History in the making

The article below was written by Malcolm Lucard and is cross-posted from the Red Cross Red Crescent Magazine. It includes material from an interview with Prof Andrew Thompson, Leadership Fellow of Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past.

History in the making

Photo from https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/icrc-archives/

Malcolm Lucard

Internal records from the ICRC’s archives concerning the conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s shed light on a decisive era for humanitarian action.

In a small room in the basement of ICRC headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, historian Andrew Thompson methodically pores through folders full of documents — typewritten mission reports, confidential telegrams and hand-written letters — never before seen by people outside the ICRC.

“It is a process of discovery,” says Thompson, a professor of history at Exeter University in the United Kingdom. “There is a sense of expectation and anticipation not knowing what is going to be there. For a historian, it’s a bit like opening a birthday present, or like going into a candy shop.”

The ‘candy shop’ in this case is the ICRC archives, where Thompson is exploring 40- to 50-year-old records to be released to the public in January 2015 under the ICRC’s policy of making internal documents public in blocks of ten years once 40 years have passed since the events they describe.

Aside from exciting Thompson’s intellectual curiosity, these records offer a deeper understanding of conflicts going on between 1965 and 1975. In particular, they give insight into an area of great interest to Thompson, who took an early look at the records in order to pursue research on the evolution of international humanitarian law and human rights law as they pertain to the treatment of political detainees in non-international conflicts.

“I see the ICRC archive as hugely important for people thinking and writing about the past and present of humanitarian aid and human rights,” he says. “But it’s also much more than that. It’s an archive that allows for studying conflict in all its different dimensions.”

The archives are a treasure trove for historians as they contain first-hand accounts from delegates on the ground, as well as internal and external correspondence, for every major conflict during the period in question. According to Thompson, they offer a perspective not always found in diplomatic or military archives because in addition to political analysis, they show how conflict affects the lives of ordinary people on the ground.

Watershed moments
In this case, the records offer considerable insight into the Biafran war in Nigeria, a watershed moment for the humanitarian sector, as well as the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours, the United States war in Viet Nam, the civil war in Yemen and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, among many others.

They also show how important principles and precedents in the implementation of international humanitarian law and human rights law evolved in the post-Second World War and Cold War eras, as many colonies engaged in wars of independence and the stalemate between global superpowers resulted in a proliferation of proxy wars around the world.

One area of particular interest to Thompson is how the ICRC’s experiences in places such as South Africa and Yemen (including what was until 1967 the British-controlled State of Aden) helped shape the way human rights and humanitarian groups responded to political detainees. Among the records are first-hand accounts of then-ICRC delegate André Rochat making his first visit to wary and sceptical political detainees in Yemeni prisons.

There is also the very matter-of-fact description of a delegate’s interview in 1967 with a political detainee in South Africa named Nelson Mandela who, along with 30 other detainees, was working in a limestone quarry on Robben Island, one of the more notorious prisons operated by South Africa’s then apartheid government.

The ICRC began visiting ‘security convicted prisoners’ in South Africa in 1963. After that, the ICRC regularly met Mandela on Robben Island and later in Polsmoor prison, until his liberation in February 1990. Mandela mentions these visits in his biography A Long Walk to Freedom.

Notable in the report is Mandela’s frank and even-handed description of prison conditions and a detailed account of the medical conditions of his fellow inmates. But when discussing his own case, he replies simply: “I personally have no complaints.”

Transparency and reflection
Not all the records, however, have been completely sealed until now. Researchers can ask for permission to review unreleased portions of ICRC archives for particular research projects and those involved in events described in the records can ask to look over relevant files.

But the records are not just interesting to historians. They are also a resource for the Movement, as they contain considerable information about National Society actions, and for anyone who might want to appraise humanitarian action and its impact.

“The archives ensure the organization’s ability to take stock of the actions called for by its mandate,” says Jean-Luc Blondel, head of the ICRC archives. “They play an important role in the duty of an organization to be transparent. As part of this duty and in order to benefit from outside perspectives and approaches, the ICRC encourages research and independent critique of its history and the fulfilment of its mandate,” Blondel adds.

“Such an attitude doesn’t come without risks,” he notes. “The examination of dossiers can put into evidence the mistakes in negotiation, the misuse of language or a lack of diplomacy.” In some cases, it reveals certain prevailing cultural attitudes of the time — a lack of cultural sensitivity and even racist undertones in the way some people expressed themselves, Blondel notes.

“In other cases, for example in the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent, some events that occurred more than 40 years ago are still very present in people’s minds today and the analyses or the course of events described then could affect present actions and negotiations.”

Nonetheless, the illumination offered by the past, Blondel suggests, also allows a better understanding of the roots of conflicts and a potential insight into how to facilitate resolution to conflicts or at least engage parties in a positive dynamic towards that end.

The Movement also recognizes the importance of the memories contained in these archives, one reason the Council of Delegates in 2011 adopted a resolution that calls for the preservation of its historic and cultural heritage. This issue will be revisited during the Council of Delegates in 2015.

By Malcolm Lucard
Malcolm Lucard is the editor of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine.

– See more at: http://www.redcross.int/EN/mag/magazine2014_3/24-25.html#sthash.C5qtyu76.dpuf

First World War commemorative plaque unveiled in Islamabad

WWI Commemoration Ceremony

Photo from Flickr. Click photo to see more from the British High Commission Islamabad (all rights reserved).

 

Dr Irfan Malik recently shared this WWI commemoration story with us, highlighting 460 British Indian WW1 soldiers from a small village called Dulmial. It was a record contribution for South Asia and on 10 November the British High Commission, Islamabad Pakistan honoured the village and unveiled a plaque in honour of three soldiers from modern day Pakistan who were awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War.

The ceremony formed part of the UK Government’s programme of events to commemorate the Centenary of the First World War, during which 175 men from 11 countries were awarded the Victoria Cross.

Dulmial cannon hd

1816 Carron Ironworks cannon, presented to Dulmial Village in 1925 by the British Army

For more information please see the press release and Flickr photos: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/first-world-war-commemorative-plaque-unveiled-in-Islamabad

Earth in Vision

 Joe Smith (PI), Kim Hammond, and George Revill, The Open University

from left to right: Zdenek Zdrahal (Knowledge Media Institute), Kim Hammond, Joe Smith and George Revill (Geography Department), all at The Open University, Milton Keynes

from left to right: Zdenek Zdrahal (Knowledge Media Institute), Kim Hammond, Joe Smith and George Revill (Geography Department), all at The Open University, Milton Keynes

If you can tell a good story you can change the world. That thought has motivated programme makers concerned with environment and conservation issues for decades. The Earth in Vision  project aims to tell the story of the role of broadcasting, specifically of the BBC, in the emergence of a global environmental imagination. A second aim is to explore the potential for, and implications of, large scale release of digital broadcast archives.

Earth in Vision draws on the archive of environmental programming collected by the BBC since 1957: the start of International Geophysical Year, and a key date in the emergence of a global environmental imagination. The project is informed by a pilot study, which selected, annotated and cleared limited use rights for around 100 programmes; 50 hours of programming organised across 7 themes. The sample we are working with includes a mix of media and channels, and programme genres. Categories include pollution, population, climate change, resources and more.

Smith - Earth in Vision logo (2)For those of us on the team who have worked on environmental history and politics for a while there is a great thrill in being able to knit together broadcasts, the related paper archive and, where possible, interviews with producers. In some cases we are probably the first people to watch these programmes since they were made, yet they have helped to shape the way many people think about these issues. The project will see us working to relate the original broadcasts to other material related to the productions, including paper archive files and interviews. We have filmed twenty interviews with people who contribute throughout the production process, from top producers and camera crew to film archivists and presenters. There are more interviews planned, and all of the interview material and transcripts will be made publicly accessible on the OU’s Creative Climate site.

