The bicentenary at Birkbeck Library

1 – Treasures from the archives

The Library has been central to Birkbeck life since the first days of the College. Throughout 2023 we will be holding a changing exhibition to commemorate the history of the College. We will be using original material from the College Archive and our image collections, both of which were also used by Professor Joanna Bourke for the research she did when writing her new book Birkbeck: 200 years of radical learning for working people.  

In 2022, as part of a partial refurbishment, the Library acquired a dedicated archives room in the new silent study area on the second floor. The room provides a new home for the core of the Birkbeck College Archive, the David Bohm Papers, Sir Bernard Crick Archive and our collection of medieval books. 

The Birkbeck College Archive comprises the surviving institutional records of Birkbeck, University of London, dating from its foundation as the London Mechanics’ Institution in 1823 to c. 2015. Much of the material derives from the central running of the university, being minutes of its governing bodies and their committees, financial records of its administration, prospectuses, calendars and annual reports. There are also programmes of events and texts of addresses and lectures given at the College, a full series of press cuttings and some photographs. 

Part of the archive was digitised through a Google Arts & Culture project in 2018. 

George Birkbeck, President 1823 – 1841

We have chosen four themes to illustrate the fascinating 200-year history of the College. 

Exhibition schedule 

March 2023 – mid-May 2023: The founding of Birkbeck 

Mid-May 2023 – August 2023: Student life 

August 2023 – mid-October 2023: Birkbeck during the wars 

Mid-October 2023 – December 2023: The life of Birkbeck Library 

An exhibition guide will be available in the Library. We will update Bookish with stories relating to the themes of the displays throughout 2023. 

The Library at Bream’s Building, 1923 

Florilegium: gathering the language of flowers

In this guest blog Birkbeck research student Jemma Stewart discusses the language of flowers in Victorian literature and material culture. Jemma was a finalist for this year’s Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize, organised by UCL Special Collections, and we are happy to be able to feature her collection and to have her share her thoughts with the readers of Bookish. 

A selection of nineteenth-century language of flowers books and paraphernalia, largely centred on the rose.
A selection of nineteenth-century language of flowers books and paraphernalia, largely centred on the rose. 

The language of flowers was a nineteenth-century cultural craze and popular fad allied to the gift book, or gift annual. An import from France, with romanticised Eastern origins and the notion of a codified set of meanings attributed to flowers, the books were translated, Anglicised and exploded in popularity in England and America. While floral symbolism, or floriography, did not originate in the nineteenth century, the formalised ‘lists’ perpetuated by the popular language of flowers anthologies ensured a continual dissemination and reimagination of this language of flora. My thesis considers floriography or floral symbolism in nineteenth-century Gothic fictions, so, I am primarily working with the night-side of nature. However, the material culture of the language of flowers anthologies provides an access point for my analysis as I seek to discover whether traditional floral meanings are subverted, adhered to or extended in Gothic texts. 

Frequently derided as works of sentimental botany, accused of commodifying feeling and having little to do with the real lives of plants, the language of flowers books get a bad reputation in current times. However, as former Birkbeck scholar Nicola Bown notes, ‘sentimental art and literature invites us sympathetically to share the emotional world of those distant from us in time and circumstance […] to know more about what it means to be human ourselves’. The language of flowers books are evidence of one prolific way that the Victorians thought about human entanglements with nature. They are not completely devoid of botanical information in many cases, and, they gesture towards a female community of readership and inheritance rather than solely love intrigues or social climbing. There is plenty of potential for re-enchantment in revisiting this cultural craze. 

Cover of an early edition of Flora Symbolica; or, The Language and Sentiment of Flowers.
John Ingram, Flora Symbolica; or, The Language and Sentiment of Flowers (London: Frederick Warne & Co., c. 1870s). 1st edn 1869. 

