November 2012

The second episode of "Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World" started with the defeat of the English Navy by the French in 1690 - still one of the most humiliating defeats of the Navy. At this time the French were the dominant sea-going nation, and the programme covered the recovery of the Navy over the following 70 years until in 1759 it really could be said that Britannia ruled the waves.

Along the way it covered how the country reorganised both financially and in terms of industry in order to better support the Navy. I hadn't realised that the Bank of England was initially set up to loan money to the government for the Navy (and as a side note, I really should find myself a (readable) book about economics one of these days because I don't really understand it). The industrial side was entrepreneurs doing things like moving nail production to the north-east where the coal for the forges was, and employing several blacksmiths in workshops near the river Tyne so that the nails were easily shipped to the shipyards in the south.

We also got told about the life of a sailor during this time - mostly unpleasant and full of hard work. The presenter, Dan Snow, tried some of the food that these sailors would've eaten - it looked pretty repulsive (tho the biscuit he had wasn't full of weevils, it wasn't that accurate) and apparently tasted as bad as one would expect. It also wasn't a balanced diet, and one of the challenges that faced the Navy was getting their military campaigns done before the sailors got too ill from disease and malnutrition. He took us on a modern Navy ship to show how it's dealt with these days (walk-in -20°C freezers full of about 90 days worth of food), and told us about a successful campaign where the British fleet blockaded the French Navy's headquarters for 6 months by actually figuring out how to ship fresh food to the fleet and keep the sailors healthy.

Another segment was about the execution of Admiral Byng - which I knew the "catchphrase" from, but had never actually heard the story before. Byng was tasked to come to the aid of the British troops on Minorca who were being attacked by the French in 1756, but felt that an attack was unlikely to succeed so withdrew. He was court-martialed for this, under the regulations against cowardice in battle and executed by firing squad. Voltaire wrote satirically about it (in Candide) - "Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres." ("In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others." - French taken from wikipedia, so hopefully it's accurate). It did indeed encourage the others - the aggression of the Navy was unmatched, and Snow told us about a couple of examples of times when this undid them. But overall the Navy grew from a ruined and bankrupt fleet at the start of the period, to the première naval force in the world.


The fifth episode of Wartime Farm covered what life was like in 1942. Even more shortages of food and petrol meant that ever smaller scraps of land were being reclaimed to grow crops & ever more ingenious solutions were being devised to run vehicles. I was very impressed by the coal burning furnace that they fitted to an old ambulance so that they could use it as a general purpose truck on the farm without using any petrol. Basically they bolted a coal furnace on the front and ran a pipe from the top through another container filled with heather to purify the coal gas produced, then that went into the engine. They also showed us some old footage of vehicles in towns that had been adapted to run off gas from the mains - they had great balloons on top filled with the gas, and we both winced watching the driver light up his cigarette as he got back in the truck after refilling the gas bag. They also told us about the coal miners - Bevin Boys - who were conscripted for the army and ended up working down the mines instead. I knew that happened, but I hadn't realised it was 10% of the recruits for the army that did that.

On November 10 the Egypt Exploration Society (of which J is a member) organised a guided tour round 3 Egyptian collections in Oxford. The first of these was the archives in the Griffith Institute (no photography permitted in this one) - they have a large collection of the notes, photographs, drawings etc of several important Egyptologists, including all of Howard Carter's documents. As this is not normally open to the public it was particularly exciting to be shown some of the collection. Two of the staff, Elizabeth Fleming and Catherine Warsi, gave us an hour's talk. First they gave an overview of some of the prominent Egyptologists associated with the Institute and then moved on to a biography of Howard Carter concentrating on his work in Egypt and the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in particular. They showed us several of the watercolours and line drawings he did in his initial jobs in Egypt (copying the Egyptian tomb & temple reliefs for publication), and the correspondence around the diplomatic incident that lead to him resigning his job with the Egyptian Antiquities Service (basically a bunch of French tourists refused to pay and the argument ended with the Egyptian guards and the French exchanging blows, Carter had the audacity to side with the guards because he believed they were in the right. The French concerned were highly enough connected to get their ambassador to make a fuss). The last third or so of the talk was devoted to the discovery and excavation of Tutankhamun's tomb for which he's most famous - we saw his diary entry for the day concerned, which is the only entry in the book that's not neatly written on the lines, instead it's scribbled practically sideways. We also saw one of the "object cards" for an item in the tomb (the throne (linked photo is of a replica)). These were the 1920s equivalent of a database - each object was numbered, and had several cards (a little smaller than A5, of the sort that fit in a card file) which gave basic description, more detailed description, photos (with annotations and without), drawings of particular areas, measurements, composition etc etc. Basically every fact that they could determine as they took it out of the tomb.