Our approach to the second strand of the work builds on principles of co-production and social learning, and aims to support more plural and dynamic accounts of environmental change. We want to think through who would use digital broadcast archives (DBAs), how they might want to use them and what tools they sense they might need. There are enormous practical obstacles to large-scale release of content produced by the BBC, above all rights and financing. But the potential is huge, and hence we are trying to think beyond the obstacles.

Smith - CB004117

Letters from BBC Written Archives (Caversham) – used with permission. One way we’re linking paper archives and broadcasts. http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/attenborough/

We expect future users to include teachers and learners, media producers, IT professionals, academics, museum curators, NGOs and activists and other publics. We are inviting samples of all of these stakeholders to participate in the project. Through tailored workshops we give participants a chance to think through anticipated digital futures and how these are relevant to them personally or professionally; to play with some of the archive content, and to explore and reflect upon their own experiences in terms of how broadcasts have influenced their engagement with or understanding of environmental issues.

Smith - CB004116

David Attenborough Zoo Quest – letters for the Quest for a Dragon series (1957). These letters show a written exchange between D H Rawcliffe and David Attenborough which reveal why a Komodo dragon was not brought back for the London Zoo collection.

To support our future-thinking work on DBAs we have held workshops with: our Advisory Board; film makers and other media people at the iDocs festival in Bristol; Press Fellows at Wolfson College, Cambridge; school pupils in Milton Keynes; colleagues at The Open University’s Knowledge Management Institute; Open University students at their annual festival (who, as the UK’s most demographically diverse student population, act as ‘proxy publics’ of potential future digital citizens) and with public participants in the Belfast social sciences festival.

Among these groups it is clear that there is a strong appetite to work with DBAs, and we are gaining a sense of the ways in which people want to work with these materials, and the likely required tools. Some participants have worked with story-telling exercises that draw on samples from the BBC DBA; these have been popular and illustrate the power and creative opportunities of re-using the broadcast materials.

The rights regime around broadcast archives stands out as a central concern for those institutions that will be expected to have responsibility for, or will work with, DBAs (schools; universities; museums; media organisations). Whilst institutions such as the BBC own their own archive, many of the programmes have significant underlying third party rights (e.g. scriptwriters, actors, music etc.) which require clearance for public/specific use and can be costly. For affordable full open public access to such DBAs, some speculate on the need for a change in legislation. Alternatively, crowd funding via small download payments may be a way forward.

A clear challenge for those institutions developing DBAs is the technical development of dynamic, contextualised and user-responsive online interfaces. One of our goals is to be able to feed in citizen/learner user ambitions before technical specifications for tools are locked down. Drawing on our partners and relevant networks, we are developing an industry oriented report which will identify what the elements of a gold standard for DBAs might be. This will be pursued according to principles of co-production, where participants will be invited to feedback on drafts of the e-book and also participate in the final conference in 2016.

All of this work thinking about users, tools, rights and the nature of digital archives feels like fresh territory. But it doesn’t really rate over our starting point for the project, which is our childish excitement at having the chance to work with the broadcasts themselves. It is a great privilege to have access to sixty years of broadcast content that has helped to shape the way so many of us think about the world.

Please get in touch if you want to know more about our work, or to tell us what you or others might want to do with digital broadcast archives. Do also share any items on your wish list in relation to this potent but as yet unformed new media space.

Earth in Vision is an Open University project funded by the AHRC for 3 years form October 2013

Contact: RA and project manager kim.hammond@open.ac.uk/ 01908 274066 @kimehammond or PI joe.smith@open.ac.uk @citizenjoesmith

When the Lights Go Out

Trentmann FrankProfessor Frank Trentmann, Birkbeck College,
PI, Material Cultures of Energy: Transitions, Disruption, and Everyday Life in the 20th century. The research group consists of Frank Trentmann, Hiroki Shin, Vanessa Taylor, Heather Chappells and Rebecca Wright.

What happens when the lights go out? During a blackout it’s not only light that you lose. Electric cookers, heaters, TV and the radio stop working, and your computers, wifi and mobile phones will probably be off-line. A major part of our life today depends on the constant supply of energy. Cars might still run but traffic lights might not, nor would lifts, ticket machines, ATMs and the tube.

Such scenarios might appear the stuff of thrillers or routine in Africa and India, but even in the rich world, we have yet to overcome energy disruptions. Just to take a few examples, there were blackouts in Italy and the USA in 2003 and across Europe in 2006. Japan had rolling blackouts in 2011. It can be tempting to think energy disruptions are of recent origin, a problem that started with the oil crises of the 1970s. But this would be too simple. The 20th century is peppered with them.

Understanding the history of these disruptions better is one of the aims of the ‘Material Cultures of Energy’ research project based at Birkbeck College, University of London – the project’s other three themes look at energy futures; how rural spaces were transformed by grids; and how people managed and experienced the transition from one fuel to another. We investigate these themes by comparing the UK, Germany, Japan, North America and India, with their different energy systems, cultures and everyday practices. We are historians and a geographer, who believe a better understanding of the past can be useful for how we think and approach the future.

“More electricity for building socialism”, East Germany 1952. Image: Landesarchiv Berlin.

“More electricity for building socialism”, East Germany 1952.
Image: Landesarchiv Berlin.

How did people in the past respond to energy disruption and what difference did norms and values, technologies and politics make? One thing that is clear is that energy disruption did not affect all energy users equally. In Japan in the late 1940s, families would have seen from their dark homes brightly lit factories, as the country was frantically trying to recover from the destruction of war. In the same period, British factory managers were blaming shortages on “excessive” household consumers.

Past disruptions tell us how unevenly burdens were distributed between different groups of consumers. In a very real sense, the course of disruption was often determined by society, based on ideas about who should have more energy and who less, and who should have it at what time of day or night. Culture and society shaped where and when the lights went out – not just nature or technology. It is therefore no surprise that tensions emerged not only between suppliers and consumers but also among consumers. In historical sources, we can see how different consumers were weighed against each other. After the Second World War, British homes, for example, were far more favourably treated than Japanese households, which until the 1950s were placed at the bottom of the supply list. Yet, people did not always accept their fate. In Japan, dissatisfied consumers organised protest movements. Some just ‘cheated’ suppliers.

Trentmann 2 - MOSI EDA-1659

Electrical Development Association, “No Electric Fires” Campaign, c.1950. Image reproduced by permission of the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester.

Such distributional conflicts also affected the rhythm of day and night, as governments tried to shift electricity use out of peak hours. The lack of energy triggered a reconfiguration of work and everyday life. During the 1946/7 fuel crisis in Britain, waking up late would have meant missing out on hot water and hot breakfast. Household chores needed to be done within specified hours when electricity was permitted, or they had to be done without electrical appliances at all. In East Germany, industrial workers were told to work into the night – in order to shift the peak hours. Such shift work had knock-on effects on eating rhythms, sleeping, shopping and child care that were particularly hard on mothers.

Understanding how past shortages worked themselves out provides vital knowledge in helping us to think about how societies might deal with such situations in the future. In November 2014, we met with international experts at Caltech to look at various scales of scarcity, from scenarios of population growth in the past to the challenge of renewable energy in the future. At the symposium, historians, social scientists, engineers and scientists examined various types of scarcity, including water, food and energy, and the interplay of natural, economic and political forces.

Today, there is once again talk among politicians and energy providers in Britain and Europe about future blackouts and a more precarious allocation of energy. Developing nations cannot expect smooth growth and energy security either. If there is one lesson from the past, it is that it is too simple to trust technology will fix the problem. Abundance and scarcity go hand in hand. Shortages involve politics and culture, as do societies’ strategies to deal with. What people did when the lights went out in the past could tell us something about our flexibility and resilience in the future.

Sustainability and subsistence systems in a changing Sudan

Dr Philippa Ryan, Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, The British Museum, Principal Investigator

Philippa sampling a 3,100 year old hearth in a large villa.

Philippa sampling a 3,100 year old hearth in a large villa.

