Shakespeare on the Global Stage: Performance and Festivity in the Olympic Year, edited by Paul Prescott and Erin Sullivan, has just been published by Bloomsbury’s Arden Shakespeare series. The collection takes a range of perspectives on Shakespearean performance in 2012, emerging from the Year of Shakespeare project on the World Shakespeare Festival. I am pleased to have contributed a co-written essay, with Dr Peter Kirwan (Uni. of Nottingham) on “A Tale of Two Londons: Locating Shakespeare and Dickens in 2012”, which parallels the Shakespeare Festival and the Dickens bicentenary to explore the cultural politics of locating authors within national literary landscapes, and how this plays out within an international cultural context.
The last week or so has seen several news stories on the theme of heritage and tourism in the news that I found intriguing from the work I’ve been doing on “locating the Victorians” recently.
The first was this story about the opportunity to “live like the Crawleys” by bidding for a Downton Abbey experience involving an overnight stay and dinner at Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed; alternatively, guests could enjoy some of the “downstairs” experience with lessons on table-laying from a butler. In light of a recent resurgence of tourism oriented around the idea of ‘re-living history’ the Downton experience is doubly interesting, both taking the idea of ‘re-living history’ one step further than the usual historical tours and trails, but also re-figuring what is ‘historical’ about the history that is being re-lived: Downton is of course a fictionalised history that both plays on and departs from the popularity for adaptation of Victorian and early 20th century, so the idea of “living like the Crawleys” takes on an interesting inference in its purporting to be a ‘historical’ experience in any sense – and, in turn, raising questions about what’s ‘real’ about ‘re-living history’ anyway.
Another story this week raised a different perspective on engaging with historical spaces. The Talking Statues project has given voice to a selection of statues in London and Manchester, allowing visitors to use their smartphones to access audio recordings of the statue figures talking. It’s an interesting development in digital heritage models which have used similar initiatives to bring heritage or historical sites “to life” through audio tours and trails, which until now have typically used mobile apps or websites (see my locating Dickens post for examples). These apps and podcasts have proved successful in opening up new perspectives on places and engaging people in looking more closely at the urban landscape, but they depend upon the intention of the user to find out about the tour, download the app or audio, and then visit the sight as a planned activity. What’s interesting and different about Talking Statues is that it takes the onus off the user to know in advance about a tour or trail and instead can capture the unintentional passer-by, thereby potentially creating whole new audiences for heritage tourism (even if only on a micro-scale) who may never have thought to engage in such activities before. As with the Downton experience, though, this also raises questions about the ‘history’ that is being accessed through the (fictionalised) first-person narratives written by contemporary writers.
On a quick final note, it was good to see this news of an industrial heritage trail linking five sites across South and West Yorkshire – it’s great to see the working sites of the industrial revolution gradually gain heritage prominence next to the Downton-style houses.
Call for Papers: Edited Collection on ‘Sea Narratives’
Set in the wider context of a turn towards space and mobility, studies of the sea have come to take increasing prominence in the humanities and social sciences. This volume seeks to establish an interdisciplinary exchange on the theme of ‘sea narratives’, looking at how the sea has figured as an important site in different cultural and geographical contexts from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.
The collection will explore how humans have interacted with the sea through trade, labour, migration, leisure and exploration; how the sea has figured in national contexts as a site of geopolitical control; and how it has featured in the cultural imagination as a space of danger and the unknown, but also as a source of inspiration. Historically the sea has been a space of possibility, representing the potential of travel, exploration and trade; it has also been a site of conflict and contest, where warfare and geopolitical disputes play out. From poets such as Derek Walcott, who links the sea powerfully with colonial history, to artists such as Paul Morstad who uses old maps as canvases for fantastic creatures, the sea has inspired a range of creative responses that generate new questions about its power and possibilities.