The next visit was to the Pitt Rivers Museum - this is an anthropological museum and instead of being organised by place or people it's organised by type. It also has an incredible number of objects on display. So you have these fantastic cases that have things like "every flute in our collection", or "all the model boats", and there's always something to see that you hadn't noticed before.

The Pitt Rivers Museum

Our tour here was guided by Alice Stevenson, one of the curators. She first gave us a 15 minute talk in a lecture theatre, this covered an overview of the museum's origins and collections. Pitt Rivers was a Victorian general, who started off collecting rifles of various different types so that he could compare them and possibly extrapolate better ways of making a rifle. But he got obsessed with making collections of all sorts of different objects, and trying to organise them in a sequence from "primitive" to "advanced" - a typically Victorian attitude to comparisons between civilisations and cultures (obviously British was his definition of "advanced"...). The museum has moved on from that philosophy, but still organises their cases by type because it provides you with a different perspective than the typical organisation.

She then took us round the museum to show us a handful of key Egyptian objects in their collection before setting us free to explore. The key items she pointed out were a fragment of a beautifully carved wooden face dating from the New Kingdom, a Middle Kingdom funerary model boat, pottery bowl inscribed on the outside in hieratic and their mummy & coffin set (from the 24th Dynasty). I was particularly amused by the story associated with the latter - when the then Prince of Wales & his wife went out to Egypt for their wedding anniversary in 1869 they visited an excavation site where, gosh!, they just happened to unearth some coffins with mummies in that very day. They were given to the Prince, who brought them back to Britain & donated them to museums. It's unlikely they were actually excavated for real right there & then, but some of them did probably come from the same tomb originally. Egyptian coffins generally have names and genealogies on them, this one (for a woman called Irtaru) is listed as the mother of the one in Manchester and her husband is the one that is now in Edinburgh.

Fragment of a Wooden FaceModel BoatPottery Bowl Inscribed in HieraticCoffins and Mummy of Irterau

And finally, after a break for lunch, we visited the Ashmolean Museum guided by Liam McNamara, the Assistant Keeper for the Egypt & Sudan department (which means he's the man in charge - the Keeper (now known as the Director) is the person in charge of the whole museum, department heads are Assistant Keepers). This tour was partly about the objects we looked at, and partly about the refurbishment of the museum and the philosophy and ideas behind how the objects are currently being presented. The whole museum has been redeveloped and modernised over the last few years, which has been a great success (particularly in terms of increasing visitor numbers). The Egyptian galleries were some of the more recently re-opened areas and have been extensively modernised - in particular the rooms were previously fairly poorly lit, and some key items were tucked away in corners where you could easily miss them.

The new Egyptian galleries are organised chronologically, starting with a large room of pre-dynastic Egyptian material. The Ashmolean has one of the largest collections of pre-dynastic Egyptian objects outside of Cairo. This is due in large part to the poor judgement of a curator at the British Museum - Petrie excavated two colossal pre-dynastic statues of the god Min and felt that they were significantly important pieces. When he offered them to the BM the then curator, Budge, refused them on the grounds that he thought they were "unhistorical" and not important at all. Petrie took offence, and offered them and all his subsequent finds to the Ashmolean. He went on to excavate a large amount of pre-dynastic material, the bulk of which is at the Ashmolean. They also have some important items from later in Egyptian history - including the Shrine of Taharqa, which is a shrine built for a Nubian Pharoah of Egypt, and a part of a wall painting from Akhetaten (Amarna). Both of which were previously on display, but not well lit.

Colossi of MinPre-Dynastic Egypt ExhibitLimestone AnimalsHierakonpolis Ivories Akhenaten & NefertitiEgyptian Mummy

In all the rooms they've tried to lay out the cases so that objects are in context - so the pots in the pre-dynastic display are in front of a copy of a cave painting from the right era. The bits of an Amarna doorway are laid out on the wall in the positions they would've been in with statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti positioned as if they were walking out of the door. A big change from the previous cases of things like "all our amulets" (which I quite liked as well, but the new ones are more modern and probably appeal more to visitors who don't already know a fair bit about Egypt).

