Beyond the digital humanities

On 5 May, the School of Advanced Study (SAS) is hosting ‘Beyond the Digital Humanities’, the final in a series of important events on the future of digital humanities organised by the European Science Foundation (ESF) research network NeDiMAH (Network for Digital Methods in the Arts and Humanities). It will be chaired by Professor Lorna Hughes (below left), SAS’s first chair in digital humanities and Professor Andrew Prescott from the University of Glasgow. Since May 2011, NeDiMAH has run a programme of activities and built a collaborative research forum to investigate the use of digital methods in arts and humanities research. The network has explored key areas of theory and practice in a number of methodological areas, including: the analysis of time and space, visualisation, linked data, large-scale data analysis, editing, manuscript imaging, temporal modeling and scholarly communications. The reach of these events has been documented in a series of maps of digital humanities activities across Europe. This has allowed the Network to get a sense of the diversity of practice as well as understand and demonstrate the collaborative and trans-national nature of digital humanities and the integration of digital approaches into all aspects of the research lifecycle. Our objective has been to understand better the impact that digital methods have had on transforming scholarship in the arts and humanities, and the potential for extending the benefits of digital research to the creative industries, industry and public policy and planning. Collaboration has been key. And this has ranged from working with scientific and technical disciplines, data science and libraries to archives and museums, existing European research infrastructures (including CLARIN and DARIAH in...

British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition is ‘nutritious food for thought’, says medieval history expert

This is an extract from a review of the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition written by Dr John Sabapathy for the Reviews in History website, which is run by the Institute of Historical Research. The lecturer in medieval history at University College London, thinks the exhibition has a great deal for those interested in the medieval matrix of the Charter but, it is by no means an exhibition only for medievalists. The funniest moment in the British Library’s wonderful Magna Carta: Law Liberty, Legacy exhibition comes towards its end, in a recent cartoon by Stephen Collins (sadly not reproduced in the excellent catalogue, but available here). We observe, Attenborough-style, a group of adolescents being filmed in a bleak urban playground. Instead of sex, drink, and drugs however, this group’s shameful pastime is their covert addiction to Magna Carta. Sucked into it at school, these ‘Mag-heads’ now gather at dusk to read the charter for the ‘massive rush of British values’ they get from it ­– democracy, tolerance, responsibility, that sort of thing. It’s a dangerous habit though – one can get too high off the Charter, and the cartoon ends with the camera abruptly cut off as one of the group overdoses and his friends try to stop him ‘magging out’. Would that it were so. The grimness of the contrast with most of Britain’s town centres on a Friday night adds obvious acid to Collins’s humour. If his is the funniest item in the exhibition it is arguably also the most disquieting. Collins’s cartoon – along with some other contemporary ones – is of especial relevance to the exhibition’s purpose since it is...

Africa’s ivory trade – a history of criminalisation, corruption and violence

Every decade or so, dating back to the 1970s, there is an upsurge of media interest in the slaughter of elephants for their ivory, and the implications for wildlife conservation. Here, Keith Somerville a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS), who is currently researching ivory poaching in Africa, provides an account of the current state of the illicit industry that is threatening to wipe out elephants and other species. Reports of the mass killing of these majestic animals to satisfy luxury markets in rich countries generate support for anti-poaching operations, conservation organisations and international efforts to combat the smuggling of ivory from Africa to East Asia. But in recent years, reporting has concentrated heavily on links between insurgent movements, brutal but strategically insignificant rebel groups, and the smuggling of tusks to the newly wealthy elite of China. This media discourse – that poaching by rebels is wiping out elephants at a greater pace and that the proceeds from ivory is increasing insecurity in Africa and, by implication globally – has gained pace and also the attention of world leaders and decision-makers in the United States. Fighting the ivory trade is seen in this narrative as a way of conserving a keystone species. But increasingly it is a means of waging war on Islamist groups as part of the war on terror, or on groups which threaten the security of the West’s military allies, like Uganda or Kenya. A series of articles in leading American newspapers, including the New York Times, reporting the wholesale slaughter of elephants in Central African national parks, has helped to fuel...

