Material History: Henry VIII at Windsor Castle

This post was contributed by Eva-Maria Lauenstein, Birkbeck Department of English and Humanities after she attended the Arts Week 2015 event Material History: Henry VIII at Windsor Castle

Henry VIII. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Henry VIII. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Can objects speak about history? In this fascinating talk Dr Richard Williams, Education Curator at the Royal Collections, Windsor, took us on a journey along the precarious roads of political legitimacy and religious faction through the objects that stood at the centre of the unfolding narrative of Henry VIII’s reign.

Williams began by making his audience look at Windsor with fresh eyes. From the battlements of the gate tower, built by the young Henry, to the importance of the depiction of delicate nuances in fabric in portrait painting, we were reminded that it was through objects the king thought to secure the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty.

As Williams guided us along Tudor ways of self-fashioning, we also got a glimpse of Henry’s early dealings with reformation thinking. Revealing the power of the material object, Williams could have made his point in no less striking a way than by revealing a presentation copy of Henry’s own defence of the church and pope, the Defence of the Seven Sacraments, signed by the monarch himself. It highlights both Henry’s religious belief and conviction and subsequent shift, but in a strikingly personal way how the king sought legitimacy through a religious alignment with Rome.

Just as we have learned to read between the lines of texts, Williams reminded his audience of how fascinating and important it is to study the ethereal, the material objects which we no longer possess.

Through this, we are reminded that many of the art forms we cherish in contemporary society, including portrait painting, may have had a status altogether different, perhaps not worthy of mention or preservation.

Be it a rich tapestry or the festive arches erected for the royal entrances of kings, the transience of certain objects is at once a hurdle to our studies, as well as a great opportunity.

This was an inspiring talk, reminding researchers of the vastness of the Royal Collections and the opportunities for discovery that it provides. It also reminded the audience of the immense beauty of Windsor Castle. Dr Richard Williams certainly convinced many of us to go back for a visit, and a closer look.

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Renaissance Ways of Seeing / Ways of Seeing the Renaissance

This post has been contributed by Louise Horton of the School of Arts’ Department of English and Humanities

How did people see in the Renaissance? From religious art in Alpine chapels to invisible men on the London stage, Wednesday’s panel session at Birkbeck Arts Week offered four ways of seeing in the Renaissance that challenged us to look again at how we see and understand the period.

  • Envisage a Mary Magdalene clothed in liturgical green rather than as a scarlet harlot.
  • Picture the angels John Dee thought could be seen in a crystal ball.
  • Imagine what buying ‘a robe for to goo invisibell’ entailed, and wonder whether we see nature or convention in great works of Renaissance art.

The panel showed us ways to do just that and asked do we have to see to believe? Or do we need to believe to see?

Birkbeck’s Joanne Anderson opening paper presented us with a new way of viewing Mary Magdalen. Focusing predominately on depictions of the Magdalen in Alpine Italy, we saw a female saint clothed in the colour of Jerusalem, replete in the shades of re-birth and shrouded in the sacred.

Coloured green this Mary is a preacher, not the scarlet woman taken in adultery. Joanne’s paper raised fascinating questions about the role of women in the early church, and how varied religious beliefs were interpreted in iconography across Renaissance Europe. What does this mean for how we interpret Mary Magdalen? What did the people of the Renaissance Alps see and believe about their green Magdalen and why was she so different to the sexualised southern Italian Mary draped in red?

The art of ‘scrying’

Stephen Clucas (Birkbeck) posed related themes about sight, conventions and belief in his talk on John Dee and the art of seeing or ‘scrying’. Dee’s active participation in the practice of crystallomancy raises many questions about Renaissance ways of seeing. Did Dee’s scryer, Edward Kelly, see and converse with angels through a crystal ball? Was Kelly a charlatan, mentally ill or taking drugs? Does it matter?

Stephen’s paper asked us to think about what Dee believed he was seeing, and how that was influenced by conventional Renaissance images of angels. Ultimately asking how does what we expect to see, through belief and convention, influence what we do see?

Sight, convention and interpretation

The final two papers continued those themes of sight, convention and interpretation by giving us ways to look at things that are simultaneously there and not there. Dr Paul Taylor (Warburg Institute) discussed the inherent tensions in imitation. Do you draw from nature or follow a schematic that represents nature? And which produces the more apparently realistic image?