Over the past year and a half, especially during the lockdowns, I became a low-level bibliophile and added to my collection of language of flower anthologies. When the Anthony Davis book collecting prize was advertised, this seemed like a great opportunity to share my admittedly hands-on mini reference library of sentimental flower books. Once the competition and its associated talks with UCL Rare Books Club had concluded, it was clear that I was a collector on two fronts — of the antique anthologies, but also of literary allusions. Does it mean anything when Lord Arthur Savile sends Sybil Merton a basket of narcissi and hands her a bunch of yellow roses (Oscar Wilde, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, 1887)? In The Lady of the Shroud (Bram Stoker, 1909) does Rupert’s commentary on the flowers worn by Teuta reveal a genuine awareness of floral symbolism: 

“The veil was fastened with a bunch of tiny sprays of orange blossom mingled with cypress and laurel — a strange combination. Its sweet intoxicating odour floated up to my nostrils. It and the sentiment which its very presence evoked made me quiver.” (Bram Stoker, p. 188).

I would suggest that these floral inclusions hold significance and can prove a gateway to some rewarding analysis when looked at closely.  

Plate from the second edition of Robert Tyas, The Sentiment of flowers; or, Language of flora, featuring pimpernel and forget-me-not flowers.
From Robert Tyas, The Sentiment of flowers; or, Language of flora, 2nd edn (London: R. Tyas, 1841), p. 110. 1st edn 1836. Note for the plate by James Andrews: Plate IV, Forget-me-not -cypress – pimpernel – Forget me not, for, alas! We may never meet again. 

When assembling her study of the language of flowers in nineteenth-century culture, Beverly Seaton connected a perceived absence of the language of flowers in popular fiction to a lack of its real application in everyday lives (The Language of Flowers: A History, pp. 108–09). However, nineteenth-century cultural artifacts, including samplers, art, jewellery, music and valentines reveal a use of the language of flowers that extends beyond the gift books. The language of flowers books were often compiled in the format of poetry anthologies, and so the books and flower meanings themselves are framed around the literary iterations of flowers. Additionally, academics are continually uncovering floriography or explicit mention of the language of flowers in nineteenth-century realist fiction, particularly within the works of female authors who also composed stories in the Gothic mode. Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Rhoda Broughton, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Letitia E. Landon, Elizabeth Gaskell, Edith Wharton, Louisa May Alcott, and Mary Wilkins Freeman all fall into this category. 

Nineteenth-century language of flowers publications, contemporary academic criticism and featured fictions.
Nineteenth-century language of flowers publications, contemporary academic criticism and featured fictions.  

It strikes me that there are three methods of working with floriography in fiction — searches within works for explicit mention of ‘the language of flowers’; decoding meaningful nosegays or bouquets exchanged between characters, and, interpreting the symbolic meaning of flowers as they bloom to become connected with character and plot. My collecting will continue as I progress through the PhD, gathering literary references and the language of flowers in material culture as I go.  

Title page of Charlotte de Latour, Le langage des fleurs.
Charlotte de Latour, Le langage des fleurs, 2nd edn (Paris: Audot, 1834). 1st edn 1819. Frontispiece by Pancrace Bessa: Rose – Ivy – Myrtle, beauty, friendship and love. 
A selection of nineteenth-century language of flowers books and paraphernalia.
A selection of nineteenth-century language of flowers books and paraphernalia. 

With thanks to my supervisor, Dr Ana Parejo Vadillo, who introduced me to floriography and the language of flowers.  

Many of the titles in Jemma’s collection can be viewed online in the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Walking through Birkbeck history

Tim Spring, Senior Library Assistant (Acquisitions and Metadata), writes:

Birkbeck Library has an amazing image collection and I’ve always been intrigued by the people and places in these photos. Within the ‘Birkbeck History’ collection there is a set of photos taken of the family mausoleum of George Birkbeck, located in Kensal Green Cemetery. I don’t live too far from there, so a few months ago I decided to go explore and see if I could find it myself.

Photo of the Birkbeck mausoleum. A grand stone building with greek style pillars wither side and a pitched roof, also in stone.

Discovering the Birkbeck mausoleum made me wonder how many other places in London have a link to the College. I started off with some notable Birkbeckians, and very quickly found out that most of them have a blue plaque somewhere in London. I also started to learn about the history of the College, and it turns out that Birkbeck’s influence can be seen all over London.

This year Birkbeck is celebrating 100 years as a member of the University of London. In the Library we have a small group working on projects for this occasion and it was here that we came up with the idea of creating walking tours of Birkbeck history in London.

