Americas and Oceania Collections blog

245 posts categorized "Collections"

14 February 2023

Writer's Award winner Philip Clark on the Sounds of New York City: Part II

In this second installment of a series of blogs, Philip Clark shares his experience of being a 2022 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer's Award winner.1 The Writer's Award offers £20,000, a year's residency at the British Library to develop a forthcoming book, and the opportunity to showcase work at Hay Festival events in the UK and Latin America. Philip’s book – Sound and the City – will be a history of the sound of New York City and an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City.

For a few months at the end of last year, I communed daily with Dutch colonials of the mid-1600s. In various roles, taking various responsibilities, the likes of Peter Stuyvesant, Adriaen van der Donck, Peter Minuit, Willem Kieft and Cryn Fredericks established the city of New Amsterdam which, by 1664, had become the English colonial city of New York.

Having already taken the deepest of dives into 1920s New York, through the work of the composer Edgard Varèse and the novelist John Dos Passos, I decided that my book Sound and the City – my history of the sound of New York City – needed to flip the chronology on its head. The 1930s will follow, but later, and in the meantime I engineered a flashback to the beginnings of recordable time itself, and to the Ice Age. In the span of this history, the appearance of Dutch colonials a mere three-and-a-half centuries ago feels relatively contemporary. When they turn up, their interactions with the Indigenous People, who had populated that coast for centuries, pivots the story into something more like countable time, a reassuringly familiar turnaround of years, decades and centuries again after thinking about time in units of hundreds of thousands of years.

My subject is sound. Music-writers are often called upon to speculate about where music might be heading next, although writing this section of my book made me realise that second-guessing the root sounds of the deep past is no easy matter either. How do you ‘hear’ sounds of which no recorded example exists? Listening in to the modern-day city is normally a good starting point, and one afternoon last summer I took an ‘A’ train from Penn Station in midtown Manhattan to where the line terminates at Inwood 207th Street.

A fifteen-minute walk later, I found myself in deserted woodland, the trilling of sirens cutting through from downtown the only clue I was still in New York City. I’d come to Inwood Hill Park because this park, perched on the far northern tip of Manhattan, has preserved something of its prehistory. This is where you come to look at New York’s oldest rock formations; to trace how the imperceptible tread of glaciers scooped out what would become the landmass of New York. Inwood was the place Native Americans gravitated towards over centuries, its caves and bountiful ecosystem providing shelter and sustenance aplenty.

Grey rocks sitting with leaf-strewn earth.
Rocks in Inwood Hill Park, New York City; photo by Philip Clark.

Although probably a wishful-thinking myth, Inwood Hill Park is also purportedly where, in 1626, Native Americans sold the island of Manhattan to the Dutch colonial governor Peter Minuit for 60 guilders. More likely, this meeting actually took place farther downtown, where Peter Minuit Plaza stands today, near Battery Park. But numerous mythologies all converge around the inlet of the park where the meeting was said to take place. This was where the British explorer Henry Hudson supposedly dropped anchor in September 1609, having made landfall a couple of weeks earlier at Sandy Hook. A tulip tree started growing there a century later and, as a commemorative plaque makes clear, the tree, 280 years old when it died in 1932, represented the last living link with the Native Americans who had lived here. In a city that became celebrated for high-rise structures, the tulip tree was a pioneer. Towering over the park, its height reportedly equivalent to a seventeen-storey building, it resonated as a marker of a past that had moved beyond collective memory – a potent symbol in a city that was otherwise engaged in relentlessly inventing its future.

Bright green leafed trees in a wood.
Inwood Hill Park, New York City; photo by Philip Clark.

Almost as soon as I arrived in the park, though, a shock. The 4G on my iPhone fizzled out, then Google maps froze, and I was rudderless. In an area of the park now called ‘The Cove’, the slug-like progression of glacial erosion spooned out the innards of the earth and the glacial potholes that resulted – some 50,000 years old – look bracingly abstract to me, like sculptures by Henry Moore or Seymour Lipton thwacked into the earth. They also look unmistakably like disembowelled speakers, I thought, with their cones ripped out, but still receptible to sound. My awareness that darkness was about to fall kept me moving, pushing through the woods, using paths trampled into the ground over centuries, with a covering of tulip trees above my head. I followed the reassuring rumble of cars and, more through good luck than canny navigation, found myself staring at the Henry Hudson Bridge, which crosses the river into the Bronx. At that precise moment my iPhone pinged back to life and I located my position. I was looking across at Spuyten Duvvil Creek – where the Hudson River meets the Harlem River Ship Canal – and the rock formations I could see, which I discovered subsequently are called Fordham Gneiss, are a billion years old.

A few weeks later, back in the relative safety of the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library, I searched for sources that might help explain my afternoon in Inwood Hill Park. This has been the rhythm of writing this book so far; intense field trips followed by equally intense research binges at the Library. Unpicking the mythologies surrounding the tulip tree took hours of poring over old newspapers and contemporary reports. Mythology should never be dismissed lightly. What mythologies tell us about a city’s sense of its own history is intriguing in itself. But chipping away the layers of folklore to reveal what actually happened was important too.

Something else that needed to be chipped away at: those ancient rock formations scattered around Inwood Hill Park. One great pleasure of British Library research is the ease with which you can slip outside your own area of expertise, and, in Rare Books and Music, I began a fingertip search through geological and flora-&-fauna reports relating to the park. My examination of New York’s oldest rock formations was about determining how nature created this giant resonating chamber later called New York City, where all sorts of sounds would happen. Slipstreams of sound ricocheting around the city is central to my obsession, and examining how geological activity established this field of play gave my book its roots.

A clearing in a wood, with path going in several directions.
Inwood Hill Park, New York City; photo by Philip Clark.

