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Tangled Textile Tales at the Museum

This post is the fifth in our ‘Media of History’ forum which explores the decisions we make about the choices we make when we communicate our research. The first installment in this series was ‘Poetry as History?’ ; the second was ‘How to build a scholarly community without leaving your apartment!’, the third was ‘Engaging Comedic History: Buzzfeed and the Historical Profession’ and the fourth is ‘Experiential History.’

by guest contributor Claire McRee

As a kid, I was fascinated by the material remains of the past. I spent hours playing in my grandmother’s attic, searching through boxes of antique toys, clothes, and bric-a-brac. These objects were old, a word with a somewhat magical connotation for me—I felt reverence for both their rarity and the stories they held. In my work today as a curator at a mid-sized art museum, I have the privilege of being able to access old things on a daily basis—as well as the responsibility of developing exhibitions that facilitate a similar sense of wonder and curiosity.

As a method for conveying history, exhibitions’ unique strengths (and challenges) lie in their ability to offer a tangible encounter with the past. This real-life encounter offers a unique emotional and visceral experience—an alternative means of understanding the past often overlooked in history, a discipline that typically privileges textual sources. I hope that the objects in our museum’s galleries spark interest, intrigue, or even personal connection for visitors. Perhaps visitors might be drawn to an object’s appearance, seek to understand an object’s meaning in a different time and cultural context, or share an object with a family member who might enjoy it. And I hope that this experience serves as a catalyst for learning, whether in a traditional, academic sense or a more informal way. On museum visits, I like to read all of the labels, but my brother prefers to pursue opportunities for social interaction, participate in hands-on activities, and “collect” works by photographing them. Both of these models for museum-going are valid. As museums uphold high standards of scholarship, they are also increasingly aware of the need to create spaces that can accommodate a variety of experiences. A key part of my work as curator is negotiating an appropriate balance between these considerations, grounding exhibitions in strong scholarship while also ensuring that they are accessible, relevant, and invite exploration.

Installation view of rotations one (top) and two (bottom) of Collecting Across Cultures: Japanese Textiles in the West at the Allentown Art Museum. Photographs by Steve Gamler.

In this article, I explore these issues through the example of an exhibition I curated, Collecting Across Cultures: Japanese Textiles in the West. This exhibition features a series of rotations—groups of objects that change out of the gallery every few months—of three to four Japanese textiles each, all of which were either collected by Americans around the turn of the twentieth century or are typical of the textiles collected in this context. While a relatively unassuming exhibition, with its small checklist and traditional configuration of objects and labels, Collecting Across Cultures nonetheless offers a good departure point for investigating the display of objects as a means of accessing the past.

 As with most museum exhibitions, Collecting Across Cultures is based in visual storytelling supported by clear, concise text. Compelling objects—in this case, delicate embroideries and brocades blazing with metallic thread—hook visitors with their aesthetic allure.  In this exhibition, their beauty offers an attractive entry point for considering weighty topics such as imperialism and the complications of cultural exchange.  Regardless of the complexity of this subject (and the many exciting textile facts I yearn to share), the exhibition text is short for visitors’ ease and enjoyment: just a few paragraphs to introduce the topic and a few sentences per object mean that I need a tight focus on the most important and relevant story for this exhibition. I also keep in mind that the text should accommodate non-linear exploration of the gallery: a visitor might read a just single label, so each one must stand alone. In this emphasis on the visual and by privileging access to bite-size chunks of information, museum exhibitions stand apart from other methods of conveying history, which tend to be word-driven, linear, and demand the audience’s ongoing attention. Museum visitors have the opportunity to choose their own path through the galleries, allowing them to pursue personal areas of interest and achieve rich and varied understandings of the past.

Detail: Japanese, Kabuki costume, early 1900s, silk and cotton satin weave with silk applique, silk and metal wrapped thread embroidery, metal sequins. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. A. E. Robert Friedman, 1973. (1973.8). Photograph courtesy of the Allentown Art Museum.