The first tour is an exploration of Birkbeck buildings, from the site the College was founded at through to our current location. This walk takes you all over central London, starting at the Strand, then heading towards the Barbican, and eventually ends up at the main Birkbeck building on Torrington Square.

Hand drawn image of the original location of the London Mechanics Institute.

The other two walks will take you past the homes of notable Birkbeckians. Some of the more famous figures on these walks include Rosalind Franklin and T. S. Eliot, but there are many other interesting people that passed through Birkbeck’s door over the years, such as Professor Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, pictured below. My hope is that these tours will get you to enjoy going for a walk in London whilst also discovering more about the history of Birkbeck. We are a unique institution with a rich past and I think a lot of people would be surprised by what they learn about the College and all the interesting people who have helped make it what it is.

Image of Professor Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan teaching in her Botany laboratory in 1923.

Infinite Potential: an update

More than 13,000 people from across the globe came together on Saturday 20th June to watch the online world premiere of Infinite Potential: The Life and Ideas of David Bohm. The recording of this screening is now freely available to watch online, any time. This new feature-length documentary sheds light on the life, ideas and work of the groundbreaking Birkbeck scientist David Bohm, Einstein’s “spiritual son”, whose archive is held here at the Library.

Image of the poster for the film. It shows David Bohm against a mixed background of blue, orange and red swirls overlaid with equations. The text reads, "Mystics have known about it for millennia. Modern Science is catching up. A Paul Howard Film. Infinite Potential. The life and ideas of David Bohm.

Who is David Bohm? Discover more in our previous blog.

A lively Q&A panel session with Paul Howard, the film’s director and producer, Professor Basil Hiley, quantum physicist and longtime collaborator of Bohm, and Dr Jan Walleczek, Director of Phenoscience Laboratories (Berlin), chaired by Susan Bauer–Wu, followed the premiere and is also available to watch online: Q&A panel session

There’s another opportunity to watch the film online with a different Q&A panel which has been organised to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 85th birthday as well as his lifelong love of science. Since the mid-1980s the Dalai Lama has engaged in dialogue with scientists, including David Bohm, around the broad topics of psychology, neurobiology, quantum physics and cosmology. Register for this screening and Q&A panel.

Image of the film poster on a laptop set on a table together with a cup of tea, a lemon and a slice of custard pie.

Infinite Potential: the life and ideas of David Bohm

World premiere. Saturday 20th June at 8pm BST

This Saturday sees the world premiere – now taking place online – of a new feature-length documentary which sheds light on the life, ideas and work of the influential Birkbeck scientist David Bohm whose archive is held here at the Library.

The film, titled Infinite Potential, draws together contributions from a host of eminent guests from different fields, demonstrating the depth and breadth of Bohm’s mind. Those featured include not only long-time collaborators quantum physicist Professor Basil Hiley and theoretical physicist Yakir Aharanov, but also H.H. the Dalai Lama and sculptor Sir Antony Gormley.

Hiley describes Bohm as a “radical independent thinker”. Bohm had a unique way of looking at physics and his philosophical views were inseparably intertwined with the science. This holistic approach meant that he actively worked also with people from outside the subject area. Bohm’s ground-breaking work remains relevant today and informs current research which has the potential to radically change our world view in the future.

The online world premiere screening of Infinite Potential is free: you only need to sign up via the film’s website in order to attend.

Image of the poster for the film. It shows David Bohm against a mixed background of blue, orange and red swirls overlaid with equations.

The screening will be followed by a live panel discussion and Q&A session with director Paul Howard and other special guests, including Professor Basil Hiley.

Who is David Bohm? 

David Bohm (1917–1992) had an interesting and varied life, a significant part of which was spent as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Birkbeck, from 1961 until his retirement in 1983.  

Black and white photo showing a smiling David Bohm in suit jacket, shirt, tie and jumper.

Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Bohm went on to study at Pennsylvania State University, graduating in 1939. He then moved to the California Institute of Technology for post-graduate work, going on to complete his PhD in 1943 at the University of California at Berkeley under J. R. Oppenheimer. He subsequently worked on the Manhattan Project at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. You can listen to David Bohm talk about J. R. Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project in an interview from 1979 as part of the Voices of the Manhattan Project oral history. 
In 1947 he was appointed Assistant Professor at Princeton University. He worked there until 1950, when Princeton refused to renew his contract after he had fallen foul of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). While working at the Radiation Laboratory during the war, Bohm had been active in the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians (FAECT) trade union.  