All in all a very good trip. Particularly nice to see the stuff in the Griffith Institute as it's not possible to just visit there, but the Pitt Rivers & Ashmolean tours were also interesting (and provided a lot of context for understanding why the exhibits in the two museums are laid out the way they are). As well as the photos in this post, I've got a few more on flickr.

On Sunday we listened to the In Our Time programme on Gerald of Wales. The experts on the show were Henrietta Leyser (University of Oxford), Michelle Brown (University of London) and Huw Pryce (Bangor University) and they talked about Gerald of Wales's life & books.

Gerald of Wales lived during the end of the 12th Century and was part-Anglo-Norman, part-Welsh and connected (it seems) to most of the important people of court during his lifetime partly because his grandmother had several children by several different partners, some of whom went on to be involved in the Anglo-Norman colonisation of Ireland, some of whom were part of the Welsh nobility. Gerald was a churchman, and was highly educated - in particular he spent a decade in Paris which was one of the première centres of learning at the time. In terms of a clerical career the job he really wanted but never got was to be Bishop of St. Davids - and he wanted to turn that bishopric into an archbishopric separate from the Church in England. Which is probably why his applications for the job were prevented by both the Archbishop of Canterbury (who didn't want the Church in Wales leaving his jurisdiction) and by the King (who didn't want a separate Church in Wales as that might encourage ideas about political separation).

After his return from Paris Gerald worked for the court in England, as a clerk. And travelled around Ireland (with Prince John) and Wales - and wrote books about these travels which are part narratives about the journey, part description of the lands & peoples, and part scholarly explorations of where the line between human and animal lies. This last was a particular theme of Leyser, and she kept coming back to this during the programme. These books, and his other works (including several autobiographical works) were and, in some cases still are, well read. Whilst full of propaganda (portraying the Irish in particular as barbaric because that justifies the conquest of Ireland) they also contain more mundane descriptions of life at the time. And also fabulous tales (like the Bearded Lady of Limerick, or about beavers biting their own testicles off to prevent hunters from killing them).

The conversation on the programme got quite chaotic, although still always easily followable - it had the feeling of a subject that was too full of good stories to miss anything out. I knew of Gerald of Wales before, because my parents have mugs decorated with a Gerald of Wales themed design - I think they must've been bought in 1988 while we were on holiday in Pembrokeshire as that was the 800th anniversary of his travels around Wales. But all I really remembered was that he wrote a book about Wales, so interesting to learn more about the man.

Started TV night off last week with the first episode in a series we'd recorded back in February - "Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World". The theme of the series is the history of Britain over the last 400 years, seen through the lens of the Royal Navy. This first episode (Heart of Oak) started with the growth of the navy from a loose coalition of mostly independent ships through to something that is more akin to the modern navy at the end of the 17th Century. The presenter, Dan Snow, started by telling us about the defeat of the Spanish Armada - or rather by telling us about the context for the Spanish Armada. So he told us about Francis Drake's early career as a slave trader, and of an incident where the Spanish caught him & his cousin trading slaves in Spanish territory in the Americas (which was forbidden to foreigners) and attacked his ships, capturing and executing many of his crew. Drake bore a grudge about this, which he indulged (and was encouraged by the state to indulge) by attacking Spanish shipping and Spanish ports such as Cordoba - and by stealing their treasure. The Armada was thus partly a retaliation for this state sanctioned piracy.

The successful defeat of the Armada encouraged later Stuart adventures such as sending the Navy to harass Cordoba again, but this was an abject failure - because there was no charismatic leader like Drake, and the individual ship captains did what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. And this lack of co-ordination, and lack of planning, meant they were not successful. Snow then told us that the first rebellions of Parliament against Charles I were about this poor organisation and funding of the Navy, which isn't something I'd heard before. After the Restoration Samuel Pepys (the man with the diary) was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, which meant he was in charge of all the administration of the Navy. His talent for organisation was instrumental in starting to form the Navy into a professional military organisation rather than a collection of individual vessels.

It's an interestingly different take on the history of this period - as it draws out different aspects of things I already knew about. Like I wasn't aware that Drake had been involved in the slave trade, nor was I aware just how important Pepys was to the Navy. Looking forward to watching the rest of the series.