While I love exhibitions as a medium for open-ended storytelling, their dependence on objects also comes with serious challenges.  One of the most basic constraints that museums face is the pool of objects available, which often are not representative of the stories of marginalized populations or non-Western cultures. As an exhibition predicated on the collecting taste of elite Americans, Collecting Across Cultures is especially at risk of relaying a biased historical narrative. Yet in the context of our museum’s galleries, focusing on collectors makes sense because the exhibition is adjacent to a room designed by celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867–1959), who also collected Japanese textiles. This story of collecting builds a larger narrative across galleries and creates a broader context for Wright’s work. To address the potential pitfalls of this narrative, Collecting Across Cultures encourages transparency about the collecting process unusual in a conventional exhibition: where available, I’ve added to the identifying information on each object label the name of the collector who brought the work from Japan and when the collector acquired it. I’ve also been mindful to balance stories about collecting with information about these textiles’ original cultural context, which feels like a small act of subversion. For instance, the label for a textile from a Japanese temple describes its use and inscription, while also noting that the Meiji government’s persecution of Buddhism in the late nineteenth century likely enabled American collector Charles Sumner Graham to buy this important textile during his Asian travels.

Detail: Japanese, Temple hanging, ca. 1760, silk and gilt paper brocatelle (kinran) with cotton plain weave lining. Gift of Louise McKelvy Walker, 1990. (1990.21.121). Photograph by author.

Another object-based constraint faced by museum professionals is the need to balance public access with objects’ long-term well-being. Over time, exposure to light damages textile fibers, so most museums limit the time they can be on view and counter it with a lengthy rest period in storage. On some days, this makes me gnash my teeth—while I love working with textiles, as a member of a small staff that manages many galleries, textiles’ need for short-term display is a demand of time and material resources. A modest textile exhibition like Collecting Across Cultures, however, keeps our workload and cost manageable in spite of the need for rotations, as we are able to reuse casework and introductory text. Moreover, the space looks substantially changed every few months—a plus for visitors.

An unexpected perk of the necessity of rotations in Collecting Across Cultures has been the opportunity for experimentation. The exhibition’s continuing reiterations offer a chance to dive into varying subthemes—for instance, the textiles’ Japanese cultural context, the symbolism of motifs, and so on. I’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to learn from each rotation in planning for future rotations. For instance, on school tours our education department used a kimono that had motifs with literary allusions to discuss how clothing tells stories. Since this kimono was due to rotate out partway through the semester, I created a diagram of the next rotation’s kimono, labeling its motifs and associated meanings so that it could be used in a similar way on tours. When I started to draft the new kimono’s exhibition label, I thought, why would I simply list motifs here? Instead, I designed a label that included thumbnails of each motif, in order to create a sort of legend for the kimono. By moving beyond a conventional label format even in a small way, this exhibition offers a different entry point for the work on view that supports different learning styles, various reading levels, and the desire for at-a-glance information that’s accessible during a museum visit centered around socializing with friends or family.

Photograph 1
Photograph 2

Photograph 1: Exhibition label with “legend” of kimono motifs. Photograph 2: Detail: Japanese, Kimono, early 1900s, silk crepe with resist-painted decoration. Gift of the Reverend and Mrs. Van S. Merle-Smith, Jr., 1993. (1993.28.7). Photographs by author.

Museums today are working in so many inventive ways to connect people to the past, and I’ve only been able to scratch the surface here regarding their advantages and challenges as a medium for conveying history. I hope that the next time you’re in a museum, you might have some new questions—like how did these objects get here, and what other stories could they tell? Such aspects are often taken for granted in the interpretation of an exhibition, but can be the most valuable to interrogate.  

Collecting Across Cultures: Japanese Textiles in the West is on view at the Allentown Art Museum through June 2021, with four upcoming rotations.

The author would like to thank Sofia Bakis, Steve Gamler, Elaine Mehalakes, and Tyler Troup for their assistance in the development of Collecting Across Cultures.

Claire McRee is the Assistant Curator at the Allentown Art Museum, and holds an MA in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.

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Experiential History

This post is the fourth in our ‘Media of History’ forum which explores the decisions we make about the choices we make when we communicate our research. The first installment in this series was ‘Poetry as History?’ ; the second was ‘How to build a scholarly community without leaving your apartment!’ and the third was ‘Engaging Comedic History: Buzzfeed and the Historical Profession.’

By guest contributor Tyler Rudd Putman

Doing good history takes a good imagination. But the problem with imagining the past – the first step to writing good history – is not that it’s a foreign country, as in David Lowenthal’s eponymous book, or that it isn’t even past, as William Faulkner wrote. It’s that it’s just really hard to imagine the past. I’m in awe of people who can do it with just the inspiration of words. Some people I know can look at diary entries or newspaper advertisements alone and evoke a whole world with a novelist’s literary abilities.

