is the current holder of the UK’s only chair in palaeography. The university has, however, recently, announced its decision to close the chair from September onwards. The subject will no longer exist as a separate academic discipline in British universities. Ganz has now begun to ‘fight for his subject’ and many of the world’s most eminent classicists have petitioned King’s College to reconsider its position. John Crace explains in The Guardian why the study of ancient manuscripts matters and why history will be lost without it.

The Staffordshire Hoard returns home
On Saturday, the Staffordshire Hoard will go on display, for the first time, in the county in which the treasure was found, at the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent.
Maev Kennedy reports in The Guardian.
The Staffordshire Hoard
February 13th – March 7th
The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery
Bethesda Street, HanleyStoke-on-Trent ST1 3DW
Telephone: 01782 232323

The Nazification of Carnival under the Third Reich
Siobhán Dowling reports in Der Spiegel Online on how the Nazi regime used Carnival, the pre-Lent festival celebrated predominantly in the Catholic west and south of Germany, as a propaganda tool to put forward their own notions of the German nation. There is also a slideshow of images of Carnival celebrations from the time.

Alfred Gregory: Official photographer on the 1953 Everest expedition
Alfred Gregory was the official photographer to the British expedition that made the first ascent of Everest, in 1953. He died on Tuesday, February 9th, aged 96. His obituary was published yesterday in The Independent.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

First Impressions: Ministry of Food at IWM London

By Derry Nairn

The Second World War, which Britain and her empire fought from 1939 until 1945, offered up to history the enduring founding myths of the post-imperial period. The Blitz; the Battle of Britain; Dunkirk; VE Day: the conflict’s major commemorative events were all the result of military and material challenges, overcome by leader, soldier and ordinary housewife alike.

'Ministry of Food', the exhibition opening on 12th February at London’s Imperial War Museum, deals with one of the most unsung but vitally relevant of these heroic victories: the revolution in culinary and dietary habits forced upon Britain by shortages in the island’s staple foodstuffs.

From food rationing, to the donation of tin pots for military hardware, an entertaining exhibition tells how the Second World War was experienced in the most immediate sense by ordinary people. At the war’s outbreak, the shipping of colonial imports such as Canadian wheat and Caribbean coffee, sugar and bananas came to a swift end. As this reality set in, the government attempted to quell public fears and raise morale through co-ordinated propaganda campaigns - the ‘Dig for Victory’ poster being one of the most well-known.

Outcomes were many and various. Mountains of food waste were saved. A wholesale conversion from cattle to arable farming came about. Alternative and ingenious methods of feeding hungry families were developed, often spontaneously, and on a local level. The domestic production of potatoes, oats, orchard fruits and root vegetables was encouraged. Recipes accordingly took account of wartime shortages, with ingredients such as mock cream (sweetened, whipped margarine), mock goose (a mixture of potato, apple, cheese and sage), and potato biscuits (made with oats and mashed potato).

Other surrogate staples were not so successful. Snoek, a cheap, pungent and hugely unpopular South African canned fish, made its inauspicious culinary debut. American imports such as Spam fritters, Wrigley’s chewing gum and Kellogg’s breakfast cereals had been available prior to 1939. However, the only successful 20th-century invasion of Britain - that of GIs - permanently popularised these dubious additions to the food arena.

'Ministry of Food' is not limited, however, to the compact first floor exhibition space. The Imperial War Museum’s café has been transformed, by Company of Cooks, into ‘Kitchen Front’ for the duration of the show. The menu reflects the realities of wartime diets. This is no bad thing, as the menu would feel more at home in a gourmet South Bank restaurant, than lifted from the pages of a rationing book. Alongside the obligatory mock cream and potato biscuits, sit delicious baked potatoes with Stilton and walnuts, marinated herring with red cabbage and miniature vegetable pies.

