Monday, 30 January 2012

'A' is for Adolf: The Wiener Library

The Wiener Library, 29 Russell Square
Tucked away behind Senate House and SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies) and facing onto Russell Square, is the world’s oldest Holocaust memorial institution. The Wiener Library originated in 1933, when Alfred Wiener, a German Jew, fled to Amsterdam, where he set up the Jewish Central Information Office to collect and disseminate information about what was going on in Nazi Germany. The collection was moved to London (initially to another venue, in Manchester Square) in 1939 and became known as ‘Dr Wiener’s Library’. At first, it functioned as a resource to British government intelligence departments but, as the collection expanded over time, it became an important academic, legal and historical hub, providing material to the UN War Crimes Commission and amassing eyewitness accounts gathered during the 1950s and 1960s. Today, it holds regular exhibitions and seminars, providing a platform for issues related to the Holocaust, genocide, human rights and racism today.  

The 'A' is for Adolf exhibition at the Wiener Library
Learning to count
Currently, the Wiener Library has an exhibition called ‘A is for Adolf: Teaching Children Nazi Values’. Small, but potent, the exhibition demonstrates the terrifying ubiquity and constant reinforcement of Nazi values: every aspect of childhood was influenced, from storybooks to boardgames, school lessons to social activities, exercise and sports to ideas of fashion and beauty. For me, the most disturbing objects were those that showed how anti-Semitic, nationalistic propaganda was deeply embedded in habit-forming activities. For example, learning to write was a matter of literally re-inscribing politically-anchored words and phrases ('heil'; 'volk') over and over again, while counting involved the symbolic recognition and repetition of flags and swastikas. Numeracy skills were developed by tackling problems such as how much it costs the state to look after ‘degenerate’ individuals, or what proportion of a region or profession has been ‘taken over’ by Jews. Political propaganda and ‘race science’ saturated all learning areas: geography celebrated colonialism as proof of Aryan supremacy and advertised the achievements of the National Socialist party in reshaping the urban landscape through its aesthetically-pleasing autobahns; biology focussed on the necessity of eugenics to avoid genetic ‘impurity’; history and literature were used to construct a selective narrative of heroic German manifest destiny, culminating in the apotheosis of Hitler. 

Comprehensive information panels
The boardgame 'Juden raus' (Jews out!)
But instilling Nazi values in children was not just about ideas, it was also about modelling and incentivising particular behaviour. Taking their cues from the adults in authority around them, school children shunned, humiliated or mobbed their Jewish classmates (who were also increasingly excluded from classes and excursions), or, if seen with Jewish friends, were themselves shunned. Outside school, the various local cells of the Hitler Youth subsumed much of children’s spare time through structured activities, building a strong sense of belonging and identity. Both the Boys Organisation (based on a military model, but with activities ranging from hikes to marching bands and amateur dramatics) and the League of German Girls (with cultural heritage, homemaking, racial science and athletics sessions, aimed at producing wives and mothers who would perpetuate Nazi values in the family microcosm) encouraged strong conformity, obedience, and a respect for hierarchical structures where members could rise in rank through ‘good performance’. 

When put together in a strongly curated exhibition like ‘A is for Adolph’, it’s easy to come away with the response: ‘That’s terrible: I can’t believe people ever thought/did/allowed that’. But this response always leads me to wonder: is this really ‘in the past’ or are these same processes of prejudice in representation and education at play all around us? Are we, perhaps, only less aware of them because they are less formalized and more insidious, or because we share the worldview or values from which they spring? My own research into twentieth century social history and visual culture in South Africa certainly suggests so, and museums are often implicated in this process. 
A young visitor studies a Bushmen exhibit (with life casts c1918) at the South African (Natural History) Museum. Pre-1990s. Photograph by Gideon Mendel.
For example, in Cape Town in the 1960s, as apartheid became increasingly formalised, 'white' history was housed in the Cultural History Museum while 'black' history and culture was curated as closer to nature and shown in the Natural History museum alongside the animal dioramas, with generations of (predominantly white) schoolchildren brought in to learn about the 'bushmen' in their 'natural habitat'. Now, however, many South African museums are playing a major role in transformation (see this great book by Steven Dubin), as well as problematising the construction of their own neutrality in the production of knowledge. 

Many recent cases, however, suggest that children continue to be a target (whether intended, or merely caught in the crossfire) of adult ideological conflict. See, for example, this piece on representations of Palestinian people and history in Israeli school textbooks; the rising ‘political/military-entertainment complex’ of simulation-based video games used for political campaigns, military self-presentation and recruitment (see this piece); or the publication of the colouring book We Shall Never Forget 9/11: The Kids’ Book of Freedom, which appears to veil Islamaphobic rhetoric in patriotic language (see here). The most persistently damaging ideological content in childhood today – and the hardest to combat – is that which is assumed, taken as given, by parents, schools, faiths, books, games, television. As ‘Kid You Not’ Blogger Clementine suggests in an account of ideology in children’s books, they may not be actively promoting male domination or anti-immigrant attitudes, but rather inscribing, reinforcing and normalizing them: 
‘Next time you open a children’s book, ask yourself what worldviews, what conceptions of power, what ideals of education it conceals. It is not obvious – because the creators of the books themselves are unaware of it, and because it’s likely that they think more or less like you. But it is there. It cannot not be there. And if you really can’t notice these assumptions, it means you’re so bathed in them that you take them for fact...’