As for me, I’ve always needed more tools. In addition to the words, I need objects, images, smells, and feelings to get even close to imagining the past. That’s how I’ve spent most of my free time and a lot of my professional life over the past decade. I’ve dug centuries-old objects out of the ground and out of flea markets so that I can better imagine the material culture of the past. I’ve pored over art and photographs in museums and books to help me picture it. I’ve visited historic sites and landscapes to stand in places where things happened. But I’ve always wanted to get closer to how things felt, and so I’ve tried to experience history. I’ve cooked meals on open hearths and clay bake ovens, marched miles in the snow, slept under a thin sheet of cotton canvas – or under nothing at all – in the rain, sailed under canvas aboard wooden ships, planted and harvested flax and heirloom vegetables, and made, by hand, replicas of dozens of historical objects. In all of this work, I’m not experiencing the past, per se. But what if we broadened our definition of history – the process of imagining and interpreting the past – to more often include something like “experiential history”? Even then, you can only approach the past. You can’t recreate it, but you can catch glimpses of it turning a corner.

When I was fourteen, I realized I could pretend to be a Civil War soldier by reenacting the Civil War. Shortly afterwards, I realized that I could make the same things Civil War soldiers used. I grew up in a household where my parents made things and I was lucky enough to fall in with reenactors who made the clothing, accoutrements, and paperwork they used at events. I learned everything I could about being a Civil War soldier. In the years since, as a historian and archaeologist, I’ve held and read hundreds of original Civil War letters and diaries, examined photographs, and even excavated Civil War artifacts – unseen for 150 years – from archaeological sites. But I’ve never felt closer to the past than when I’m dressed in wool clothing, nursing a tin cup of coffee into existence over a few embers somewhere in Virginia, just before the sun rises and a bugle announces reveille.

I’m under no illusions that I’ve experienced the Civil War or any other historical period. So many elements of what I do keep me hopelessly in the present. As a tailor at Colonial Williamsburg one summer, I spent three months hand-sewing a linen tent in an eighteenth-century building. But when I sewed, my needles were cast steel and not drawn wire. My thread was mechanically spun. My clothing was only an approximation, in cut, construction, and material, to eighteenth-century clothes. My teeth were cleaner and my gut free from any number of parasites and diseases so prevalent in past ages. I went home at the end of an eight-hour workday. And my mind was a modern one.

But when you practice a historical skill, you still move in much the same way as someone three centuries ago. You learn how to relax your grip on the needle to prevent hand- and wrist-aches. You feel how your back muscles tire and your posture changes after a day sitting “tailor fashion” with crossed legs. And you start to notice things. Lint floating in the air. The miniscule sensation in your fingers communicated by a needle that has a small barb growing at its tip. How it’s possible to daydream and almost even fall asleep amid the rhythmic motions of sewing long seams. We will always need words to create history. But it’s in these moments of experiencing elements of what is was like in the past that you connect with people long gone. This makes you a better historian because you can describe the past better.

I think historians are getting more comfortable with this sort of experiential history as we look beyond traditional practices and decolonize the academy, opening up the field of history to more nontraditional practitioners and approaches. More academics are receptive to forms of evidence once considered beyond the pale of historical work. Scholars are considering how to recapture the past in new ways less bound to old means, and they are rediscovering old family stories, legends, objects, and rituals, and seeking to imagine how food tasted and what the past might have felt like.

All of these sources have bias. All are problematic. But are they any less so than the documentary record? These are apples and oranges. We cannot – we should not – assume that a family recipe ostensibly passed down by word-of-mouth from the eighteenth century has the same credence as a document written in that century which survives today (or vice versa). We should not assume that a day spent cooking over an open fire means anyone has experienced the past or is any more an authority on it than a historian who hasn’t.

But what this work does give you that nothing else can is a fleeting, embodied glimpse of past experiences. It gives you empathy. The world needs more of that. And isn’t that just what our work as historians requires? In order to study the past, don’t we have to imagine what it was like for the people who were there? And shouldn’t we use every tool at our disposal to do so?

“Go to Plymouth today,” wrote historian John Demos of the recreated Pilgrim village in A Little Commonwealth in 1970, “visit one of the old houses still so lovingly preserved, sit in one of the high-backed chairs, and try to ‘live’ for a bit in the middle of the seventeenth century.” For Demos and others, this quest was imperative, but it was less amount summiting a mountain than realizing that more mountains lay beyond each one you climbed. “It is a chastening experience,” he wrote, “The objects are all right there before you, solid, tangible, real; but gradually they being to dance before your eyes… Alternative possibilities begin to suggest themselves: chairs move, dinnerware disappears, pots change places, lamps and heddles and buckets hang uncertainly in midair.” You realize the past is gone.

