Merridale proposes historian as outsider in Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture 2017

This article was written by Jack Watling, a Hobsbawm scholar studying for his PhD at Birkbeck

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Professor Eric Hobsbawm

What is the duty of the historian to society? That was the question taken up by Catherine Merridale in her Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture, held at Senate House, on Monday 22 May.

In answer Merridale reached into her own past, as a pioneering oral historian of the Soviet Union, its collapse, and the emergence of the new Russia. “This evening,” she said, “I appear before you in the guise of a witness.”

Merridale arrived in Russia in 1982, and entered an exciting and vibrant world in which she was unmistakably an outsider. Amidst the archives and late night arguments over art, literature, and politics, Merridale described the USSR as “red and brown.” Red pervaded public space, the ever-present colour of communist ideology; “brown was the stuff that leaked out when the snow thawed.”

Eventually the brown, oozing through the cracks of failing industries, the rot in the Moscow food warehouses, the bodies bearing testament to past atrocities, would see the whole edifice crumble, and fall away. In the heady days of the 1990s liberation was not conducive to reflection. “Everyone went shopping.” Merridale recalled a friend demanding to know “Ideology! What good is that? We are sick of it. We want a society like yours without an ideology.”

The idea that British society lacked ideology was not just wrong, but dangerous, Merridale argued, the assuredness of western economists who flooded into Russia in the 1990s was misplaced. They believed they had an answer to a country whose problems they barely attempted to understand. “Their intervention was a disaster.” What were they but ideological, working from assumptions? To be blind to one’s biases is invariably to fall victim to them.

It was a highly suitable subject for a lecture commemorating the late Eric Hobsbawm, described by Birkbeck’s Professor Joanna Bourke as one of “the most exciting and influential historians of the Twentieth Century.” Hobsbawm’s magisterial historical quartet, running from the French Revolution to the Cold War, set a benchmark for the integration of cultural, economic, and political history.  Yet Hobsbawm’s work was also an internal struggle between ideology and intellectual rigor. Hobsbawm was a dedicated Communist, and remained so long after it was fashionable. He was a true believer.

There can be no doubt that his political outlook shaped his work, and in a few cases confounded Hobsbawm’s commitment to the historical method. But Hobsbawm was both aware, and consciously challenged himself to confront his own assumptions. I saw this personally as an undergraduate when I was given his copy of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a book banned in the Soviet Union, in which the renowned Soviet journalist contended that there was really very little to distinguish Communism from Fascism.

Merridale contends that today society is “drowning in the twittering present,” our communications rarely archived, our historical memory diminishing. We live in a society “that does not force us to confront ideas we find uncomfortable.” The historian then, who always stands as an outsider, peering into the past, ought similarly to force society to confront its own assumptions; to be aware of its ideological tendencies, and to struggle with them. History ought to make society self-conscious.

It was a compelling mission statement, which Merridale entrusted to the new generation of historians that the Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture aims to inspire. Associated with the lecture is the Hobsbawm Memorial Fund, which provides scholarships to support both Masters and PhD students.

Speaking for myself, such funds are transformative. When I finished my degree I was not in a financial position to fund a Master’s, and yet an MA was a prerequisite for a PhD. There is little government support for Master’s students. The Hobsbawm scholarship was therefore pivotal in my entering the academy. I am now two years into my PhD.

And I am not alone. “Honestly, it’s the only way,” said Sean, an aspiring early modernist who attended the lecture, and is hoping to apply to the Hobsbawm Memorial Fund to support a Master’s.

With Brexit on the horizon it is vital that Britain remains historically conscious. Russia, Merridale explained, has resurrected the Romanov’s, retreating into costume dramas to avoid confronting the contradictions that remain unresolved in Russia’s past. “They failed their own society at its crucial turning point.”

But far from suggesting a complacent superiority Merridale noted that “we Russians and Brits were trapped under the landslide of our victories” in the wake of the Second World War, and here in Britain there is also the tendency to seek comfort in a romantic fantasy of Kings and Queens, that never challenge us to ask who we are, or who we ought to be.

“It is the job of the outsider to be shocked,” Merridale said, as they explore, and like Socrates’ horsefly, to shock others.

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Mr A moves in mysterious ways

L0075005 The Foetus / Rebirth. RIC23, Adamson Coll

Helen Grieg, The Foetus / Rebirth. Credit: Adamson Collection/Wellcome

Dr Fiona Johnstone, Associate Research Fellow in Art History writes on the new exhibition, which will showcase early art therapy from psychiatric patients. The exhibition will be shown from 15 May – 25 July 2017, at the Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck School of Arts. 

This summer the Peltz Gallery will host a historically significant exhibition of works from the remarkable Adamson Collection, one of the world’s largest collections of artworks made by psychiatric patients. Titled Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection, this exhibition will be the first time that the Collection has been displayed since its recent acquisition by the Wellcome Trust.

