23 July 2021
This blog by Timothy Peacock is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre’s awards, have undertaken across the Library’s Americas collections.
75 years ago in July 1946, Operation Crossroads involved the first postwar nuclear weapons tests, at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. These consisted of two Bombs, codenamed Able, which was dropped from an aircraft, and Baker, positioned underwater, both targeting a fleet of over 90 decommissioned US and captured WW2 ships.i Further examination of the British Library’s holdings, which include the Official Pictorial Report on Crossroads, highlights not only the destructive force of the weapons and their multiple impacts, but also the ‘power’ and paradoxes of the images themselves. Such paradoxes vary from the photography and ways in which images were used, to scientific planning being accompanied by choices based on luck rituals, to the wide range of what was tested beyond the ships themselves.
Figure 1 is a stark example, a composite near the end of the book which superimposes New York’s skyline onto the Crossroads Baker nuclear cloud, to give readers some frame of reference as to the potential scale of the blast. This image echoed contemporary practices of newspapers, which printed maps of US cities with circles on them to indicate potential radii of atomic destruction.ii Nevertheless, while generating contemporary interest, this is one of the images which has, ironically, not been nearly as widely circulated in subsequent years as those of the unobscured originals (including, for instance, Figure 2). These pictures, which showed the growth of the cloud itself, whether from closeup or afar, seem to have had an even more powerful impact and reusability, possibly by not being tied to any skyline or context, and the even greater psychological visual disparity they display, engulfing the tiny dots at their base which were full-sized battleships.
A significant paradox is that Crossroads was, at the time, one of the most photographed events in history, but many of the pictures were not made public. The Record itself is a mere 200 still images out of over 50,000 taken. Half the world’s film footage was used to capture the event, leading to shortages in Hollywood and film studios elsewhere for months. However, much footage remained (and remains) classified, some material only released in recent years. Those images which are available illustrate a fraction of the different perspectives and cameras used, including the self-referential pictures of the camera equipment itself. A further paradox is that only a few thousand televisions existed in the US in 1946, so many people would have experienced Crossroads either via the shared ritual of watching on newsreels in cinemas or through pictures in newspapers or in this Record.
While Crossroads involved highly scientific and rigorous planning, it is interesting to see the extent to which photos also captured human rituals of betting and chance and how these shaped parts of the exercise. However, these rituals either echoed previous responses to such scientific uncertainties or were considered fair methods of selection. In some cases, this involved decisions prior to Crossroads: the former German battleship Prinz Eugen, for example, pictured in the Report and one of the three non-US target vessels, had originally been awarded as a war prize to the US by drawing lots with the British and Soviets for other vessels.iii At Bikini Atoll, there were informal pools among military personnel and scientists (Figure 4), betting on such aspects as “how many ships would be sunk [by Crossroads], or as to the exact time” of bomb detonation for the air-dropped weapon. Similarly, while those few journalists documenting Crossroads Able from the air were selected by their peers (Figure 5) “the radio commentator was chosen by lot”. That these latter details and images are even contained in the Record shows something of them being regarded as significant in the ‘human’ stories behind the tests, while also reminiscent of the very first nuclear bomb test ‘Trinity’ a year earlier, when scientists took bets, including on whether they were going to set the atmosphere on fire!iv
While Crossroads mainly involved testing atomic bombs against ships, the images also highlight, paradoxically, the wide variety of equipment loaded onto the decks of target vessels to assess how atomic bombs would impact these, from tanks and aircraft parts to clothing and rations.
75 years on, perhaps the greatest paradox from these images is that Crossroads’ story, which was foundational in the history of nuclear weapons development and was intended to have the widest possible photographic/filmic dissemination, remains relatively unknown. Its history is, ironically, overshadowed by its most visual legacy in popular culture, the mushroom cloud itself.
Dr Timothy Peacock, Eccles Fellow 2019, is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Glasgow. He is on Twitter @DrTimPeacock
i The source material for this blog is drawn from Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946, p. 71. British Library shelfmark: W67/5211. This item is also available digitally courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library. For further information about the Operation, see Jonathan M. Weisgall, Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994) British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 94/14429
ii Rosemary B. Mariner, The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives (University of Tennessee Press, 2009), p. 4.
iii Fritz-Otto Busch, Prinz Eugen (London: First Futura Publications, 1975), pp. 212-13. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection X.708/41193
iv US DOE, ‘The Manhattan Project’ - https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan-project-history/Events/1945/trinity.htm
19 May 2021
As the days turn to dusk over the next week across north east United States, billions of Magicicada nymphs will burrow their way to the surface after spending seventeen years underground. Having already been delayed by cooler than average temperatures, some have already begun to appear in geographic patches where the soil has reached a critical temperature. You can follow this on the Cicada Safari app which uses photographs and data provided by citizen scientists to create a live map of their emergence.
This particular group of periodical cicadas are known as Brood X, or the Great Eastern Brood. The brood is endemic to fifteen states in the eastern United States. Up to 1.4 million cicadas per acre, totalling in the billions, emerge and climb nearby vegetation where they molt their nymph exoskeletons and emerge in their imago form.
The males proceed to group together and ‘sing’ to attract females. Once mated, the female cicadas lay their eggs. Within a few weeks, the adult cicadas pass away. Soon thereafter, the newly hatched nymphs emerge and return to the soil where they will remain until the next cycle in 2038.
Cicadas are endemic to most countries with warmer climates (there is only one species in the UK which is under threat of extinction and unique to the New Forest). Unsurprisingly then, cicadas’ presence in print is scattered across the natural history record, and they also regularly appear as a motif in literature. While there are over three hundred species of cicadas, periodical cicadas are unique to the United States.
The first known written record of a Magicicada brood was in a 1633 report by the governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford. He notes the brood’s appearance in relation to a disease that killed many of the local Indigenous populations as well as the Plymouth settler colonists. His description illustrates how reliant the relatively recent settlers were on Indigenous knowledge to help them to navigate their unfamiliar natural environment, and how this 17-year event was both familiar to and held significance for the local tribes.