Professor Katherine Homewood, Department of Anthropology, UCL, Co-Investigator

Nubian agricultural practices are rapidly changing due to infrastructure development, technological and environmental changes. Our project explores how comparisons of present-day and ancient crop choices can inform on risk management within agricultural strategies of small-scale riparian Nile village settlements. Research is focused on present-day Ernetta island (620km north of Khartoum) and nearby 2nd millennium BC Amara West, which was also located on an island during its occupation. Today, as in the past, islands are important due to their agricultural potential. PR blog - amara_west_map_624Compared to further north in Egypt, there are fewer areas of wide floodplain suitable to traditional floodplain agriculture in the Middle Nile Valley.

We have been interviewing Nubian farmers to investigate the characteristics of customary agriculture and in what ways these have been impacted by new farming methods, population movements, dam and road-building – as well as changing patterns of imports and trade. Interviews were undertaken in February and March of this year, and have so far focused on the car- and electricity-free island Ernetta. Several farmers we met were over 80 years old and we have begun to outline several phases of change in crops grown over the last century. Key agents of change have included the introduction of new crops, the shift in irrigation techniques from the water wheel to water pumps (1950s-1970s) and the impact of bird attacks on certain crops.

Removing crop weeds from wheat, Ernetta

Removing crop weeds from wheat, Ernetta

We have been finding out about customary harvesting, threshing, storage and food preparation practices as well as about land-use and irrigation. We discussed what animals people keep, how this has changed and foddering/grazing practices. Despite the changes, some practices have remained relatively traditional till very recently. For instance, harvesting is still done by hand, and a threshing machine was only introduced to the island in the mid-2000s. There seems to be shifts in farming approaches amongst the older and younger generations of farmers, with a potential loss in knowledge about how particular crops have been used in the past. We are examining our evidence for temporal changes alongside ethnographic and historical sources. For comparative purposes, we are also carrying out interviews in nearby river-bank farms, as well as in other locations in northern Sudan.

The ancient town of Amara West was also originally situated on an island like Ernetta. Geomorphological evidence suggests a river channel north of the site drying during the site occupation, which would have exposed the settlement and agricultural fields to encroaching sands. (Find the complete report here.) The town has well-preserved architectural phases, together with associated plant remains, spanning this timeframe. (For further information, click here.)

Ful (broad bean) fields after harvest, Ernetta island
Ful (broad bean) fields after harvest, Ernetta island

Charred seeds are providing information about a wide range of taxa, whilst phytoliths (opaline silica casts of plant cells) preserve information about plant parts that rarely survive charring. We are studying the plant remains to investigate whether or not the increased localised aridity impacted agricultural and plant-use strategies. Little is published or known about agricultural practices prior to the 1st Millennium BC, and the evidence from Amara West is providing new information about crops grown for the 2nd millennium BC.

The subsistence information from the Amara West and the farmer interviews will be situated within a long temporal review of crop choices in the region. Crop diversification is one way of managing agricultural risk given that using a number of cereals and pulses with different growing tolerances (such as to heat or water stress) helps to buffer against crop failure. This includes reviewing archaeobotanical literature for ancient plant use as well as twentieth Century sources to better understand more recent changes. Combining the ethnographic and archaeological record aims to establish firstly which of today’s crops have a particularly long established history in the region, and secondly whether some of these are being grown less in recent decades.

Animal enclosure, Ernetta island

Animal enclosure, Ernetta island

For instance, hulled barley is found in abundant quantities at Amara West and was grown as a food cereal until the mid-twentieth century but is now grown mostly by older farmers, and only for animal fodder or for making a drink thought to have medicinal properties. This study aims to create a long-term perspective of adaptive solutions and how these are relevant to the future, and aims to record and promote local knowledge of sustainable natural resource exploitation.

Research and fieldwork at Amara West is made possible with the permission of the National Corporation of Antiquities & Museums (Sudan).

Project website

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_projects/all_current_projects/sudan/amara_west_research_project/sustainability_and_subsistence.aspx

Wheat fields, Ernetta

Wheat fields, Ernetta

Researching Community Heritage – A Connected Communities project

Researching Community HeritageThe University of Sheffield’s Researching Community Heritage project was funded by the AHRC Connected Communities programme to support community groups and organisations to develop research projects exploring their local heritage. Academics were matched with community researchers and encouraged to work together to develop co-produced projects. Groups applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for financial support to develop the project, meaning that they retained autonomy and ownership of the projects and were not reliant on the university for funding. Projects included: working with a homeless charity for young people to research the history of the hostel they are based in; exploring links between the Peak District, India and Hindu culture through research into the cotton trade with Sheffield Hindu Samaj; and a project with Rotherham Youth Service working with Primary School children to find out more about the history of their area through creative approaches to history and archaeology.

The project with Rotherham Youth Service was designed by Professor Kate Pahl from the School of Education and Sheffield-based artist, Steve Pool. Together with researchers from the School of English at Sheffield and postgraduate students from the Department of Archaeology, they designed a series of activities which aimed to engage children with the history of coal mining in their area – as well as Rotherham’s Roman and Anglo-Saxon past. Children were encouraged to step through a ‘portal into the past’ and select a period from history to research. The children wrote, filmed and edited short films based on their research as Professor Pahl describes:

“Portals to the Past involved a group of Year 6 children from St Joseph’s School in Rawmarsh, Rotherham, re-imagining their pasts and their futures in very different ways. The children learnt research methods that allowed them to explore documents, photographs and objects from the past. They then took creative and transformative journeys by travelling through magical portals into the past. They produced stories about historical Rawmarsh based on their journeys through the portal.

The children heard about the miner Arthur Eaglestone and his book ‘From a Pitman’s Notebook’, written in Rawmarsh in the 1920s. They wrote mining poems and sang a Portal Song with Ray Hearne, song writer and poet. They also did an archaeological dig with postgraduates from the Department of Archaeology and visited Rotherham Archives for expert information on Rawmarsh. They became Vikings with Marcus Hurcombe, youth worker, and imagined Anglo Saxon worlds through runes and maps with researchers from the School of English and worked with artist Steve Pool to create films of better imagined pasts through the portal.”

Other researchers have described their contribution to the project and its value for their own research:

I used my field skills to show year sixes how to excavate test pits and shared my knowledge on material culture. I felt I helped the children engage with the artefacts they were finding, and allowed them to see history from a different perspective. I gained experience myself in making archaeology interesting and accessible. Sara Farey, Archaeology Undergraduate

I am researching the work of Arthur Eaglestone, a local author from Rawmarsh in Rotherham. Using these texts with young people in Rotherham schools allows us to discuss the importance of local history and language to their lives. On occasions like this I have appreciated having my notions of knowledge and expertise challenged and found of great benefit discussing what is of relevance or can empower young people who are, and have been historically, put in a socio-economic and culturally deficit position. It is always a challenge working with community partners because of the need to consolidate the aims of the University with community partners in a way that is relevant and useful to both parties. This challenge is for me the most enjoyable part of working on research projects such as Portals to the Past. Hugh Escott, English Language PhD Researcher

The successes of small-scale projects, like these, have led to further collaborations with community groups and subsequent research projects. You can find more details on the project website: http://communityheritage.group.shef.ac.uk/projects/

Follow on Twitter: @rch_Sheffield

Caring for the Future Through Ancestral Time. Engaging the Cultural and Spiritual Presence of the Past to Promote a Sustainable Future.

Professor Michael Northcott, University of Edinburghmichael_northcott1
PI of Caring for the Future through Ancestral Time, funded under AHRC Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past

The global spread of a consumer culture, through electronic forms of communication, multinational trade networks, and airplane and shipping containers, creates a culture of instantaneity which changes human perceptions of time. At the same time rituals which used to marked the passage of the years, and linked time’s passing to daily life, are declining. Many of these rituals were associated with the planting, tending and harvesting of crops as determined by the seasons. The culture of instantaneity reflects a growing disconnect between culture and nature, and between consumption and production. This break was anticipated in the Victorian era when modern humans first migrated en masse from solar-powered fields and species to dwelling in fossil fuelled cities. As land for burials in crowded cities was scarce, the Victorians initiated a new rite of passage – cremation – which broke the visible link between human mortality and the earth. But the Victorians nonetheless built the infrastructure of their cities as if they intended them to last, even as most of their mortal remains were cremated and so ‘melted into air’.

