Category Archives: Images

Histories of the supernatural

Jose Guadalupe Posada, Calavera PoncianistaAutumn term round table
Histories of the supernatural

Friday 6 December, 2–5pm
(coffee and cake served from 1.45)
Muirhead tower, room 118

Please email Ben White to confirm attendance, just to help us plan the catering.


Rhodri Hayward (Queen Mary)
Confronting the luminous raccoon: historical writing and the problem of the supernatural

David Gange (Birmingham)
Religion and the rise of magic, 1890–1910

Isak Niehaus (Brunel)
Witchcraft and the South African Bantustans: evidence from Bushbuckridge

This promises to be a lot of fun…

Click image for source, which is Cornell University Library’s splendid collection of images The Fantastic in Art & Fiction. This grinning gentleman is by Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913), and his title is Calavera Poncianista.

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Late Soviet Armenia

In our week 7 seminar today Jo Laycock will be telling us about dilemmas of humanitarianism in early Soviet Armenia. So it struck me that a post on late Soviet Armenia might be in order, especially as we’re coming up to the 25th anniversary of the 1988 Spitak earthquake. Mikhail Gorbachev’s formal request to the USA for humanitarian assistance in the wake of this hugely destructive earthquake was the first such request made by a Soviet leader since the second world war: it’s a late cold war example of humanitarian disasters leading to temporary relaxing of suspicions between mutually hostile states (cf. the Greek-Turkish earthquake diplomacy of a decade later). In the end over a hundred countries provided humanitarian assistance.

alexandropol_engravingThis image, from the Armenian architecture website Virtual Ani, shows the city of Alexandropol in the 1870s, with the church of the Holy Saviour dominating the skyline. By 1988, tsarist Alexandropol had become the Soviet city of Leninakan and the same church was surrounded by poorly-constructed apartment blocks. Here’s a picture of the church after the earthquake from the US National Geophysical Data Center’s natural hazards image database:

Holy Saviour church in ruins

Collapse of Church of the Holy Saviour of All, Leninakan, Armenia
C.J. Langer, U.S. Geological Survey

The church now stands in the Armenian city of Gyumri, and has largely been reconstructed—Virtual Ani has more, and Wikipedia has a detailed page on the 1988 earthquake. But tonight we’ll be hearing about an earlier period in Soviet Armenian history.

Click images for source


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Big city street life

On the Guardian website today they have some pictures by John Thomson, the Edinburgh-born pioneer of street photography. There’s a topical picture of the day, of bonfire night in 1876 (fireworks are going off in the distance as I write this, unless it’s the kids upstairs stamping about) and a gallery of photos from the famous series he published with Adolphe Smith, Street life in London—a copy of the book has just gone up for sale at auction. (It first came out as a series of monthly magazines.)

A Boatwoman, by John ThomsonBut Street life in London was far from being Thomson’s first major work: for most of the decade from 1862 to 1872, he was living and working across east Asia, initially as an instrument-maker but then as a photographer. Wikipedia has these understated words about his exploits:

Thomson’s travels in China were often perilous, as he visited remote, almost unpopulated regions far inland. Most of the people he encountered had never seen a Westerner or camera before. His expeditions were also especially challenging because he had to transport his bulky wooden camera, many large, fragile glass plates, and potentially explosive chemicals.

A Knife-grinder, by John Thomson

As these pictures of a boatwoman and a knife-grinder show, Thomson had plenty of experience of street photography before he returned to Britain and settled in London. But he’d also picked up some experience that would serve him in his later career as a portrait photographer in Mayfair (he got a royal warrant in 1881). This image, for example, shows Mao Changxi, a senior Chinese minister who appears to have a pretty diffident attitude to the camera:

Mao Changxi, by John ThomsonThese images are from the Wellcome Collection, which has a fine selection of Thomson’s Chinese photos to explore here. There’s a web resource at the National Library of Scotland, too, related to a past exhibition—but the photos there are a bit too small to appreciate. It’s a pity, as they include this beautiful land-and-seascape, which I’ve left small so it doesn’t appear too pixellated.

A Canton Junk, by John ThomsonNow there are fireworks going off on the back green, so I’ll leave it at that.