The following century, Swedish naturist Pehr Kalm wrote a lengthy essay on his witnessing of the emergence of what we now know as Brood X in 1749. His Description of a type of Grasshopper in North America, published in 1756, is an incredibly evocative and richly detailed account that gives a sense of how it must have felt to experience this phenomenon for the first time:
Among the many flying insects in North America there is a species of grass-hopper which seems to merit special discussion because of its extraordinary characteristics… Later, when I travelled through the Land of the Iroquois to the large waterfall Niagara, I heard its squall in the woods daily, for no matter where it is it does not remain silent for long…
These insects are extraordinary. They appear in astounding numbers with indescribable suddenness on certain years… In 1749, on the 22 of May, new style, these locusts or grasshoppers appeared in dreadful quantities in Pennsylvania. They had been lying in holes in the ground throughout the winter and spring like Eurcae, but on this day they crept out of their winter coats and came forth in summer dress. A tree could scarcely be found, in either forest or orchard, whose trunk was not entirely covered with them. Some had emerged from their pupal cases, others were emerging so they were half in and half out. Some had begun to try their wings. It was remarkable that on the previous day, that is the 21st of May, there were none… For seventeen years these insects had not been seen, now they appeared in fantastic quantities throughout the land…
...On the 25th day of May the insects were heard in the trees…They now made such a roar and din in the woods they could be heard for great distances. If two persons happened to meet they would have to shout in order to hear each other. If they were any distance apart it would be necessary to strain the voice to capacity in order to determine what was being said…
The handiwork of the Almighty Creator is easily recognized in the lives of these small creatures.
Kalm was clearly emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually moved by his meeting with Brood X.
A separate account of the 1749 emergence was also documented by Benjamin Banneker, a free African American and self-educated polymath. Banneker is well known for his Almanacs which detailed daily life on his farm as well as astronomical observations, and his correspondence with George Washington on slavery and racial equality. His observations on natural science are less familiar, but remain noteworthy.
The first great Locust year that I can Remember was 1749. I was then about Seventeen years of age when thousands of them came and was creeping up the trees and bushes... Again in the year 1766, which is Seventeen years after the first appearance, they made a Second, and appeared to me to be full as numerous as the first… Again in the year 1783 which was Seventeen years since their second appearance to me, they made their third; and they may be expected again in the year 1800,which is Seventeen years since their third appearance to me. So that if I may venture So to express it, their periodical return is Seventeen years, but they, like the Comets, make but a short stay with us…
Written in 1800, these observations make Banneker “among the first American scientists to document and record chronological information of the seventeen-year cycle of the periodic Magiciada – Brood X".
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the unusual life cycle of the Magicicada also catches the literary imagination and they make periodic appearances in biography, poetry, prose, and graphic novels. Across these works, two themes particularly stand out. The first is aural – the din, hum, buzz, drone, whirr, roar, squall – these little creatures cannot be ignored, particularly when in full throes of their communal love song. The second theme speaks of loss, re-emergence, and transformation.
Perhaps the most striking literary homage to the cicadas’ song is a poem in Paul Fleischman’s Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. Magically illustrated by Eric Beddow, this collection designed for children celebrates insect life in all its joyous forms.
Each poem is intended to be read aloud simultaneously by two people. This has the effect of partially recreating the sound of the insects buzz, and eventual pairing-off. The dual voice also acts as an affirmation of the childhood experience of encountering and describing a newly discovered insect: the curiosity, wonder, and perplexity they inspire is best when shared (much like books being read aloud by parent to child).
Mộng-Lan’s Song of the Cicadas also foregrounds sound. In contrast to Fleischman, she uses cicadas as a motif for exploring a coupling between two people. It should be noted that Mộng-Lan is Vietnamese and she moved to America with her family following the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, and has subsequently lived in Japan, Thailand, and Argentina. These experiences are alluded to through references to foreign lands, encounters in airports after long journeys, seasonal transformations, and the unpredictability of ‘fate’. She thus weaves through the poem allusions to the brooding and mating habits of periodical cicadas in order to evoke how this particular encounter resonated with the emotional experience of being an immigrant. This experience is signaled as transformative through its use of the visual imagery of an imago cicada emerging from its nymph exoskeleton at the molting phase:
skins subtle as persimmons
where the skin breaks at the fullest
Another work that also makes use of cicadas in reference to the immigrant experience is Canadian author Elfreida Read’s A Time of Cicadas. This is the first in a series of memoirs about her childhood in Shanghai, her internment during the war, and her family’s subsequent emigration to Canada (Vancouver). It opens with a description of Shanghai, “my city, my Camelot”. A city, she says, that “was lost in time… you will never be able to go there yourself, any more than you can step at will into the substance and memories of those who lived there for that short enchanted time.” She then skillfully brings to life on the page a vision of summer in pre-war Shanghai accompanied by the soundtrack of “cicadas sawing in the treetops”. Here, the sounds of the cicadas evokes a nostalgia for a youth and a city lost to war and emigration.
Just as we’ve been waiting for the cicadas to emerge, readers spent five years eagerly anticipating the arrival of this children’s book from Australian author/illustrator, Shaun Tan. Cicada, follows a green insect office clerk (the eponymous Cicada); a lone splash of colour trapped deep in the grey drudgery of an office job.
Underappreciated and mistreated, the cicada works harder and longer than the others, yet has less rights and lower pay than his human colleagues. Tan acknowledges the parallels here with the retirement of his architect father, a frustrated Chinese immigrant from Malaysia who felt undervalued by his Australian colleagues. Upon Cicada’s unremarked retirement after 17 years (the life cycle of a cicada), we follow as he winds his way up the stairs of the office block, finally emerging on to the roof. His drab outer shell of suit and tie is shed to reveal a luminous winged body which takes flight; joining thousands of others in the lush, bright forest for a brief, but explosive finale.
- Written by Francisca Fuentes Rettig and Lucy Rowland
06 February 2021
In this blog post, Lucy (Oceania Curator) and Scott (Conservation Support Assistant) use a selection of collection items from Aoteaora New Zealand to discuss Waitangi Day, the country’s national day commemorated annually on 6th February.
Waitangi Day marks the anniversary of the signing of te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) by representatives of the British Crown and Rangatira (Māori chiefs) at Waitangi on 6th February 1840. The treaty, drafted by the governor, William Hobson, was translated from English into te reo Māori (the Māori language) by the Christian missionary, Rev. Henry Williams with help from his son, Edward. This version was used to outline the agreement to Rangatira and gather signatures around the country, but it was not an exact translation of the English document. The result was two treaties with significantly different interpretations; the English version asserting the sovereignty of the Crown, and the reo Māori version retaining the full authority of the chiefs, an authority previously affirmed in the Declaration of Independence document of 1835.
Whilst the treaty documents officially confirmed European settlement in Aoteaora New Zealand, the exact meaning and intentions of the treaty text has since been fiercely debated. In 2014, the Waitangi Tribunal, set up to mediate the differences between the two texts, found that the Rangatira who signed te Tiriti o Waitangi in February 1840 did not cede sovereignty to the British Crown, but did agree to share power through different roles. The tribunal ruled that the Crown has the right to govern (kāwanatanga), subject to the protection of Māori interests (rangatiratanga). This ruling is not universally accepted in Aotearoa New Zealand, and public commemorations on Waitangi Day are often when this dispute is brought firmly into the spotlight.