We can never really put that dining room back in order. But maybe, if we’re creative enough, and if we get away from our desks for a day or two and into the world, we can create a history that feels every bit as real as the past once was. We can put the chairs and dinnerware and pots and lamps in new places – in just the right places – so that we can imagine a new version of what it all once was.

Let us imagine.

It’s a weeknight in seventeenth-century Plymouth. It’s cold enough that the wind finds its way through the small seams of the mud-daubed walls. The hall smells of wood smoke and animal manure, but you don’t notice. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. Fat lamps flicker from a few corners, and it’s pretty dark inside tonight. You’re looking forward to bed after a long day of work. But those pots and plates need to be washed. It’s time to stoke the fire, check on your animals, and put things in order for tomorrow. Roll up your sleeves. You can’t make good history without getting your hands dirty.

Tyler Rudd Putman is the Gallery Interpretation Manager at the Museum of the American Revolution and a PhD Candidate in the History of American Civilization Program in the Department of History at the University of Delaware. He has explored history through work as an archaeologist, historical tailor, antiques dealer, and sailor on tall ships.

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Engaging Comedic History: Buzzfeed and the Historical Profession

This post is the third in our ‘Media of History’ forum which explores the decisions we make about the choices we make when we communicate our research. The first installment in this series was ‘Poetry as History?’ and the second was ‘How to build a scholarly community without leaving your apartment!’

by guest contributor Jake Newcomb

          Buzzfeed recently premiered a new show called That Literally Happened! that features comedians and historians recalling funny episodes from history. The videos are short, and the pilot detailed Vice President Dan Quayle’s infamous “potato incident,” where Vice President Quayle, while visiting an elementary school, asked a student to incorrectly spell “potato” on the chalkboard. Actually, the student correctly spelled potato on the board, then Quayle asked him to add an “e” to spell “potatoe.” The episode is lighthearted, yet critical of Vice Presidential ignorance.

Buzzfeed releases new episodes of That Literally Happened! every week to an online audience, and they continue to merge history with humor. As such, they attempt to solidify their role in the media landscape as a producer of comedic history, alongside shows such as Drunk History on Comedy Central. It is clear that shows such as That Literally Happened! and Drunk History are enjoyed for their humorous interpretation of historical events, rather than for an education exposition of those events. The massive popularity of shows such as these (Drunk History started as an online show like That Literally Happened! and is now regularly nominated for Emmys) forces historians to reckon with their mass appeal, but what are the ways in which academics can even engage with comedic history? Academic history and comedic history have very different target audiences, yet are both purportedly committed to an honest retelling of historical events whereas other, more unsavory, forms of historical entertainment (Ancient Aliens) are not committed to the same standard of reality. This commitment to historical truth (even if it’s comedic) could enable us to engage on a more professional level with its content and existence, if we can find ways to do so. 

            One such way would be to include reviews and comments of comedic history in our scholarly journals and publications. This would not be so different from the American Historical Review’s initiative to publish reviews of non-traditional scholarly works or works of history outside of the academy altogether. In recent years they have taken to including reviews of “documentary collections, historical fiction, digital history sites, museums, graphic histories, and…films,” (AHR 124.4 1373). In their October 2019 number, the AHR published three reviews of HBO’s summer hit mini-series Chernobyl. In the past year, they have also published reviews of graphic histories (AHR 123.5 1596), documentary films (AHR 124.1 172), historical fiction (AHR 124.3 1002), and Ken Burns and Lisa Novick’s The Vietnam War (AHR 124.1 164). These expanded reviews may prove to be largely successful because television epics like Chernobyl and The Vietnam War attract wide-ranging audiences. Thus, reviews of these productions could be applicable to a wider range of scholars than ones of area/time-focused monographs. While a traditional review-style might not apply to comedic history series like Drunk History or That Actually Happened! (because of their short run times and abundance of episodes), there is space in our journals and publications to address non-traditional materials on history, and the inclusion of comedic history within our scholarly view may be productive.