Propaganda bestsellers: the role of paperbacks in the Second World War

In anticipation of the 2015 London Rare Book School, this blog post by Dr Henry Irving examines the idea behind the Ministry of Information’s Official War Books series. What gives a book popular appeal? This question was raised repeatedly in the Ministry of Information’s Publications Division during 1941. The way that it was answered led to the creation of a ‘new kind of book’ and resulted in sales numbering in the tens of millions. By the end of the war, Ministry books were an established part of the country’s reading, yet this chapter in British publishing history remains little known.  The Ministry’s internal discussion over popularity began with the publication of a book which proved to be its most successful. The Battle of Britain, written by the popular author Hilary Saunders, was revised by the Ministry after it became a surprise best-seller in March 1941. The Ministry-edition boasted an illustrated cover, eye-catching diagrams and action photographs. It sold 4.8 million copies in Britain in the six months following its release. The Battle of Britain’s success was followed by that of Bomber Command. This paperback was based on interviews with returning aircrews and promised to tell the story of a battle unlike any ‘fought before in the history of mankind’. Published just after the release of the Ministry of Information’s acclaimed documentary film ‘Target for Tonight’, it quickly sold 1.25 million copies. Robert Fraser (the head of the publications division) believed that figure would have been far higher ‘if only the copies could have been physically produced’. These successes led to questions because Fraser understood that ‘the book is not an easy...

Communicating the Ministry of Information (Public Engagement Case Study – Dr Henry Irving)

  To mark the launch of our call for applications for the first SAS/Senate House Library ‘Public Engagement Innovators’ scheme we asked some staff from across the School about their experiences of public engagement and how it has influenced their research and professional practice. In this first post, Dr Henry Irving – postdoctoral researcher in the Institute of English Studies—answers our questions about his experiences engaging the public with research on the communication history of the Ministry of Information.   Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and the research that you do/your role in SAS? I am a researcher working on the Institute of English Studies (IES) project ‘A Communication History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46’. The project aims to better understand the Ministry’s relationship with the public by applying techniques from the field of publishing history. It is looking into the ideas which underpinned the publicity material produced by the Ministry during the Second World War and trying to gauge the public’s reaction. It is my job to trawl through the various archives which hold relevant material. What public engagement activities have you been involved with in the School? The project ‘A Communication History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46’ is AHRC funded and the IES have an explicit commitment to public engagement. This means that I have been involved in public engagement from the very start of the project in January 2014. The highlight so far has been the Being Human festival. This included a variety of Ministry of Information-themed activities and I helped to organise an exhibition, an afternoon of...

May 2015: the austerity election

As the 2015 election approaches the Coalition and the Labour party differences on fiscal policy appear to be ones of emphasis – how quickly and what to cut, says John Weeks, Professor Emeritus at SOAS, University of London.  In the debates preceding the election of May 2010, Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown explicitly rejected public budget cuts because they would, in his view, make the recession worse. Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, had in March 2010 attacked budget cutting as ‘economic masochism’. He maintained this position during the debates. Only the Conservative David Cameron pledged his party to cut expenditure, though ambiguous about how much. The lack of a Conservative majority in the subsequent voting led to a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Given Clegg’s pre-election opposition to any but minor cuts, the Coalition seemed unlikely to embark on radical reductions in spending. However, the leader of the Liberal Democrats reversed himself. Suddenly, the British public discovered that its votes had produced a government dedicated to radical reduction in public expenditure. The Coalition government, and especially its Chancellor George Osborne, presented the need for expenditure reduction as self-evident. The public budget manifested a deficit, expenditure over revenue, of 10 per cent of gross national product, allegedly unprecedented during peacetime. He avoided mentioning that the deficit excluding investment – current expenditure balance – was higher under the John Major government in 1994 (minus 9.1 per cent of GDP compared to 8 per cent in 2010).  How to measure – and mismeasure – all aspects of the government budget would prove central to selling austerity policies to the...

Magna Carta: the international symbol of freedom

By Danny Millum Magna Carta has inspired some of today’s fundamental liberties, yet it began life 800 years ago as a practical solution to a political crisis. It has since evolved to become an international symbol of freedom, and with the creation of the largest exhibition ever staged about this celebrated document, we now have an opportunity to uncover the story of how its power has been used – and abused – from its genesis through to today’s popular culture. Due to open this month (13 March–1 September 2015), the British Library’s Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, is part of a series of events to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the granting of the Magna Carta, one of the world’s most famous documents. Already, the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral have made history by bringing the four original surviving Magna Carta manuscripts together in one place, for the first time. At a special screening on 3 February, the manuscripts were viewed by 1,215 people who won the chance to attend the event after entering a public ballot launched last year. They were followed the next day by a group of world-leading Magna Carta academics who have been studying several hundred other King John charters during the course of a three-year research project. Examining the four manuscripts in context of these other charters, they studied them side by side, scrutinising the handwriting of each of the scribes and considering the evidence of the ownership of the documents throughout its 800 year existence. The manuscripts have now been returned to their home institutions, and each will be putting on a...