Lichen on a grave stone of new red sandstone of the Permian era in the churchyard of an ecocongregation in Nithsdale, Southwest Scotland

Lichen on a grave stone of new red sandstone of the Permian era in the churchyard of an ecocongregation in Nithsdale, Southwest Scotland

Since the Victorian era, human powers have grown to the extent that natural scientists suggest industrial humans have inaugurated a new geological epoch – the Anthropcene. Homo industrialis is a ‘force of nature’, capable of shaping the geologic and evolutionary future of life on earth. Anthropogenic forcing of the earth system through changes in the refraction of solar heat energy from the earth’s surface to space, and species extinction many times the background extinction rate, are two of the ways in which a high consumption civilisation is challenging and changing the life support systems of the planet. But the time scale in which industrial greenhouse gas emissions provoke new climates which are observably different from pre-industrial climates, and the rate of industrial species extinction compared to pre-industrial, are not annual, but multi-decadal and even multi-centennial. Such long-term temporalities map poorly onto the presentist tendencies of consumer culture.

The cult of instantaneity and speed, combined with the long production and supply chains of global production systems, encourage citizens and corporations to neglect long run consideration, and the cost-benefit pathways which guide infrastructure and investment decisions are increasingly short term. Environmentalists argue for a greater attention towards ecological legacy in investment decisions in the light of the irreversible consequences of accelerated species extinctions, and of runaway anthropogenic climate change. However there is evidence that the apocalyptic terms in which environmentalists often narrate long run ecological consequences depoliticize decision-making processes and provoke denial (Bettini, 2013). This is partly because ecological apocalyptic represents the post-ecological future as radically changed from the present, as for example in J G Ballard’s Drowned World (1968) or Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar (2014). Ecological apocalyptic may therefore fail to repair the short-termist tendencies of consumption and investment decision making.Northcott jpg2

Religious organisations sustain heritage sites, rituals and traditions that represent a ‘chain of memory’ between the past and the present (Herviue-Leger 2000). They engage stories from past lives – such as the lives of Moses, Christ and the Buddha – in ways that continue to shape daily life in the present. Religions also sustain eschatological imaginaries that link present actions to the future destinies of souls and the cosmos. In this project we call this awareness of past time in the present ‘ancestral time’. This understanding of time is reflected in the awareness of intergenerational community which Christians call the ‘communion of saints’, and which is annually celebrated at All Hallow’s Eve in secular as well as sacred customs and practices. Chinese have related customs, which may include maintenance of an ancestral altar in the home, or annual observation of the Feast of Hungry Ghosts. In these rituals and beliefs present generations are conscious of the presence of the past, of their debts to the dead, and of their legacy and responsibilities to future generations.

Gravestones, Durisdeer Kirkyard, Dumfrieshire

Gravestones, Durisdeer Kirkyard, Dumfrieshire

Memorials to the dead are among the oldest built structures in most cultures, including in Scotland, and often play an orienting role in the siting of places of dwelling and worship. For those who lived before the advent of the consumer society, reverence for the dead was connected with a sense of responsibility to the ancestors to live well, and to leave the earth in as good or better a condition as they left it. Reverence for ancestors symbolised the old idea of stewardship: that life is a gift and that diminishing the beauty or fertility of the land, or frittering away ancestrally acquired property, dishonours the dead.

Ancient grave stones on which engraving marks are eroded may be dated by counting the number of species of Lichen that they sustain (Leger and Forister 2009). Hence ‘Ancestral Time’ may represent an ecologically and culturally situated temporality that resists the dominant time management and economic accounting procedures of consumer society. In this approach church buildings, gravestones, clocks and church installations such as roof top solar panels, represent ‘objects of time’ (Birth 2013) that situate time in ecological and social worlds, and resist the instanteneity and virtuality of consumer time.

Solar panels on Selkirk Parish Church, Scottish Borders

Solar panels on Selkirk Parish Church, Scottish Borders

In this project we aim to discover whether ancestral time constitutes a representation of temporal experience that still has purchase in faith communities in their thinking and acting around ecological legacy. The project team are investigating this possibility through an ethnographic investigation of faith-based ecological activism. A key site of such activism is Eco-Congregation Scotland, which links 280 churches in the largest environmental network in Scotland. The project researchers are conducting interviews and participant observation at around 40 churches in the network. We are also investigating other faith based ecological activist networks, and comparative field studies in Transition Towns and other secular ecological networks.

If the long time scales that undergird natural scientific accounts of climate change and extinction are counter-cultural to contemporary moderns, they may map rather better onto the longer term life-time accounting that was common in the Christian era until the consumer age (Northcott 2014). In this project we are investigating the possibility that an ‘ancestral’ representation of intergenerational and ecological legacy may have cultural purchase within and beyond faith based communities in the quest for modes of existence that conserve ecological legacy for future generations.

Further details about the project can be found at:
http://ancestraltime.org.uk/about-the-project/
Project Blog: http://ancestraltime.org.uk/project-blog/

References and further reading

Ballard, J G (1962) The Drowned World Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Bettini, G (2013) Climate Barbarians at the Gate? A critique of apocalyptic narratives on ‘climate refugees’, Geoforum 45: 63 – 72.

Birth K (2012) Objects of Time: How Things Shape Temporality Palgrave MacMillan, New York.

Hervieu-Leger D. (2000), Religion as a Chain of Memory. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Leger E A and Forister M L (2009) Colonization, abundance, and geographic range size of gravestone lichens. Basic and Applied Ecology doi:10.1016/j.baae.2008.04.001

Nolan C (2014) Interstellar. Paramount, Los Angeles, CA.

Northcott M (2014) A Political Theology of Climate Change. SPCK, London

de Vos, Joppa et al (2014) Estimating the Normal Background Rate of Species Extinction. Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12380

This post was originally uploaded on 18 November 2014. It was edited and had new images added on 19 November.

‘The Power and the Water’, the Power of Water and the Flows (Visible and Invisible) Connecting Energetic Environments and Landscapes

Professor Peter Coates, School of Humanities, University of Bristol
PI of The Power and the Water, funded under AHRC Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past

Peter at project partner Northumbrian Water’s Howdon Sewage Plant, Newcastle, on an unseasonably chilly day – even for the northeast – in June (photo: Jill Payne)

One of the places ‘The Power and the Water’ team visited during our gathering on Tyneside in June 2014 was the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, on the river’s Gateshead (south) bank. The exhibit that caught my attention was ‘Near Here’ by Nina Canell, who, a guidebook explains, is ‘fascinated by forces that affect us every day but that we can’t see with our eyes – things like electricity and air. If we can’t see them, how do we know they exist?’ Canell takes materials like cables, steel and water to create sculpture that, according to the Baltic’s press release, gives ‘substance to the intangible’. This strategy renders the invisible visible and brings the seemingly distant closer to us (near here?). The installation ‘Forgetfulness (Dense)’ consisted of a water-filled tank (raised on a frame like a display case) that contained a suspended length of underwater telecommunications cable which bore an uncanny resemblance to an oversized, particularly colourful liquorice all-sort. The combination of power and water appealed to me, as did the severed nature of the cable: a power supply cut off at both ends, disconnected from its source and destination.

Environmental connectivities reside at our project’s heart and supply the ties that bind its three strands. Strand 1 (based with me in Bristol) addresses river systems and their connected bio-physical, energetic, commercial and cultural flows (with reference to Tyne and Severn). [See below Alexander Portch’s poster on the broader historical context for barrage proposals to generate electricity from the Severn Estuary’s tidal power (Severn Estuary Partnership, Severn Estuary Forum 2014, Cardiff, September 2014). Alexander is the research student at Bristol.]