Friday, 27 January 2012

A Museum without Objects: The Benjamin Franklin House

Many museums are dependent on the aura of their collections: the British Museum has the Elgin Marbles (we’ll have to deal with the ethics and politics of that another time) and the Soane Museum has the Hogarth series The Rake’s Progress; the Pitt Rivers in Oxford is a cabinet of anthropological curiosities, and the Cumberland Pencil Museum has the most comprehensive collection of graphite-related products in the WORLD! 
But what happens when you don’t have any stuff at all? Can you have a museum without objects and, if so, what might that look like?
I got a glimpse of the answer at the Benjamin Franklin House, a Georgian terrace house at 36 Craven Street, just off Trafalgar Square. A well-known American statesman and founding father (with his signature on both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), not to mention philosopher, publisher, scientist, inventor (think lightning conductors, bifocals and more) AND founder of the first public lending library, what is less well-known is that Franklin spent sixteen years as a diplomat in London. After my recent trip to the east coast of the U.S., where I found myself smitten with Boston (where Franklin was born) and fascinated by revolutionary history, I decided to trundle down the Strand to his only surviving house (those in Boston, Philadelphia and Paris are, alas, no more). During his time in London, Franklin took up lodgings in the heart of the city – close to Parliament at Westminster, the printing houses of Fleet Street, and the coffeehouses of Covent Garden – in a building presided over by a widow, Margaret Stevenson, and her daughter Polly. Over time he became very much part of the family, as well as community life, even printing a mock local newspaper he called The Craven Street Gazette.

Signing of the Declaration of Independence
Franklin developed a rich London life full of eager scholarship, assorted friends and dignitaries, and dangerous dinner party science demonstrations (many of them resuscitated in the museum’s adjacent Student Science Centre for visiting school groups). Despite working tirelessly to maintain fair and unified relations between Britain and the Colonies – including testifying against the infamous Stamp Act in the House of Commons, leading to its repeal – by early 1775 the British had concluded that Franklin was a fomenter of Trouble and very likely an inciter of Rebellion (both Trouble and Rebellion being largely unfavourable nouns for a diplomat to find affixed to his reputation), and was sent packing. So off he went back to Philadelphia (by which time the American Revolution had already broken out) to join the Continental Congress, where, between bouts of crippling gout, he offered amendments to Jefferson’s various drafts of the Declaration of Independence. 

Fast forward two and a half centuries and the house at Craven Street now contains only echoes of its most famous resident: almost every single artifact and piece of furniture associated with Franklin now resides in private collections or museums in the U.S. So, after an eight year, £3 million conservation project (the house had fallen into a pretty bad state of disrepair), the house was reopened as a museum on 17 January 2006, fittingly the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth. It had just about nothing inside it save for the evening’s wine and canap├ęs, and a collection of old bones they unearthed from the anatomy school Polly’s husband ran in the basement. Instead, they decided to try to capture the sights, sounds and moods of the house during Franklin’s years there, with the museum as a stage across which the experience plays out… 

An immersive experience of Franklin's life
Using a combination of sound, lighting, visual projection and a live actor playing the role of Polly – who leads visitors around the house and interacts with the scenes evoked – a narrative is woven from room to room. Significantly, it tells Franklin’s London story in his own words (assisted, of course, by him having been such a prodigious letter writer and autobiographer), and through images of primary documents and portraits rather than filmed reenactment sequences. As a result, the narrative avoids the excesses of speculation that often beset historical houses, or the ‘gimmickyness’ that can attend digital presentations, while adding an unusually sensory, affective encounter with the past. After forty-five minutes, you’ve learnt about eighteenth century food, health, botany and domestic life in the basement kitchen; peeked in on Franklin’s public and personal relationships (and heard a demonstration of his musical invention, the glass armonica) on the ground floor; and witnessed the triumphs and trials of both his scientific experiments and political career on the first floor. All the dimly-lit floors are connected by a narrow, original staircase with turned balustrades, complete with a satisfying creak, but, if you have a large group (mine was just me and an elderly Franklin enthusiast from the US who kept dropping his camera lens cap down the stairwell), I imagine the transit time means some people get out of sync with the presentation.