The moment the colonials arrive, primary sources bounce into life. Adriaen van der Donck’s A Description of the New Netherlands (1641), Daniel Denton’s A Brief Description of New-York: Formerly Called New-Netherlands (1670) and Jaspar Dankers and Peter Sluyter’s Journal of a Voyage to New York (1679-1680) are all fantastically vibrant accounts of the emerging city of New Amsterdam and the surrounding wilderness. Colonial fascination with the possibilities of this new world against the reality of what had been there before, the presence of Indigenous people in particular, leaves a bitter aftertaste. Dutch colonialism was ultimately responsible for – through landgrab and brutal repression – the decline of Indigenous Peoples. One needs to be aware of this wider historical context using this material and read with caution, but there were little clues in each journal – a sound here, a sound there – that allowed me to build a soundscape.

A few basics became crystallised; the distinction between the ‘downtown’ of the New Amsterdam, the huburb around the fort, and the streets that fanned out around it, against the bucolic peace of the bouwerie farms beyond the city walls, where the East Village and Chinatown sit now. Jaspar Dankers and Peter Sluyter – a pair of visiting priests – took the same trip to Inwood Hill Park I did nearly 350 years later. Fortified by supplies of peaches from the local orchard, they tackled the churning “eddies and whirpools” of Spuyten Duvvil Creek in a hired canoe (which they complained was over-priced). My discovery, sitting in a reading room on Euston Road, that they saw the same rock formations which had filled me with awe: “two ridges of very high rocks, with a considerable space between them, displaying themselves majestically, and inviting all men to acknowledge in them the majesty, grandeur, power and glory of their creator”, sent shivers down my spine. Shaking hands across history with fellow travellers. Who, I note, had no need for 4G.

Notes

1. Philip Clark's first Writer's Award blog may be found here

07 February 2023

Outernational: Researching Black music and its transatlantic connections

Cassie Quarless is a filmmaker was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

As a documentary director, a large part of my job is mining my mind and my experiences for subjects that I am excited about and that I want to share with others. One such subject is the connection and exchange that exists between the music and musical cultures of the Caribbean, United States, United Kingdom and West Africa. During my time at the British Library I sought to research this further.

I was really struck by the British Library's collection and its wealth of Black British music, which spans a wide range of genres and styles, from early blues and jazz to contemporary grime and hip hop. The collection holds a wealth of resources for researchers, including sheet music, recordings, and concert programmes, as well as a range of scholarly publications and academic works on the subject.

A black and white photo of a woman singing in a recording studio, with three male instrumentalists playing around her.
This photograph shows vocalist Marie Bryant and bassist Red Callender at a recording session, for the 1944 short film Jammin’ the Blues. Copyright: Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images. This image is featured as part of the British Library's Windrush Stories.

One of the main issues that I had at the British Library - coming from the film/moving image space and having had a background as a DJ - was that I really wanted to be able to riffle through the Library’s collections like one would in a friend’s home or in a record store. After having spoken to and met with various incredibly knowledgeable members of the British Library staff, I ultimately got the hang of the different systems that the Library uses to catalogue its extensive collections and was able to navigate them in a more natural way.

One particular non-recorded music gem for me was the unpublished collection of correspondences by Andrew Salkey, a Caribbean-born writer and publisher who played a crucial role in promoting Black art and literature in Britain during the 1960s and 70s. These letters offer a unique perspective on the experiences and thoughts of one of the leading figures in the Black arts movement, and provide valuable insights into the cultural, political, and artistic context of the time.

I was particularly struck by Andrew Salkey’s correspondences with the Jamaican poet and academic Kamau Braithwaite and what they suggested about the expressed sharing of knowledge and thoughts about art (whether they be visual, literary or musical). Much of the correspondence that I read was dated from the mid-60s and onward into the 70s.

Three men wearing winter clothing and standing in front of a brick building.
This photograph, entitled The Lime, captures Samuel Selvon, John La Rose and Andrew Salkey. The Trinidadian term ‘lime’ or ‘liming’ has a similar meaning to ‘hanging out’, and involves socialising without time constraints. The photo was taken by Horace Ové in 1974 and is featured in the British Library's Windrush Stories.

Both sides of my family are from the Caribbean (Grenada to be precise) and I was always regaled with stories of family ties and friendships that were lost through migration to the United Kingdom, other Caribbean islands or to Latin America. It had basically become a foregone conclusion for me that within the context of the Caribbean and its diaspora, the distance of the sea meant the death or at least serious atrophy of social connections during the 60s and 70s. When it came to music, it was felt that records from the Caribbean came to these shores with much of their context and intellectual intention removed - after all, only the most successful acts actually got to travel to the UK to perform and to spread their messages.

What Salkey’s correspondence with Braithwaite underscored was how much conversation was happening between interested parties across the Atlantic. People were not only exchanging art critique but also referring to their cross-nationally intermingled lives and social connections.

I am sad that my time as an Eccles Fellow at the British Library will end before the launch of its landmark exhibition centred on Black British music presented in collaboration with the University of Westminster. I was, however, definitely impressed by the British Library's collection and the breadth of materials that it contained. The collection not only documents the music itself, but also the broader cultural and social context in which it was created. This includes a range of materials that shed light on the experiences of Black musicians in Britain, including recordings of live performances, interviews with musicians and industry professionals, and articles and essays on the subject.

Two young men and two younger boys in a large room with music posters on the walls and a massive speaker system to the left of the image.
Notting Hill Carnival 1979, Sound System on Portobello Road under the Westway. August 1979. Photo by Adrian Boot. This image is featured in the British Library's Windrush Stories.

