If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. It is going to have to stay put.
(David Cameron, asked to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond to India in 2010)
It’s been a year of reckoning with power. #MeToo, of course, but also an interesting (if small) exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. ‘#The PastIsNow’ brutally re-evaluated Birmingham’s relationship with its slave-trading history, exploring new interactive ways of displaying Britain’s difficult colonial past. Sumaya Kassim’s article, ‘The museum will not be decolonised’ is a great introduction to the issues it tackles.
The legend of Betsy Ross is a well-documented one, known by every American. The story goes that George Washington, William Morris and George Ross – representatives of the Continental Congress – arrived at Betsy’s house requesting her skills to make a new standard for the British colonies. While the stars and stripes design had already been agreed upon, it was Betsy who advised the use of a five-pointed star rather than six, as it would be easier to construct. And so, the American flag was born. Although there is no existing evidence to suggest any truth to this account, Betsy Ross still became a national icon and adopted the title ‘Founding Mother’ to stand alongside the Founding Fathers of America.
When we think of modern history’s most notable business leaders, names of Western businessmen such as Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates immediately spring to mind. However, arguably one of the most influential and historically overlooked business minds of the twentieth century hailed from the Middle East. Calouste Sarkin Gulbenkian, otherwise known as “Mr. Five Percent”, was both a dedicated philanthropist and a strategic businessman, often credited as the first person to exploit Iraqi oil resources. In fact, by the time of his death in 1955, he had become one of the world’s richest men, accumulating a fortune of almost £5 billion by modern standards.
The nuclear testing of Maralinga was, and remains to a lesser articulated example of the nuclear atrocities conducted by the Western superpowers of the 20th Century. Coordinated by the British Royal Commissioners in Nuclear Testing, with the permission from the Australian Government, the British tested their nuclear weapons on the Anangu County and discarded the toxic chemicals around the surrounding areas in the 1950s. There were a total of 12 bombs experiments in the Emu Island, Montebello Island and Maralinga from 1955 to 1963. Perhaps the reasoning for its often historical absence can be situated in the consequences that resulted from the testing, as it was mostly aboriginal tribes of the southern region in Australia who were sadly caught in the nuclear radiations of the testing. The testing fallout continues to affect their descendants to this day, and shows how strong nuclear chemicals are. The history of the Cold War continues to avoid addressing responsibilities as doing so with examples like this may present a challenge to the dialogue and representation of indigenous people.
JFK, the moon landing, Area 51. A tragically short-lived president, a globally acknowledged pinnacle of scientific achievement, and a key site during the height of Cold War tension and technological competition. Yet these events are more commonly associated with ideas of secrecy and conspiracy. American history is littered with examples of conspiratorial fear, a fear also occupying a dominant role in America’s political discourse. This climate has arguably led to a tendency to distort perceptions of current events, producing conditions susceptible to political demagoguery.
There is a strong misconception that people living in medieval times would primarily drink alcohol as it was believed that water was unsafe to drink. This misconception has been interrogated (changed word) by historians, bloggers, period dramas; throughout historiography, social media platforms and TV drama’s respectively. When we turn to today’s medieval period dramas like ‘The Tudors’, ‘Vikings’ and ‘The Borgias’, there is an image portrayed of medieval European nobles and notable families drinking red wine or beer as if it were the norm in their day to day lives and meals. How accurate is this portrayal of their drinking lifestyle? It begs the question that historians are grappling with; did medieval Europeans really take alcohol as their ‘routine drink’? In addition, is even asking that question with the sources available able to access beyond a particular demographic? For instance if we turn to the peasantry – did they too drank wine, can we access this information?
Upon hearing the word ‘communism’ or the phrase ‘socialist revolution’, in our popular approaches we tend to be drawn to the twentieth century as a point of departure; to the oppressive communist dictatorships of leaders such as Lenin, Stalin or Mao. This is not without good reason as there can be no doubt that the Russian and Chinese Revolutions mark some of the most fascinating and brutal implementations of communism throughout history. However, a much earlier demonstration of the basic conditions required of a socialist revolution and communist dictatorship are important to be incorporated into the shaping of these perceptions.
Lady Godiva – we have all heard of this legendary noblewoman in one way or another purely through cultural osmosis. Whether it be through a fleeting reference in Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ (“I’m a racing car, passing by like Lady Godiva”), or perhaps in the name of ‘Godiva Chocolatiers’; I’m sure we can all recognise the Countess of Mercia, posited in the Belgian chocolate company’s logo, atop her steed as an iconic motif of English folklore. The image of the naked Godiva – Godgifu in Old English, meaning ‘good gift’ or ‘gift of god’ – and her act of political rebellion against her own husband – Leofric, Earl of Mercia – has permeated popular culture for centuries, yet public knowledge of this woman appears to stop there.
Although it may seem like a quiet, ordinary suburb on the fringes of a city, Crookes has a surprisingly rich history that makes it anything but ordinary. From its unlikely musical tradition to its centuries-old pubs, Crookes has been a lively place long before students called it home and put their stamp on the area. Situated by an old Roman road, there has been evidence of human habitation here since 3000 BCE. In 1887, archaeologists uncovered funerary remains dating back to 1500 BCE. In addition, other discoveries have unearthed a Bronze Age arrowhead, a Roman coin of Magnentius, an urn, calcinated human bone and an incense cup. However, it wasn’t until 980CE that a permanent settlement, the aptly-named Krkur, was established here by the Vikings.