Lucy: The dual language book pictured above is an example of the resources now used in schools to teach children about the events that led to the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and what has happened since. What are your memories of Waitangi Day when you were growing up in Aotearoa New Zealand?
Scott: It was quite difficult to be Māori growing up in Aotearoa New Zealand, particularly in the South Island. The media tend to portray the day as ‘rogue’ elements of Māori ruining a lovely sunny day by harassing the terrified politicians running the gauntlet to Te Tii Marae at Waitangi [the sacred Māori meeting ground at Waitangi - politicians are usually invited here on Waitangi Day]. Growing up, the first flag I ever knew was the United Tribes of New Zealand flag and, as a (reputed) descendant of Wiremu Tamihana Tarapipipi Te Waharoa (the ‘Kingmaker’), the affirmation of the Kīngitanga [Māori King] movement. But when I moved to a rural area of the South Island, I found that my Pākehā friends and classmates inherited and perpetuated their parents' fear and anger that Māori were going to ‘claim their land back’.
Combined with a lack of teaching in school around the Treaty and the New Zealand Wars, in many areas that has led to a continuation of the same attitudes towards Māori. I learned swiftly that we were, and often still are, seen as second-class citizens in our own land. But while restitution is a part of the Waitangi Tribunal process, for me it is about establishing Māori as equal partners to the Crown; to regain the equality with Pākehā which our ancestors never gave away. This graphic novel superbly illustrates what I feel is the best part of Aotearoa New Zealand; the combination of both Māori and Pākehā working together in both languages, educating us all on the importance, but also effects, of our founding document. As the book says on page 15, “If we are honest about our country’s past, we can try to fix some of the damage that still affects us today”.
Lucy: The Treaty of Waitangi is often used as a case study, as in the title above, to explore the role of cultural memory and worldviews in translation studies. The Library looks after this 1845 printed handbill of te Tiriti o Waitangi in te reo Māori and you can see the disputed terms, kāwanatanga and rangatiratanga there in articles 1 and 2 (paragraphs 4 and 5). These are the most significant examples of where the translation from English to te reo Māori led to different interpretations of the treaty. What meaning does this item hold for you?
Scott: It’s a good reminder of what many New Zealanders, even today, still struggle to understand; that while it is one document, there are two versions of Te Tiriti [The Treaty]. This is an issue which has been at the heart of race relations and the struggle to preserve not only our heritage, our whenua [land] but also ourselves as a people from Pākehā [non-Māori] assimilation. Here in the handbill, the te reo version of the treaty which most Rangatira, or chiefs, signed on February 6th 1840, allowed the British government over the land by having a governor who could rein in the settlers which had been troublesome to Māori. My ancestors also wanted the protection of the British from possible French incursion, but most importantly, while keeping their own sovereignty; their Mana [authority, prestige and spiritual power] and land.
At the urging of missionaries, Māori signed the te reo version in good faith, assured that we could keep our lands, freedom and way of life. But the British utilised the mostly unsigned English version, which ceded sovereignty to the Queen and led to the horrific New Zealand Wars, mass land confiscation as punishment for ‘rebellion’, and the suppression of Māori way of life and tikanga [customs]. Whether the change in language was deliberate or not is debatable. However, I grew up in a household which regarded Te Tiriti as one of the great con-jobs of history, a Trojan horse of trauma and devastation disguised as friendship.
Lucy: The Library also holds a contemporary artists’ book, pictured above, which considers the bicultural aspect of the Treaty of Waitangi by combining design elements, images from Treaty documents, the Treaty House plans, and Māori and British illustrations from historical documentation in such a way that they become entangled and the distinctions blurred. This blending of cultures is similarly explored in books such as Always Speaking, pictured above, which interrogates the role of the Treaty in everyday life and public policies including broadcasting, housing, maternity care, youth services and the electoral system. How do you embody the Treaty in your everyday life?
Scott: On the basis of the Treaty, Aotearoa New Zealand is a bicultural society, though this sits uncomfortably with many Pākehā. Much in the way the artists’ book blends both Totara [a type of Aotearoa New Zealand wood] and Oak together, the two strongest materials from our cultures, the combination of the two peoples, positively, respectfully and equally is the way forward for us as a nation. For years, the government has acknowledged failure in providing the key concepts of protection, participation and partnership to Māori, but I do believe we are taking slow steps forward. As Tangata whenua, as Māori, I choose to embody the treaty by embracing and celebrating my Māori culture as part of my mixed heritage, to choose to live in te ao Māori [the Māori world]. This was a fairly recent decision after reflecting on the impact 2020 Black Lives Matter movement on myself, as well as so many others.
So now, here in the home of Cook and Banks, and the launching point of some 10,000 soldiers that marched under guns through the Waikato in the New Zealand Wars, I undertake to embody the Treaty by being openly and proudly Māori; utilising my basic understanding of te reo in my emails and in my work. And committing to that partnership with the Crown as equals by exploring how aspects of my culture, such as our view on Kaitiakitanga [holistic guardianship], can be applied here within the British Library for all our future generations.
Lucy: Your role at the Library involves training users in the handling and care of collection items. How would the principles of Kaitiakitanga apply to the stewardship of the Treaty of Waitangi handbill, for example, in the Library’s collection?
Scott: For an item such as the 1845 handbill, active and inclusive custodianship would mean that this material would be seen as a taonga, or treasure, to be kept safe. Effective and inclusive custodianship of such a key item in the joining of both Māori and Pākehā cultures is important. It has immense significance for those who may wish to understand not only the differences in language and meaning that led to the horrors that we as Māori had to endure, but also the ‘spirit’ of the treaty, the joining of two cultures, which is especially significant for someone like myself, a blend of both Māori and Pākehā bloodlines.
Custodianship, or kaitiakitanga, fits within the ideals that we already have here at the British Library. We work to ensure such culturally significant material from our past, is preserved in the present for our future generations. Even though the handbill itself hasn’t come forth from my people, or our whenua [land], the fact that it is in te reo, our language, which is regarded as sacred, means it must be handled with active respect for its status, as well as its own mauri [life-force].
Scott, Conservation Support Assistant and Lucy, Oceania Curator
References and further reading:
Sue Abel, Shaping the news : Waitangi Day on television (Auckland 1997) YA.1999.a.9098
Rachael Bell et al., The Treaty on the ground : where we are headed, and why it matters (Auckland 2017) YD.2017.a.2655
Siobhan Brownlie, Mapping memory in translation (London 2016) ELD.DS.299497
William Colenso, The Authentic and Genuine History of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand ... 1840 ... With copies of the treaty in English and Maori, etc (Wellington 1890) 9004.l.33.(8.)
Robert Consedine & Joanna Consedine, Healing our history : the challenge of the Treaty of Waitangi (Auckland 2012) YD.2012.a.4861
William Hobson, Handbill of the Treaty of Waitangi 1840 (Paihia 1845) 74/B.I.1/3.(7.)