As a filmmaker and as a fan of music, my time at the British Library has definitely given me some new and valuable insights, but more importantly it has gotten me thinking even more deeply about the connections that I was looking to elucidate. I will be back here often as my project progresses.

17 January 2023

Sculptures, time machines and vampires: items from the Americas collections on display in Leeds

The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is currently displaying seven items from British Library collections as part of their FREE exhibition, The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture – open until 26 February 2023

Two of the items in the Institutes’ main galleries for this spectacular exhibition are from the Americas collections held here at the British Library. It’s always great to be able to loan items from the Library to other museums and galleries. For starters, it means more people gain access to viewing the works, those who might not ordinarily consult collection items in the Library’s Reading Rooms, or be in the London vicinity to see items on display at our St Pancras site. Secondly, it’s wonderful to see the items interpreted by a multitude of experts and curators, often placing the item in a completely different context from the library setting we’re used to. In this case, as the title of the exhibition suggests, the books are alongside an array of fantastic sculptures as the display brings into focus a rich yet largely overlooked body of sculptural work collected in Britain between 1850 and 1900. The exhibition examines objects that introduced colour and new materials into the sculptural process, situating them within the context of the anxiety which often weighed upon Victorian society in the face of social change and scientific advances.

The exhibition has had great reviews from The Observer and The Telegraph so don’t miss out on seeing it. Here’s a quick peek at the items from the Library’s Americas collections on display – if you want to find out more and see some remarkable sculptures do make time for a visit to Leeds.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (BL shelfmark: 012629.de.20.)

This science fiction novella by H. G. Wells is generally credited with popularising the concept of time travel by using a device to travel forward or backward through time. Indeed, the term itself, ‘time machine’, was coined by Wells and is now commonly used to refer to such a vehicle. This edition of The Time Machine was printed in New York in 1895 by the American book-publishing house Henry Holt and Company.

This first American edition, first issue, preceded the British edition and you’ll see the author’s name is misspelled as H. S. Wells on the title page and on the Authors Note as ‘H.S.W.’ – something that was later corrected in the British edition. Unable to let the error slide, a past reader ever in search of correctness has at some point noted in pencil the correction of ‘H. G. Wells’ on the title page under the misprint, initialled simply by the letter ‘K’. As well as the misspelling of Wells’s name being corrected for the English edition, according to science-fiction editor Mike Ashley, this American edition is a shorter version than the English but was published two weeks earlier and is regarded today as particularly collectable[1]. It will certainly be interesting to see this item on display in the Henry Moore Institute Galleries as just one example illustrating anxieties about rapid social change and developments in science that were occurring during the Victorian era.

Front cover of first American edition, first issue, of The Time Machine (012629.de.20.) showing original publisher's tan cloth cover
Front cover of first American edition, first issue, of The Time Machine (012629.de.20.) showing original publisher's tan cloth cover
Title page with H. S. Wells typo and pencil correction, initialled with a ‘K’
Title page with H. S. Wells typo and pencil correction, initialled with a ‘K’
Illustration from The Time Machine showing depiction of a sculpture of a white sphinx
Illustration from The Time Machine showing depiction of a sculpture of a white sphinx

The Vampire. A poem ... Written for a picture by Philip Burne-Jones exhibited at the New Gallery in London, 1897. [With a reproduction of the picture.] by Rudyard Kipling (BL shelfmark: Cup.402.a.30.)

Also on display from the British Library Americas collections is The Vampire by Rudyard Kipling, printed by Woodward & Lothrop of Washington DC in 1898. Whilst doing some digging in the archives for approving this outward loan, I discovered the item was acquired by the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum Library in the spring of 1961. Purchased from a second-hand bookstore based in New York for the handsome price of £5 it was bought along with a scarce pamphlet on Rudyard Kipling entitled American Oats (BL shelfmark: Cup.503.l.26.). The Vampire was catalogued by the British Museum Library team swiftly as is shown by the red Library stamp dated 15 May 1961.

Kipling wrote the poem to gather publicity for what was then considered a mildly pornographic painting by his cousin, the artist Philip Burne-Jones, entitled ‘The Vampire’ (1897) – the piece would become Burne-Jones’s most famous work. The painting depicts a woman leaning over an unconscious man and was believed to have been modelled by the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell – with whom Burne-Jones had been romantically linked. This painting is an example of how, despite Victorian ideals of virginity and chastity circulating at the time, male artists responded to and reinforced an increasingly sexualised representation of the female body in art, reflecting fears regarding the changing role of women. Indeed, Kipling’s poem echoes this notion also.

The Vampire: A Poem (Cup.402.a.30.) by Rudyard Kipling showing the painting of the same name by Philip Burne-Jones
The Vampire: A Poem (Cup.402.a.30.) by Rudyard Kipling showing the painting of the same name by Philip Burne-Jones
‘We called her the woman who did not care, But the fool he called her his lady fair…’: Opening page of Kipling’s The Vampire
‘We called her the woman who did not care, But the fool he called her his lady fair…’: Opening page of Kipling’s The Vampire

Alongside items from British Library collections, visitors to The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture will be able to see artworks from the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Collection Trust and Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries and pieces created by artists sculpting during the Victorian period, as well as more contemporary spectacles from the likes of Sanford Biggers and Maud Sulter. The exhibition runs until 26 February 2023 and is free to visit. Find out more and plan your visit via the Henry Moore Institute website.