Click images for source — the higher-res Wellcome Collection images are released under a Creative Commons licence


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I’ve been reading Francis Spufford’s book Red Plenty recently—not a history book, not a novel, but something in between. (Much more interesting than most history books, but with more footnotes than most novels that aren’t by David Foster Wallace.) It’s about the Soviet economy in the years around 1960, and it’s a lot more fun than that sounds.

One of the settings for the book is the Siberian science town of Akademgorodok (‘Academytown’), founded outside Novosibirsk in the 1950s by the Soviet Academy of Science. Here it is at the planning stage:

Akademgorodok, opening

The town is outside the city of Novosibirsk, and is formally a part of it. When it was being built, different disciplines squabbled bitterly over who would get which building: ‘Cytology and Genetics itself obtained its premises by seizing, one weekend, a facility promised to the Computer Centre, and the Computer Centre nearly lost its next earmarked site as well, to an opportunistic grab by a group researching transplant surgery.’


And the many advantages that the academics enjoyed meant that their Siberian neighbours weren’t always helpful: ‘Envy of the town’s material privileges was a factor in the unhelpfulness of the city government of Novosibirk [sic] over such issues as the water supply. At one point, the city stole an entire trainload of supplies earmarked for Akademgorodok, and Academician Lavrentiev, the de facto mayor, had to ring Khrushchev personally to get it back.’ (Spufford, notes to p. 151—his main source for all this is Paul Josephson’s New Atlantis Revisited).

The place went into a tailspin after the Soviet period but—as some of the references to the Wikipedia article show—has recently been trying to reinvent itself as a tech hub, a kind of Silicon Forest.

Akademgorodok, 21st centuryIt has something of a web presence, from the unexpected photos of sunbathers and sailing boats on on TripAdvisor that came up when I looked on Google images (they’re on the Ob Sea, a large artificial lake, and resort, next to the town) to the excellent Facebook page that I got these images from. That’s well worth a look, even if like me you speak no Russian. It has lots of archival photos and other resources, including this short cine-film tour, with its er delightful backing music:

And there’s Spufford’s own website for the book, linked at the top of the page, which includes his travel notes from a research trip to Siberia in 2006. If you’re looking for something to keep you busy in reading week, you could do a lot worse than spend a bit of time in high Soviet Siberia.

Click images for source

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I want this gif to flash up whenever the word ‘problematic’ is used in an academic context:


The internet is a wonderful thing.


Garden cities

Plan du projet de la cité-jardin de Stains, 1920Our colleague Matt Houlbrook’s blog post today about Welwyn Garden City in 1920 got me thinking about the cité-jardin of Stains, north of Paris, built at about the same time and very much under the influence of les garden city across the Channel. I spent a happy afternoon wandering around it in September of last year with some friends, one of whom was working there on a public history and heritage project. You can read more about it in slightly erratic English here, or in greater detail in French here (or just look at the pictures, which are better on the French site). Stains, by the way, is pronounced more like ‘Stan’ than ‘stains’. I’ll admit I find it funny every time I see a sign for it somewhere on a main road in the Parisian banlieue.

The Stains cité-jardin was one of several ambitious social housing projects carried out in the Paris region in the 1920s and 30s. Here’s a striking modernist map produced by the Office public d’habitations du département de la Seine in 1933, showing where they all were:


Most of them ran into significant problems later—because they didn’t get the sustained investment they needed to maintain their initial high standards; because the very moderne layouts of public and private areas turned out to make for noisy, echoing, and unpleasantly exposed public spaces; above all, because local authorities lost interest in them and the people who’d been decanted into them. I found myself thinking of the ‘Bullring’—not the shopping centre in Birmingham but the social housing in central Liverpool whose official title is St Andrews Gardens, which ran into many of the same problems. I asked my mum about it just now; she texted back to say she remembered its bad reputation. (It’s now been redeveloped as student accommodation.) Here’s an excellent photo by Flickr user SomeDriftwood:

St Andrews Gardens

St Andrews Gardens is the sort of development—possibly the same one, anonymized as ‘Roundhouse’—where Howard Parker did the research for his classic urban ethnography, View from the boys (1974), which notes on p. 25 that:

In the 1950s the ‘gardens’ disappeared, due to vandalism and neglect, and the whole courtyard area was tarmaced. [This didn’t make the acoustics any less harsh.] Even a Housing Manager admitted that ‘Tarmac is a supreme example of dealing with things in an ad hoc manner. It is the Corporation’s message to the tenants—we’ve finished with you now, we give up.’ It was not until the 1960s that the air-raid shelters in the courtyard were removed.