I. H. Kawharu, Waitangi : Māori and Pākehā perspectives of the Treaty of Waitangi (Auckland 1989) YC.1990.b.2501
Patrick A. McAllister, National days and the politics of indigenous and local identities in Australia and New Zealand (Durham, N.C. 2012) m13/.12015
Toby Morris, The Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi (Wellington 2019) YD.2019.b.1189
Dominic O'Sullivan, Beyond biculturalism : the politics of an indigenous minority (Wellington 2007) YD.2007.a.8667
Claudia Orange, An illustrated history of the Treaty of Waitangi (Wellington 2004) YD.2010.b.171
Claudia Orange Te Tiriti o Watangi = The Treaty of Waitangi, 1840 (Wellington 2017) YD.2017.b.550
Vanya Steiner, The Tiriti Book (Auckland 2002) Awaiting shelfmark
Veronica M.H. Tawahi and Katarina Gray-Sharp, 'Always speaking' : the Treaty of Waitangi and public policy (Wellington 2011) YD. 2012.a.5143
Nicola Wheen and Janine Hayward, Treaty of Waitangi settlements (Wellington 2012) Y.2013.a.86
25 January 2021
From bodily autonomy and the right to education, to self-expression and protest, the British Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, explores how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights.
Although the physical exhibition space is currently closed due to lockdown restrictions, you can discover more about the stories, people and events that have shaped society, as well as the work that remains unfinished, through the exhibition web resource, podcast and fantastic series of online events.
As part of this events series, on Friday 29 January curators will discuss women’s rights in Europe, the Americas and Oceania through items from their collection areas that they think deserve a spotlight.
Looking beyond the UK focus of Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights, the curators will be in conversation about their handpicked choices that speak to the themes of the exhibition and, in many cases, challenge and disrupt pre-conceptions of women’s activism, experiences and struggles for equality.
This free, online event will take place on Friday 29 January 2021, 12.30 – 1.30pm. To register, please visit the Library’s event page. Bookers will be sent a Zoom link in advance giving access.
08 December 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly given us the difficult task of witnessing one of the most unmerciful global challenges since the world wars.
As it happens during times of crises, artists start producing objects, or creating digital content, which reflect part of the daily struggle for life. Their creation can be seen as a process that transforms art in ephemera and ephemera in arts, and the boundaries between what is art and what is not are often impalpable and undefinable. How do we see these objects now, through the lens of time, and while enduring another lockdown?
The descent of the lockdown on our bodies and souls has forced us into living in a dystopian society, as well as a forced daily exploration of digital content and images or, at least, that is what has happened to me.
Last spring, during one of my virtual exploration sessions at @CovidArtMuseum, I was particularly attracted by artistic responses from the southern hemisphere. I met an inspirational graphic artist on Instagram, and having decided to use a couple of graphic creations, I contacted her to discuss copyright but we ended up talking about books, art inspirations and feelings of deprivation.
Graphic art from Guatemala: the soap dispenser
An embellished soap dispenser represents the dispensation of creativity and thoughts of positivity as a remedy to panic and desperation in a moment of crisis. Behind the dispenser, a sky coloured background and an invisible sub-message that reads: wash your hands.
Art is vital for human kind. Keep creating. El arte es vital para tu humanidad. En cualquier disciplina, forma, con cualquier material, con desafíos físicos o emocionales, sin importar quien lo vea o si es solo para tus ojos. Crear es bueno para ti (Caption to the image. @mayteoliva). [Art is vital to your humanity. In any discipline, shape, with any material, with physical or emotional challenges, no matter who sees it or if it is only for your eyes. Creating is good for you].
The reference to Van Gogh's Starry Night is brilliant. Entirely painted from memory during the day while in isolation at the sanatorium of Saint-Rémy-de-Provance, Van Gogh reproduced the vision of the stars in the dark from outside his sanatorium room window. It represents the oneiric interpretation of the reality of the asylum experience as he perceived it, apocalyptic, terrifying and yet astonishingly creative.
“Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure, above which in the morning I see the sunrise in its glory” (from Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo).
Graphic art from Brazil and Australia: the toilet paper
Another curious object strongly associated with life during the pandemic, is the toilet paper roll. I was particularly attracted by this image with its direct message, and all that goes with it, on the unrolled paper square. This visual reprimand, created on the eve of the first lockdowns, would have resonated with people around the world and at more or less the same time.
“I made this piece the day that the government in my country announced the curfew, supermarkets were crowded, and people took very selfish attitudes. I think it is important to raise awareness of this type of actions on social networks, so that more people see it as something negative and can take positive attitudes in difficult situations” (In conversation with @mayteoliva).
During the same time, a colleague in the library started a very difficult newspaper-copy hunt for a particular issue of the Northern Territory News which wryly included an 8-page insert of toilet news-paper. Libraries around the world had started collecting this special issue, and it soon became very difficult to obtain one. It was immediately clear that this item would become a collectable item documenting a certain aspect of consumer society; one of those objects that you could easily imagine seeing in an exhibition, perhaps entitled “Art Pandemic: incubation 2020”!
The toilet paper Instagram colloquium with the graphic artist @mayteoliva, evolved into a much freer talk and exchange of ideas. When asked which books have recently inspired her, she promptly sent photos of covers, and her thoughts on the books incriminated.
In conversation with the artist @mayteoliva
“There is beauty in everything, and this is a great guide to find it. I find this book really inspiring, makes me want to create something, draw something, cook something, try something new and appreciate it. The other night I was making cinnamon rolls for the first time, and the process was beautiful, this book has helped me appreciate these things of everyday life and then translate my experiences into visual art” (In conversation with @mayteoliva in reference to Alan Moore, Do / Design: why beauty is key to everything).
“Madame & Eve, Women portraying women is an amazing compilation of women artworks in contemporary art. Here are some of my favourite artist, like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, but I have found many other artists who have impressed me a lot” (In conversation with @mayteoliva).
Embroidered poetry from Brazil
From the collection #museodoisolamento (museum of isolation), I found this incredible piece of concrete poetry. From the visual exploration of it, I immediately had multiple sensorial messages sent to my brain. I needed a few minutes to fully decode them into sensation and emotions, and to have them automatically connected to my personal consciousness which was strongly affected by the circumstances of the moment.
My first sensorial association was the light blue impressions of the fabric to the pale blue of surgical masks. In this case it was transformed in a wide canvas ready to receive a concise and concrete message behind which the essence of art is explained.