Strand 2 (based with Paul Warde at the University of East Anglia, though about to move with him to Cambridge at the end of this year) deals with infrastructure and energy systems/sectors and their connected sites of generation, transmission and consumption (with reference to the national grid’s emergence and the energy environments of twentieth-century Somerset). [See below Kayt Button’s poster on the UK National Grid (Second World Congress of Environmental History, Portugal, July 2014). Kayt is the research student at UEA.]

Strand 3 (based with Georgina Endfield at Nottingham) examines the infrastructure of constructed watercourses and how they connect notions of natural and cultural heritage and watercourses above and below ground (with reference to soughs [drainage channels/artificial rivers] in Derbyshire’s former lead mining district). [See below Carry van Lieshout’s poster on soughs in Derbyshire’s former lead mining areas (Second World Congress of Environmental History, Portugal, July 2014). Carry is the post-doctoral researcher at Nottingham.]

Alexander Portch’s poster
Kayt Button’s poster on the UK National Grid (Second World Congress of Environmental History, Portugal, July 2014). Kayt is the research student at UEA.
Kayt Button’s poster
Carry van Lieshout’s poster on soughs in Derbyshire’s former lead mining areas (Second World Congress of Environmental History, Portugal, July 2014). Carry is the post-doctoral researcher at Nottingham.
Carry van Lieshout’s poster

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Our project logo (Jonny Aldrich’s winning entry in an open design competition for students of Graphic Communication at Plymouth University) foregrounds connectivity. The first of the three triangles (green) joins up the locations of our three universities to convey Connection and Landscape. Jonny then duplicated and rotated the triangle twice to form an abstract star that represents Energy/ Power/ Electricity (Gold), Environment/ Landscape (Green) and Water (Blue).

We are constantly on the lookout for connective tissue, which usually resides beneath the surface, like the infrastructure of sewage and water pipes, broadband Internet cables and other electrical wiring within the walls and under the floorboards of where we live and work. Where this domestic analogy breaks down, though, is that in the lives of the people, and the enveloping places and socio-natural systems we study, not all of the connections between point of supply and point of use, between places of production and places of consumption, remain ‘live’.

‘Power and Water’ is in the business of re-establishing severed connections. Reading up on Canell after I visited her exhibit, I was relieved to find that I hadn’t been too reductive in embracing her artworks as richly suggestive material for our project. Through objects such as ‘amputated’ cables, one reviewer explained, she ‘puts industrial, mundane objects that connect the sources of energy of our modern world into the viewer’s consciousness’ (Morais, 2014). And in a video interview, Canell explained that ‘Near Here’ aims to ask questions such as ‘what is nearness?’ and to examine notions of proximity and distance. The electric cable helps her grapple with ideas of movement and fluidity – and the interruption of a connective form when it is chopped up.

As our project moves into the second of our three years, we are devoting increasing thought to how the three strands connect. While they are all self-standing and discrete, with their own distinctive themes and flavours, we want to tease out the connections and foreground them in publications that emerge. Potentially nourishing food for connective thought is provided by the twin notions of the ground and the grid that Paul Warde brought to our attention at the Newcastle meeting and has expanded on in a recent blog. Referring to the changes in the agrarian landscape of his boyhood home, Seamus Heaney noted ‘that old sense of tillage and season and foliage has disappeared. Once trees and hedges and ditches and thatch get stripped, you’re in a very different world. You’re deserting the ground for the grid’ (O’Driscoll, 2008: 24). The duality of ground and grid also encompasses the polarities of traditional and modern, personal and impersonal, real and abstract, connection and disconnection as well as of place and placeless. Largely absent from the grid are the qualities of materiality and tangibility: we cannot see it, touch it, or manipulate it. And, unless we visit a nuclear power station or hydro plant, we find it hard to place. Moreover, in forging new connections, the grid creates disconnections, empowering and disempowering.

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Cromford Sough Tail, near Cromford Mills, Derbyshire, site of the first water-powered cotton spinning mill developed by Richard Arkwright in 1771, and locale of a recent team meeting (photo: Georgina Endfield)

‘The Power and the Water’ explores why we so readily recognize dualities such as ground and grid but also their complicated nature. Our trip to Tyneside, for instance, deepened our appreciation of the complex connections between Tynesiders and the Tyne. We might assume that the river’s industrialization, the canalization of its form, the depletion of its biotic life and the degradation of its water loosened more intimate pre-industrial bonds, so that people turned their backs on the river. And we might also assume that, with deindustrialization and ecological revival since the 1970s, Tynesiders are returning to the urban river, rediscovering lost connections. Yet the association of a dirty river with a dead, disconnected river is by no means axiomatic. For those who worked on the river during the heyday of commerce and industrialism, a working river was a living river, a big river they felt connected to. A river might be dirty, but, more vitally, it was busy, and a busy river was very much alive – a river to which people felt closely connected and in which they were grounded. In 1995, the Newcastle singer and actor, Jimmy Nail, released the elegiac song ‘Big River’. ‘When coal was king’ and the tidal river bristled with the shipyards of Swan Hunter, the Tyne was ‘a living thing’ , a mighty, mightily impressive watercourse that was a huge source of pride regardless of its state of naturalness or cleanliness. In his bittersweet tribute to the Big River that has become a Small River in a post-industrial age, a dead river was a deindustrialized river, not a biologically deceased river. Those who share Nail’s sentiments now feel more distanced from a river whose significance has shrunk enormously since the shipyards shut (also the subject of Sting’s most recent album, ‘The Last Ship’) and the mines closed, pulling the plug on their local connection as the river is transformed from the ground into the grid.

Through a series of site-based studies, the project emphasizes the place- and context-specific character of ‘environmental connectivity’; its historical development and contingency; and the idioms that have been employed to explain and convey understanding of environmental change, as well as the language we use to talk about different types of infrastructure. What kind of future envisioning, and possibilities for progress toward sustainable development or risks of degradation and dissolution, are associated with particular forms of environmental connectivity? How far are people and communities aware of connections undergirding their lives? And do we frame examples of environmental change and infrastructure in a common tongue or disparate language?

Project team members (left to right) Leona Skelton, Erin Gill (impact and engagement officer), Carry van Lieshout and Alexander Portch, with Northumbrian Water official, at Howdon Sewage Treatment Works, Newcastle, 5 June 2014 (photo: Marianna Dudley)

Project team members (left to right) Leona Skelton, Erin Gill (impact and engagement officer), Carry van Lieshout and Alexander Portch, with Northumbrian Water official, at Howdon Sewage Treatment Works, Newcastle, 5 June 2014 (photo: Marianna Dudley)

To date, the full team has gathered for meetings in London (November 2013), Newcastle (June 2014) and the Peak District (October 2014). There was also full representation at the Second World Congress of Environmental History (Guimaraes, Portugal, July 2014), where we organized a panel on ‘Fluvial histories of the Tyne and Severn: connective flows in and between two major British rivers’, another team member presented a paper on ‘Nuclear pasts and fracking futures in southwest England’, and others displayed posters (another venue for poster display was the Severn Estuary Partnership’s 2014 Forum).

Team members also generate a steady stream of substantial blogs – well over thirty to date – about their activities. These have included visits to a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant in Newcastle; a Five Star Severn Bore; a Barmote (ancient court dealing with disputes and claims related to lead mining since 1288) in Derbyshire; the South Western Electricity History Society’s Museum of Electricity in suburban Bristol; and Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station (you can subscribe to receive e-mail notification of new blog posts). There is also a regular flow of other postings, among them project student Kayt Button’s call for recollections of how individuals, families and communities perceived and received the arrival of electricity.

As well as working with a range of external groups (including the Clean Tyne Project, Tyne Rivers Trust, Peak District National Park Authority and Peak District Mines Historical Society – Carry and Georgina recently gave a talk at the latter group’s AGM), we’re also hooking up with adjacent AHRC projects. Angela Connelly, a researcher on the Jetty Project (an artwork-based project focused on Dunston Staiths, a wooden structure [1893] on the Tyne for loading coal onto ships that is reputedly Europe’s largest wooden structure), led our project team on a field trip – a joint activity that generated a cross-posted report (http://jetty-project.info/connecting-with-power-and-the-water/).