Something similar happened to the nice little individual vegetable gardens in the areas behind the blocks in the cité-jardin de Stains that I visited, though the ones I saw had just been allowed to become overgrown and litter-strewn—they hadn’t been tarmacked over, and the whole area is now getting a bit of attention (whereas other parts of the Paris banlieue, including more recent cités a few streets away, are indeed given the neglect/tarmac/demolish treatment).

Not too far from Stains, and particularly hard to read in the upper right-hand part of the map, was the housing development of La Muette at Drancy:


These were the first high-rise residential tower blocks in France, built in 1931–34. The whole complex was confiscated by the Nazis after the occupation of France, and the horseshoe shaped low-rise complex to the upper left—built around a courtyard with the unfriendly dimensions of 200m long by 40m wide, and incomplete at the time—became the Drancy internment camp, used first as a police detention centre and then more notoriously as a holding camp for Jews prior to their deportation to the death camps. As well as building watchtowers and surrounding the place with barbed wire, they tarmacked the courtyard.

Click images for source

Editorial update: I corrected a reference to ‘the Bulks’:
this wasn’t a shortened nickname for the Bullring, it turns out,
but an invention of the predictive text editor on my mum’s mobile.

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Scholarship of blackness

NYC sidewalk

It’s Black History Month, and a series of related events is running here at the University of Birmingham. We also have a tumblr on the scholarship of blackness, with research on the subject that’s being done here. Check it out!

Image: a woman on 5th Avenue, New York City, 1960s. Click for source, which is the always-excellent—though US-focused—Black History Album.

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Picturing refugees

I’m putting together the handouts for one of my classes next term, on the module we use to introduce incoming first-year undergraduates to doing history at university level. I have two groups, and I’m doing a different ‘intensive study topic’ for each of them (so as to avoid fights over scarce library resources…).

Christian refugees from Asia Minor, LoC ggb2006010957

Although I’m a Middle East historian by background, finding topics in Middle East history that have a substantial body of secondary literature is a bit tricky, and finding ones where the literature isn’t highly politicized is even trickier. So I’m turning to my other teaching area, refugee history, instead, with one class on the Greek-Turkish population exchange (admittedly a not unpolarized body of literature, but the worst of it is in Greek and Turkish; in English there’s a fair range of less tendentious material) and another on German Jewish refugees.

Now, one problem with teaching refugee history is the tendency to reduce the people you’re supposedly concerned with—the refugees—to a passive and nameless crowd, huddled in camps or crammed into transit vehicles like the ones above. (That image shows refugees from Samsun, Turkey in train cars at Patras, Greece, after the population exchange; it’s part of the Bain collection at the Library of Congress.) It’s always easier to approach the history of the stateless and uprooted from the perspective of the states that displaced, refused, or assisted them; the international forums where diplomats talked about them; or the NGOs—in my period more usually referred to as private voluntary organizations or PVOs—that tried to keep them alive.

But refugees aren’t a passive mass: we need to get at the experiences of individual refugees, and we need to remember that refugees are active: from the point of view of host states, they have an awkward tendency to want to control their own lives, and their own political destinies. The very image of the passive, destitute refugee is a powerful ideological construct that plays a part in states’ attempts to control refugees—which often involve forcing refugees into a more passive and destitute state. The Spanish Republican refugees who fled into France at the end of the Civil War had to be disarmed as they arrived, to make them easier to control: the picture to the left shows a stack of rifles taken from refugees at Le Perthus. Families were split up, women and children sent to camps of their own, while once the men had been disarmed they were housed in dreadful conditions, in makeshift camps made of little more than barbed wire on the beach. (If being stuck on a Mediterranean beach sounds nice, remember that it was late winter—and that you can’t dig a latrine trench in sand.) Look at this aerial picture of the camp at Argelès-sur-mer and you start to realize that encampment was a preemptive act of violence against the refugees:

14. Argeles(Want to know why states are so scared of refugees? Do my third-year advanced option module on refugee history and you’ll find out.)

So, when I thought about what pictures I could use for the front page of my module handouts, I was trying to find things that would communicate individual experiences, and refugees’ ability to control their own lives.