Another way would be for historians to collaborate with comedians in the recounting historical stories. While the narrators of Drunk History are largely comedians or comedy writers, the new Buzzfeed show includes both comedians and historians to tell the story. The aforementioned pilot of That Literally Happened! featured NYU’s Michael Koncewicz, a research scholar and overseer of the Cold War archival collection at NYU’s library. Koncewicz is joined by Buzzfeed staff and comedians in contemplating Quayle’s legendary gaffe, and together they break down why it’s so funny. In that episode, it’s clear that historians and comedians have a lot of common ground when it comes to recounting history: both are highly attuned to the ironies, hypocrisies, and sensitivities of the past. And while the methodologies and practices of historians and comedians are largely separate, when they come together there is a natural syncretism between them.

While the synchronicity between historians and comedians in That Literally Happened! may simply be due to the show’s decision to tell funny stories, scholars such as Hayden White have demonstrated how the underlying narrative structures of historical writing have historically utilized comedy, satire, and irony. Voltaire’s satires (non-fiction like Letters on England and fiction like Candide) serve as a constant reminder of that legacy.  All that being said, the production of comedic history has largely been undertaken by film/television studios, online media, and independent content creators, and there does not appear to be much room in academia for producing it. It is thus up to historians to look for avenues to contribute and collaborate with comedians, which could help broaden the public role of academic historians.

The inclusion of historians in media with a large target audience, like comedic history, could also work to counter the proliferation of conspiratorial-minded historical entertainment. Ancient Aliens may be the best example for this genre, and its massive popularity has drawn the ire of many professional historians, archeologists, and scientists. The participation of historians within the world of comedy would not by itself de-popularize conspiratorial accounts of history, but such participation could re-introduce academic historians to a contemporary media landscape plagued by conspiracy theories. Such a step would have the added benefit of a broader collaboration between the world of academia and the world of popular art. These spheres often appear mutually exclusive, but both are primarily concerned with producing narratives, ideas, and reflections on who we are. There is also a longstanding relationship between academic expertise and art. Historians are often consulted by documentary filmmakers and period-piece filmmakers, but the gulf between historians and comedians (and other popular artists interested in history, like some musicians) remains vast. At the expense of sounding simplistic, collaborations between historians and comedians could often educational entertainment, while providing the consumer market historical entertainment that does not resort to conspiracy, speculation, and outright fabrication. 

            Shows like That Literally Happened! offer historians an opportunity to collaborate with comedians and review comedic history as a medium of history. Even though opportunities to collaborate with comedians are limited and contingent on production supplied by companies like Buzzfeed, these collaborations offer historians the opportunity to present historical knowledge in a digestible way to a large audience. Further, comedians and historians may not be so different in their concerns, as both direct attention to humanity’s ironies, hypocrisies, and sensitivities. Despite a lack of infrastructure supporting collaborations between historians and comedians, there is ample space for historians to engage with comedic history in our journals, websites, articles, and monographs. The recent move on the part of the American Historical Review to broaden their review section demonstrates the desire on the part of historians to broaden their horizons beyond the monograph. Incorporating our intellectual engagements with comedic history in our annals could be just as important as our inclusion of historical fiction and period pieces. More broadly, these engagements further enable us to address the lasting cultural importance of historical satire, from Voltaire to Drunk History.

Jake Newcomb is an MA student in the Rutgers History Department, and a musician. His essays on his personal experience with music can be found at jakenewcomb.tumblr.com

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How to Build a Scholarly Community without Leaving Your Apartment!

by guest contributor Dr. Roxanne Panchasi

This post is the second in our ‘Media of History’ forum which explores the decisions we make about the choices we make when we communicate our research. The first installment in this series was ‘Poetry as History?’:

In the spring of 2013, I was the single mother of a three-year-old kid and an Associate Professor of History. My son, certainly my most fantastic creative project up to that (and every subsequent) point, was born in 2009. Published that same year, helping me to secure tenure and promotion, my first book had taken too long to finish. During most of that time, the folder on my computer’s desktop that held its multiple chapter drafts and files of notes was named “HIDEOUS PROGENY”. Academic production and reproduction are complicated.