Blog by Rachael, Curator for North American Published Collections Post-1850

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[1] Out of this world: Science fiction but not as you know it by Mike Ashley, page 49 (London: British Library, 2011), BL shelfmark: YK.2011.b.8873

11 January 2023

Rotimi Fani-Kayode Transatlantic Vision

Darius Bost is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah and was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

In my book, Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence (Chicago, 2019), I wrote about the renaissance of black gay male cultural production in the 1980s and 1990s. In those decades, black gay men across the Atlantic used a range of cultural forms—media, literature, film, dance, music, and performance—as modes of community building, political mobilization, self-determination in the face of state neglect and cultural exclusion, and cultural preservation amid the losses of AIDS and anti-black and anti-gay violence. Given my narrow focus on literary cultures in two U.S. cities—Washington, D.C., and New York City—I was unable to discuss the significance of the visual arts and transnational exchange between black American and black British artists. For example, Washington, D.C.-based, black gay writer Essex Hemphill visited London in the winter of 1986 and performed a series of readings from his poetry collection Conditions at various cultural venues. New York City-based writer and performer Assotto Saint toured London in April 1988 with his theatre group Metamorphosis, performing pieces from his award-winning, black gay-themed trilogy. However, media documentation of these events and others featuring U.S. black gay artists who traveled to London give the impression that the flows of black gay culture moved unilaterally from the U.S. to the U.K. While conducting research for my current project on queer visual cultures of the black Atlantic, I have found little commentary on how black gay artists in London influenced U.S. black gay culture. A focus on the contributions of Nigerian-British visual artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode suggests some ways that British artists influenced U.S. black gay culture during the 1980s black gay cultural renaissance.

Fani-Kayode was born in 1955 in Lagos, Nigeria. His father was a member of the political aristocracy in Nigeria, and a keeper of the shrine of Yoruba deities in Ife. At the age of twelve, Fani-Kayode moved with his family to Brighton, England, to escape the Nigerian Civil War. He attended numerous private schools in England for his secondary education before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1976 to complete his undergraduate education in Economics at Georgetown University. He lived in New York City in the early 1980s while completing his MFA in Fine Arts and Photography at Pratt Institute. While living in the U.S., Fani-Kayode shared spaces with many of the artists and writers that I write about in Evidence of Being, including the DC Clubhouse, an internationally renowned nightclub that became an important site of black lesbian and gay cultural and political formation in the late 1970s [until an estimated 40% of its membership roles were lost to AIDS by the late 80s]. That he dedicated his first monograph Black Male/White Male (1988) to 'Toni and the spirit of the Clubhouse' demonstrates how U.S. black gay communities influenced his practice. Yet, little is known about how Fani-Kayode influenced these communities during his time there.

Newspaper article in a single column with an image of a naked Black man beneath; he is seated on the floor, his legs are bent and his hands are placed over his eyes.
'Homage to an Artist', The Voice: London's First Black Newspaper, December 18, 1990, p. 18. British Library shelfmark: NEWS8120.

We can see more of his influence on the black cultural renaissance when directing our attention to his practice in London, to which he returned after completing his studies in the United States. Fani-Kayode photographed Hemphill alongside black gay British activist Dennis Carney for his monograph Black Male/White Male. He also photographed Saint, and Oakland, California-based musician Blackberri, another important contributor to the black gay cultural renaissance who performed at the historic Black Gay Conference in London in 1987. Notably, one of the images from Black Male/White Male graced the cover of Tongues Untied, a collection of black gay British and American poetry published by the London-based Gay Men’s Press in 1987. The collection inspired U.S.-based filmmaker Marlon Rigg's 1989 film Tongues Untied. Riggs’ film and Black British filmmaker Isaac Julien’s 1989 Looking for Langston—which includes the work of many U.S. black gay cultural producers—demonstrate the significance of transatlantic exchange to the 1980s black gay cultural renaissance. Rotimi’s contributions to this movement establishes the significance of photography to this cultural movement. His longtime artistic collaborator and romantic partner Alex Hirst describes Fani-Kayode’s photography as 'a means of reaching others who on a world scale would otherwise be quite beyond the scope of an individual’s ability to speak to them.'1

A newspaper article with an artistic photo of a man's body below.
Diren Adebayo, "A Tale of Desire," The Voice: London's First Black Newspaper, January 15, 1991, p. 13. British Library shelfmark: NEWS8120.

Beyond the emphasis on transnational exchange and collaboration, evidence from the archive suggests how Fani-Kayode work sought to expand the philosophical underpinnings of the black gay cultural renaissance in the service of a broader vision of collective liberation. The British Library holds an audio recording of the memorial event held at the Photographer’s Gallery in London in January 1991 in honor of Fani-Kayode after his untimely death in 1989 from a heart attack. At this event, Hirst provided reflections on Rotimi’s work that suggest how it contributed to this broader cultural movement. Commenting on Fani-Kayode's self-identification as an 'African working in a Western medium,' Hirst discusses how Rotimi sought to challenge the West's tradition of separating rather than combining, which has created dualisms like black and white, sacred and profane, and heterosexual and homosexual, that has secured its dominance for over five centuries.2 Hirst also emphasized how Fani-Kayode brought to the photographic medium a non-Western perspective that viewed art as inseparable from everyday life. Rotimi drew from ancestral traditions in which art 'was a way for society to make concrete its emotions, its aesthetic concerns, its hopes and its fears and to give form to a collective consciousness of history, psychology, ethics, and dreams.'3  In so doing, Rotimi destabilized the Western dualisms that undergirded the terms 'black' and 'gay,' while acknowledging the power of combining these terms towards collective social and spiritual transformation. His refusal to separate art from ordinary life showed other black gay cultural producers that their artistic practices were inextricable from the community’s broader aims of social and spiritual transformation. In sum, Fani-Kayode’s work expanded the vision of the black gay cultural renaissance beyond Western constructions of identity and aesthetics and toward a vision of the black gay Atlantic unbound by the Western categorical distinctions that fostered the collective marginalization of black gay men and disparaged ways of knowing and modes of expression that might 'give form to [black gay male] collective consciousness.'