It is illuminating to query the motivations behind the Imperial War Museum’s choice of exhibit. A clue arrives with the opinions of TV gardener and environmentalist Monty Don, invited to speak at the exhibition launch of how the Second World War helped to redraw society’s attitudes to food sources. By 1943, six million British families grew their own vegetables. Urban pig-rearing societies had a 100,000-strong membership. Allotment space doubled over the course of four years. For Don, these are not flat historical facts. For him, and the green movement as a whole, the story of food production and consumption in wartime Britain has helped to inspire their vision for a brave new world of sustainable eating habits.

The historical parallels are difficult to ignore. Just as in 1939, Britain today relies as never before on cheap, imported food. In the same way as the merchant navy had to do battle with U-Boats, suppliers to UK supermarkets now have to fight rising fuel prices and volatile environmental factors. Reflecting these realities, any appraisal of recent government policy and media coverage will show a developing trend towards discussion of food policy and politics. A pronounced nod to the green bandwagon underpins the Imperial War Museum’s new exhibition.

70 years ago, however, the changes in how the nation ate, shopped, farmed and gardened were relatively immediate. By contrast, gestures towards a greener way of life in contemporary Britain are gradual and, a cynic might say, rather superficial. The island is not currently blockaded by submarines. The capital’s soil is not being ploughed nightly by doodlebugs. The trend for more sustainable, ‘ethical’ foods remains just that: a trend. It both limits itself strictly to wealthier supermarket customers, and extends to such anomalies as air-freighted, but organic, tropical fruit. Factor in the embedded status of such post-war trends as fast food chains, TV dinners and intensively-farmed agriculture, and the green lobby sounds more like a minority voice in the debate over food.

Monty Don, like it or not, is the poster child for a decidedly middle-class approach to food: one based on commoditised pleasure and the arbitrary concept of 'ethics', rather than enforced austerity. It may be stating the obvious, but the wartime populations of London, Manchester and Glasgow did not write to their MPs, demanding that their beloved banana shipments be torpedoed. A sad reality which the green movement must face is that tectonic social change does not tend to come about except through necessity. The message to learn from the Ministry of Food exhibition, and from history, is that until this country is forced to move away from its addiction to food convenience – be that, as in the past, through military aggression or environmental catastrophe - there is very little that can be done to change it.

The exhibition, however, is excellent, and comes highly recommended.

Ministry of Food
Imperial War Museum London

12th February 2010 - 3rd January 2011

Lambeth Road
London SE1 6HZ
United Kingdom

Telephone: +44 (0)20 7416 5320

Nick Cullather explains how the USA made food an instrument of foreign policy, in American Pie: the Imperialism of the Calorie

Thanks to Doreen J Barber for the images of the exhibition.

East India Company bought by Indian businessman

by Kathryn Hadley

Sanjiv Mehta is a 48-year-old Indian businessman who for the past six years has worked to restore the formerly British-owned East India Company. In 2004, Mehta proceeded to buy all the company’s shares, mostly owned by British businessmen. He has spent the last six years travelling and talking to museum curators and historians in an attempt to gain a proper understanding of the heritage of the company. Mehta efforts are somewhat surprising given that the 400-year-old company acted as a vehicle for the expansion of British imperial rule in his homeland.

The East India Company was granted its first charter by Elizabeth I on December 31st, 1600. It was dissolved on January 1st, 1874, after the Government of India Act transferred the company’s powers to the Crown.

The flagship store of the revamped East India Company is due to open in Mayfair this spring. Mehta thereafter plans to open a second store in London, as well as stores in India, the Middle East, Japan, Russia and the United States. The stores will notably sell coffee, tea, spices, chocolate, leather goods and furniture.

For further information, read Adam Fresco’s article published on the website of The Times.

In 400 years of the East India Company Huw Bowen asks whether the East India Company was one of the ‘most powerful engines’ of state and empire in British history.