A few years after the book and the baby appeared, I wasn’t entirely sure how to be a scholar anymore, and especially uncertain about how to continue being a historian of modern France. For various reasons, professional travel was practically impossible, and this seemed unlikely to change at any time in the near future. No conferences, research trips to France, or anywhere else. If I’m honest, I had also lost some of my juice for research and writing: in the wake of the book’s completion; on the other side of so much anxiety about holding onto my job; and in the often wakeful, all-consuming nature of my role as the solo primary caregiver of a small child. Mine was a “one-body problem” that came with its own logistical, financial, and affective challenges. I was barely keeping my head above water on the teaching, administrative, and home fronts. My reading was confined to a tiny radius of immediate necessity and that thing called “my own writing” seemed a vague, far-off memory.

Then I had an idea that I might try something new by speaking with academic colleagues about their work. I could use Skype or some other technology to interview them at a distance, record our conversations, and share these with a wider community online. If research and writing were no longer on in the ways I had done these things before, maybe a different medium and approach could be my side door to renewed scholarly activity, and to finding again an intellectual curiosity I feared I’d lost somewhere near the corner of stress and exhaustion. The best part was that this was something I could do without having to go anywhere. I could even work from home if I wanted or needed to.

While I had always been a fan of radio, I wasn’t really a podcast listener and didn’t know where to start. I mentioned my scheme to a friend who told me about the New Books Network (NBN), a consortium of podcasts hosted by academics across the disciplines, featuring interviews with scholars about their recent books. It was exactly the kind of thing I had in mind. I pitched a new channel focused on France and the Francophone world to the NBN’s Editor-in-Chief Marshall Poe, a series that would include, but not be limited to, books by historians. I had always thought of my own work as interdisciplinary and wanted to stay open to scholars from a range of fields. I posted my first New Books in French Studies (NBFS) interview in May of 2013. I’ve done 69 more since, most of them recorded at my dining table.

Over the course of my academic career, book reviews have been a staple. As a PhD student, I collected reviews by others and attempted to write a few as well. Since grad school, I’ve consulted and assigned countless reviews in my research and teaching. I’ve agreed to write reviews only to spend too much time not writing and fretting about them. I read with trepidation the reviews written about my own book. Some authors get the chance to respond directly to reviews of their work. Academics have a lot to say about book reviews, what makes some “good” and others “terrible”. These days, a particularly damning or harsh review can become a social media event complete with denunciations, rubbernecking, and Schadenfreude—the latest installment of Book Review Review: A Review of Reviews of Books.

I appreciate the effort and care that go into the best book reviews’ sizing up of the strengths/weaknesses of a book’s arguments, significance, and contributions to a literature or field. The podcast interviews that I do for New Books in French Studies share with traditional book reviews an ambition to distill and highlight key ideas, to outline why and how a book does the work that it does. But NBFS privileges the intentions and aims of the author over an assessment or critique of the work from the position of my expertise or interests. Each podcast episode is a dynamic scholarly exchange that affords listeners an opportunity to hear the voices of both an author and a reader in direct dialog, thinking together. Interviewees have a rough sense of how things may go before we begin, but I do not provide or even write out most questions in advance, and I regularly change things up as we talk, depending on what the author says or where our conversation takes us. Offering listeners a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how and why a project took shape as it eventually did, NBFS is about backstories and a site of open interchange about what books hold and provoke for their writers, and for a spectrum of possible readers. In this way, my interviews aren’t really “mine,” and this is one of the things I like most about producing and sharing them with others.

That first interview I did back in 2013 was a conversation with historian Mary Louise Roberts about What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (University of Chicago Press, 2013). I was nervous leading up to it, and this feeling persisted during the interview itself. I think I was strangling about 14 pages of notes in my hands as we started. But something kicked in around the 15-minute mark, a feeling of genuine absorption in this opportunity to talk—really talk—with another scholar about their work, to find out more about their personal and professional background and experiences, about the ideas and questions that brought them to their project, and through the different stages toward its completion. Having learned the hard way just how much worry and trouble go into making a scholarly book happen, I’m fascinated by how others live that process, the changing shape of their research aspirations, their intended contributions, and choices along the way.

Every interview I do departs from an honest curiosity about how and why a particular book came to be, and a profound respect for the accomplishment itself. A book is no small feat in an academic life. And so often these lives are overflowing and interrupted—teaching, service, caring for children, parents, or partners, illness, financial precarity or job insecurity, gender, racial and other forms of inequity, fear, grief, and depression are just some of the many things that can slow, or even halt, the career “progress” we might have at one time imagined for ourselves. Guilt and shame can also be professional quicksand.