“Uma das minhas frases preferidas. É de Ferreira Gullar, poeta maranhense, ao falar sobre sua trajetória na arte durante uma entrevista. ‘Arte é uma coisa imprevisível, é descoberta, é uma invenção da vida. E quem diz que fazer poesia é um sofrimento está mentindo: é bom, mesmo quando se escreve sobre uma coisa sofrida. A poesia transfigura as coisas, mesmo quando você está no abismo. A arte existe porque a vida não basta’“(Caption to the image. @mayara5ilva)
[One of my favourite phrases. It is by Ferreira Gullar, a poet from Maranhão, when talking about his career in art during an interview. "Art is an unpredictable thing, it is discovered, it is an invention of life. And whoever says that making poetry is suffering is lying: it is good, even when writing about something suffered. Poetry transfigures things, even when you are in the abyss. Art exists because life is not enough”].
Emerging formats: poetry from the US
And people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still.
And listened more deeply …
(From the web, by Kitty O’Meara).
Kitty O’Meara, awarded the “poet laureate of the pandemic” by the web arena, is an Irish American teacher who wrote the poem during the days of the pandemic outbreak last March. The poem went immediately viral, and has now become an illustrated book for children. This represents an emerging format type of literary production: those produced, acclaimed, and published in a very short interval of time.
The circulation of ideas, inspirations, and artistic products have been floating around the world, not only via the powerful means of the World Wide Web, but also through the most traditional and time-sensitive channel: the postal service.
Mail art: mailing hope from New York and Mexico
In May, New York-based artist and researcher Lexie Smith, founded a food-based art project, Bread on Earth, offering to send free active sourdough starters preventively dehydrated via UPS to anyone who would have made requests. Over 700 people responded to the call at the beginning. As she explains on her website: “Stay safe, and let this time remind you that bread is only a threat when in the hands of few, and power when in the hands of many”.
The project also aimed to create a ‘locations of the jars’ map. As the sourdough travelled to people around the world, the map would show the spread of this happy bread-making community, since sourdough starters can be easily shared with friends, family and neighbours. She has sent parcels all over the U.S. and Canada, Singapore, India, Bulgaria, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Paris, London, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Mexico, and Hawaii amongst other places.
Mail Art has never been so vivid since its glorious time of the 60s, and it has now become so iconic that I have found it portrayed in an oil on canvas, and it looks great.
“Por medio de mi obra exploro el concepto de optimismo, pues a mi modo de ver es un tema que contiene una dualidad entre conformismo y ambición. El optimismo llega a ser en algunos casos incluso doloroso, pues la presión por ser agradecido, así como la culpa por no serlo, se traducen en frustración. Este último es un sentimiento que se generaliza, crece y que está directamente relacionado con el fortalecimiento de las redes sociales, el microtargeting, la publicidad y los medios de comunicación masiva” (Mariana Lagunas’ website)
[Through my work I explore the concept of optimism, since in my view it is a theme that contains a duality between conformity and ambition. Optimism can be, in some cases, even painful, since the pressure to be grateful, as well as the guilt for not being grateful, translate into frustration. The latter is a sentiment that is generalizing, growing and that is directly related to the strengthening of social networks, micro-targeting, advertising and the mass media].
Banner Art: from Toronto and London
First exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Mark Titchener’s banner "Please believe these days will pass," have been found all around the city during the days of the first lockdown. It made London and many other UK cities the perfect hosts of this gigantic artist’s book. With this banner, Titchener visually confronted the passers-by using his typical language-based graphic statement. In those early days of desperation and fears it came as a revelation, a vector towards the mass common denominator: to believe that these days will pass for us all.
The 2006 Turner Prize-nominee's work particularly fits with studies in typography and typographical characters when they are used to inspire people, communicate to the core of the community and bring art to a street-based-level. The people become part of it, deciding how to read it and which voice to give to it. No captions are provided, just the imagination and personal, or common, feelings and circumstances of passers-by. Here is a piece of art in which each of us is part of it.
[Blog post by Annalisa Ricciardi, Cataloguer, Americas and Oceania Collections]
Bibliography and suggested readings:
Alan Moore, Do / Design: why beauty is key to everything, London: Do Book Co., 2016. Shelfmark: YKL.2017.a.11507
Liz Rideal, Kathleen Soriano, Madam & Eve: women portraying women, London: Laurence King Publishing, 2018. Shelfmark: YC.2019.b.367.
Leo Jansen, Jans Luijten and Nienke Bakker (editors), Vincent Van Gogh. The letters: the complete illustrated and annotated edition, London: Thames & Hudson, in association with the Van Gogh Museum and the Huygens Institute, 2009 (Volume 5: Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Letters to his brother Theo). Shelfmark: YC.2010.b.362 vol. 5.
Mark Titchner, Why and why not: vibrations, schizzes and knots, London: Book Works, 2004. Shelfmark: YC.2007.a.6117.
Martin Clark, Mark Beasley, Alun Rowlands, Tom Trevor, (editors), Mark Titchner, Bristol: Arnolfini, 2006. Shelfmark: YC.2011.b.820.
Richard L. Hopkins (editor), The private typecasters: preserving the craft of hot-metal type into the twenty-first century, Newtown, Pennsylvania: Bird & Pull Press, 2008. Shelfmark: RF.2017.b.103).
On the art and poetics of Ferreira Gullar, see the British Library holdings at: https://bit.ly/3qaHmXs
From the web to the publisher. Kitty O’Meara’s "And the people stayed home: https://trapublishing.com/products/and-the-people-stayed-home
Collect, preserve and cataloguing emerging format at the British Library:
On the definition of Mail Art as an artistic phenomenon: https://bit.ly/2JvBW8E
Mail Art initiatives at the time of the first coronavirus pandemic wave:
On Mail Art publications and items at the British Library:
01 October 2020
The Americas and Oceania collections are pleased to offer three new electronic resources on women's rights, Native American studies, and early settlers in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. The resources can be accessed by Readers in the British Library Reading Rooms which are currently open but in a restricted capacity. Our hard-working Reference Enquiry Team are also able to access these new resources in order to support your virtual enquiries. You can contact them on their Quick Chat service for short research enquiries from Monday to Friday: 09.30–17.00, or get in touch with individual Reading Room teams via the 'Ask the Reference Team' function.
This digital collection is comprised of records of three important women's rights organizations in the US: the National Woman's Party, the League of Women Voters, and the Women's Action Alliance. Material included shows the organisations’ concerns with issues such as employment and employment discrimination, childcare, health care, and education and U.S. politics from 1920 to 1974. Types of content include party papers, correspondence, minutes, legal papers, financial records, printed material and photos. It’s an absolutely fascinating range of documents; lots of correspondence letters, offering a very different kind of approach to historical research on the topic of women’s rights
The collection provides a good primary resource for the study of first and second wave feminism. It includes the records of three important women's rights organizations in the US for the period 1913-1996, with additional material dating back to the 1850s. This resource complements existing areas of the British Library’s collections, particularly in regard to printed material around women’s suffrage movements in America. Later this month, the Library will be highlighting its collection around women’s rights with its major exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, taking place, and this resource will provide researchers with further ways to investigate the stories and issues touched upon in the exhibition.
Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:
For researchers looking at Indigenous Studies, American Studies and Canadian Studies, North American Indian Thought and Culture brings together more than 100,000 pages, many of which are previously unpublished, rare, or hard to find. The project integrates autobiographies, biographies, First Nations publications, oral histories, personal writings, photographs, drawings, and audio files for the first time. The result is a comprehensive representation of historical events as told by the individuals who lived through them. The database is an important resource for all those interested in research into the history of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Canadian First Peoples. It includes an archive of key texts about and by Indigenous peoples, including biographies, oral histories (audio and transcript), and photographs.
This resource complements existing collection strengths on North American Indigenous peoples at the British Library. Covering several centuries, its value particularly lies in the numerous accounts by Indigenous people (written and oral) which add a much needed dimension to the collections. Many of the materials it provides access to are otherwise unavailable in the UK. Autobiographies by Black Hawk and Okah Tubbee can be accessed, and rare books included represent Sequoyah and Standing Bear. Twenty prominent Native Americans have been selected for special emphasis, with multiple biographies presented, including Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, and Plenty Coups.
Virtually all North American groups are represented—nearly 500 in all. Some nations are covered in great depth, including the Eskimos and Inuit of the Arctic; the sub-Arctic Cree; the Pacific Coastal Salish; the Ojibwa, Cheyenne, and Sioux of the Plains. Biographies have been collected from more than 100 Native American publications, such as The Arrow, the Cherokee Phoenix, and the Chickasaw Intelligencer. The collection includes 2,000 oral histories presented in audio and transcript form and at least 20,000 photographs including from the archives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and other rare collections.
Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:
For researchers in settler colonial studies, history, area studies, migration studies, Indigenous studies, and more, this collection of first-person accounts provide a unique and personal view of events in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand from the arrival of the first settlers through to Australian Federation at the close of the nineteenth century. Through letters and diaries, narratives, and other primary source materials, we are able to hear the voices of the time and explore the experiences of women and men, settlers and Indigenous peoples, convicts, explorers, soldiers, and officials . Thousands of unique documents have been drawn from the archives of the State Library of Victoria; State Library of New South Wales; State Library of Queensland; Flinders University; University of Melbourne; and University of Waikato.
A key feature of this resource is the extensive indexing of material which allows the sources to be browsed and cross-searched in a variety of ways, including by date, person, and subject. Content can be explored by writer, region, audience, personal and historical event, environmental features including fauna and flora, and more. Supporting material such as images, maps, and photographs supplement the first-person narratives and provide additional context. The resource builds on the legacy of the James Cook: The Voyages exhibition in providing first-hand accounts of those who settled in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific following Cook’s exploration in the region.
Related e-resources which can be accessed in the Reading Rooms and by our Reference Enquiry Team to support virtual enquiries during this time include:
Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections
14 September 2020
September 14th 2020 marks the start of Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week): the annual celebration of a pivotal moment in the revitalisation of the language in Aotearoa/New Zealand. In this post, we look at the journey of te reo Māori (the Māori language) following the arrival of Europeans in the 19th century, and hear from Scott Ratima Nolan, a member of staff here at the British Library, about his own relationship with te reo (the language).
Te reo Māori in Aotearoa
The history of te reo, considered so sacred in Māori culture that it now has protection under the Treaty of Waitangi, is a tale of highs and lows. Before the 19th century, te reo Māori was predominately a spoken language, with meaning and information also communicated through symbols and patterns embedded in crafts such as weaving and carvings. Te reo (the language) developed as a written form in the beginning of the 19th century with the arrival of Christian missionaries, and dominated the early years of publishing in Aotearoa. The first books printed in the country were written in te reo: extracts from the Bible printed on the missionary press in the 1830s at Paihia in the country’s North Island. Early Māori language newspapers, such as the government-owned Ko te Karere o Nui Tireni (shelfmark LOU.CMISC67), began publication in the following decade.
Te reo remained the most widely spoken language of Aotearoa during the first half of the 19th century, with Europeans learning the language in order to communicate, trade and convert the Māori population. However, this changed with the increase of settlers arriving in the country, and Europeans emerged as the majority population by the second half of the 19th century. The English language now dominated, forcing assimilation among Māori through suppression of the use of te reo in schools and discouraging its use in public life. Confined to use in the home, te reo Māori became at risk of extinction by the mid-20th century. The Māori language, culture and identity are intricately entwined, with te reo considered taonga (treasure) in Māori culture. Taonga require protection and this prompted a revitalisation of the language in the 1970s. On September 14th 1972, Parliament was called upon to allow te reo to be taught in schools: a place where its use had previously been actively discouraged, and often forbidden. Language recovery programmes began in earnest and te reo Māori became increasingly heard on radio and television, and read in Māori newspapers, magazines and books. Te reo education systems were established including Kōhanga reo and Kura kaupapa which immersed students in Māori language and culture. Following a successful language claim under the Treaty of Waitangi which argued that, as a taonga, the language deserved protection, te reo Māori was made an official language of Aotearoa/New Zealand through the Māori Language Act in 1987. The Māori Language Commission (Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori), was set up in the same year to promote the language, and published guides such as Māori for the office = Te reo Māori mō te tari (shelfmark YK.2000.a.5008) and Te Matatiki contemporary Māori words (shelfmark YK.1996.a.20438) to promote use of te reo in daily life.
The Commission also exists to expand the language, and they have recently developed Māori terminology for a very serious 21st century situation: COVID-19. New terms to enter the Māori language this year to support the fight against COVID-19 include:
- Mate Korona = Corona Virus
- Patuero ā-ringa = Hand Sanitiser
- Tū Tīrara = Social Distancing
- Rere ā-Hapori = Community Transmission
The aim is for Aotearoa to eventually become a bi-lingual country, and while Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week) celebrates that crucial moment in the trajectory of te reo in 1972, it also acts a source of inspiration and encouragement for all New Zealanders to connect or re-connect with te reo Māori. In doing so, they help safeguard a language deeply woven into their country’s history and identity. Te reo Māori is also safeguarded outside Aotearoa through diaspora communities, including here in the UK. The Ngāti Rānana London Māori Club keep the Māori culture and language strong and proud in New Zealanders living in London and the rest of the UK. Ngāti Rānana also meet to learn, practise and share knowledge of kapa haka: traditional performing arts. Anyone with an interest in Māori culture is welcome at their regular gatherings at the New Zealand High Commission in London (moved online during COVID-19).