Notes

1. Alex Hirst, 'Talk at Friends of Rotimi Lecture,' Photographer’s Gallery, London, UK, January 16, 1991. Casette. Photographer’s Gallery Recordings. British Library.
2. Rotimi Fani-Kayode, 'Traces of Estasy,' Revue Noire, November 1996, p. 6; Hirst, 'Talk at Friends of Rotimi Lecture.'
3. Alex Hirst, 'Talks at Friends of Rotimi Lecture,' Photographer’s Gallery, London, UK, January 16, 1991. Casette. Photographer’s Gallery Recordings. British Library.

12 December 2022

Towards a People’s History of the 'Permissible Dose'

Thomas Bishop is Senior Lecturer in American History and Programme Leader of the BA History degree at the University of Lincoln; he was a 2021 British Library Eccles Visiting Fellow.

In 1957 Walt Disney broadcast 'Our Friend the Atom'. Designed to both educate and reassure, the forty-minute special encouraged viewers to put aside their fears of destruction and instead embrace the limitless potential of the atom. Likening atomic power to that of a jinnī being unleashed from a magic lamp to grant wishes, the narrator tells audiences that with enough hard work 'the atomic genie might spread across the world granting the gifts of science to all mankind.'

A colourful book cover with images connected with the nuclear industry as well as figures from the history of science.
Fig. 1: Heinz Haber, The Walt Disney Story of our Friend the Atom, etc., 1957. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection 8714.gg.4.

'Our Friend the Atom' took centre stage during President Dwight Eisenhower’s 'Atoms for Peace' campaign. Through the 1950s, as the Soviet Union and United States increased atmospheric testing of weapons of even greater destructive potential, Eisenhower launched a public education campaign to sell the positive benefits of atomic energy. Seeking allies in this quest to neutralise anxieties over existing weapons technology, Eisenhower turned to the nation’s foremost animator to help create a new cultural imagination of the benign atom. The result is a striking vision of a nuclear future shaped by harmless radiation, accident proof industries, and smiling scientists. This sanitised, Hollywoodised vision of a nation rushing headlong into the promise of the atomic age, conceals the everyday realities and occupational risks associated with working life inside the most iconic industry of the Cold War.

A dramatic image of a "Power" genie creating energy.
Fig. 2: Heinz Haber, The Walt Disney Story of our Friend the Atom, etc., 1957.  British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection 8714.gg.4. p. 137.

At the British Library, I set out to investigate the hidden histories of nuclear technology in the United States. Specifically, over the last few years I have been keen to research and write a new history of radiation protection standards during the Cold War from the perspective of the thousands of blue-collar workers whose labour powered the nation’s reactors. Talking to archivists often leads to important, unexpected discoveries that can define a research project. I arrived at the Library hoping to make inroads into unearthing a complicated yet critical episode in American history.

The British Library is a treasure trove of material for those interested in nuclear history, with records reaching from the factory floor to the Oval Office. Initially, I looked over the Federal Government Collections in order to understand the changing political landscapes over occupational safety during a period of peak commercial growth in nuclear power during the late 1960s, often called the 'turn-key' era of reactor construction. What might appear to some as dry bureaucratic history is in fact brimming with human stories as civil servants, scientists, employees, and activists debated the health hazards of working with radiation. Out of these records, I started to hone my research around a concept all too familiar to those working within the sector, known as the 'permissible dose'.

Throughout the Cold War the 'permissible dose' governed both the lives and livelihoods of those working within the nuclear sector. To cut through the quite dense technical terminology, the permissible dose refers to the legal amount of ionized radiation a body can receive over the course of a year. This federally sanctioned level of radiation was the cornerstone of the occupational nuclear frontier. How radiation threshold levels were measured, what risk was deemed 'acceptable', and how regulation was understood and enforced across an entire industrial sector was the most significant question facing this rapidly changing industry. With questions of individual workers’ experiences still very much at the front of my mind, I searched for documentation that might shed light on how blue-collar workers experienced and understood this concept of acceptable risk.

Uncovering blue collar workers’ experiences with radiation is laden with difficulties. Often, in lieu of self-made sources, historians seek out instances of workers engaging with the industrial and political elite in the fight for workplace safety. Here, the British Library plays an essential role in magnifying the subtle archival presences of the working communities who helped regulate nuclear power. Through recent digitization efforts, readers can now access records ranging from blow by blow breakdowns of the decisions made around radiation exposure levels found in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), to industry trade publication Nucleonic reviewing safety challenges facing a rapidly commercialised industry. A rich collection of material waiting for anyone interested in these records, it contains interviews with workers, debates over compensation cases, and even whistle-blowers willing to go on the record about the substandard safety practices they encountered. Together these collections allowed me to track the controversies surrounding radiation protection standards and start putting together a picture of nuclear regulation that seems far more complex than studies have previously acknowledged.

In the records of the specific industrial accidents held in the files of the Environmental Project Agency (EPA), the health and science periodicals of the 1960s, I noticed the central role that workers’ testimonies played during fights for reform. Far from being passive actors in the fight for stricter regulation, blue collar workers were active and vocal in making their voices heard for better working conditions. With this material, I can prove that ordinary working Americans are the forgotten 'policymakers of the nuclear age': organisers who marched, blew the whistle, litigated, and turned to the press, unions, and White House for support. This time in the archives has allowed me to knit top-down perspectives of regulatory policy with local experiences of labour activism, pushing our understanding of the ability of ordinary working Americans to fight for and enact meaningful change for themselves and their communities.