In The East India Company and the Emperor Aurangzeb Bruce Lenman charts the ambitious and abortive attempts made by East India Company entrepreneurs to challenge the might of the Moghul Empire.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Ride in one of the last Second World War high-speed motor boats

by Kathryn Hadley

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard announced this morning, February 9th, the recent purchase by Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust (PNBPT) of two of the last remaining fully operational high-speed motor boats, MGB 81 and HSL 102, from the Second World War. The acquisition cost £750,000 and was largely made possible thanks to a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

At the time they were built, the two boats represented outstanding examples of British naval engineering and were amongst the fastest boats of their type in the world. They were designed and built at Hythe (near Southampton) by the British Powerboat Company, founded by the aviation and powerboat pioneer Hubert Scott-Paine (1891-1954). The company later went on to build the Supermarine Spitfire. The boats were known as Spitfires of the Seas. However, they were made only of plywood and had no real armament. With 3,000 gallons of fuel in their tank, they were also particularly vulnerable and exploded immediately if they were hit in the fuel tank.

MGB 81 was used during the US landings at Omaha Beach. After the war, she was disposed of by the Royal Navy and bought by a private owner. The motor boat was later used as an accommodation barge for a sailing school and then as a house boat. MGB 81 was restored in 1988. HSL 102 is the only surviving example of the 100 class high speed launch. She was stationed at RAF Calshot during the Battle of Britain and retrieved wounded soldiers from the sea. As a whole, HSL vessels are believed to have saved a total of 10,000 airmen of many nationalities throughout the duration of the war. In two months, HSL 102 is recorded as having saved 38 men from the North Sea, including the crews of two German bombers. She was restored in 1996 and re-launched by HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Both motor boats have now been restored to their working condition and are currently on display at Gunwharf Quays Marina in Portsmouth. Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust plan to make at least one of the boats available for charter so that people can experience something of their power and speed.

In The Spitfire Legend Taylor Downing and Andrew Johnston seek the truth behind the legend of the Spitfire.

The History of British Surnames
Louise Tickle reports in The Guardian on the upcoming launch of a research project into British surnames at the University of West England. The project will provide a publicly available, online database of the meanings and origins of up to 150,000 family names.

More on the murderous founders of British obstetrics in the Times Archive
The Times Archive Blog features classified advertisements of The Times in its early days, in which Dr Smellie is mentioned as the inventor of some female pills and Man-Midwifery.

What's on in February

by Kathryn Hadley

With the twentieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison on February 10th and the opening of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver this Friday, there are a number of film screenings, lectures and conferences coming up this month, notably to mark these events. Here is a selection of those which seem of particualr interest.

Film screenings

A Woman in Berlin
February 12th-28th

The Institute of Contemporary Arts
The Mall
London SW1Y 5AH
Telephone: 020 7930 3647
This film was released in German cinemas in October 2008. Based on the diary of the German journalist Marta Hillers, it tells the story of German women who had survived the bombing of Berlin, but were raped by Red Army soldiers as they moved through the city in the last days of the Second World War.

February 11th – 25th
Institut Français
17 Queensberry Place
London SW7 2DT
Telephone: 020 7073 1350
To mark the 100th anniversary of the Institut Français, Cine lumière is organising a special film season entitled Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité which will run throughout the year.
The following is a selection of some of the film screenings for the first part Liberté.
Mandela Son of Africa, Father of a Nation
February 11th, 6.15pm

This full-length documentary narrated by Mandela provides an insight into his childhood, adolescence and career and sheds light on the charisma and spirit of the man who dedicated himself to the struggle of the African people.
Lucie Aubrac
February 19th, 6pm

This film released in French cinemas in 1997 tells the story of Lucie Aubrac, a member of the French resistance who fought to release her husband from the hands of the Gestapo.
February 20th, 2.15pm

A screening of Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biographical film starring Ben Kingsley, Edward Fox and Martin Sheen.

Lectures and conferences

Queen Mary Olympic Lecture Series: Back to the Future; Flying Down to Rio via London and Ancient Olympia
February 9th, 6.30pm
Mason Lecture Theatre, Francis Bancroft Building, Queen Mary, University of London
Mile End
Telephone: 020 7882 5147
In this first lecture of the Queen Mary Olympic Lectures series devoted to the history of the Olympic Games, Professor Paul Cartledge will compare the first Games held in Ancient Greece to the forthcoming global spectacles of London 2012 and Rio 2016. The series continues until April with a further three lectures, on February 23rd, March 9th and April 20th, during which speakers Dr David Runciman, Professor Marion Kant and Professor Christopher Young will discuss the impact of the three modern Olympics held in London since 1908 on British politics, the Berlin Games of 1936 and Munich 1972.