This collection seeks to investigate these varied, contested and provocative ways in which the sea has been chronicled. Contributions are invited from disciplines including (but not limited to) geography, history, literary studies, media studies, and art history, that focus on the theme of “sea narratives” from the 1600s to the present day. The collection will span geographical locations, taking as its premise the idea that sea narratives benefit from trans-national study. The concept of ‘narratives’ is interpreted broadly, to encompass fiction, travel writing, poetry, film, documentaries, oral stories, and other historical sources.
Final essays will be 6000-8000 words in length, and first drafts will be due in November 2014. Abstracts of 300 words should be submitted by Sunday 4th May 2014. Enquiries and expressions of interest are welcome before this deadline: please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
Derek Walcott’s poem “The Sea is History” was one of our starting points for the symposium on Sea Narratives organised as part of the Travel and Mobility Studies Network at Warwick. When we formed the idea for this symposium, we hoped to create an interdisciplinary forum that would generate multiple and intersecting perspectives on the rich histories, geographies, and narratives of the sea. We were certainly not disappointed, and the 6 speakers that presented throughout the day provided a fascinating array of insights into the places, practices, and politics that shape the sea.
One final book review to finish off the year, and it’s of Churnjeet Mahn’s British Women’s Travel to Greece, 1840-1914: Travels in the Palimpsest on the FWSA blog.
It’s a couple of months now since the first press release announcing plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace. My initial response was amazement that it may be possible in coming years to see the rebuilding of one of the most important buildings of the nineteenth century; but as further details unfurl I, like many others, am increasingly ambivalent about the project, which would see a £500 million investment by a private Chinese corporation into the building and surrounding parkland. While the regeneration of the park seems long-overdue and supported by the local community, the corporation currently have an exclusivity agreement with the local council that prevents other proposals for the site’s development to be submitted until February 2015; during this time there is a call for the community to express their feedback on the scheme but it seems this has come rather late in discussions and from what I’ve read of the news articles, local people are unconvinced that this is the right sort of investment for the park. I’m not familiar with the area to comment further on the local impact of the project, but have been wondering from a Victorianist’s perspective what would be the value in rebuilding the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.
It’s easy to say that the Crystal Palace was one of the most iconic building of the Victorian age, but its history is much more complicated and complex than that: its a story of two phases, and the symbolic meaning of the building changed over the years. In its first incarnation, the Crystal Palace was built in Hyde Park in 1851 to house the Great Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations: the first international Exhibition of its kind, showcasing over 100,000 objects from all over the world. The Exhibition organising committee ran a public call for proposals for the design of the building, and after many unsuccessful suggestions it was Joseph Paxton’s design that caught the imagination of the organisers. Paxton had long been designing specialist greenhouses made from glass and iron for the large collection of exotic plants at the Chatsworth estate (including the famous giant Victoria Regia water lily). His design for the Exhibition space replicated the basic principles of these glasshouses, but at 562m long, 124m wide, and with an interior height of 39m, the building was by far the largest structure of its kind, and required sheets of glass bigger than any produced before. It was a piece in Punch that saw the building christened “the Crystal Palace”, a name that captured the semi-mythical, iconic status of the new building.
The Crystal Palace inspired mixed responses, ranging from hyperbolic praise at the wonder of its design, to ridicule that it was simply a very large greenhouse. So too was it site of contestation: as one Household Words article points out, not so far away from the great building lay “our over-crowded burial grounds, generating a poisonous atmosphere in the thick of the living and loathing people! There, runs the polluted Thames, of which we are compelled to drink!” (Richard Horne, 22/03/1851). Once filled with the exhibits, the wonder of its design was that although the structure was such a spectacle in and of itself, it receded into the background as a translucent space in which the objects on display could take centre-stage – as the colourful “Watercolours of the Great Exhibition” nicely demonstrate.