Episode four of Wartime Farm was primarily about the government inspections of farms during the war to see if they were producing food efficiently enough. By midway through the war the War Agricultural Executive Committees had the power to remove farmers from their land if they weren't productive enough. Apparently 2000 farmers had their farms taken over during the war, and the programme included the story of one man who refused to be put off his land and in the end died after a siege & a shoot out with police. Not at all the sort of thing I associate with WWII.

I've finally got my photos sorted out from our visit to the Tower of London at the beginning of November and I've uploaded them to flickr - highlights in this post, more if you click through to flickr.

J in front of Tower Bridge

We'd been meaning to go & visit it for a while - I'm pretty sure I've visited the Tower before, but not since I was a kid and J didn't think he'd ever been. We decided to start with the Yeoman Warder tour (as recommended by one of J's colleagues) so spent 15 minutes or so hanging about after we got there photographing some of the buildings on the other side of the Thames while we waited for the tour to start.

Tower BridgeGlobular BuildingThe ShardThe Shard

Then it was off for the tour - the one that left shortly before we arrived at the Tower had looked like there was a fair amount of "audience participation" so I was a little dubious. But it was actually really good. In part because the guy who was leading it didn't get a particularly loud response from the group when the first place to cheer came up, so he dialled that down. It was basically a walk through the grounds of the Tower showing us the various buildings (mostly from the outside) and giving us an overview of the history of the place, interspersed with anecdotes & facts about the Yeoman Warders (who are NOT TOUR GUIDES as he told us a couple of times ;) ). We then got to go into the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula (no photos unfortunately) - this is only open to people on the Yeoman Warder tours. This is the place where the people executed at the Tower were buried - some have been reburied elsewhere, but Anne Boleyn amongst others is still there. I'd recommend doing the tour if you visit the Tower - it sets everything neatly in context.

Yeoman WarderTudor PalaceInner WallTraitors GateBloody Tower

After the tour we decided we'd have a break for coffee and a snack (so we could delay lunch until after lunchtime to avoid the busy time). Then we went and looked at the Medieval Palace area of the tour. This was built and lived in by Henry III and Edward I and the "Traitors Gate" was actually the entrance to this palace - it's only later during Tudor times that traitors were brought into the Tower here. My favourite bit of this section was the mock-up of a royal bedchamber that they had. As well as some furniture & wall decorations they also had a chap in there playing recorder (not the King, Edward was in Westminster that day, as he said ;) ), and somehow the atmosphere & everything worked really well. They also had a throne room set up & there was some sort of storyteller thing going on in there, but I was less convinced by that. In one of the towers a bit further along there was also a display of medieval items that they'd excavated from the area of the palace, including a rather fine glass chess piece.

Replica Bedchamber for Edward IChapel off the King's BedchamberRecorder Player in the King's BedchamberStorytellers in the Throne RoomMedieval BowlMedieval Chess Piece Medieval Ivory Carving

Further round the walls there were the towers where people had been imprisoned - one had lots of fine graffiti (all behind glass so nigh on impossible to photograph). Some of it was really very impressive & intricate - including the only one I have a decent photograph of, that's of an astrological table. There was also an exhibition about the Royal Menagerie that used to be kept in the Tower (it later formed the basis of London Zoo). We were particularly struck by the story of the polar bear of Henry III, which was tied on a long rope to the side of the Thames then allowed to swim in the river & fish. And the snakes which were apparently wrapped in blankets and put on the stove to keep warm during winter. As well as the exhibit in one of the buildings the Menagerie was also "illustrated" with a series of wire sculptures by Kendra Haste that were dotted around the site. And another aspect of the Tower - the guards - were represented with metal sculptures (I don't know who by) around the walls.

Graffiti in the TowerProper Care of Snakes & Bears?BaboonsHenry III's Polar BearElephantCrossbowmanPikeman

After this we headed off to look at the Crown Jewels - no pictures, they're pretty strict about not allowing photography in there. The great benefit of visiting in November during term time was that there weren't any queues for this bit and we could go up and down the little moving walkways round the regalia more than once to get a decent look. As well as the obvious (the crowns) they also had a whole load of ceremonial maces & ceremonial tableware. The dishes weren't that interesting, but the maces were neat :) Related to this area of the Tower was another exhibit we went to during our walk along the wall from the Medieval Palace - there was a room about the diamonds used in the various crowns, which was more interesting than I expected. It included the neat fact that the diamonds in one of the crowns were hired (one of the George's crowns, I think, no photos so I have no note).