Re-writing Nefertiti: the history and historiography of Egypt's most famous queen
February 10th, 3pm

The Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester
Oxford Road
Manchester M13 9PL
Telephone: 0161 275 2634
In 1924, a painted bust of Nefertiti was put on display in the Berlin Museum and the general public became aware of her existence. Joyce Tyldesley, from the department of Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester and a Fellow of the Manchester Museum, will discuss the distorting effect that the Berlin head has had on the public perception of Nefertiti, before reviewing the archaeological evidence for her life and death.

Conspirator: Lenin in exile
February 18th, 7.30pm

Bishopsgate Institute
230 Bishopsgate
London EC2M 4QH
Telephone: 020 7392 9220
Helen Rappaport will discuss her latest book, which tells the story of Lenin’s 17-year exile in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution.

The Bosworth Conference
February 20th, 10am
County Hall
Glenfield, Leicester
Telephone: 01455 290 429
Leicestershire County Council and Battlefields Trust archaeologist Dr Glenn Foard will unveil the results of the recent four-year archaeological survey to locate the battlefield. Other speakers include Professors Richard Holmes, President of The Battlefield’s Trust, Anne Curry, expert in 15th-century English warfare, Mathew Strickland, expert in the history of medieval warfare in Britain and Steve Walton, specialist in early artillery. Archaeological finds from the battlefield will be on public display for the first time at the conference, including the largest collection of artillery round shot from any medieval battlefield in Europe.
On February 22nd, ‘Bosworth Battlefield Lost and Found’, a new gallery telling the story of how experts found the true location of the Battle of Bosworth Field, will also open to the public.

Medieval Pilgrims Revealed
February 24th, 7.30pm

Donington le Heath Manor House
Manor Road
Donington le Heath, Coalville
Leicestershire LE67 2FW
Telephone: 01530 831259
Over the last 30 years, metal detectorists have excavated some of the lead relics that pilgrims from Leicestershire brought back from their journeys to shrines at Canterbury, Walsingham, Windsor and St Andrews, for example, and Leicestershire Museums staff have gradually recorded these discoveries. Peter Liddle, Leicestershire County Council’s Community Archaeologist, will discuss the results of the latest research in an effort to uncover the history of medieval pilgrimage in the region.

The Mixed Constitution – Monarchical and Aristocratic Aspects of Modern Democracy
February 25th, 5.30pm

The British Academy
10 Carlton House Terrace
London SW1Y 5AH
Dr Mogens Herman Hansen from Copenhagen University will discuss the legacy of Montesquieu’s theory of the separation of powers as the foundation of modern representative democracy. He will argue that the older theory of mixed constitution developed by Plato, Aristotle and Polybios deserves to be revived as a corrective to the prevailing view that western states are pure democracies.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Founders of British obstetrics were murderers

Founders of British obstetrics were murderers
According to the latest research by the historian Don Shelton, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, the 18th-century pioneers of obstetrics and gynaecology, William Hunter and William Smellie, killed between 35 and 40 pregnant women in order to dissect their bodies for research. Denis Campbell reports in The Guardian.
In Childbirth in the Middle Ages Peter Biller charts the hazards of pregnancy in the Middle Ages.
In Mother and Child in the Greek World Robert Garland explores attitudes towards women and childbearing in the male-orientated world of ancient Greece.
For further information on the History of Medicine, visit our focus page.

A Byzantine response to the west’s problems in Afghanistan
The Byzantine Empire survived for eight centuries – longer than any other in history. The Byzantines also wrote official guidebooks on statecraft, foreign relations and espionage. In an article published on the website of Prospect, Edward Luttwak argues that the Byzantine art of war and diplomacy may provide a solution to the west’s involvement in Afghanistan today.
In Byzantium: The Emperor's New Clothes? Alexander Kazhdan considers the influence of totalitarianism and meritocracy in the Byzantine empire.