I was surprised to find myself a little emotional by the end as Franklin rushes off back to Philadelphia, and you learn that Polly travelled all the way to America to be with Franklin’s daughter at his deathbed years later. A wholly immersive experience, the result is a strong sense of a lived presence, a series of echoes that continues to reverberate at 36 Craven Street today. It’s a scintillating sidestepping of the need for stuff, and one I highly recommend.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

What Do You Do with a BA in English?*

Apparently, you lead one of the best walking tours in London – for free! For those of you who haven’t come across it, the line ‘What Do You Do With a BA in English?’ is the opening lyric of the satirical musical Avenue Q (see/hear a rendition here). It is plaintively sung by the lead character who finds that while his dreams aspire to Avenue A, his wallet and work experience place him firmly in Avenue Q. But it’s also the melody that comes into my head every time I encounter a creative, engaging, and self-motivated young person working in a freelance or internship capacity in tourism, education, museums or NGOs as they attempt to get their ‘break’ in the big city. The crew at Sandeman’s New London tours – a dynamic mix of aspiring writers, actors, dancers and academics – works on a tips-only basis. On the one hand, this means that they draw a varied crowd of tourists from all budget backgrounds (ensuring an overall haul that incrementally pays the rent on a leaky flatshare in Hackney). On the other, it acts as an ongoing incentive to research and deliver the best possible walking tour of London over the space of just under three hours… So, I decided that if I was going to really get to know the city, I’d better start on foot.

Emerging from Hyde Park Corner tube station, I found myself at the imposing Wellington Arch, which commemorates Britain’s victories in the Napoleanic Wars. More intriguing, perhaps, is the fact that the arch is hollow inside and, until 1992, housed the second (?) smallest police station in London. Curiously, half of the arch is actually a ventilation shaft for the London Underground network… Now if they had used the whole arch for the police station it may have been marginally more successful, but, then again, it would have lost its competitive edge in the square metreage stakes… After pondering this for a while, I noticed a gathering crowd of tourists at the statue of the Duke of Wellington, and thus joined the free Royal London walking tour, which focuses on Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace and the Palace of Westminster.

Buckingham Palace was never intended to be the home of the Monarch. In fact, it was originally built in 1705 for the Duke of Wellington, who invited the King round to see his posh new place, only to have it confiscated for the crown in a fit of architectural one-upmanship. But nevertheless, it’s now a major London attraction so, along with thousands of other tourists, our tour headed across Constitution Hill towards the Queen’s London residence. Embarrassingly, after two years in London, I had never gotten around to watching the Changing of the Guards.

Although visitors tend to think it’s a tradition as old as the proverbial hills, it was really only started by Queen Victoria, who cunningly added a bit of pomp and circumstance to what was essentially a logistical reshuffling of resources. In 1837, she was the first sovereign to move from the official residence at St James’s Palace to Buckingham Palace up the road, but the troops remained stationed at St James. So every day a detachment would – and continues to – march/trot up from St James’s to replace those guarding the Queen. It’s a fairly complicated procedure, involving multiple ‘detachments’ of the ‘Old Guard’ and the ‘New Guard’ who are variously inspected, paraded, and serenaded by the Regimental Band, before they finally exchange the Palace keys as a symbol of responsibility for its security. It occurred to me that this ritual is performative history at its best: retaining a familiar structure but with the flexibility to accommodate changing contexts and current affairs. For example, when Michael Jackson died, instead of the usual military standards, the Regimental Band apparently played a Jackson medley with a rousing Thriller finale.

After Buckingham Palace, we headed to St James’s Palace, once a leper hospital and still the official residence of the monarchy (England is never keen on breaking with precedent, even if maintaining it only on paper), since Henry VIII built it in the daring red-brick Tudor style of the time. Now, however, it houses court offices and the headquarters from which the royals run their various charity initiatives. Walking along the edge of St James's Park, we came to the Horse Guards Parade ground and the Palladian splendour of the Horse Guards building. Originally the site of popular jousting, the Parade now hosts the annual Trooping of the Colour for the Queen’s official birthday in June - she also has a real, ‘unofficial’ birthday, but winter is so inconvenient for complicated equine manoeuvres and public fanfare. Rumour has it that the Parade, which backs onto the rear of 10 Downing Street, will host the Beach Volleyball contingent of the 2012 Olympic Games. I’m sure Cameron will be supporting the teams with gusto from his foggy bathroom window...

The Citadel , a mysterious fortress-like edifice with no ground-floor windows or visible entrances, ivy growing over its bland brown exterior and grass planted on its roof, was built adjacent to the Parade to protect the Admiralty communications centre from aerial attack during the Second World War. Churchhill referred to it as a ‘great monstrosity’ next to the grandeur of the Horse Guards. But, while it may indeed have housed the underground lair from which the UK hatched its plans during the war (with a network of subterranean tunnels connecting key locations), it still requires a secret service gardener to infiltrate with a lawnmower every summer.

We ended our tour sitting in rows outside Westminster Abbey and gazing up at the awesome neo-Gothic spectacle of the Palace of Westminster, home to the UK Parliament. Meanwhile an earnest man wearing a sandwich board detailing his dissent added his voice to the historical narrative of our tourguide. As our guide’s ancient tales of gunpowder, treason - and plot! (somehow she managed to say it in bold and italics simultaneously) – mingled with the protestor’s contemporary critiques of government cuts, police corruption – and plot! – it reminded me of one of the things I love most about London: the way in which past and present constantly jostle, each revealing a little more about the other...

*Disclaimer: Just in case this sounds like a negative reprise, I should mention that once upon a time, I did a BA in English. And it Rocked. My. World. (Also, it underpins what I do in editing, arts journalism, museum education, teaching, and Life in General).