Then we had a break for lunch (the restaurant place on site was nice but pricey) and after that set off to do the White Tower (what I think of as "the Tower proper"). We didn't actually manage to finish looking round this - ran out of time and they were shutting it up before we got a proper look at the top floor. The exhibits in the White Tower that we did look at included some history of the building, and a lot of armour. Perhaps a little overwhelmingly much armour (but I did still look at it all, because it's cool :) ). This ranged from Henry VIII's various suits of armour (ornate yet still practical) to the armour for the Stuart dynasty (ornate for the sake of ornate, particularly in the case of Charles I), and some modern armour too. They also had a variety of weaponry (including a combination mace and gun belonging to Henry VIII which was a thing I had no idea existed), some of which was gifted to the Crown by territories in the Empire or other diplomatic gifts. And they had the model horses (and some model heads) from an old display from the 17th Century of the "Line of Kings". Those horses looked disturbingly manic to me! As I said, we didn't see much of the top floor but notable things that we did see included the block & axe used for the last beheading at the Tower, and a dragon made out of bits of armour(!).

Henry VIII's ArmourHenry VIII's ArmourCharles I's ArmourToy Cannon King Henry ye 8ths Walking Staff17th Century Line of Kings17th Century Line of KingsDragon Shaped Horse TailpieceHeadsman's Axe & Block

A very good day out :) Well worth a visit if you're in London - budget lots of time for it & don't be put off by the price (we spent 6 hours there and didn't see everything).

The White Tower

The episode of In Our Time that we listened to this week was perhaps a little brain-twisting for first thing on Sunday morning, but also in some ways appropriate for a Sunday! In it Melvyn Bragg and his guests (John Haldane (University of St Andrews), Peter Millican (University of Oxford) and Clare Carlisle (Kings College London)) discussed the Ontological Argument. This was put forward by St Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury) in the 11th Century to prove the existence of God by logic alone. In this it is different from argument by design (ie the world works so well that it can surely only exist because someone designed it), or the cosmological argument (where the existence of the universe at all requires the existence of something that caused the universe to exist and this First Cause is God). In essence the Ontological Argument is that if God is by definition the greatest and most perfect concept that there can be, then he must exist because if he did not then there would be the possibility of a greater concept namely one that was all that God is but that also existed. So as God is the greatest, then he must exist. I think that's the way it runs, anyway - as I say, somewhat brain-twisting.

It was criticised initially by some of his contemporaries, but continued to fuel others' thought - later it was taken up by philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza & Leibniz and criticised again by thinkers such as Hume & Kant. I was particularly struck by Kant's criticism, which is that existence is not a predicate - he was answering in particular the formation of the argument that is saying that if God is the most perfect incarnation of all things (ie is perfectly knowing, is perfectly powerful etc), then he must necessarily also be perfectly existing as that is a quality that such a being must have. Kant was saying that existence isn't a quality like the others - so you can describe an object, perhaps it is tall, blue and hairy. And then you can ask the question "and does it exist?", this is a separate question to idea of what the object or concept is.

I can see the seductiveness of the Ontological Argument - both to bolster one's own faith and to say to others "but you must believe, see I have proven it's true!". But to be honest it felt circular to me - it involved first defining God in such a way that his existence was part of the definition, and then saying "and therefore he exists". I'm sure there are more subtleties to the idea than that, however, otherwise it wouldn't've occupied so many people's thoughts for so long.

TV night last week included the last episode of the Andrew Marr series - this time taking us from the aftermath of World War 1 through to the present day (roughly speaking). So a lot of what it covered were atrocities - we had Nazi atrocities (tho not actually discussed, what was covered was Hitler's rise to power with an emphasis on the fact that not only was he legitimately elected after a failed coup but that he hadn't hidden any of his nastiness beforehand), we had Stalinist Russian atrocities, we had Communist Chinese atrocities, and we had American/Western atrocities (Hiroshima/Nagasaki). To offset that, pretty much all we got was a segment on the pill & how effective and safe contraceptives made such a positive difference to gender equality. And then a segment at the end about the future which was a bit too close to "and we're doooomed!" for comfort ;) I don't want to give the impression that it wasn't an interesting programme - just at times made for difficult watching because he did a good job of personalising the victims of these things.