World’s oldest Christian monastery restored
Saint Anthony’s monastery in Suez City near the Red Sea coast is believed to be 1,600 years old and the world’s oldest Christian monastery. Following an eight-year project carried out by the Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, the newly restored monastery was officially opened at the end of last week.
Read the article published by the Associated Press.

Friday, 5 February 2010

History Happenings This Weekend

by Kathryn Hadley

Various historically themed celebratory events are being organised this weekend and at the beginning of next week in anticipation of the Chinese New Year and St. Valentine's Day on February 14th. Here is a small selection...

Valentines Day

The season for love: A collection of choice valentines
Until February 27th

Bodleian Library, Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BG
Telephone: 01865 277162
This display of 38 items provides an insight into how St. Valentines Day was celebrated in the 19th century. The valentines range from creations of lace paper, silk, scraps, tinselling and artificial flowers accompanied by elaborate poetry to simple woodcuts. Some valentines were home-made tokens of love; others were produced in manufactories where skill and care were allied to business acumen.

Past Caring: A Celebration of Love in History
February 6th – 14th

A series of walks and talks are being organised as part of this innovative partnership of museums, archives and higher education organisations, which include Birkbeck College, London Transport Museum, The Wiener Library, National Maritime Museum, London Metropolitan Archive and the Hampstead Museum.
For further information visit

Queer Hampstead
February 7th
Hampstead Museum, Burgh House
New End Square
London NW3 1LT
Telephone: 020 7431 0144
Academics and activists discuss Hampstead’s gay and lesbian past.

Rescue and Romance: Love in Word and Deed
February 9th
The Wiener Library
4 Devonshire Street
London W1W 5BH
Telephone: 020 7636 7247
A lecture by Anne Sebba telling the story of Ida and Louise Cook, two sisters who risked their lives to rescue Jewish families from Europe before the Second World War.

Love on the Streets
February 10th
Birkbeck, University of London
Malet Street
London WC1E 7HX
A walk with Mike Berlin and Eu Jin Chua, which starts at 6.00pm from Birkbeck College, followed by talks with Professor Alison Light, Professor Amanda Vickery and Juliet Gardiner at the London Review of Books Bookshop.

Chinese New Year

The Museum of London Docklands is hosting various events to mark the Chinese New Year.
Museum of London Docklands
West India Quay
London E14 4AL
Telephone: 020 7001 9844

Letter from an Unknown Woman
February 6th, 2pm
Free film screening organised in partnership with the Chinese Cultural Centre. A love story set against the backdrop of the Chinese Revolution.
Old Limehouse to Chinatown
February 13th, 2pm
A guided walk led by Brian Gover through the streets of Limehouse, the site of London’s first Chinatown, where Chinese sailors first settled in the 1880s.
The great voyages of Zheng He
February 14th, 4pm
Screening of a short documentary about the late 14th-century Chinese mariner, navigator, diplomat and fleet admiral.

Ice-cold whisky and Darwin's DNA

Darwin’s DNA
Tests on the DNA of Chris Darwin, the great-grandson of the father of evolutionary theory, have revealed that Charles Darwin’s ancestors were among the first wave of modern humans to leave Africa for the Middle East approximately 45,000 years ago. Chris Darwin was one of the 35,000 members of the public to be tested as part of the five-year Genealogy Project backed by National Geographic and IBM to examine DNA in an effort to understand the earliest origins of the human species and map how and when they moved around the globe.
The Telegraph reports.

Ice-cold whisky
According to an article in The Times, five crates of whisky and brandy belonging to Ernest Shackleton have been recovered after being buried under the Antarctic ice for over a century. They were excavated from underneath Shackleton's Antarctic hut by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust.
For further information on Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition read Shackleton in the Antarctic, 1914-1916 .