Looking at Renaissance images of hair, lips and trees Paul demonstrated how the mind fills in gaps so that we see and understand things that aren’t really there. In contrast Gill Woods (Birkbeck) showed us how early modern plays told the mind not to see things that really were there. Going invisible on the Renaissance stage required imagination, cued by words, use of conventions and ultimately a leap of faith to both see and not see the entirely visible.

Ways of seeing

So to conclude, what did the session show us about Renaissance ways of seeing?

Collectively the panel gave us Renaissance religious, artistic and theatrical ways of seeing but also showed us ways of seeing the Renaissance. It seems to me that Gill’s recipe for looking beyond the visible represents how we see and interpret the Renaissance today. Our research requires us to understand convention but then to look beyond it (sometimes with a leap of faith) to see what others haven’t.

Perhaps then this makes us all scryers, looking into Renaissance objects in the hope of opening up a conversation with the past.

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Petrocultures explored: The oil dependency of contemporary life

This post was contributed by Sami Salo, who is currently studying the Cultural and Critical Studies MA at Birkbeck’s School of Arts

Microsoft Word - Petrocultures Panel Poster.docx

Microsoft Word – Petrocultures Panel Poster.docx

Oil is the ‘energy unconscious,’ the often unspoken, yet, constantly present component in most key functions of modern society. As well as being present in my immediate surroundings – in the plastic of my computer keyboard, in the lotion I rub on my hands – the energy from oil underwrites the agribusiness that produces cheap food for an ever-increasing global population, and, perhaps most significantly, oil fuels our communications, the transport systems that shrink space and enable the unprecedented movement of people and goods around the globe.

Considering this ubiquitousness of oil, it is striking that the role of oil is not discussed more in our culture. The Arts Week panel discussion Environmental Futures: Oil, Ecology, Petrocultures, held at Birkbeck on 18 May, centred on questions about the oil-dependency of contemporary life and the ways in which this dependency can be represented.

Peak oil and science fiction

Dr Caroline Edwards talked about peak oil in the popular imagination. Peak oil is the idea that oil production has peaked and the amount of oil that will be available for extraction in the future will be on an irrevocably decreasing trend. What effects will this decreasing availability have on capitalism, on technology and on liberal democracy? How are these effects imagined in popular culture?

Science fiction and horror are genres that have often been seen to explore anxieties about issues that are difficult to discuss explicitly. Dr Edwards’s research into science fiction suggests that awareness and anxiety about peak oil and global warming are reflected in the narratives used in science fiction.

Prior to the 1970s oil crisis, imagined futures often depicted masculine explorations into space powered by abundant new forms of energy. More recently, as a decrease in available energy is looking more likely, speculative fiction has moved away from visions of energy-abundant utopias to depictions of collapse instead.

Resources and cultural production

Dr Graeme MacDonald explored the connection between resources and cultural production in more general terms. As well as producing anxiety, the oil industry also produces and subtends culture in tangible ways. The oil industry’s sponsorship of universities and arts institutions are some of the ways in which oil actively produces culture.

Dr MacDonald’s current research is in ‘petrofiction,’ but what exactly this petrofiction entails is hard to pin down. Just as the ties between capitalism and oil are everywhere, so are ‘oily moments’ in fiction. Putting on a polyester shirt, grabbing a Starbucks or getting on the tube are all acts enabled by oil but where do we draw the line in looking for the significance of oil in these events?

Dr MacDonald exhorts us to engage with oil and see the ways in which it produces culture. Questions of peak oil and global warming can seem like purely scientific questions of temperature thresholds, extraction rates and feedback loops. At the same time, we continue to extract and burn oil even though we know what the environmental effects are. What is the role of culture in our persistent reliance on these harmful practices?

Citizen sensing and environmental practice

Exploring this challenge of reading scientific data against our everyday experience is Dr Jennifer Gabrys’s project “Citizen Sensing and Environmental Practice: Assessing Participatory Engagements with Environments through Sensor Technologies.”