Markiewicz passport

It didn’t really work. For the class on the Greek-Turkish population exchange I went with the first picture, above. Class handouts are often done in a bit of a hurry, when they’re overdue—mine are, anyway—and finding good images takes a while. Most of the photos I looked at on the Library of Congress website just weren’t very good: this one is, at least, a clear and striking image. It’s a cliched one, but some of the others were worse.

For the class on Jewish refugees, the range of available photos is greater, partly because of an active, ‘collecting’ interest by major museums. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is one of the most important, and that’s where I found the picture to the right: a page from Ellen ‘Sara’ Markiewicz’s child passport, issued by the Berlin chief of police in April 1939. It allowed her to join a Kindertransport to Britain—on another page there’s a stamp from her landing port at Southampton, giving her leave to enter the country ‘on condition that the holder does not enter any employment paid or unpaid while in the United Kingdom’. So she’s not part of a nameless mass any more, even if one of her names was imposed on her by the Nazis. (All Jewish males were given the middle name Israel; all Jewish females, Sara.)

Moritz Schoenberger at Les MillesAlso from the USHMM is this picture of Moritz Schoenberger, in the internment camp at Les Milles, France, in 1941. Schoenberger had already crossed the Atlantic once in flight from the Nazis, unsuccessfully, on the famous refugee ship the MS St. Louis, which was refused entry by Cuba, the US, and Canada before returning to Europe. It docked at Antwerp, from where its 900 or so passengers dispersed to several European countries; about a quarter of them later died in the Holocaust.

Not Schoenberger, though: his wife Helene was already in the USA with their daughter, and successfully managed to get him a visa. But that didn’t come through until November 1941, by which time Schoenberger was interned in a French camp: he had travelled to France from Antwerp, and been interned as an enemy alien. After another eleven months—putting him into a fearful time for foreign Jews in France—the Vichy government allowed him to leave France, and he travelled to the US via Marseille and Lisbon. But here, he’s pictured in front of some of his artwork at Les Milles: Schoenberger, in his mid-50s by this time, was a commercial artist and window-dresser.

And here, seated second from left on the deck of the Lafayette, is Hildegard Wolff, on her way to the USA in September 1937. She looks cheerful—and who wouldn’t, as a Jew escaping Nazi Germany. Her parents weren’t so lucky.

Passengers on the deck of the LafayetteSo not all refugees are nameless and destitute. I hope I manage to communicate some of the variety of their experiences in my classes this term—especially the ones on subjects that aren’t as well served by the scholarship as Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

All images: click for source.
Ellen Markiewicz’s passport: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ellen Gerber
Moritz Schoenberger: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Julie Klein
Passengers on the deck of the Lafayette: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ruth Nadelman Lynn
This is ‘fair use’ of these images under the Museum’s policy on terms of use.
Images from the Bain collection at the Library of Congress are not known to be under any copyright restrictions.

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The smell of fresh paint

Marjah Square, Damascus, Library of Congress digital reproduction The queen, it is said, thinks the whole world smells of fresh paint. She’s not the only member of royalty to face this misconception. According to a marvellous book I’m reviewing at the moment, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his wife Augusta experienced the same thing when they travelled to Damascus:

The potential of the town planning committee was clearly seen during the visit by the German imperial couple in 1898, when all the main bazaars and streets were renovated by the city council. Sarkîs wrote in 1898 that more than 5,000 façades and shops had been newly whitewashed or repainted and a total length of 10 to 12 miles of road had been repaired.

A job like this required serious organization (and expenditure)—it demonstrates the rapid development of Damascus city council’s capacity and ambitions in the late nineteenth century, when Damascus was an important provincial capital of the Ottoman empire. It was around the same time that a new city centre took full form, outside the walls of the old city, to the west of the citadel: Marjah Square, pictured above, site of the governor’s residence, a new barracks, and the hub of the tram network. The picture’s from a bit later, though, some time between 1920 and 1933: the book, Stefan Weber’s Damascus: Ottoman modernity and urban transformation, 1808–1908, is packed with gorgeous illustrations, but many of them are from private collections, including a lovely one of soldiers on parade in another square during the imperial couple’s stay (Fig. 92, p. I.138). I got this one from the Library of Congress—click the image for the source.

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