Death of the Bo language
Boa Sr was the last surviving person fluent in the Bo language of the Andaman Islands. She was in her 80s and had survived both the Japanese occupation and the tsunami in 2004. Bo is one of the 10 Great Andamanese languages and is believed to date back to the pre-Neolithic settlement of south-east Asia. The island chain was colonised by the British in 1858 and, from 1858 to 1945, the islands served as penal colony for the British Empire. The indigenous population has steadily collapsed ever since. According to the NGO Survival International, over the past 150 years, the number of Great Andamanese has declined from about 5,000 to 52.
Jonathan Watts reports in The Guardian.
In The Andaman Islands Frances Stewart charts the history of the Andaman Islands.

The future of the Magnum photo archive
The international photography co-operative Magnum, founded in 1947 by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson has recently sold its archive to the founder of Dell computers. The collection includes over 185,000 prints chronicling events of the 20th century. Dell is due to lend the collection to the University of Texas, where it will be accessible to scholars and the public. A slideshow of images from the collection is available on the website of The Guardian.

Stonehenge Hedges
A recent survey of the Stonehenge landscape suggests that the prehistoric monument was surrounded by two circular hedges. The results of the survey are published in British Archaeology magazine. Read the article in The Guardian.

The youngest service casualty of the Second World War
Reginald Earnshaw is believed to be the youngest service member to have died during the Second World War. He died on July 6th, 1941, on board the SS North Devon, aged 14 years and 152 days. He lied about his age in order to join the war effort as a cabin boy in the merchant navy. The BBC reports.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Rats and murder in the National Portrait Gallery

by Kathryn Hadley

The National Portrait Gallery announced yesterday, Wednesday February 3rd, the launch of its archive catalogue online. Featuring papers belonging to the various directors of the gallery, minutes of the gallery’s committees, publicity material, press cuttings, as well as records on acquiring, conserving and displaying new portraits, organising and staging exhibitions and managing and developing the building, the archive provides an insight into the history of the gallery since its foundation in 1856.

In a document dated February 26th, 1909, the director of the gallery at the time, James Milner, reports on a murder and suicide in the gallery which occurred two days earlier.

‘A well-dressed elderly man and woman… proceeded towards the end of the East
Wing, where they could have been only a few minutes… when a pistol shot was
heard in that direction… Both were shot through the head… when I arrived the
woman was still living but the man was apparently dead… both were swathed in

Other archived documents include a list of the rats ‘trapped and killed in the Gallery’ during two outbreaks, between 1940 and 1946, giving the date, the place the rat was seen, and who killed it and how. Two rats were, for example, found trapped in the Library. One was ‘speared by Pittock with [a] poker after it had escaped with great excitement’; the second was ‘drowned by Pitkin’.

Records relating to the First and Second World Wars document the efforts of the gallery’s directors to ensure the safety of the nation’s portraits. During the First World War, some portraits stored in the King Edward Building Post Office Tube Station near St Paul’s Cathedral where they were guarded by gallery staff carrying guns; others were stored at Aldwych station. A search for the Second World War yields a series of papers describing the transportation and subsequent storage of the gallery’s portraits at Mentmore stately home in Buckinghamshire.

Papers of former gallery directors include those of Sir Lionel Cust, who was director of the National Portrait Gallery from 1895 to 1909, and Sir Roy Strong. Sir Roy Strong became assistant keeper of the National Portrait Gallery, in 1959, and director eight years later. Aged 32, he became the youngest director of the gallery.

Yesterday’s launch is the culmination of a two-year project and approximately one third of the gallery’s archive has currently been catalogued. Records continue to be added on a daily basis. A month ago, the gallery received a grant from the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives to catalogue the papers of Sir George Scharf (1820-1895), the first Secretary, Keeper and Director of the National Portrait Gallery. His papers cover the first 38 years of the gallery’s existence and are due to be included shortly in the online catalogue.

Sir George Scharf was appointed director in 1857. His papers include around 230 notebooks and sketchbooks, which range from business to personal and family records and document the National Portrait Gallery’s formative years when there was a growing interest in national identity and awareness of the role that portraiture might play in representing British history.