One part of the project investigates citizen participation in monitoring air pollution at fracking sites along the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania. As well as producing data on pollution levels, residents participating in the project are asked to keep a log book of their experiences. This project challenges our notions about scientific data by democratising the collection of data while at the same time connecting this data to the experiences of the people living in a rapidly changing environment.

Oil-inspired poetry

A different experiential engagement with oil was provided by the poet Michael McKimm whose reading of oil-inspired poetry wrapped up the panel. McKimm’s poetry took us to some of the industrialised rural landscapes of oil pipes and refineries that usually remain invisible to us but whose existence is vital to so many of the functions of our society.

This panel posed crucial questions about our culture’s engagement with oil and suggested some new ways in which individuals’ relationship to energy sources can be democratised. As our harmful use of fossil fuels shows no signs of abating, it is clear that the nascent academic field of petrocultures will become an area of increasing academic and cultural interest in the future.

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Bilingualism and cognition: Myths, mysteries and methodological nightmares

This post was contributed by Ariadni Loutrari, a NewRoute PhD Student in the Department of Applied Linguistics

Linguistics_50_finalBirkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics celebrated its 50th Anniversary by hosting a talk by Dr Thomas Bak on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism and relevant methodological issues.

Dr Bak studied medicine in Germany and Switzerland, obtaining his medical doctorate with a thesis on acute aphasias at the University of Freiburg. Apart from his clinical experience, he has conducted research on embodied cognition and the relationship between language and movement in neurodegenerative diseases.

More recently, his research has been focusing on the influence of bilingualism on cognitive functions across the lifespan and in dementia. He has been the president of the World Federation of Neurology Research group on aphasia, dementia, and cognitive disorders since 2010. Dr Bak shed some light on critique on bilingualism research and gave us an insight into the cognitive benefits of bilingualism.

Starting from a historical overview, our guest speaker referred to the fact that it was only after the ‘80s that more positive views on bilingualism were expressed. In the past, bilinguals were thought to have a disadvantage due to conflict and confusion between language brain areas and those linked to other cognitive functions.

The talk addressed a number of critiques against bilingualism research. For instance, lack of theoretical underpinnings has been considered one of the weaknesses of research on bilingualism. However, Dr Bak reminded us of the fact that scientific breakthroughs of the past with significant benefits for humanity lacked a theory.

Fierce criticism against bilingualism research also comes from the hypothesis that confounding variables can influence the interpretation of its cognitive effect. Immigration has been thought to be such a case, as cognitive benefits of bilingualism can be alternatively attributed to factors related to immigration.

The work of Dr Bak and his colleagues in places where bilingualism is not the result of immigration shows that this variable does not seem to be a confounding variable in bilingualism research.

When it comes to research on bilingualism and cognition the question inevitably arises as to whether bilingualism leads to better cognition or better cognition leads to bilingualism. Dr Bak touched on this reverse causality issue by presenting data from one of his recent studies in which he and his  colleagues managed to control for childhood intelligence.

An intelligence test that English native speakers living in and around Edinburgh took in 1947 was repeated in 2008-2010. Results pointed to a positive effect of bilingualism on later-life cognition. This conclusion had to do both with early bilinguals and those who acquired a second language in adulthood.

Dr Bak also referred to transfer-generalisation of knowledge emerging as a result of bilingualism, as bilingualism can have a positive effect, for example, on the auditory domain in general. That is, being bilingual can help an individual perform better on tasks that are not language-specific, leading to the conclusion that by learning a language, one learns more than they actually think they learn.

Being multilingual with teaching experience in seven languages, Dr Bak delivered an enlightening talk on the benefits of bilingualism, presenting robust research findings and methodological innovations that overcame hurdles of previous research in the field.

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Further reading:

Bak, T. H., Nissan, J. J., Allerhand, M. M., & Deary, I. J. (2014). Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging? Annals of Neurology, 75, 959-963.

Bak, T. H., Vega-Mendoza, M. & Sorace, A. (2014). Never too late? An advantage on tests of auditory attention extends to late bilinguals. Language Sciences, 5, 1–6

Mortimer, J. A., Alladi, S., Bak, T. H.Russ, T. C., Shailaja, M. & Duggirala, V.  (2014).Bilingualism delays age at onset of dementia, independent of education and immigration statusNeurology, 82, 1938–1944.

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