Radical Heritage, Art & Culture: The Work of a Thousand Different Hands

This post was contributed by Dr Claire Hayward, lecturer in History at Farnborough College of Technology, Researcher for Pride of Place and a team member of the Raphael Samuel History Centre

On 30 June – 3 July 2016, the Centre will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of the socialist historian Raphael Samuel, along with the fortieth anniversary of the journal he helped to found (History Workshop Journal), with the Radical Histories Conference.


While the main question of Raphael Samuel History Centre Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism will be ‘what is radical history?’, the history conference and festival will also ask how heritage, art and culture can be radical. We hope that discussions will raise questions about how radical histories are shared with people from all walks of life, and how they can be made more accessible and both involve and reach radical communities.

Radical Public Histories

The RSHC is ‘devoted to encouraging the widest possible participation in historical research and debate’. The Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism conference and festival intends to carry on this idea. The conference papers, presentations and performances given over the three-and-a-half-day event will bring histories of radicalism to a broad audience of performers, artists, students, teachers, local community members and historians.

We’ll hear from heritage practitioners, curators and artists on how to access and preserve radical histories. On Friday morning, a panel on commemorating suffrage activism in Parliament will explore radical history in Parliament, and question how we can make radical histories more visible in the present. On Saturday afternoon we’ll hear about radical archiving and archiving radical histories. On Sunday we’ll hear about radical publishing and alternative visionaries like the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift.

Participatory Events

Radical Histories conference

Radical Histories conference

Co-production and participation is at the heart of some of the scheduled events. You can join in a musical workshop and sing late nineteenth century socialist hymns for Jewish immigrant workers during Sunday’s long lunch break. You can also join in walking tours that will take you through radical histories of the East End and Hackney. Performance and art are central themes of the long weekend, and the programme promises to be both enlightening and entertaining.

Stalls, exhibitions, films and other events will take place at lunch during the long weekend. Pride of Place will be there to collect LGBTQ histories. The project is run by Historic England (previously English Heritage) and Leeds Beckett University. It is radical in multiple senses. The project collects and shares histories of radical LGBTQ lives, of radical sites such as queer squats and alternative housing. It is also a crowdsourced project that aims to collaborate with, be informed by and reach as wide an audience as possible. Radical heritage takes on many methods, and crowdsourcing is just one of them. During the lunch time sessions, you can also hear poetry readings, watch screenings and join workshops that bring to life radical voices, histories and ideas.

Revealing Radical Histories

As Raphael Samuel said, ‘history is the work of a thousand different hands’. The Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism conference and festival aims to show how radical histories are the work of many hands, from many backgrounds, for many purposes. The organisers, speakers, contributors and audience are from a range of different backgrounds, and have a wealth of different experiences and skills. We hope this will reveal radical histories and bring to light radical ideas of how to share them through heritage, art and culture.

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Birkbeck Graduate Research School Relaunches

This post has been contributed by Rima Amin, Registry Officer at Birkbeck.

To Brexit or not to Brexit, that was the question posed to students and speakers at the Birkbeck Graduate Research School’s (BGRS) “Relaunch” event on Monday, 23 May. The event hosted a Brexit debate followed by a drinks reception and an informal group discussion on the development of the Research School.

The BGRS is a network providing resources, skills workshops and social events to support students during their time at Birkbeck. These are currently provided through the BGRS website, academibirkbeck-entrance1.jpgc workshop calendar and email communications.

The BGRS is currently revising the services it provides, how it communicates and seeking further ideas on how it can be improved to meet research students’ needs better.

In his welcome speech Pro-Vice Master Julian Swann said “Tonight is about engaging in debate on Brexit which is an event of great topical interest to us all. Development of the research school is a priority for Birkbeck, so along with the debate tonight we look forward to having you give us your views about how to create a stronger community for research students.”

Chaired by Professor Rosie Campbell from Birkbeck’s Politics Department, the debate began with Ben Harris-Quinney from the Leave side making his case saying: “Research students are a crucial group who can find great opportunity in Brexit as they are people ready to engage in the world with ideas.”