Team members with archaeologist John Barnatt of Peak District National Park Authority (in the ditch, to the right), Lathkill Dale, 8 October 2014 (photo: Jill Payne)

Team members with archaeologist John Barnatt of Peak District National Park Authority (in the ditch, to the right), Lathkill Dale, 8 October 2014 (photo: Jill Payne)

Four members of another project funded through Care for the Future’s ‘Environmental Change and Sustainability’ highlight call, ‘Material Cultures of Energy: Transitions, Disruption, and Everyday Life in the Twentieth Century’ (PI: Frank Trentmann) attended our Peak District meeting at Cromford Mills to discuss potential synergies – and Paul is a member of its advisory board. Meanwhile, Georgina’s sough strand is in discussion with colleagues on the Connected Communities programme project, ‘Stories of Change: The Past, Present and Future of Energy’ (PI: Joe Smith), one of whose three stories (‘Industry Story: Future Works’) shares a Derbyshire dimension (and Paul is a ‘story fellow’ on this project). We are also in contact with another Connected Communities project, ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship: Connecting communities with and through responses to interdependent, multiple water issues’ (PI: Owain Jones), which includes a Bristol case study, not least with regard to plans for coordinating and linking our projects’ contributions to next June’s Festival of Nature, an annual Bristol-based event which, in 2015, will be given added weight by Bristol’s status as European Green Capital.

Further details about the project can be found at: http://powerwaterproject.net/
Follow Power & Water (@envirohistories) on Twitter

References and further reading

Drought, deluge and dearth: exploring British extreme weather events over time

Georgina96x118

Georgina on top of Great Dun Fell in a howling snow storm

Professor Georgina Endfield, University of Nottingham
PI of Weather Extremes, funded under AHRC Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past

In 1952, climatologist Gordon Manley suggested that “if a census were taken of common topics of conversation amongst British people, it is very probable that the weather would take first place” (Manley, 1952:13). This statement is probably as true today as it was over sixty years ago, and while in no way being unique in this, it is fair to say that the British have a something of an obsession with the weather.

British weather comicYet the weather has arguably become an even more popular topic of conversation in recent years. In part, this is a function of narratives highlighting the apparently looming, apocalyptic climate changes that global society faces, but it may also be a result of rising concern over the impacts of anomalous, ‘extreme’ weather events such as droughts, floods, storm events and unusually high or low temperatures. While social and economic systems have generally evolved to accommodate some deviations from “normal” weather conditions, this is rarely true of extremes. Such events, therefore, can have the greatest and most immediate social and economic impact of all climate changes, exemplified most recently in the UK by the storms of January and February 2014.

Yet extreme weather, our fascination with it and more particularly our eagerness to write and talk about it, are of course far from unprecedented. As popular weather writer Philip Eden notes, “Bad weather has always been part of the British scene” (2005: vii). In our 3 year project, we are drawing on a wide range of historical records and conducting community based oral histories to investigate the timing and implications of- and responses to extreme weather in a range of spatial contexts across the UK, dating back to the late seventeenth century.

Different regional circumstances, particular physical conditions, an area’s social and economic activities and embedded cultural knowledges, norms, values, practices and infrastructures all affect the impacts of and responses to extreme weather. The way in which an extreme event is experienced and perceived in turn determines whether it becomes inscribed into the memory of a community or an individual in the form of oral history, ideology, custom, narrative, artefact, technological and physical adaptation, including adaptations to the working landscape and built environment. These different forms of remembering and recording the past represent central media through which information on past events is curated, recycled and transmitted across generations and into the future.

In our project we are tapping into these different forms of remembering and recording. The archive has been the most obvious place to start and as our own project blog is demonstrating, the many regional archival collections we are exploring are yielding some fascinating insights into the socio- economic, cultural and environmental implications of past extremes. We are drawing on a very wide range of sources. Although official meteorological observations rarely extend back beyond the mid nineteenth century, climate and weather have long been the subjects of private narratives, diaries, chronicles and sermons dating back to the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A very diverse group of people were involved in observing and recording weather in this period, either in networks or independently, including farmers, gentlemen scientists, physicians, sea captains, religious figures and naturalist curates, university professors and travellers. Over and above using such sources for identifying extreme weather and its impacts, our work is revealing much about such observers, the way in which they recorded the weather and what form their observations took, as well as insight into their motivations for weather observation. In the earliest records, emphasis was often placed on the qualitative, narrative framing of unusual or extreme events that disrupted everyday life. From the mid to late eighteenth century, more quotidian recording practices were adopted whereby people collated daily local weather records, based on their own personal observations, though extreme events tended to be more noteworthy and are often described in detail. Harrisons-diary-420x210There are very many such records- too many to consider here- but one example is John Harrison’s notebook, now held in the Derbyshire Records Office in Matlock. Written when he was 20 years old and from his home town of Belper, his diary represents in his own words a “hemerologium”, a “calendar of events” or, a “Book of Remarks”. He recorded his observations between 1734 and 1747 and throughout this period, in addition to recording regional. national and international news he documents the timing, frequency and impacts of storm events and unusual atmospheric phenomena including visual phenomena, eclipses, comets and instances of the aurora borealis. Of particular interest for our project are his detailed weather observations during “the great frost” or “the great freeze” which was experienced across much of northern Europe between 1739 and 1744.

From the 1700s, there is a greater availability of local, regional and national newspapers, which represent an important source of high resolution climate and weather data which also provide detailed accounts of the ramifications and implications of unusual or extreme events. Alongside these more direct sources of information, however, there are other historical documentary sources travel accounts and descriptions, legal documents, poems and literary sources, crop and tax records, as well as maps, paintings and images, all of which can contain potentially useful information about periods of anomalous and extreme climate over the historical period.

We are also exploring the history of extremes and associated implications through personal testimony, oral histories and behaviour. Many folk and rural narratives and proverbs regarding the weather are based on familiarity with long-term climate variability, or what historian Katherine Anderson has referred to as “weather wising”. Local weather, and departures from perceived norms in this respect, can also become inscribed into everyday practices, including farming, gardening and a variety of domestic and recreation pursuits, and can also be embedded in the design and construction of vernacular buildings, while extreme events that resulted in trauma, such as flood events, and the epigraphic records of such events, can also become a focus of community memorial and mourning. All such examples of weather’s cultural inscription are offering insight into the ways in which people have documented, recall and remember particular types of weather.

People’s nostalgia about past weather events or weather conditions offers another area of research which we will be pursuing specifically through our oral history work. This aspect of the project brings an interesting challenge- a subject of further study in itself – for we do not have to have a lived experience of the past to feel nostalgia for it. Rather there is a distinction between what has been referred to as ‘real’ nostalgia and nostalgia for some remembered previous time and a so-called ‘stimulated’ nostalgia – a form of vicarious nostalgia evoked from stories, images and possessions or received wisdoms (Baker ad Kennedy, 1994). It is also important to remember that our weather memories depend heavily on idealized stereotypes of seasonal conditions. As Rayner (2009) notes, “we still expect to see snowmen on Christmas cards”, though white Christmases are in fact very rare. Anything deviating from stereotypical norms thus become unusual and in some cases extreme.

There is of course a value to this historical research beyond unearthing very many fascinating and engaging accounts, memories, narratives and stories. Investigating the different ways in which people document, remember and recall past events, from eighteenth century personal diaries through to 21st century tweets and Flickr images, allows us to identify the type of events that become inscribed into the social, cultural and infrastructural fabric of a community and, through comparison with available instrumental weather records, those events that do not. This issue of memory and remembering and identifying how and why certain weather events are remembered while others are forgotten, is one of the central issues within the Care for the Future theme. We hope to be able to identify the way in which weather events provide a metacognitive role in memory and to highlight the degree to which weather events per se, relative to other events, including those associated with trauma, assist in memory making. This is important for several reasons. First, recent research is suggesting that cultural memories, experiences and knowledge of past weather and weather events, whatever form these may take, can condition how people comprehend and respond to the problems of risk and uncertainty with respect to climate change (Lazarus and Peppler, 2013). Knowledge of past events may thus serve an important orientating function with respect to adaptability to future change, thereby again feeding into key questions raised through Care for the Future.