The National Portrait Gallery has also implemented an online catalogue of the Gallery’s library collection, which currently lists almost 10,000 items including published books, periodicals and electronic resources.

To search the archive, visit


- National Portrait Gallery, Long Gallery, 1885 (National Portrait Gallery, London)
- 1909 Gallery Warding Staff (National Portrait Gallery, London)
- War-time portrait store in the Billiard Room at Mentmore House, with wardens, 1940s (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Oldest Roman Coin in Britain

by Kathryn Hadley

Leicestershire County Council announced, at the end of last week, the recent discovery of the oldest Roman coin ever found in Britain in the collection of the Harborough Museum. The silver denarius, which is believed to date to 211BC, was discovered by metal detectorist Ken Wallace, in 2000, amongst over 5,000 other coins at a Late Iron Age shrine of the Corieltavi tribe near the village of Hallaton, Leicestershire.

According to archaeologists, the site was a type of open air shrine, which was used from around 50BC through to the Roman invasion in AD43. The gold and silver coins and other treasures discovered at the site, including an elaborately decorated Roman cavalry helmet and the remains of over 300 pigs, are believed to have been buried as gifts to the gods.

The front of the denarius features a depiction of the goddess Roma; the reverse, is engraved with an image of the mythical twins Castor and Pollux sitting astride galloping horses. Denarii were first struck in Rome in 211BC, making the Hallaton coin a very early version. How the coin came into the possession of the Creiltavi tribe remains a mystery. Whilst it may have arrived in the purse of an invading Roman soldier after the conquest in 43AD, some archaeologists believe that Roman Republican coins found their way into Britain before the conquest through trade or diplomacy.

The previous oldest known Roman coin in Britain, discovered by metal detectorist Malcolm Langford in Berkshire, is believed to date to 207BC. It was recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme last year.

A Leicestershire Council Officer explained:

‘we knew we had a coin dating to 211BC amongst the coins from the Hallaton
Treasure but only realised its full significance after a coin dating to 207BC
was publicised as the oldest Roman coin found in Britain’.

The coin is currently on display at Harborough Museum in the specially designed Hallaton treasure gallery which opened in September 2009.

Harborough Museum
Council Offices
Adam & Eve Street
Market Harborough LE16 7AG
Telephone: 01858 821 085

For further information on Roman Britain, visit our Ancient Rome focus page.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Gandhi's ashes scattered in Indian Ocean

Gandhi’s ashes scattered in sea
To mark the 62nd anniversary of Gandhi’s death on January 30th, 1948, some of his ashes were recently sprinkled into the Indian Ocean off the South African coast. After his assassination, Gandhi’s body was cremated and his ashes were distributed amongst family, friends and followers. The ashes recently dispersed in the Indian Ocean were returned to Gandhi’s family last year, following the death of a family friend, Vilas Mehta, to whom they were given 62 years ago. The BBC reports.
In Makers of the Twentieth Century: M. K. Gandhi Judith M. Brown argues that Gandhi's lasting significance lies not so much in what he actually did, but what he stood for.

Diary of the 'Angel of Death' up for auction
In The Telegraph Allan Hall reports on the upcoming sale of Josef Mengele’s diary and letters by the auctioneers Alexander Autographs based in Stamford, Connecticut. The diary, which begins in 1960 when Mengele was 69, was recently discovered in police files in Brazil where he lived until his death in 1979. It is expected to fetch at least £40,000.