But it is arguably in the second phase of the Palace’s life that the strongest ideological meanings became invested in the building itself; the wealth of objects on display at the Exhibition overwhelmed visitors and ultimately preside most strongly in accounts of the Exhibition), but devoid of these things the Crystal Palace was both more open to interpretation, and open to retrospective investment as a symbol of a past era. After the closure of the Exhibition in October 1851, it was decided that the Palace should be rebuilt at Sydenham and, from its construction in 1854, it remained there until 1936. But while retaining the original features of Paxton’s design, this was an altogether different building: shorter in length, but with a much greater footprint (nearly 100 acres more) and rising to six stories (from the initial three), resulting in a much larger capacity than its first incarnation. Just from looking at pictures, it is clearly a much more commanding, overpowering presence as a structure, and I think this is crucial to the way in which the Palace (and, by association, the Great Exhibition) retrospectively became symbolic of a golden age of British imperial superiority to a much greater extent than in its original incarnation at the time of the Exhibition. The new Palace was put to a range of uses as a leisure space, hosting many concerts, events, exhibitions, and surrounded by 200 acres of park land used for recreation and sport. In 1936, the building was destroyed by a fire but the park has remained, and over the years there have been many suggestions for rebuilding or otherwise restoring the site of the Palace.
So what would be gained by rebuilding the Crystal Palace today? I suppose my initial fascination with the idea stems from an inability to quite grasp the scale and size of the building (both the original, and the redesigned version), and particularly the effect of being inside such a large glass structure. To be able to see and experience that wouldn’t be able to recapture the Victorian experience of the building in any real way, but it would provide an interesting exercise in accompanying the interpretation of accounts from the period. Perhaps more indicatively, it would represent a very interesting contribution to a contemporary neo-Victorian landscape which is marked by a fascination with the buildings and places of the past as sites of meaning, and I’m intrigued as to how a rebuilt Palace would play into both public perceptions and contemporary critical responses on these themes.
Because if there’s one thing that’s noticeable about the design (see the brochure download), it’s that the proposed building is evocative of a neo-Victorian aesthetic that befits the contemporary landscape, rather than standing as a monument to the past. While in images of Paxton’s design the iron bars of the structure are heavily visible, the design foregrounding the contrast between glass and iron, light and dark, weight and weightlessness, in the new design this is gone or at least downplayed in the overall visual effect: transparency, light, airiness are the themes of this structure, emphatically a reinterpretation rather than a straightforward homage to the Victorians. At the same time, heritage looms large over the project: “The park will be restored in line with the approved masterplan to create a modern 21st century park of national importance which reflects Joseph Paxton’s original ideas and responds to the needs and aspirations of local residents” (p. 5). It’s a rather empty statement however, with no explanation of what is understood by “Paxton’s original ideas”, and the talk of “originality” is further interesting given the Palace’s two design formulations – the new building uses the second design, not the true original from Hyde Park.
This reinterpretation is also interesting in that it demonstrates the global afterlives of Victorian Britian’s national heritage. The plans have come from the Chinese ZhongRong Group, and in the opening statement Mr Ni states that “the former Crystal Palace is celebrated in China as a building of great achievement. Its ingenuity and scale is magnificent and this project is a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring it back to life […] I have admired the Crystal Palace for many years and am passionate about this project. The Palace’s story is fascinating and I am hoping to add the next chapter by providing a gift to London and the world” (p. 3). It’s a telling statement about the ongoing resonances of the Victorian period and the dis- or re-location of national culture into international contexts, and to see that re-located back into Britain would bring interesting opportunities to analyse these currents further.
As the project gets underway it will be interesting to see how these themes develop; I’m not, from what I’ve heard so far, in favour of the project and hope that the local concerns around it are taken seriously. Insofar as the potential for discussion around the Victorians and their neo-Victorian afterlives goes, though, the project raises some indicative questions and I’d be intrigued to hear more about what other Victorianists make of the proposals as they unfold.
It was reported on BBC news this morning that the National Trust have temporarily taken over operation of the Big Brother house, and for 2 days only will be running public guided tours of the house that, for 13 years, has been home to rounds of contestants of the reality TV show.