For almost three decades, Edward Adamson was engaged as ‘art master’ at the long-stay British mental hospital Netherne, in Surrey. His initial role was to facilitate patient involvement in a scientific study investigating the relationship between mental illness and creativity, published by Netherne’s Medical Superintendent Eric Cunningham Dax as Experimental Studies in Psychiatric Art in 1953. When research ended, Adamson chose to remain at the hospital, establishing an open studio where residents could come and paint freely. A pioneer of British art therapy, Adamson was deeply committed to the healing possibilities of creativity, and often remarked that simply making the short journey from the ward to the studio could have a beneficial effect on patients.

Over the years Adamson amassed a vast collection of patient artworks, including drawings, paintings and sculptures. After he retired in 1981, some 6,000 objects were relocated to a temporary exhibition space on the Rothschild family’s estate at Ashton Wold, and then moved to storage in Lambeth Hospital following Adamson’s death in 1986. Most of the Collection was physically transferred to the Wellcome Library in 2013, and formal custodianship agreed in 2016.

Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways has developed out of a series of events hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Medical Humanities: two reading group sessions, which included a meeting led by David O’Flynn, chair of the Adamson Collection Trust, and a discussion of Framing Marginalized Art (Karen Jones, Eugen Koh, Nurin Veis and Anthony White, 2010), a text which explores the ethical and curatorial complexities of exhibiting art therapeutic materials; and a screening of the award-winning essay film Abandoned Goods (dirs. Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson, Fly Film, 2015) which traces the evolution of the Adamson Collection from clinical materials to revered art objects.

Thea Hart, Child and Doctor. Credit: Adamson Collection/ Wellcome

Thea Hart, Child and Doctor. Credit: Adamson Collection/ Wellcome

My co-curator, Dr Heather Tilley and I were fascinated by the potential challenges involved in exhibiting these works: should they be ‘framed’ as art works, historical documents, clinical artefacts, or all three simultaneously? We were also intrigued as to how we might settle on a unifying theme. The Adamson Collection interweaves a number of narratives, including the history of the post-war mental institution, the development of psychiatric practice in the UK, and the origins of art therapy as a profession. It also tells a range of individual stories, including that of Adamson himself, and of the people who produced work under his guidance. How would we be able to do justice to all these perspectives, especially within the relatively small space of the Peltz Gallery?

Ultimately we decided to ‘frame’ the Collection by focusing on the work of eight selected individuals, chosen for their distinctive visual styles and particular histories. By presenting these makers as artists, rather than as un-named and undifferentiated psychiatric patients, and framing their objects as artworks, we have aimed to highlight the aesthetic, personal and historical dimensions of the collection, whilst remaining sensitive to its medical and therapeutic contexts.

We hope that this exhibition will be the beginning of a continuing conversation about the ethical and legal complexities of exhibiting the Adamson Collection (and indeed art therapeutic materials more generally). This summer the Wellcome Trust will host a series of public workshops examining these very issues, focusing on topics such as the naming of patient-artists, accessibility, and the efficacy of the label ‘Outsider Art.’ (N.B. at time of writing dates and details of these workshops are still to be confirmed – keep an eye on our exhibition website for further information).

The exhibition will be also accompanied by an exciting programme of contextual events at Birkbeck, including:

  • A launch event and private view will be held on Thursday 18th May as part of Birkbeck Arts Week.
  • Curator’s tours will as part of London Creativity and Wellbeing Week.
  • A legacy event titled ‘Curating the Medical Humanities’ will be held at Birkbeck in the summer of 2018.

For more information about the exhibition, please visit the Peltz Gallery website.

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Mother and daughter who faced homelessness, dyslexia and bereavement triumph as they graduate together

Jessica, Tayah and Maria

Maria Phillips this week graduated with a degree in history while her daughter Jessica graduated with a degree in theatre and drama studies.

When Jessica finished her BTEC in Performing Arts she thought that she would go on to study an acting degree at university. However, aged 19 she found out that she was pregnant and her plans went on hold. In 2012, when her daughter was three years old, Jessica decided that the time had come to return to education, inspired by her mother, Maria, who had just completed the first year of a history degree at Birkbeck.

Being a single mother and worried about how she would find childcare for Tayah and how she could fit studying into her life, Jessica was delighted when she discovered that Birkbeck’s Theatre and Drama degree was taught in the evenings; and that, as Jessica was on a low income, she qualified for a bursary to cover the cost of Tayah’s nursery care at the nursery five doors away from where her classes were.