Globalisation in ancient Rome
Excavations at an ancient Roman cemetery in Vagnari, west of the city of Bari in southern Italy, have revealed that one individual buried on the site was of East Asian descent. Tracy Prowse, assistant professor of Anthropology at McMaster University, believes the East Asian man may have been a slave or worker on the site, which was a centre for iron smelting and tile production. Vagnari was an Imperial estate owned by the emperor in Rome and controlled by a local administrator. The discovery has raised important questions about human mobility, identity and diversity in Roman Italy. Read the report on the website of Science Daily.
For further information, visit our Ancient Rome focus page.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Understanding the Holocaust Today

by Kathryn Hadley

On Wednesday January 27th, Holocaust Memorial Day, a panel of leading historians of the Holocaust, including David Cesarani, Dan Stone, Zoe Waxman and Peter Longerich, gathered at the Imperial War Museum London to discuss the historiography of the Holocaust over the past ten years. The event marked the tenth anniversary of the museum’s Holocaust exhibition and the founding of the Royal Holloway, University of London, Holocaust Research Centre.

All four historians are in some way investigating a previously unexplored aspect of the Holocaust and each began by introducing his, or her, particular area of research. Whilst Longerich’s research is focused on both the perpetrators of the Holocaust and how existing thematic and geographic studies can be integrated into the general history of the Third Reich, Waxman is primarily interested in the ‘lived experience of those who suffered’. Waxman’s research seeks, in particular, to explore and integrate issues of testimony and gender into studies of the Holocaust. David Cesarani is currently researching the historiography of the Holocaust in the years immediately after the Second World War, and Dan Stone is writing a book about the history of Holocaust historiography.

How have studies of the Holocaust evolved since the end of the Second World War? More specifically, how has historiography changed over the past decade? Furthermore, how is research set to evolve in coming years?

It is generally assumed that studies and public commemoration of the Holocaust largely developed over the past decade. During the 1990s, historical studies came to focus increasingly on the victims of history. Rather than writing the history of the ‘great’, historians sought to redress the imbalance and to give a voice to those who had suffered and had been largely silenced. Increased commemoration of the Holocaust was a core feature of this general trend. On November 1st, 2005, the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 60/7 designated January 27th as an International Holocaust Remembrance Day. January 27th has been celebrated as Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK since 2001.

However, the perceived contrast between the considerable attention paid to the Holocaust by contemporary politicians compared to that in the years after the Second World War may be no more than an illusion. According to Cesarani, in the aftermath of the Second World War, there was a big drive to research the Holocaust and considerable efforts to gather testimonies and commemorate its victims. Jews dominated British politics, in part as a result of the campaign led by Holocaust survivors to emigrate to Palestine. Although research into the Holocaust was later sidelined, this was, in Cesarani’s view, largely a reaction against its ‘over-commemoration’ in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In the United Kingdom in particular, attention had been focused on the Jewish population for years and there was a sense that the British public had had enough.

Efforts to research and commemorate the Holocaust may be no more widespread today than sixty years ago; nevertheless, studies of the Holocaust have undoubtedly evolved. The changing shape of Europe since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in particular, has been a major influence on views of the Holocaust. According to Dan Stone, the effects of the collapse of communism and of European integration have been twofold, both positive and negative. On the one hand, the collapse of communist governments in Eastern Europe has given rise to far-right parties such as the Yobbik in Hungary, which were silenced during the communist era. On the other hand, there is also a sense in eastern European countries of an obligation to carry out national investigations into the Holocaust in their bid to join the European Union.

There remains considerable research to be carried out, especially in Eastern Europe, and views of the Holocaust will continue to change. Dan Stone highlighted important voids in Holocaust studies on the ‘micro level’, once again, in particular in Eastern Europe. Archives in Eastern Europe have only been opened in recent years and remain understudied. These untapped and unexplored archives are notably expected to reveal a great deal about mentalités in eastern European countries at the time and may help historians to understand what led to collaboration in some countries. However, a major obstacle to the study of eastern European archives is that they are mostly written in eastern European languages or in Yiddish. Interestingly, there has been a drive in recent years, in American universities in particular, to train historians in Yiddish. Nevertheless, according to David Cesarani, the future direction of Holocaust studies is clear: ‘the centre of gravity of writing history will shift eastwards’.

For more information on some of the controversies surrounding Holocaust Memorial Day read our article, Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain.
For an insight into the general debate surrounding the commemoration of historical disasters, read The Memory of Catastrophe.
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