I am not exaggerating when I say that podcasting saved my academic life. When I started NBFS, I was stuck. Physically unable to stray far from home, but also stalled intellectually. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to work on next, and was even less clear about how I’d complete another major project in my field given some of my constraints. Over the past several years, the books I’ve read and conversations I’ve enjoyed have nourished in me the desire for my own research and writing. They’ve also suggested more ways to follow up on that longing than I can enumerate here. Since I launched the podcast, varying the themes of episodes has been a programming goal in service of listeners. It’s also been a way of indulging my own love of grazing far and wide, picking up ideas and cues from all over the place, leaning away from a certain form of expertise, perhaps, but igniting all kinds of thinking in the process. Some flashes are caught up with the content of different projects, of course. But I am also learning all the time from the diversity and creativity of life and research trajectories, the architectures of books, the other scholars and theorists that authors are thinking with and against, the graces and skills of the writing itself.

Before New Books in French Studies, I wasn’t much of a “networker”. At a conference, I was more likely to hide out in my hotel room than to zoom around “making contacts”. Conferences and workshops can be wonderful. But scholarly meet-ups can also be expensive in a range of currencies (dollars, euros, time, carbon emissions). Not everyone can access these forms of professional dissemination and development in the same ways, and the possibilities of participating can shift dramatically at different career and life stages, from grad school to whatever comes afterwards.

Over the past six years, I have come to feel so much less isolated among my peers in French History/Studies. I host the podcast alone, but it has brought me into a community of authors, listeners, other podcasters, most from within academia, but some from a wider pubic beyond its traditional bounds. The practice of connecting with researchers and writers, many of who I’ve never met before an interview, has made me much more comfortable reaching out to colleagues in general. I have come to know so many people besides those I interview: faculty, students, and others who tune in and let me know what they think, via email, on social media, and sometimes in person. I am grateful to those I’ve spoken with, or heard from—who’ve also heard me—and excited about the interlocutors I have yet to “meet”.

Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University who specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century France. Her current research focuses on the history of French nuclear weapons and testing since 1945.  She is the author of Future Tense: The Culture of Anticipation in France Between the Wars (Cornell University Press, 2009) Her most recent article, “‘No Hiroshima in Africa’: The Algerian War and the Question of French Nuclear Tests in the Sahara” appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of History of the Present. The host of New Books in French Studies, a podcast series on the New Books Network, she lives—and records—in Vancouver, Canada.

Feature image: Original design/print by Terrence Peterson.

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Poetry as History?

by guest contributor Dr. Will Pooley

This post is the first installment of in our ‘Media of History’ forum. A series of scholars will discuss the choices they make in communicating their research and reflect upon the suitability of various media.

When academics discuss alternative genres for presenting histories, we tend to concentrate on the usual suspects: historical fiction, biography, documentaries, and film.[1]

These genres all share significant commonalities with academic research articles and monographs. Whether or not they are fictionalized, they are often presented through scenic realism. Many of them include the scaffolding of foot- or endnotes, bibliographies, or references to academic research. Most are narrative and – with the exception of film and television – are written in grammatically-conventional prose.

What can historians learn from other genres of history making that are less similar to narrative history, genres that do not necessarily tell stories, represent realistic scenes, or use prose?

This is one of the questions I have been exploring since January 2019 on the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project ‘Creative Histories of Witchcraft’, a three-way collaboration with the playwright Poppy Corbett and the poet Anna Kisby Compton. Through the project, Anna and Poppy have introduced me to a range of history being done through other forms, from visual art, to music, theatre, and poetry.

So what can poetry do as history?[2]

I will be the first to admit it: after nine months of working together, I am no good at writing poetry. But I find it interesting to draw a distinction between writing poetry as an output, and writing poetry as a research method. Poetry-as-research reveals new insights and suggests different ways of writing history.

The poetic methods that I have found most useful as radical departures from historical methods of reading texts are ‘found text’ methods. In one sense, the idea behind found text poetry sounds obviously historical. Like historians, found text poets take existing sources and quote from them, rearrange them, carve them up to find meanings that the text itself does not say directly. But these techniques also clearly break the rules of how historians quote from texts.

Consider ‘erasure’ as a poetic technique, for instance. Erasure involves deliberately obscuring words in a found text. Using this method, the poet Tracey Smith reveals meanings that are submerged or implied in historical sources. To take away is paradoxically to reveal what has already been silenced in a document such as the ‘Declaration of Independence’.  

What does this do as a research technique?