A personal connection with te reo Māori
Although the British Library is the national library of the UK, our staff are international and have personal connections to countries, languages and cultures all over the world. In the story below, Conservation Support Assistant, Scott Ratima Nolan, explains his own relationship with te reo Māori.
It hasn’t been easy to write about being tangata whenua: being Māori here in the UK. When I think about Aotearoa, the land I call home, it is a strong wrench. The ties of a thousand flaxen cords are interwoven with both Pasifika and Pākehā (White NZ) threads, bound with the hands of ancestors known, and (to my shame) unknown. Ever does it pull; He taura here whenua. Such are the ties that bind.
Growing up in South Auckland, that North Island city of effervescent Polynesian culture, I was wrapped in the warmth of my whānau and a proud people. My father, a man as gifted as Herodotus in blending truth and fiction, maintained my first language was te reo Māori. While this is debatable, I certainly was strong in my tikanga (custom or practice); the first flag I ever knew was the United Tribes of New Zealand. I remember my visit to the Auckland War Museum as a child, where I was moved to tears in seeing the taonga, the treasures of my people, on display. It resolved me, even then, to become a Kaitiaki: a custodian. And, emblematic of my own shared bloodlines, caring for the heritage and the taonga of not just my own, but many cultures.
Now, as any reproachful teenager would tell you, growing up is hard. And in moving to the South Island of New Zealand, I was confronted by another culture: that of the South Island Pākehā. My school had no legitimate te reo course. Culture was limited to theatre and musicals. Speaking te reo out loud was looked down on. In history, we spent an entire term on the Irish Civil War, but knew next to nothing on the New Zealand Wars, the Treaty of Waitangi and Māori land confiscation. Frustratingly, both teachers and my fellow students were aghast at my claims to be ‘native’. I looked like them; why would I want to be any different? In a grand spectacle of Pākehā dominance, in front of what seemed to be the entire school, my Principal forced me to remove my Pounamu, a sacred greenstone (which my father had forbidden me to remove), from around my neck. The trenches and palisades of my cultural pride and resistance were assaulted and hewn down into the cold embrace of southern conformity. And, while I rebuilt my confidence somewhat over my university years, I had lost a lot of my pride, and my language. There were scars across my heart, and it was with some relief that I left Aotearoa to come to the UK. I hoped I could reconnect with my culture by becoming a Kaitiaki, working with heritage collections.
However, attempting to build a career in heritage institutions here can be a real struggle for BAME and Indigenous peoples. To work in this sector, I found I had to suppress my culture: a necessity for those doors to open. I did this not out of shame over being Māori, but rather the sadness of not being accepted and welcomed here (especially in this sector) as such. And for years since, I railed against those ties that bound me until they diminished. And I stopped my ears to the whispers of my tīpuna (ancestors) who know me as Māori until they quietened. I even stopped using what te reo I knew, because I had grown up understanding that my language was sacred, and I felt I profaned it by using it when I did not honour my people. And thus, I lived, but I lived with a hole in my heart.
But the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement was a real catalyst for me. That hole in my heart cast a long shadow across my soul, and a real despondency overtook me. This despondency rose not just from those events, but also the slow dawning realisation of how much I had given up just to be here to work in a field I had, in ruthless irony, chosen as a place where I could honour my people by being a Kaitiaki, a custodian, to the treasures we hold here.
A taniwha, a guardian spirit that had long lain dormant inside me, had awoken, and it was hungry for change. And somehow, I gained the strength to put aside fear of exclusion, embarrassment or castigation, to speak up and identify myself as Māori. And I found a workplace that is incredibly supportive and responsive to the BLM movement, and is taking steps to become more inclusive: to accept me as I am. In a matter of weeks, I was working alongside others on the Front Hall busts reinterpretation, which, in redressing some of our collection legacies, has restored Mana to both my people and the British Library.
So, in this year’s Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, I’m celebrating my rebirth. I’m Māori, and I’m proud. I take courage from the very language itself, which at one point faced extinction and has come back so strong. Te reo Māori is an essential part of my culture, and I’ve made it my resolution to relearn it. I’m starting now, haltingly, to use the words of my people in every day speech and in email, to celebrate and share my culture, and to reach out to my friends back home in Aotearoa: to not only kōrero (talk), but also to whakarongo, (listen).
And every word I speak tears down another brick in the walls I have built up, filling the hole in my heart. And at long last I can hear my ancestors again.
Tihei Mauri ora! Behold the breath of life!
Scott Ratima Nolan
Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa
Aotearoa: ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’ the Māori name for New Zealand
Kaitiaki: Guardian or a custodian, someone who works to protect and safeguard
Pākehā: White New Zealanders of (usually) European descent
Pasifika: Peoples of the Pacific or of Pacific Island descent, who call Aotearoa home
Pounamu: NZ nephrite jade, or Greenstone. A sacred stone considered taonga, or treasured. Often used in jewellery or weapons with a deep spiritual connection
Tangata whenua: ‘The People of the Land’ how we as Māori often refer to ourselves; the indigenous inhabitants of this land
Taniwha: a Mythological being, often found in water. They can be Kaitiaki (guardians) or monsters punishing those that breached tikanga (custom)
Taonga: the treasures, artefacts or resources that are considered of great value, including our language
Tikanga: the customs, culture, etiquette and practices of being Māori
Tīpuna: alternatively spelled as tupuna, this refers to Ancestors and grandparents
Whānau: Family and extended family
Belich, J. (2015). The New Zealand wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press. BL shelfmark ELD.DS.322292
Cooper, G. (2004). Te rerenga ā te pīrere : a longitudinal study of Kōhanga reo and Kura kaupapa Māori students. Pūrongo tuatahi = Phase 1 report. Wellington, N.Z.: New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER). BL shelfmark YD.2010.b.826
Curnow, J., Hopa, N.K. and McRae, J. (2013). He pitopito kōrero nō te perehi Māori = Readings from the Māori-language press. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press. BL shelfmark ELD.DS.322290
Higgin, R. Rewi, P. and Olsen-Reeder, P. (2014). The value of the Māori language = Te hua o te reo Māori. Wellington, New Zealand: Huia Publishers. BL shelfmark YP.2014.a.6419
Karetu, T. and Milroy, W. (2019). He kupu tuku iho : ko te reo Māori te tatau ki te ao. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press. BL shelfmark ELD.DS.306747
Moon, P. (2016). Ka ngaro te reo: Māori language under siege in the nineteenth century. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press. BL shelfmark YC.2020.a.2630
Moon, P. (2018). Killing te reo Māori. Palmerston North, New Zealand: Campus Press. BL Shelfmark YD.2018.a.3686
Williams, H.W. (1924). A Bibliography of Printed Maori to 1900. Dominion Museum Monograph. no. 7. Wellington, New Zealand. BL shelfmark Ac.1990.ca.