Second, such local, ‘experiential’ weather records and memories in turn are assuming new importance as legitimate sources of climate knowledge in themselves and communication of climate change risk is thought to be far more effective and appropriately targeted if it takes into account these relevant personal and vicarious experiences in the form of narrative, memories and anecdotes (Marx et al., 2007). The reconstruction of regionally specific climatic histories and historical extreme weather events, and investigations of the memories of and social responses to these events are, therefore, of crucial significance if we are to be able to assess how people in different contexts might be affected by, might comprehend and respond to future events.

Further details about the project can be found at:Nottingham Extreme weather Project-team
www.nottingham.ac.uk/weatherextremes
blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/weatherextremes
Twitter @weather_extreme
Like us on Facebook

References and further reading
Anderson, K. (2010) Predicting the weather: Victorians and the science of meteorology. University of Chicago Press

Baker, S.M and Kennedy, P.F. (1994) Death by nostalgia: a diagnosis of context-specific cases. Advances in Consumer Research 21 (1): 169-176

Eden, P (2005) Change in the weather. Continuum Books, London

Lazarus, H. and Peppler, R (2013) Ways of knowing: traditional knowledge as key insight for addressing environmental change, theme introduction, Weather, Climate and Society special collection (2013) http://journals.ametsoc.org/page/Ways [accessed 20/11/2013].

Manley, G (1952) Climate and the British Scene. Collins New Naturalist Series, No. 22

Marx, S.M., Weber, E.U., Orlove, B.S., Leiserowitz, A., Krantz, D.H., Roncoli, C., Phillips, J. (2007) Communication and mental processes: experiential and analytic processing of uncertain climate information. Global Environmental Change 17, 47–58

Rayner, S (2003) “Domesticating Nature: Commentary on the Anthropological Study of Weather and Climate Discourse,” in Strauss and Orlove, Weather, Climate, Culture (cit. n. 17), 277–90, on 281

‘I am acutely aware of the responsibility of the artist’: An interview with Paula McFetridge, Kabosh theatre company

 In this video artistic director Paula McFetridge introduces Kabosh theatre company and talks about how the Creative Industries Innovation Fund helped to create an app for the dramatic walking tour Belfast Bred.

Care for the Future Interview: Andrew Thompson explores with Paula McFetridge, Artistic Director of Northern Ireland’s Kabosh theatre company, the power of theatre to humanise the past and to hold up a different lens to what we think we know.

Andrew Thompson_photo_croppedAndrew Thompson: You are the artistic director of a theatre company in Northern Ireland called Kabosh which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Can you tell me more about Kabosh’s aims, the type of work you commission, and where you perform?

Paula McFetridge

 

Paula McFetridge: Founded in 1994, Belfast-based Kabosh is a site-specific theatre company committed to challenging the notion of what theatre is, where it takes place and who it is for.

We have presented original plays in a range of non-theatre spaces from a moving black taxi to a synagogue, from a children’s playground to a pop-up barn, from working city-centre shops to a local government building, from an abandoned workhouse to a spiegeltent, from the roof of the Titanic building to the basement cells in Crumlin Rd jail. We want citizens and visitors to look at their surroundings with fresh eyes.

The company believes that theatre can transform people’s lives. Over recent years Kabosh has become the leading theatre company in the north of Ireland working in conflict resolution.

For all of our work we commission local playwrights. The project conception can differ – it may be to challenge a misconception or present an unheard voice, or highlight an issue of social importance. Then we find a location that would enhance our presentation of that narrative. This may be a contested or unusual space that we want to animate with a new narrative. The advantage of our work is that it appeals to those who don’t tend to engage with theatre − they embrace the idea of an event, they are curious about a space they don’t know or sometimes it’s a space they feel they own and want to see what narrative we put in it.

We are committed to community engagement. On several occasions we have captured an oral archive as stimulus for the playwright. We often employ freelance practitioners to deliver a related workshop programme, and we engage with the location ‘owners’ over a period of time to give them ownership of the production. Project legacy is important to us. We have produced digital apps of 3 of our productions, we have published commissioned plays within the production programmes, and we maintain regular contact with new audiences through a range of communication tools.

What does your role as artistic director involve? What are the challenges of working in the Arts in a society which has only recently emerged from the Troubles and is still very much grappling with the complex and divisive legacies of the past?

I’ve been the Artistic Director at Kabosh for the last 8 years. I lead the small core team – a General Manager responsible for finance, administration and funding; and a Production Assistant who deals with community engagement, audience development and all communication (we are governed by a volunteer board of 7).

Last year we employed 199 individual practitioners – I selected each of them, aiming to build the ideal team for each project. I am in charge of the artistic programme, in consultation and with the support of my colleagues. We identify stories that we are interested in exploring, spaces that intrigue us, locations that we feel Kabosh is best placed to open access to. Then I approach a suitable playwright, commission them and nurture the script through various drafts until we walk into the rehearsal room. I direct each project. The number of performances differs depending on the space and the scale.

But this is only a part of my work – I also advise students, speak at conferences, collaborate on pan-European projects, explore funding opportunities, lead practical workshops and other things in between.

It is challenging working in an environment such as the north of Ireland but given the work I am interested in doing − and Kabosh’s commitment to confronting head-on issues of social and political importance − it is also an incredible opportunity. I always say; if you can’t imagine a provocative artistic response to history, space and community in Belfast where else could you do it? There are a number of stories still to be told, misconceptions that need to be grappled with, sensitive issues that the media and politicians can’t or won’t address, contested spaces that need re-imagining, narratives to share nationally and internationally. The list is endless and an artist has an active role to play in all of that.

I am acutely aware of the responsibility of the artist. There is a time to tell a story. A time to challenge. A time to simply give a voice.

You say the advantage of your work is that it appeals to those who don’t tend to engage with theatre. Can you tell say more about who Kabosh has been able to reach out to and with what effect?

The audience demographic for every project is completely different. A lot of our cultural tourism work appeals to locals who want to see how we animate their space or people taking friends or family home for a trip to show off their city, as well as visiting tourists.

For example, when we staged ‘Belfast by Moonlight’ in St George’s Church, over a six-month period we engaged with the caretakers, religious leaders, committee members, and their musical director. We ensured the entire company had a respect for the space and its users. We allowed the staff at St George’s to sneak into final rehearsals, and they became ambassadors for the project over time. On the opening night their pride was palpable, they owned the production, and they openly encouraged their friends, congregation and users to attend. The majority of the audience were new to Kabosh, they will hopefully return.

Our community engagement project for ‘Belfast by Moonlight’ was on the Shankill Rd, a protestant working-class community. We worked with Shankill Area Social History Group and curated an oral archive of local stories. We then commissioned a playwright to create four 10 minute plays which explored the history of the area and staged the dramas as part of a new walking tour delivered by locals. Both the participants and the audience for the live performances 9th & 10th July 2013 had limited engagement with theatre, many also had limited knowledge of their area. The creation of an app will allow audiences who don’t know this street to experience its history through fact and fiction from the safety of their homes. Giving someone safe access to another’s story and/or space challenges pre-conceived ideas, promotes acceptance and breaks down barriers to engagement.

We get excited when someone from the community comes to see our work because to us they own the space, and through trust they step outside their comfort zone and enjoy the show, which leads them to come back to see more of our work in the future. An example of this was when a taxi driver who worked with us on ‘Two Roads West’ in west Belfast came to see ‘This is What We Sang’ in the synagogue in north Belfast, or the young person who came to our Halloween installation ‘Ghosts of Drumglass’ later coming to see an oratorio marking 400 years of the foundation of Belfast ‘Belfast by Moonlight’ in a city-centre Presbyterian Church.