While this project is still very much a work in progress, the records of the British Library provide a critical start for anyone interested in researching our often-complicated relationship with nuclear technologies. In an age where renewable energy and climate change are defining global concerns, and politicians talk about the promise of a 'Green New Deal' it is important that we seek out our nuclear past, to make sure it is not forgotten during a moment of renewed interest in our nuclear futures.

 

 

06 December 2022

Celebrating the work of Aline Kominsky-Crumb

The artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, best known for her pioneering contributions to underground comics, passed away on 29 November 2022.

Kominsky-Crumb leaves an impressive legacy of ‘intimate, self-deprecating, and liberating’[1] comics, some of which were created with her husband, fellow cartoonist Robert Crumb. After relocating from New York to San Francisco in the 1970s, where she met Crumb, she became heavily involved in the underground comics scene, contributing to various publications for the subsequent decades, by boldly illustrating and giving voice to particularly feminist issues concerning sex, motherhood, family life and abortion.

The British Library holds a number of materials authored by Kominsky-Crumb and/or featuring her artwork, many of which have arrived via years of generous donations by J. B. Rund, an American book publisher and businessperson. Rund, owner of Bélier Press, has sent the British Library regular donations of underground comics and related ephemera since the 1970s. He is a prolific collector of monographs, comics, literary materials, original illustrations and erotica, many of which contain inscriptions, annotations and inserts from their contributors and creators, including some from Aline. Items by Robert Crumb are perhaps among the most prolific and sought after in Rund’s collection and Bélier Press’s 1976 creation R. Crumb’s Carload O’Comics (RG.2019.b.23), remains one of the press’s most successful outputs. With Crumb and Rund working closely together comes a number of (sometimes) rare and important pieces from Kominsky-Crumb making their way into our holdings thanks to Rund’s depositing practice here.

Bursting into what was typically seen as the male world of underground comics; Kominsky-Crumb unashamedly shone a light on contemporary issues and everyday life that was specifically based on women’s experiences and perspectives, skilfully doing so with humour and her characteristically unapologetic brashness. In the introduction to Kominsky-Crumb’s Love that Bunch, American comic book writer Harvey Pekar explains as much in his observations of Aline’s style. He writes:

‘Even if you like Aline Kominsky’s work a lot, as I do, you’ve got to admit that it’s loaded with ugliness. Her characters look ugly and frequently talk (“tawkh”) ugly, with whiny … accents. Aline’s at least as hard on herself as anyone else; her work is full of self-loathing. You’ve got to know this to understand her stories.’[2]

Indeed, the strapline to this particularly title affirms Kominsky-Crumb’s self-effacing humour: ‘Read this book! It’s cheaper than therapy!’

Below are just a few highlights from the British Library’s collection of Kominsky-Crumb donated by J. B. Rund, as you’ll see, some contain examples of the personal inscriptions mentioned above, showing both a the professional and personal working relationship that evolved between Rund and the Crumbs.    

A selection of works by Aline Kominsky-Crumb from the British Library’s collection donated by J. B. Rund: Drawn Together by Aline Kominsky-Crumb & Robert (Basel: Cartoonmuseum Basel, [2016]), RB.31.b.431; Need More Love by Aline Kominsky Crumb (London: MQ, [2007]), YD.2019.a.366; Love that Bunch by Aline Kominsky Crumb (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1990), YA.1993.b.10691; The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics by Aline Kominsky-Crumb, R. Crumb and Sophie Crumb (San Francisco: Last Gasp Eco Funnies, [1992]), RF.2000.b.44.
A selection of works by Aline Kominsky-Crumb from the British Library’s collection donated by J. B. Rund: Drawn Together by Aline Kominsky-Crumb & Robert (Basel: Cartoonmuseum Basel, [2016]), RB.31.b.431; Need More Love by Aline Kominsky Crumb (London: MQ, [2007]), YD.2019.a.366; Love that Bunch by Aline Kominsky Crumb (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1990), YA.1993.b.10691; The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics by Aline Kominsky-Crumb, R. Crumb and Sophie Crumb (San Francisco: Last Gasp Eco Funnies, [1992]), RF.2000.b.44.
 
Inscription from the Crumbs to their ‘good friend’ Jeff (J. B. Rund) inside The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics, RF.2000.b.44.
Inscription from the Crumbs to their ‘good friend’ Jeff (J. B. Rund) inside The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics, RF.2000.b.44.
 
Example of Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s work and humour: the ‘driven woman’ from Need More Love, YD.2019.a.366.
Example of Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s work and humour: the ‘driven woman’ from Need More Love, YD.2019.a.366.

Interestingly, and perhaps testament to Kominsky-Crumb’s importance and influence as a female comic artist, Aline and Robert’s daughter, Sophie Crumb, would also go on to become a recognisable artist within the same comics scene years later. Sophie would get her first credit in a comic aged just six years old, alongside her mother, in Wimmen’s Comix #11 (April 1987). Registered British Library Readers can view a fully digitised version of this publication on their personal device using the e-resource Underground and Independent Comics.

Sophie Crumb, aged 6, appears alongside Aline in Wimmen’s Comix written by Krystine Kryttre and Dori Seda, 1951-1988; in Wimmen's Comix, no. 11 (Long Beach, CA: Renegade Press, 1987, originally published 1987). Both are also mentioned in the comic’s introduction in which Renegade satirically examines ‘The 20 Best Dressed Women in Comics of 1987’. Images copyright © 2022 by Alexander Street, part of Clarivate.
Sophie Crumb, aged 6, appears alongside Aline in Wimmen’s Comix written by Krystine Kryttre and Dori Seda, 1951-1988; in Wimmen's Comix, no. 11 (Long Beach, CA: Renegade Press, 1987, originally published 1987). Both are also mentioned in the comic’s introduction in which Renegade satirically examines ‘The 20 Best Dressed Women in Comics of 1987’. Images copyright © 2022 by Alexander Street, part of Clarivate.