Maria, meanwhile, had found out about Birkbeck from a woman who worked at a historic house where she was volunteering, helping with tours for visitors, who would be shown around the building by an actress in costume. She explains: “I went to quite a few different schools and ended up leaving without any qualifications. I had my first two children when I was very young and although I did try to go back to education – studying for a GCSE and a City & Guilds qualification in 1990 – I was struggling with homelessness at the time, living in one room with my two girls, and I wasn’t able to take it any further.

“By the time I enrolled on a distance-learning degree a few years after that, I’d been out of education for so long that I struggled a lot and ended up dropping out and almost completely giving up on the idea of education. When I applied to Birkbeck, I was really surprised to get a place.”

Overcoming hurdles

“The first year was difficult,” Maria adds. “It took me that long to understand my way around the library and how to write essays. I remember going to see a tutor for advice. The tutor’s advice was helpful for managing to get my essays in on time, but I still struggled with organisation all the way through my studies and even when it came to the day I handed in my dissertation, Jessica got a taxi with me and we had to run down the corridor to get there in time!”

“Once it had been handed in and I was walking away it felt unreal – I couldn’t believe that I’d finally made it to the end of the course.”

In her second year, Jessica discovered that she had dyslexia but wasn’t going to let that stop her either and, with the help of her learning development tutor, managed to continue with her course. A major flood left Maria homeless and sleeping on Jessica’s couch for seven months at one point, and when Maria’s close friend died just as she was meant to be finishing her dissertation, it nearly all fell apart.

“We both really struggled at times, and both came really close to giving up,” Maria remembers. “I had many problems with housing, including the flood in my home, which took months of battling with my landlord to fix, including at one point getting my MP involved.”

However, her voluntary work, and her studies at Birkbeck, kept her going.  “I became a volunteer at the Shakespeare’s Globe and the Rose Playhouse in Bankside the same year I started at Birkbeck. Being able to escape to the two theatres was one of the most important reasons why I kept going with my studies and why I didn’t give up – it allowed me to step out of the reality of my situation, to step inside another world of theatre and get away from the bad things that were happening in my life.”

“But even though there were times we would weep or argue, it was a real benefit to have someone to talk to who understood what you were going through,” Maria adds. “Support from a sympathetic tutor in the School of Arts – even though my degree was in history, my voluntary work and support from Jess got me through.”

Jessica describes how her confidence in her own abilities has grown during the course: “At first I was really shy in class but as I started to speak to tutors more and get a feel for what was required for the course I found myself doing things I wouldn’t have contemplated before – I went to theatre productions on my own, in all sorts of different locations. One production was as far as Richmond. When I began studying I didn’t even like getting the tube as I never used to be able to work out the different lines.”

“I even took part in The Rose Theatre Bankside’s two Readathon events for the Rose Revealed project in 2014 and 2015. Before studying at Birkbeck I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that after a huge gap in acting on stage.”

Inspiration

“For my final year project I developed a solo performance piece based on my own experiences as a single mother. It was a tragicomedy about the shame of the single mother on benefits and it expressed this shame through transformation, using makeup and costume as a means to mask the self.

“I also used clowning techniques; my performance depicted the everyday life of a single mother on benefits against the stereotype of the single mother. I used a clown character to show this stereotype. Throughout my intensive research I was greatly inspired by the amazing regency actor and clown, Joseph Grimaldi, who performed in theatres such as Sadler’s Wells, Convent Garden, and Drury Lane.

“I was also inspired by an amazing kind-hearted man and contemporary clown Mattie, who I visited in Dalston at the clown gallery-museum and Archives, located at the Holy Trinity church in Hackney. I went on a few occasions for my research on clowning and on Grimaldi.

“For my solo performance in April this year, I got a first and when I finished performing it everyone was clapping loudly and I literally stood there in shock as I couldn’t believe they were clapping for me. My tutors after the performance were saying how good it was and how much content I had in the piece – one tutor hugged me. When I was collecting my daughter from the Birkbeck crèche I was crying from happiness. That feeling was just overwhelming; I had worked eight months on my own piece of theatre and it was successful, and well-received.”

“I remember when I had to rehearse my solo performance piece at The School of Arts every Monday evening, and I was lucky Tayah was allowed to be in the Birkbeck crèche for the three hours I rehearsed. Throughout those eight weeks I had to devise a performance; I had carrier bags of props and confetti and a baby doll I was carrying on the buses back and forth between Birkbeck and home.

“People on the bus were looking in bewilderment at how many empty food boxes I had – I was laughing to myself as they didn’t know I was rehearsing for my solo performance; I literally got off the bus with my Tesco bags with many props in one hand and little Tayah in the other hand.”

Jessica’s daughter Tayah, who is now seven, was really proud of her mum for getting her assignments in on time. Jessica said: “It’s made her want to do better at school herself and to make me proud. She has even said she will go to Birkbeck when she is older.”