Overall a good series, I'm pleased I watched it. A few times I had niggles about things being oversimplified when I knew more about the subject, but to be fair here you've got to simplify it otherwise you can't tell the "history of the world" in 8 episodes of an hour each. Despite in general not liking dramatisations of history much I thought the ones here were well done - primarily because they didn't take themselves so seriously. I also thought they did a good job of picking lesser known stories to present, or the beginning of something rather than the end point we all know (see above, about Hitler). And a good job of presenting more than a history of the Western world, although the last two or three programmes did end up there at times (I think inevitably) there always seemed to be an attempt to look at the other perspective rather than the familiar one.

I'll be buying the book, and adding it to my (growing) pile of books to read :)


We're onto the third episode of Wartime Farm, which was focused on evacuees and on Christmas 1940. The perspective on evacuees wasn't the one I'm more used to hearing about, in that it wasn't "oh those poor children sent off on their own", it was more about how the country folk reacted to it. Because after all, suddenly there they were having to find beds and food for a bunch of strangers who had different ways of life and were in many ways a burden. It did gloss over any serious difficulties, though, preferring to concentrate on how in the end it mostly worked out fine. The bits about Christmas were partly tied in with that and partly about how rationing and all the other associated problems made people cling to trying to provide as normal a Christmas as possible. Even if the turkey was actually a "murkey" made out of sausagemeat stuffing shaped like a turkey with roast parsnip legs ... They also showed us pamphlets the government sent out showing how to recycle scraps and rubbish and make them into toys, like a model spitfire made out of old tin cans. Which made me think of something Dad was telling me about when we last visited - he had a toy when he was very little which was a home-made warship to push around the floor, complete with bits of wire for antennae & funnels made out of lead pipe. Made me wonder if whoever had made it for him had got one of these pamphlets.

We had a bonus single-programme TV night on Sunday afternoon coz we were worried about the PVR filling up. So we watched the next episode of Andrew Marr's History of the World. In this one he was talking about the Age of Industry - and how the Industrial Revolution was the biggest shift in society since the Agricultural Revolution. The parallels struck me more when watching this than they have before - in both cases the change allowed society as a whole to support more people and can be thought of as "progress". And you definitely can't turn the clock back afterwards. And in both cases the quality of life for the average citizen goes down - most notably poorer health. My life now is only possible because of both of those changes, but the fact that it's a good life is because things have got better since those revolutions.

One of the segments I found most interesting was effectively the origin story of modern Japan - when the US came knocking and insisted they opened up trade with the industrialised West the Japanese looked back at what the British had done to China (hint: it wasn't good for the Chinese) and embraced the industrialisation of their country. This wasn't good for everyone (like the Samurai, who became obsolete in the new Japanese culture), but it meant the change happened on more Japanese terms and meant they got more of the benefits not just the costs of their Industrial Revolution.

This penultimate episode brought us up to the First World War, so the final segment was about both the drawing of the US into the war and the Russian Revolution. Which can be tied together by the hand that the German Foreign Secretary (Arthur Zimmerman) had in instigating them. One of the things souring the relationship between the US and Germany (other than bombing their ships ...) was that Zimmerman sent a telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico suggesting they invade the US (and said telegram was not only intercepted but Zimmerman also confirmed that it was legitimate). And for the Russian situation Zimmerman proposed to help Lenin back into the country & promised him money if he would undertake to withdraw from the war when he got power (which Lenin did).

As well as the lecture we also went to a gallery talk at the Open Evening - these are where a curator takes you around some objects of interest in a gallery for 45 minutes or so. The theme of this one tied in with the Shakespeare exhibition, and was in some ways an extension of the central room of the exhibition. Shakespeare set several of his plays in Venice and (as discussed in both the exhibition and this talk) this was for several reasons, including the fact that it allowed him to portray situations that might've got him in trouble if he'd set them in England. Venice was also widely known as an exotic, tolerant place where luxurious goods came from. During the gallery talk she showed us various pieces of ceramics & glassware that had come from Venice around the time of Shakespeare or just before. Shakespeare himself is thought never to've gone to Venice, but he would've known about the place both from reading published works about it, and through objects like the ones she showed us which he would've seen in the houses of the aristocracy.