From the collection donated by Rund, Readers can also find this book of chronological drawings compiled to show Sophie’s development as an artist from age 2 to 29. Aline writes the introduction to the book. In it she praises the talents of her ‘precious little “genius”’[3], as any mother would, but her irreverent tongue-in-cheek manner is ever present to ease the flow of too much ‘gushing.’ Aline’s introductory piece sits alongside a portrait by Sophie of her mother. Similarities between the two women’s artistic styles can certainly be seen.

Front cover of Sophie Crumb: Evolution of a Crazy Artist, edited by S., A. & R. Crumb (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, [2011]), RF.2018.b.149, showing examples of Sophie’s self-portraits, and a portrait of Aline Kominsky-Crumb from the book’s introduction.
Front cover of Sophie Crumb: Evolution of a Crazy Artist, edited by S., A. & R. Crumb (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, [2011]), RF.2018.b.149, showing examples of Sophie’s self-portraits, and a portrait of Aline Kominsky-Crumb from the book’s introduction.

I particularly enjoyed reading Françoise Mouly’s insightful and illuminating words about her friend Aline in this recent New Yorker piece. Mouly quotes her husband, cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose work also features heavily in Rund’s donation to the British Library, and whose description paints a picture of honesty in Aline. I think it is a fitting note on which to end this very short homage to Aline Kominsky-Crumb:

“She is the precursor to Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman—women who are trying to grapple with their identities in a way that is not prettified. They are just trying to live and breathe as women with all their contradictions. And it’s a liberated and liberating way of looking at oneself.”[4]

All of the Library’s Aline Kominsky-Crumb holdings can be viewed in our Reading Rooms – you just need a free Reader Pass to gain access.

Blog by Rachael, Curator for North American Published Collections Post-1850

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[1] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/postscript/remembering-the-artist-aline-kominsky-crumb-a-trailblazing-funny-woman

[2] Harvey Pekar from the introduction to Love that Bunch by Aline Kominsky Crumb; edited by Gary Groth (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1990), YA.1993.b.10691, page iii

[3] Aline Kominsky-Crumb from the introduction to Sophie Crumb: Evolution of a Crazy Artist, edited by S., A. & R. Crumb (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, [2011]), RF.2018.b.149, page 7

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/postscript/remembering-the-artist-aline-kominsky-crumb-a-trailblazing-funny-woman

05 December 2022

“The Flying Researcher”: South Asians and Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest

Rishma Johal is a PhD candidate in History at McGill University and was a 2022 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

As an academic in training, I believe that most PhD Candidates—particularly *cough cough* myself—are young, wide-eyed, naive students who hope to use their magical wings to fly from source to source in a matter of seconds. If any of this were remotely true, my thesis would be complete in a few days. However, no matter how aware I am of my naivete, there is always the glimmer of hope that the next research trip will be 'the one' in which I read every source at the archives. Needless to say, this hope is shattered as soon as an archivist hands me a file weighing a few good pounds in the morning of my very first day. Perhaps, the British Library experience has been my most dramatic encounter in terms of the amount of information available versus the amount of information that I can read in a short period of time. This autumn, as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow, I enjoyed five weeks at the British Library, yet even that felt too little to complete my research. Thus, if I had to select one challenge over any other, it would be my fight against time. Nevertheless, the availability and versatility of sources at the Library ensured that my visit was both fruitful and rewarding.

My research entails analysing files on South Asian migrants and Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest—both marginalised communities about whom information at archives is generally limited. Specifically, my thesis examines intersections and dissension among early South Asian migrants and Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest from 1857–1947. This means that I am examining files on diverse groups of people. It is quite time-consuming to search for these sources, although the British Library holds a wealth of data. For this reason, the limit on the number of sources that I could request in one day quickly became another challenge, though I managed to power through most of the sources on my research list.

Conducting research at the British Library was imperative as it enabled me to access many archival records about early South Asian migrants in both Canada and the United States. Most of these files were held in the India Office Records and I also found correspondence among various levels of government on South Asian migration, from reading views of inspectors, politicians, and ministers in Vancouver and British Columbia to Ottawa, Britain, and India. I found numerous instances of concern over increasing numbers of South Asians in the Pacific Northwest that incorporated correspondence with American officials. The British Library has a priceless amount of information on the Ghadar movement (early Indian independence struggle that began in North America) and clandestine activities run by South Asians from California extending to Argentina, Panama, South Africa, Afghanistan, and Australia. However, the British Empire’s vast network of information gathering and sharing is only visible when files are accessed that discuss the Ghadar movement, “Hindu immigration,” and event specific files such as IOR/L/PJ/1325, File 3601 Canadian Immigration; the Komagata Maru Incident. These sources discussed the status of South Asians in Canada and noted the companies that they owned as well as the land purchases that they made, which was vital information concerning South Asians’ role in settler colonialism and Indigenous dispossession.

Advert for a lecture; at the top is a photo of a bearded man wearing a turban; the text includes details of the event.
Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind: Activities in USA. British Library shelfmark: IOR/L/PJ/12/289, India Office Records.

In one or two instances, I also found comparisons that officials made between the Indigenous peoples of British Columbia and South Asians. My favourite sources were rare finds that may not have been as useful as the above files for my thesis but were integral in terms of South Asian diasporic activity. For instance, I was thrilled to view a flag made by the Ghadar Party of San Francisco with a map that envisioned the borders of a free India as early as 1920 (Mss Eur C228: 1920). I was also able to view several maps made by South Asian surveyors and assistants within the British Indian army. These included maps of boundaries in Tibet, China, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa. The maps portray the role that some South Asians played as intermediaries within the colonisation of the Indian Ocean Arena before many migrated to North America.