He said that Britain is a bigger contributor of academic research opposed to its European counterparts inferring that research students are currently giving more than they are gaining.

Next was the turn of Lord Richard Balfe from the remain side who began by criticizing campaigners on both sides of Brexit who treat the referendum as though Britain is going to end if they don’t get their way.

Lord Balfe spoke of Britain in the 1950’s where racism was rife and signs saying “No dogs. No Irish” were visible on the streets. He said that Britain had come a long way since then and migrants have played a key role to the current well-functioning economy in Britain.

The students raised challenging insights to both speakers. Lord Balfe was questioned over the lack of transparency over decision-making in European Parliament compared with British Parliament.

The conclusion from the remain drapeaux européensside: “One person’s red tape is another person’s working rights- we should be proud of what we have achieved.” And that from the leave side: “With champagne receptions and lobster dinners, the EU can appear glamourous, but when you see through it, you realise democracy is more effective when local.”

The Chair of the debate thanked the speakers and the questions from the students calling the contributions “a much richer discussion than what we can find in the papers.”

Research student Ekua Agha said “The debate was extremely innovative and provoked a lot of thought on the issues. The informal setting but formal discussion was struck at a nice balance.”

Birkbeck Graduate Research School would like to thank Ben Harris Quinney, Lord Richard Balfe and all attendees.

It’s not over.

If you couldn’t make last night’s debate, we still want to hear your thoughts on how we can develop the research school. Here are the questions we asked research students at the event. Please send your thoughts to researchstudentunit@bbk.ac.uk. 

1. What do you want the Graduate School to be/do?
2. What’s the best thing about studying at Birkbeck?
3. If you could change 1 thing about your time at Birkbeck, what would it be?
4. How do you want to find out about training & events?
5. What do you think about tonight’s event?/Ideas for future events?

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Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?

This post was contributed by Dr Barbara Zollner, lecturer in Middle East Politics, Department of Politics. Here Dr Zollner offers an insight into issues to be discussed at a public colloquium at Birkbeck (“Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?”) on Friday 10 June. The colloquium is run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research

‘There is no freedom when you are in fear’; so goes the title strip of the song Akher Okhneya (Last Song) by the Egyptian music-group Cairokee. The rap, which is shot on a deserted railway-line in Cairo, echoes the feelings of many young Egyptians. The mass-movement against authoritarianism in Middle Eastern countries, commonly known as the Arab Spring, gave hope to their call for political and personal freedom.

Thousands joined the protest, but subsequently many saw themselves excluded from democracy-building. Fewer continue to dream of revolution today. The view of these shabab (literally, young people, but usually refers to the Tahrir movement) is that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood ‘hijacked’ the prospect of political change. This led them to side with the Tamarrod movement against President Mursi, which in turn opened the door for al-Sisi’s military coup.

Now, five years after their Arab Spring, Egypt faces another authoritarian military regime under President al-Sisi that uses nationalist overtones to crush any social movement, any contentious politics, any dissent.

‘The beneficiary is the one who controls you, the one who’s making you passive, who’s dictating you where to go, the one who’s predominating you. They imprisoned you inside your mind, the bars are your fear. You are afraid to think free, because you are afraid they might catch you.’ Cairokee, Akher Oghniya


The future of democracy looks bleak

Egypt, although an obvious case, is not the only example that the hopes associated with the Arab Spring are crushed by new authoritarianism, civil war, ethnic and sectarian strife. All over the Middle East, whether in Gulf oil-monarchies, eastern-Mediterranean and north-African republics (with perhaps Tunisia as a remarkable exception) and even in constitutional monarchies, the future of democracy looks rather bleak.

Within this turmoil, social movements (SM) are severely restrained in their activities, yet they continue to shout HURIYYA – FREEDOM. It is these movements, that continue a struggle for political reform across the Middle East, that are the focal point for a one day colloquium at Birkbeck.