In 1949, as Cold War tensions increased, the Committee on Un-American Activities had begun investigating staff who had worked at the Radiation Laboratory. As a member of FAECT and as a former member of the Communist Party, Bohm came under suspicion. He was called upon to testify before the Committee but pleaded the Fifth Amendment, refusing to give evidence against colleagues, including J. R. Oppenheimer. After the USSR tested its first atomic device in September 1949 it was thought that atomic bomb secrets must have been passed to the USSR. It was alleged that members of the FAECT had been in a Communist cell working at Berkeley during the war.  

In 1950 Bohm was charged with Contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions before the Committee and arrested. He was acquitted in May 1951, but Princeton had already suspended Bohm and after his acquittal refused to renew his contract. Bohm left for Brazil in 1951 to take up a Chair in Physics at the University of São Paulo. In 1955 he moved to Israel where he spent two years at the Technion at Haifa. Here he met his wife Saral, who was an important figure in the development of his ideas. In 1957 Bohm moved to the UK. He held a research fellowship at the University of Bristol until 1961, when he was made Professor of Theoretical Physics at Birkbeck in London. He retired in 1983 but continued to play an active role. 

Black and white photo of David Bohm, again in suit jacket, jumper, shirt and tie, this time looking serious and wearing glasses.

Bohm made several significant contributions to physics, particularly in the area of quantum mechanics. As a post-graduate at Berkeley he discovered the electron phenomenon now known as ‘Bohm-diffusion‘. His first book, Quantum Theory, published in 1951, was well received by Einstein among others. However, Bohm wasn’t satisfied with the orthodox approach to quantum theory and began to develop his own, expressed in his second book, Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, published in 1957.  

In 1959, with his student Yakir Aharonov, he discovered the ‘Aharonov-Bohm effect‘, showing how a vacuum could produce striking physical effects. His third book, The Special Theory of Relativity, was published in 1965.  

During his 20 plus years at Birkbeck, Bohm and Professor Basil Hiley were colleagues, discussing a wide range of topics and writing many papers together. In his biographical memoir of Bohm, Hiley recounts: “our original investigations had as their focus the need to develop a new conceptual order in which to accommodate both quantum mechanics and relativity in a more coherent way, hopefully without their present conceptual problems and their mathematical infinities. This involved excursions into other disciplines like philosophy, biology, language and even art.” At the time Bohm died, he and Hiley were putting together the final details of the book that they had been working on, The Undivided Universe. 

Bohm’s scientific and philosophical views were inseparable. After reading a book by the Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti in 1959, he was struck with how his own ideas on quantum mechanics meshed with the philosophy of Krishnamurti. The two first met in 1961 and over the following years had many conversations or dialogues. Bohm’s approach to philosophy and physics is expressed in his 1980 book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, and in the book Science, Order and Creativity, written with F. D. Peat and published in 1987. F. D. Peat also appears in the new documentary.

In his later years, partly through his connection with Krishnamurti, Bohm developed the technique of Dialogue, in which a group of individuals engaged in constructive verbal interaction with each other. He believed that if carried out on a sufficiently wide scale these Dialogues could help overcome fragmentation in society. Bohm led a number of Dialogues in the 1980s and early 1990s, the most well-known being those held at the Ojai Grove School in California.  

Bohm was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1990. He died in 1992.  

Black and white photo showing David and his wife. He wears his suit jacket, jumper, shirt and tie. They both smile at the camera.
David and Saral

Read more about Bohm’s life and work in the following: 
B. J. Hiley, ‘David Joseph Bohm’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 43, 105–131 (1997). 

The David Bohm Archive at Birkbeck Library

Following Bohm’s death, Birkbeck took the first deposit of his papers and correspondence in 1997: this was the start of the David Bohm Archive at Birkbeck. You can find out more about what is held in the David Bohm Archive at Birkbeck on the Archives Hub, along with links out to other organisations holding related material.  

If you have any questions about the Bohm Archive at Birkbeck please contact Emma Illingworth, Subject Librarian (School of Science), Birkbeck Library.