One of the problems with witchcraft and witches is the problem of definition. What should count as witchcraft? How did people identify witches? In a recent discussion on the project, we took inspiration from Sarah Knott’s ‘unconventional history’ Mother. Knott calls her book ‘verb-led’ because she is less interested in motherhood as an identity, and more interested in what mothering involves. We decided to apply this approach to a historical source about witchcraft: what are the verbs of magic?

To answer this, we took a newspaper story from 1890 about a case where a young woman was cleared of infanticide on the advice of medical experts, who said she had acted as if under hypnosis, due to her belief in witchcraft. In my attempt to turn this short news story into a poem, I cut away everything except the verbs and the subjects, and rearranged the phrases into a telegraphic version of the original story:

The newspaper announced Adolphine was charged.

Adolphine claimed to have obeyed.

Adolphine depicted, the court interrogated.

The court postpones.

The court allows the doctors conducting to conclude: Adolphine’s responsibility was.

Adolphine appeared. Adolphine maintained. Adolphine had done.

Adolphine strangled. Adolphine was.

Adolphine gave birth.

Bastide told her it was a ball of water going away.

A ball of water squeezed. Adolphine thought she was squeezing.

Bastide has denied, Bastide has said.

Bastide claimed Bastide was.

Bastide seems. Bastide reads. Bastide is not.

Bastide cannot read.

Bastide courts, Bastide has relations.

Did Bastide tell?

Adolphine claims Bastide did.

Did Bastide make her drink?

Bastide made her drink.

Adolphine did not want to: the milk has not been strained.

Bastide forced Adolphine to drink.

Adolphine’s employer gave evidence.

Adolphine was, her employer said.

Adophine had, Adolphine laughed, Adolphine ran.

Adolphine said Adolphine was told to be quiet or to leave.

Adolphine was quiet or left.

Was Bastide?

Bastide did chase, Adolphine’s employer noticed.

Adolphine and Bastide had taken a fancy to each other.

Had Adolphine?

Had Adolphine?

Adolphine was acquitted.

What does this do to the source?

First, it works in a similar way to Tracy Smith’s ‘Declaration’, erasing some of the historical specificity of the case. The employer, ball of water, courts, doctors, milk, and birth could all be from a story that happened today. As Smith points out, this blurring of the distinction between then and now forces new kinds of empathy with the past.

This is linked to the second thing the poem does as research: it draws heightened attention to the struggles over agency and responsibility that are the heart of the case. Had Adolphine? Had Adolphine? Did Bastide make her drink? Bastide has denied, Bastide has said. Bastide claimed Bastide was.

These uncertainties are part of what Anna, the poet on the project, has described as the power of poetry to untell stories, to unpick and undo them. The poet Abigail Parry has expressed a similar idea:

We put a high premium on narrative, but narrative can be destructive, because it demands a strong chain of causality: it flows through and is halted by truth gates, which act like locks on a canal. This is where poetry comes in, I think – it puts us in touch with our natural capacity for dissonance and ambivalence, reminds us that the locks are artificial. Some truths are delicate, and won’t stand up to the brute force of propositional logic: they can only be held in view when looked at askance, in our peripheral vision.

One of the most frustrating aspects of studying modern witchcraft is the certainty that journalists and judges, medical experts and folklorists impose on stories of mystery. The newspapers take the confusing, distressing and disjointed story of a young woman who killed her own child and believed her lover was a witch, and they summarize it as a case of hysteria.

Perhaps what poetry offers the historian, then, is a way back to some of the ‘dissonance and ambivalence’ of delicate truths.


[1] See, for instance, Jerome de Groot’s work, including Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture (2008) and Remaking History: the Past in Contemporary Historical Fictions (2015).

[2] On poets doing history, see for example an interview with Hannah Lowe: http://www.thecompassmagazine.co.uk/hl/, or Camille Ralphs’ pamphlet on the Pendle Witches, MALKIN: an ellegy in 14 spels (2015).

Will Pooley is historian of modern France researching popular and folk cultures in the long nineteenth century (c.1789-1940). His first book – Body and Tradition in Nineteenth-century France: Félix Arnaudin and the Moorlands of Gascony, 1870-1914 – will appear with OUP in 2019. He is currently researching cases of modern French witchcraft (c.1790-1940). Alongside this research, he has been working in collaboration with other researchers to explore ideas of ‘creative histories’, through the blogs https://storyingthepast.wordpress.com and https://creativewitchcraft.wordpress.com