As they prepare for their graduation ceremonies at Senate House on 8 and 9 November, Maria reflects: “I didn’t expect to get to this stage. There were so many obstacles that almost stopped me, but eventually I did it. It has increased my confidence and I will be able to apply for jobs that I couldn’t have before. I’m so proud of Jessica as well. She might not have done it straight after college like she planned to, but now she’s picking up where she left off.”

Jessica was awarded a Harold and Jean Brooks Prize from the Department of English and Humanities to celebrate her academic progress during the course of her BA Theatre and Drama Studies degree. Jessica said: “Now that I’m coming to graduate, I can’t believe it’s happening. But I got through four hard years and now I get to walk away with something huge.”

Jessica is planning to develop further her final year solo performance piece into a longer version and hopes to perform it in the future.

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‘Amateurism’ to ‘Elitism’: An Exploration of ‘The Games’ with David Goldblatt

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

olympia-1535219_1920For all of its successes, Rio 2016 came to embody many of the problematic and, at times, controversial aspects of the Olympic Games. From its roots in antiquity as an aristocratic pastime, to its re-emergence in Athens in 1896 as a ‘display of manly virtue’, the Olympics has always been at the nexus of political, social and ideological currents, as each era sees itself reflected  in the class, race, gender and sexuality of its athletic ideals. Its role in modernity has seen it both transcend and yield to international diplomacy and, successfully or not, has attempted to appeal to a ‘Universal Humanism’ above the fray of nation-state politics. It is this complex legacy that provides the context for award winning sports author David Goldblatt’s seminar ‘The Games: A Global History of The Olympics’, a lucid and sober assessment of the world’s preeminent sporting event.

The first in a series of seminars hosted by Birkbeck’s Sport Business Centre, Goldblatt spoke to an audience of eager students, academics and industry professionals on the topics covered in his most recent work ‘The Games: A Global History of The Olympics’. The public seminar series, hosted by Birkbeck, invites the leading academics, social, political and economic commentators, and sport industry professionals, to discuss the latest developments in their work and share them with the Birkbeck community, industry and the public.

Whose values?

With many of the shortcomings of Rio 2016 prevalent in press coverage of the event, the purpose and significance of the Olympics has never been under more scrutiny. Indeed, increased crime, poorly paid cleaning staff, and a multitude of other failed initiatives has created a kind of existential crisis around which set of values the Olympics are meant to represent; what kind of torch is being passed along? Is it the individualism of elite sports, the lucrative urban regeneration projects for the host or a broader and inclusive culture built on health and equality? Through a carefully curated study of the historic role played by the Olympics, David Goldblatt asked his audience to navigate a history as complex as it is iconic.

Starting with a consideration of how the modern games came about, inaugurated in 1896 after a near 2000 year absence and sporadic revivals, Goldblatt explored how the ‘amateurism’ clauses of the early games ensured only the privileged elite could participate. Whilst the fight for racial and gender equality at the games would be fought throughout the 20th Century, the working classes were carefully excluded by clauses barring anyone who had accepted wages for manual labour from competing. With a diverse audience of different genders, races, nationalities and ages, the audience shared a variety of perspectives in an open discussion that reflected on both the inclusive and exclusive nature of the event.

Trickle-down inspiration?

relay-race-655353_1920Britain’s success at Rio may well have caught the world by surprise, but Goldblatt discussed with the audience whether a medal tally really equates to success. Indeed, whilst elite British athletes hit new heights, breaking records and elevating their esteem, what can be said of the public’s access to sporting facilities? Is Britain’s sporting strategy merely an emulation of trickle-down economics? Should funding be directed solely to those that will achieve?

Much of the current narrative around Olympic success, particularly in Britain, is the notion that successful athletes will ‘inspire’ the next generation of gold medal winners. Indeed, to those of us interested in athletics but not blessed with superhuman capabilities, the notion that we’ll be inspired by elite individuals can seem like an empty platitude, particularly when local services face cuts and playing fields are converted into luxury apartments. But, crucially, we must ask whether this is the responsibility of the Olympics. Certainly, if it wants to be the international event it aspires to, representing a coming together of nations and peoples, then a holistic sporting culture should be the objective. Or, alternatively, are the Olympics our glimpse into the capabilities of elite athletes? Should we watch with awe comfortably from our sofas? Has the Olympics had its ‘Premier League’ moment?

Whilst an interrogation of what Olympic values really are and whether they represent the possibility of a ‘Universal Humanism’ will likely continue, Goldblatt invited his audience to consider broader questions about what sport represents, where it’s been and where it’s heading, connecting ‘The Games’ with the great political and social questions of our time.

You can learn more about the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre at their website and see upcoming events here. Next week (24th October) will be ‘Not Only Lewandowski: The State of Polish Football and Business Around it Four Years After Euro 2012’ and tickets are available here.

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