Williams, W. (trans). (1835) Ko nga pukapuka o Paora te Apotoro ki te hunga o Epeha, o Piripai /Epistles to the Ephesians and Philippians. Paihia, New Zealand: Pahia Missionary Press. BL shelfmark C.23.a.15.(2.)
Ko te karere o nui tireni. (1842). Auckland; New Zealand. BL shelfmark LOU.CMISC67
Māori Language Commission. (1997) Māori for the office = Te reo Māori mō te tari (2nd ed). Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press. BL shelfmark YK.2000.a.5008
Māori Language Commission. (1996). Te Matatiki : contemporary Māori words. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press. BL shelfmark YK.1996.a.20438
Māori Language Commission. (2020). Māori terminology for Covid-19 [online]. Available at: https://www.tetaurawhiri.govt.nz/en/te-reo-maori/press-releases/maori-terminology-for-covid-19/
Lucy Rowland, Curator Oceania Published Collections (post-1850)
16 July 2020
Atomic Holiday Snaps? Depictions of ‘normality’ in the official photography of postwar atomic bomb tests
This post by Timothy Peacock is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across the Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.
Who would ever think of a nuclear test site as a summer holiday camp?
One of the extraordinary holdings of the British Library is the 'Official Pictorial Record' of the aptly named ‘Operation Crossroads’ in 1946, containing over 200 photographs and accompanying text about the first postwar nuclear bomb test series by the United States.1 The tests, at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, used atom bombs against a fleet of decommissioned and captured World War II ships. These detonations set precedents for the peacetime testing of more than 1,000 nuclear weapons over the following decades, displaced populations from their Pacific Island homes, and had global diplomatic impacts.2
The tests also produced some of the most recognisable images of atomic bomb detonations which not only continue to be staples of film and television but have generated sociocultural responses from mushroom-cloud hairdos to memes and protest movements. The now ubiquitous swimsuit, the bikini - which was unveiled to the world four days after the first detonation - was immediately equated by its creator with the atom: small but full of explosive potential. Yet unlike the Atoll itself, the swimsuit appears to have escaped widespread association with nuclear testing and its radioactive legacies!
However, the political, military and cultural histories merge within Operation Crossroads: the Official Pictorial Record in the most unexpected ways. Alongside images of scientific test preparations, atomic detonations and damage surveys, what is perhaps most remarkable about the Record is the number of images which capture aspects of the everyday lives of those involved in the tests, whether working or off-duty - at rest, exercise or while being entertained.
Some of the images look, at first glance, like historic holiday snapshots, the only indicators to the contrary being an ominous line in the accompanying text or occasional visual clues. Sometimes even these clues do not make it clear as to the overarching situation.
One double page in particular captures the holiday camp vibe, entitled, with unconscious irony, “IS EVERYBODY HAPPY?”. A large group of sailors are pictured paying close attention to a shirtless speaker (Figure 2), who turns out to be a Congressman observing the tests. The text explains this to have been part of a “Happy Hour”, including a quiz about nuclear physics. In perhaps a classic representation of the ‘underdog’ triumphing, it proudly records the ships messboys’ victory over the scientists in their quiz knowledge.
Alongside this image, the other page displays pictures which continue the seaside resort theme. One of these (Figure 1) is a close-up photograph of women on a beach, surrounding one man, with another in the background, all wearing what appears to be beachwear, some smiling for the camera. It is only through the caption that we learn of their affiliation as Army nurses serving with the Task Force, with the explanatory caption “relax with friends”. The description and framing of the image are notable for reinforcing the vacation motif, and also for blurring the distinction regarding the professional identity of the subjects.
The other image on the page (Figure 3), a large beach scene, filled with off-duty personnel enjoying themselves through such activities as swimming or sunbathing, features some on a landing craft, but the overall ethos is not dissimilar from the pictorial framing of typical holiday scenes. The caption does, however, include a final line about banning swimming temporarily because of radiation concerns after the Test Able detonation, quickly following this up by saying it was allowed again once safety was ensured. The attempt to normalise the tests through juxtaposing the photograph and caption is significantly portentous, given the subsequent history of the radioactive transformation of the landscapes depicted.
The sardonic humour of the photographs, characteristic in 1940s civil and military life, is incongruous with the overarching seriousness of the nuclear test situation. Figure 4 shows a 'reboarding party' surveying a target ship for damage after one of the nuclear detonations. The message chalked onto the ship’s hull, “Attention visitors, No Smoking, No Souvenirs”, is a seemingly self-conscious pastiche of signs aimed at tourists in hotel resorts, juxtaposed with the military regulations in place surrounding the tests. Such writing also echoes related traditions of chalking messages onto bombs during the War, or indeed, of naming some individual nuclear weapons after famous figures. The Bomb dropped in Crossroads Able test, for example, was christened 'Gilda', and adorned with a stencilled name and Rita Hayworth’s photograph, after the title character she played in the 1946 film Gilda – an association which was not appreciated by the film star herself! The message on the ship was likely written before detonation, a different message being shown in another photo being written by a sailor. Its presence is an insight into the attitudes of the unnamed author, a working ‘tourist’ in arguably the most exclusive and, at that moment, unappealing resort.
The radioactive seawater which enveloped the target ships during the Crossroads Baker test made most of them too radioactive to be decontaminated. It has been regarded as one of the world’s first nuclear accidents. Many of the vessels still lie sunk in Bikini Atoll, a popular location in recent years for a very different kind of enthusiast, those diving to explore the wrecks.
The world-changing effects of a seemingly microscopic globule today in some ways resonate remarkably with the transformation surrounding the splitting of the atom. The official photographs from Crossroads serve not only as a scientific and military record of early nuclear testing, but also as a poignant example of the final moments for those individuals involved of the ‘normality’ of the world as it was, and the end of the holiday.
Dr Timothy Peacock, Eccles Fellow 2019, is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Glasgow. He is on Twitter @DrTimPeacock
1. Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946, p. 71. British Library shelfmark: W67/5211. This item is also available digitally courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
2. For further information about Operation Crossroads, see Jonathan M. Weisgall, Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994. British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 94/14429.
NB: Readers may also be interested in a blog about Operation Crossroads by Mark Eastwood, who undertook a PhD placement with the Eccles Centre in 2016.
American Collections blog recent posts
- The Paradoxes of Power: Photographic records and postwar nuclear testing
- Reading Brood X
- Two treaties: Waitangi Day in conversation
- Beyond the Exhibition: Unfinished Business – Curators' Lunchtime Session
- Art in a pandemic: exploring manifestation of art and design
- New additions to our electronic resources
- Māori Language Week 2020
- Atomic Holiday Snaps? Depictions of ‘normality’ in the official photography of postwar atomic bomb tests