The Care for the Future Theme has a strong interest in the question of the archive – in particular in what sense the archive can be seen as a resource for the present and a source of inspiration for the future, and not simply a record of the past. Can you share with us an example of how Kabosh has captured an oral archive as stimulus for a playwright?

In 2007 we were approached by a member of the Belfast Jewish community and asked if we could engage them in an arts project. They were an aging community very much in decline and wanted to find a way of archiving their story. At their height in Belfast in the early 1900’s they numbered approximately 1,000 people. Now, in 2014, there are less than 45. They were instrumental in the development of our business sector. The first Lord Mayor of Belfast was Jewish and he was the only man to be Lord Mayor twice.

I was interested in looking at the idea of ‘what would we miss when the Jewish community was gone’. I felt through exploring this idea we could look at a way of encouraging our society to embrace diversity rather than be threatened by it. The ceasefire in Northern Ireland resulted in an increasing number of people choosing to live in the north, as well as many returning home as a result of the peace agreement. I wanted to question what we as a society were offering them, what made our community an attractive one to live in? There was also an opportunity to look at the role of religion through the stories of a culture outside of the central two − Catholicism and Protestantism – which offered attractive possibilities to me.

I was brought to see their synagogue in north Belfast, which I didn’t even know was there. It was incredible – at that moment I decided to stage a play there. I knew the curiosity around the space would ensure many traditional non-theatregoers would attend the performance and so engage with the narrative of an ‘other’.

The Kabosh Creative Producer at the time, Jo Egan, interviewed 45 members of the Jewish community – 30 still living here and 15 who had left Northern Ireland since the start of the conflict in 1969. We transcribed the interviews and gave bound copies to each of the individuals as well as members of the Jewish community. The archive was then sent to Gavin Kostick, a respected Dublin-based playwright, who we then commissioned to write ‘This Is What We Sang’.

Over a 12 month period we created the performance, which was set on Yom Kippur, the Day of Forgiveness. The Northern Irish Composer Neil Martin took traditional music from the Yom Kippur service and reimagined it for a sean nós singer (traditional unaccompanied Irish music). We staged it in the Belfast synagogue in 2009, then in 2010 we took it to the Synagogue for the Arts in Tribeca, NYC and won ‘Best Production’ at the 1st Irish Festival. The script is available on the Kabosh website.

Many things came up in the oral archive that shattered local myths – particularly the assumption that the decline in the Belfast community was a result of the conflict. There were many reasons for the emigration including a lack of key employment positions in the sectors they educated themselves in, mainly medicine. They witnessed the sectarianism prevalent in Northern Ireland, as well as experiencing anti-Semitism themselves, and decided to take action to avoid it. Due to their community size, as they got older there were not the local mechanisms for them to uphold their religious practice which meant many left.

What is important to me is when you take an archive and then fictionalise it then you challenge both the storyteller and the new listener. You can ask difficult questions as the story is fictional but because the story is based on a truth, audiences cannot dismiss it. Inevitably working in a space like the synagogue, and with a story taken from a community, has its challenges but the project location and narrative are ripe for creative engagement.

You live in a society in which commemoration and historical anniversaries are very important – and sometimes the trigger for sectarian violence. We are also currently in the midst of a major centenary commemoration of the First World War. It’s clear that people can take very different views of whether something should be commemorated, the spirit in which it is commemorated, and even what is being commemorated. How does commemoration figure in the work of Kabosh? Do you think there really is scope for commemoration to play a part in healing and reconciliation in divided societies?

We take inspiration from the idea of commemoration, marking moments in our past, exploring the power of theatre to humanise the past and hold a different lens up to what we think we know. We need to see what unites us, what separates us, ask the difficult questions, not be reverential, give voice to universal emotions such as grief, loss and triumph.

When conceiving a project I ask myself a number of questions – why do it now? When is the best time to do it in order to maximise impact? Is Kabosh best placed to do it – why us? Where is the best location? What voice should we represent? Who is it for? Consequently our work is often inspired by commemoration, marking a moment as it maximises relevance – we seek to offer new ways of engaging with the past to assist us to move forward as a healthy, inclusive society.

I do find the word commemoration difficult however, as it lends itself to celebration, which is not always the emotion that I associate with the event. So I tend to consider our vision as providing a moment of reflection through animating the individual and personal stories within the event, trying to give voice to the commonality, seeking to maximise engagement with the historical moment.

We often feel that we have ownership over different moments in history and commemoration can fuel division as opposed to facilitating a shared truth or at the very least a shared acknowledgement.

Let me give an example. The 31st August 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the first IRA ceasefire – six weeks later there was a loyalist ceasefire. Both were short-lived but it was the beginning of change for the north of Ireland. I felt it was important as a society to reflect on how far we have come in the last 20 years, particularly given the current fragility of our ‘peace’.

There are a lot of positives such as fewer individuals dying on our streets however there are an equal number of negatives that have derived from ‘peace’; we have increased racial attacks; as many individuals have taken their own life since the ceasefire as died over the course of the conflict; and we have heightened levels of poverty, alcoholism and domestic abuse. Hence the 1994 ceasefire is not considered a turning point by all of our community. It is a contested historical moment. I felt a play was not the suitable means of expression as we do not have a shared narrative. Yet we needed a moment of reflection. Kabosh decided to commission a 20-minute orchestrated score to be performed by 20 musicians at Belfast city hall at 12 noon on the 1st September 2014. A moment of reflection. We developed a website www.20belfast.com for people to comment on the music, on the 1994 ceasefire and on where we are at now, 20 years later. The music is also the soundscape for an installation in the Victoria Square Shopping centre viewing gallery as part of the Belfast Festival October 2014. This viewing gallery is the only city-centre spot where anyone can see the whole city skyline for free, but is also evocative because the shopping centre is one of our peace dividends that came out of the conflict (a business investment in regenerating our city – whether we agree with it or not). The artistic experience provides a link between the past, the present and the future.

You have just reached your twentieth anniversary as a theatre company. What’s next? What does Kabosh have planned for the future?

In 2015 Kabosh is reviving ‘Those You Pass on the Street’ by Laurence McKeown, an important, provocative play about dealing with the past. We will tour it to community centres for single-identity and cross-community groups that are exploring this sensitive issue.

2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and the 100th anniversary of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic at the GPO in Dublin – two key moments in our history that we, as a divided society in the north of Ireland do not have agreement on. What links these two events? The working class being deployed as cannon fodder, the loss of endless young lives, the grief of endless mothers, the victor and loser, oppression and liberation.

I believe the role of the artist should humanise the silent voices, the individual players within these violent events from our past: giving voice to the revolutionaries, the reactionaries, those impacted by the choices of others in order to create a multi-facetted, 3D re-examining of events.

Kabosh plans to mount a series of pop-up plays telling personal stories as part of the year’s events as well as staging dialogue between individuals from the same period who never conversed with the aim of exploring commonality.

2016 is also the 20th anniversary of the closure of the last Magdalene Laundry (Mother and baby home) in Ireland and the 50th anniversary of the last closure in England. Through looking at the history of the Magdalene laundries in association with the National University of Galway (NUG), Moonfish (an Irish language theatre company) and DW7,o.p.s. (a Czech company), Kabosh aims to explore this lesser known brutal housing system from our shared past. What can be learnt from this period in our history to assist us in nurturing a proactive society?

Many thanks, Paula, for sharing your experience and reflections here with us.
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On the 9th September, Kabosh performed a reading of Those You Pass on the Street by Laurence McKeown at the ‘Culture, Conflict & Post-Conflict’ Symposium organised by the AHRC Care for the Future theme and Cultural Value Project. The reading was performed by Maggie Cronin, Vincent Higgins, Paul Kennedy & Carol Moore.

Kabosh will be touring the show in Northern Ireland in Spring 2015.  If you would like a free performance for your community group or organisation, please get in touch here.

Those You Pass on the Street - performance