Despite considerable interest in the current regional crisis, there is surprisingly little systematic research on the responsibility of SMs in successful or indeed failed democratic transitions. The short period of the Arab Spring provides rich material to explore this theme. It allows us to analyse, compare and theorise on specific empirical cases, including Islamist and secular movements that depart from the mainstream focus.

Questions arise such as whether and, if so, to what extent, SMs are responsible for the failure of democratic transition in the Middle East. Moreover, what happened to SMs and SMOs five years after the Arab Spring? Did they simply implode or did they reconfigure their political activism, potentially even turning towards violence?

The one-day colloquium intends to explore these issues. It seeks to bring together Middle East experts with an interest in contentious politics to study how these relate to processes of fundamental political change such as democratic transition, civil war, the rise of extremist movements and counter-revolutions.

“5 years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?” – a one day Colloquium, run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, will be held at Birkbeck on Friday 10 June.

Book on to the colloquium and view the full programme here

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Arts Week 2016: Rediscovered!

This post has been contributed by Louise Horton of the School of Arts’ Department of English and Humanities after she attended the Arts Week 2016 event on Wednesday 18 May titled, “Rediscovered! The Story of Birkbeck’s Manuscript and Rare Medieval Book Collection”

Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost

How does half a millennium of possession and loss write itself into the history of a book? How can time eat itself into the very pages of a mislaid book? And what happens to a book when no one remembers it?

Rediscovered! at Birkbeck Arts Week invited us to consider these questions through the story of four medieval books found late last year in Birkbeck Library. Uncatalogued and locked away for safe keeping, these books had slipped from memory sometime in the last century – almost certainly not for the first time in their history.

A tale of finding something that once was lost

Telling the story of the books’ rediscovery were Birkbeck’s Anthony Bale and Isabel Davis, but their fascinating talk was more than a tale of finding something that once was lost. It was a talk that swept through 600 years of European history; following the books’ journey between libraries and collections, surviving the Reformation, Napoleonic and world wars, until finally reaching Malet Street sometime in the twentieth century.

Here and there it was possible to catch glimpses of the forgotten books, swapping owners and countries, but mostly their past is silence; as is history on the fate and identities of those who once read and left their marks within these pages. Yet these are organic books, and traces of the lives that made, owned and touched them do survive.

The pages are palimpsests, layered with centuries of the European book trade. From these medieval manuscripts and incunabula the hands of scribes, illuminators, vellum makers, printers, and book binders emerge; leaving behind the fingerprints of culture and commerce, and belief and behaviour. In the beautiful book of hours, from early fifteenth century Paris or Rouen, the face of an enigmatic bear-bird-man watches the reader contemplate the crucifixion.

And so in this strange figure we find just the tiniest glimpse of a domestic lay culture where fantastical creatures could adorn a scene from the passion – reminding us with a jolt that these books are more than objects. These books were made, read and used with purpose. The books belonged to people who wrote in them, drew in them and with them marked the passing of time, until all that survived was the book.

The road to Birkbeck

Fast forward several centuries and we find a Victorian bibliomaniac on the continent, perhaps adding to his 146,000 book collection from the detritus of libraries broken up during the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars. Forward another century and a Birkbeck mathematician, whose studies were broken by the Great War, adds his personal mark of ownership – an image of a fox in a library. Somewhere along the way woodworm creeps in, a book is re-bound, another is bought at auction, one is catalogued and then lost from the system that makes sense of its numbering. Somehow through trade, acquisition and donation the books reach Malet Street, London and then despite being perfectly safe are lost again. Until 2015.

So, what next? Have these books stopped travelling? Well, yes and no. The books will remain at Birkbeck, but a new journey is beginning for them too. These fragile books will be catalogued anew, and securely stored. Yet, through digitisation and plans for online access the books will take new form. From manuscript to early printed book to online edition a new chapter in the rediscovered Birkbeck medieval collection is about to begin.

Read Professor Anthony Bales recent blog: Four forgotten medieval books at Birkbeck College

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