16th Century Painted Ceramic Plate

One of the things it seems hard to remember is how exotic good quality glass was at the time. The glassware of Venice was famous throughout Europe, and to have a Venetian glass salt cellar or marriage cup really showed how high status & wealthy you were. The glassmakers of Venice were apparently forbidden to leave the city, so that the recipe for their glass remained a secret only known to Venice.

16th Century Venetian Glass Chalice

As well as showing us several objects & setting them in their cultural context she also read us a story from an old guidebook to Venice - which labelled a house as where a man had murdered his wife. I've unfortunately forgotten the names, but the name of the family was reminiscent of "Moor" although they were not Moorish, and the name of the wife was similar to Desdemona. So it's possible that Shakespeare didn't just get an exotic stage set from his reading about Venice, but perhaps also the start of one of his plot lines.

An interesting talk :)

And for a bonus picture - here are the Christmas decorations at the British Museum. They even say something sensible in the hieroglyphs - something like "Beautiful birthday of God's child".

Christmas Decorations

The lecture at this month's British Museum Friends Open Evening ("A Mind Which Could Think Otherwise: Understanding Shakespeare's Creative Intelligence") was tied in with their current major exhibition about Shakespeare (which we went to see a couple of months ago). The lecturer, Neema Parvini, is an academic at the University of Surrey & has written a couple of books about Shakespeare. The subject of his talk was whether or not Shakespeare is some sort of "universal genius who speaks to all of us" or purely a product of his time & place. Or perhaps more accurately the subject of his talk was a survey of the opinions (both popularly and in academia) about that question.

He started with an overview of what Shakespeare means to "the man in the street", which includes the idea of him as somehow timeless with something to say to anyone regardless of race, creed, social status, gender etc. He then took a fairly lengthy digression through the Marxist theories of Louis Althusser, with several lengthy quotes in quite technical language (perhaps technical in a Marxist specific sense, perhaps technical in a more general philosophy sense, I don't know). Eventually he returned to the point, which was the impact of these ideas on literary criticism, and how this ideology of a person as the product solely of their culture and upbringing was brought to the academic discussion about Shakespeare. Essentially the pervailing view in academia became that Shakespeare cannot be understood outside of his specific historical & cultural context, and that he's as sexist, racist etc as any other product of that background. And that the only reason he's regarded as some sort of universal genius is because we've all been indoctrinated during our schooling to believe this.

He then moved on to his own opinion on the subject - which is that while this backlash against the idea of Shakespeare as universal was necessary it has gone too far. He very briefly discussed the scientific work that lead him to this opinion - mentioning Richard Dawkins & Stephen Pinker. The idea here being that while we're products of our culture, there are also fundamentals that are common across all cultures. In Pinker's work this is language in particular, but also other things like emotions like jealousy, fear, love etc. (As an aside, although he didn't mention it in the lecture this is the Nature vs. Nurture debate - and the idea that it's one or the other is generally regarded as a false duality nowadays.) So his opinion is that there are things about Shakespeare's plays that speak across the generations and across cultures, but there are things that are the product of his time and place. He then said he didn't have time for many examples, but gave a few brief instances that demonstrated that Shakespeare was set apart from others of his contemporaries in how he wrote his plays. Shakespeare doesn't often take sides among the characters of his plays - people are rarely completely evil, even the villains are given redeeming features and given human motivations. There are also not the moralising introductions or epilogues that others of his contemporaries would insert where the "lesson" of the play was spelt out. So whilst Shakespeare might well've been just as sexist etc as the rest of his culture, the way he wrote his plays allows one to sympathise with the characters even when our modern perspectives are different to Shakespeare's.

Whilst he was quite a good speaker (although not good at reading out long passages from other's works without stumbling) the subject of his talk wasn't quite what the title and description of it in the booklet for the evening had lead one to believe. And I think the overall structure could've done with some reorganisation or tweaking for the audience - in particular I would personally have cut the lengthy discussion of Althusser's philosophy and presented it more briefly & in a manner that was more clearly related to his point, like he did with the biology later in the talk. And then have had more time to go into a few specific examples, perhaps contrasting different critiques of the same passage from the three perspectives so that we could see as non-academics what the practical outcome of this theorising is. I wouldn't've gone so far as to walk out of the talk (bad manners, if nothing else), but I did have some sympathy with the point of view of the person who did get up and grumpily announce "I thought this was supposed to be about Shakespeare" and leave, slamming the door behind him.

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