A finely detailed map showing rivers and their tributaries.
Part of Southern Abyssinia and British East Africa Lake Region and Daua River by Captain R.E. Maud and Indian Suveyors Sher Jang and Shahzad Mir. War Office Ledger. British Library shelfmark: Map Collections. WOMAT/AFR/ABY/14 : 1903.

I was also interested in sources on Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest, though finding archival materials associated with specific tribes was difficult. For this aspect of my research, I utilised the vast collection of books that covered substantial components of the history of Indigenous peoples from California, Washington and Oregon. However, I was able to locate a few important firsthand documents such as the Report on the Condition and Needs of the Mission Indians of California (British Library shelfmark: A.S.217/19, 1873) made by special agents Helen Jackson and Abbott Kinney and The Report of the Special Agent for California Indians to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs by C.E. Kelsey (British Library shelfmark: Mic.K.2130, 1906). The former report provided a significant account of how white colonists dispossessed Indigenous peoples in Southern California, despite US government orders that recognized Mission Indians’ lands as reservation lands. The 1906 report outlined the conditions of Indigenous peoples living within California and described the areas that remained populated by them. Reading these reports in comparison to one another was particularly useful for my research. The Quarterly Journal of the Society of American Indians (British Library shelfmark: P.P.3437.bad) was another important source that discussed Native American issues, although individuals interested in Native Americans, rather than those of Indigenous ancestry, published most of the articles. More importantly, I was able to read a wide variety of books written about Indigenous peoples and to corroborate movements of certain Indigenous communities with the migration and land purchases of South Asians.

Overall, my magical wings were quite elated to fly from one source to the next at the British Library whether that was in a matter of hours, days, or weeks as I continue to read files that I photographed in October. I had an amazing experience as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow, and I would highly recommend this fellowship opportunity to other researchers in American Studies. Although I did not have a chance to attend many events, connecting with other Fellows and the Eccles Centre team at one of their Researchers' Packed Lunches was wonderful. Nevertheless, time is always of the essence. Alas, this researcher flies away to the next archive!

23 November 2022

Black Theatre Makers: Una Marson

The British Library has digitised and made available online the only known copy of Una Marson’s pioneering play ‘At What a Price’ (1932).

Una Maud Marson was born in Jamaica in 1905. Throughout her lifetime she would live and work in the Caribbean, the UK and the USA. An editor, poet, playwright, activist, writer and BBC producer, Marson had a versatile and prolific career. The phenomenal breadth and range of Una Marson’s creative and critical outputs are yet to be fully appreciated, but there has been a recent renewed interest in the contributions she made to the cultural landscape of the British Empire and North America. Una Marson was the subject of a BBC production, Una Marson: Our Lost Caribbean Voice, which brought to life her incredible career and creations. Many of those creations can be found here, in the British Library, including her poetry collections. However, some of her works are a little harder to find.

A young woman wearing a check dress standing and reading the West Indian Radio Newspaper.
Fig. 1: Una Maud Victoria Marson (1905–1965) by unknown photographer BBC Picture Archives, public domain.

Through a recent project at the British Library, the Eccles Centre for American Studies has been supporting the research of Professor Kate Dossett and her project ‘Black Cultural Archives & the Making of Black Histories’. Part of this project involved examining the Lord Chamberlain’s Play’s (LCP) collection for plays produced in Britain written by Black playwrights. The LCP’s are the largest collection of manuscripts in the British Library. The collection consists of plays collected by the Office of the Lord Chamberlain from the years 1824 to 1968. They were collected because the censorship laws which existed at the time specified that plays had to be approved for a licence before a performance. This collection therefore provides an illuminating record of drama performed in the UK up to 1968. The research project has utilised this collection to find and promote the, often hidden, work of Black theatre makers in the early twentieth century.

One of the plays within the collection is Una Marson’s, ‘At What a Price’. Marson first wrote this play whilst living in Jamaica where it staged in 1932. The play was so successful that she used the profits to travel to London, England, where it was staged before British audiences. In London she got involved in anti-racist activism and became secretary to the League of Coloured Peoples, which fought for racial equality in the UK. The league and its founder, Harold Moody, sponsored Marson’s London production of her play in 1933. Yet, despite its international popularity no copy of the play’s script is known to have survived beyond the one kept in the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection.

The typescript of the play At What a Price; the ink is blue.
Fig. 2: Add MS 66878 D, f.1. of ‘At What a Price’, by Una Marson, now available on BL Digitised Manuscripts.

The play follows Ruth Maitland, a young Jamaican woman who moves from the countryside to Kingston, Jamaica, to work as a stenographer where she is pursued by a white Englishman. The play examines women’s agency in love and work, as well as issues of interracial relations and sexual harassment. The unique play script that Una Marson and her production team sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office has now been digitised in its entirety and has been made accessible through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. Researchers can now view this play and the related reader’s report from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office which outlines the department’s response in terms of whether the play was suitable for licensing. These images are available to view here

With the digitisation of this play and related Lord Chamberlain’s Office correspondence, we hope to preserve and widen access to Una Marson’s many and varied cultural outputs. With the digitisation of this play, and others created by black theatre makers, researchers and audiences can discover ways in which black playwrights across the British Empire and Americas were frequently creating new cultural narratives and were at the forefront of movements for change that were an integral part of the British theatrical landscape in the early 20th century.

Jessica Gregory, Project Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Digitisation funded by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.


Further Reading:
Una Marson | The British Library (bl.uk)
The British Library MS Viewer (bl.uk)
Black Theatre and the Archive: Making Women Visible, 1900-1950 - Digital scholarship blog

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