Hidden histories: Britain’s secret stash

Dr Sarah Stockwell, a senior lecturer in Imperial and Commonwealth History at King’s College London, discuss the latest in a series of decolonisation workshops organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. I am greatly looking forward to the upcoming workshop ‘The hidden history of decolonisation’ at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) on 20 February. This is the latest in a regular series of ‘decolonisation workshops’ organised by ICWS in conjunction with King’s College London, which are now firmly established as key events for those working in the field, especially for postgraduates and early career researchers. Last semester’s workshop organised with colleagues at the University of Portsmouth on ‘Connected histories of decolonisation’ was an outstanding success. This week’s event promises to be different again – and very important. We’re going to be discussing what has literally been the ‘hidden’ history of British decolonisation. In 2011 as a result of a successful legal action brought by Mau Mau veterans, former British foreign secretary William Hague finally admitted what had long been suspected but never previously confirmed: that British governments had covertly removed thousands of files from former colonies at independence. Rather than deposit these with other colonial records, these so-called ‘migrated archives’ were secretly stashed at a government repository at Hanslope Park. At a stroke this revelation cast an entirely new light on Britain’s retreat from empire. Not only were all previous accounts of UK policy based on a seriously incomplete archival record, but even more strikingly, on the archival base that British governments chose to release to historians. This was not just a question of government holding back files...
From a book to a United Nations resolution: Yes we can!

From a book to a United Nations resolution: Yes we can!

By Henning Melber and David Wardrop Once upon a time there was a Secretary General of the United Nations. Along with 15 others, he died in a plane crash. It was the night of 17-18 September 1961, when the Albertina, a DC-6, was approaching the airport of Ndola in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). The UN Secretary General was Dag Hammarskjöld. He was on his way to meet the leader of the Katanga secession, Moïse Tshombe, to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in the mineral-rich Congolese province, of huge geostrategic relevance. Investigations immediately after the tragedy reached differing conclusions. A UN Commission delivered an open verdict and was unable to rule out sabotage, while a Rhodesian inquiry blamed the crash on pilot error. In 1962 the UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution. This stipulated that if new evidence were to be presented, the UN investigation should be re-opened. Speculations on the cause of the crash thrived for decades, but without leading to a new inquiry. This changed 50 years later. Dr Susan Williams, a British historian and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, a member of the School of Advanced Study, published Who Killed Hammarskjöld? (Hurst 2011), which evaluated evidence from archives and from witnesses, pointing to numerous irregularities in the investigations. It also presented disturbing new facts, as well as important concerns raised by others over the years. Her book stopped short of an answer, but challenged the dominant explanation of an accident and argued the case for a new investigation. This was backed by Dag’s nephew Knut Hammarskjöld, who returned his...

Twenty-five years ago:  Mandela finishes his long walk to freedom

On 11 February 1990, the world’s most famous political prisoner was set free after 27 and a half years in captivity. Keith Somerville, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) who has been following South African politics for decades, discusses the event that heralded the end of white minority rule and launched a new era in a divided country. The sight of Nelson Mandela hand-in-hand with wife Winnie, his other hand clenched and raised in a defiant salute to the crowd and cameras, is one of the dominant images of the late 20th century. As he walked to freedom from Victor Verster prison on 11 February 1990, it was as though another Berlin Wall had come down, this time the brutal one of apartheid. It presaged an era of hope but also trepidation in South Africa, establishing Nelson Mandela as one of the century’s great statesmen, converting him from the liberation leader prepared to die for his beliefs into the man who led the ANC to power. He was the voice of reconciliation and builder of the rainbow nation. That the excitement, expectations and the huge hopes of that day concealed the enormity of the task ahead of Mandela and the ANC is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that his election in 1994, his message of reconciliation and global role came to dominate reporting and analysis of his years in power, concealing the ANC’s failure to deal with many core problems in South African society and the economy. His national and global standing boosted the feeling among, and within, the ANC that they had...