Inevitably, this has prompted many negative reactions: how could the National Trust, guardians of Britain’s most valuable heritage sites, descend to this? Is the house of a reality TV show of inherent value or meaning worthy of the National Trust stamp of approval? Isn’t it just a shallow PR stunt designed to market the National Trust as trendy and appealing to a younger audience? Well yes, there is clearly a PR exercise at work here, but it’s one that I have little objection to, either as publicity stunt – for that in itself gets people talking about heritage and value systems, which can be no bad thing – or for the grounds on which it markets the house as being of touristic value.
Of course the issue at stake here isn’t the opening up of what is, essentially, a TV set but the fact that the National Trust is behind it. The National Trust’s website states that its core aim is to “protect historic houses, gardens, mills, coastline, forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, nature reserves, villages and pubs. Then we open them up for ever, for everyone.”
Houses, of course, reach right to the heart of the idea of English identity. From the 18th century to the present day, the country house has been situated as a key national institution and one of the central images associated with “Englishness”: evoking the power of the landed classes through an image of leisured grandeur set within carefully sculpted landscapes, whilst carefully eliding the labour and Empire required to produce and sustain that wealth, the country house neatly symbolises much of England’s history. The country house tourism that we participate in today is no new phenomenon either: the practice of visiting houses began in the late 18th century as one of the first modes of intra-national tourism and, as it grew throughout the 19th century, formed one of the key practices that helped solidify and, literally, locate an emergent sense of national identity. The continued popularity of country house tourism attests to the strength of discourses forged through this practice, the country house remaining a resonant location of cultural value, worthy of its heritage status and the national investment to protect it.
So it’s easy to see why the inclusion of the Big Brother house into this genre might cause some debate. The TV series marked the start of a reality turn in popular culture that is, by definition, both mundane and insidious in its attention to the details of the everyday lives on display. To many, it symbolises much of what is wrong with contemporary popular culture. Such a house also begs the obvious question about the appeal of visiting a house that has been displayed in such minute detail by cameras permeating every space; what is there left to see?
If houses represent the location of national culture, then the Big Brother house is arguably the most resonant site of British culture in the last ten years. When Big Brother first appeared on our TV screens 13 years ago it seemed to signal not just a new era of reality TV, but of privacy and intrusion too: “Big Brother is watching you” hit a cultural nerve, coinciding with, and perhaps at that time pre-empting, debates around an increasing surveillance culture (indeed, “Big Brother culture”) that have become particularly resonant over the last few years. While it was the TV series’ presentation of “reality” that initiated many of these debates, it is the material house itself that stands as the manifestation of these concepts, its physical structure permeated by modes of surveillance and spaces in which self-narratives – the lifeblood of reality TV – are encouraged to emerge (the “diary room”, for example). As the phase “Big Brother is watching you” also reminds us, it’s a space that invokes British cultural tradition; while the show’s derivation from 1984 remains tangential in its final formation and the idea of “Big Brother culture” was widely resonant before the TV show, it is arguably the TV series that has served to re-invoke Orwellian concepts as widely identifiable and understandable to new audiences, reinstating the text as an active part of contemporary cultural memory.
It’s worth remembering, too, that we can’t be too precious about the perceived cultural value of country house tourism. Much of the contemporary interest in national house visiting has been invigorated by TV reinterpretations of the nineteenth century that take the country house as a central symbol: from the Austen adaptations of the 1980s and ’90s to Downton Abbey in more recent years, the house has been central in the visual evocation of nineteenth-century England, and this in turn has helped foster the continued interest in National Trust and English Heritage sites. The popularity of heritage houses is as much a collision of different cultural forms and inscriptions of cultural meaning, a meeting-point of popular and traditional, literary and TV culture. So too does the Big Brother house remind us that these sites also market themselves via the commodification of visitor experience: if the Big Brother house makes quite explicit the question of “what would one gain from being in, experiencing the house for oneself?”, this question might just as easily be put to the viewing of country houses, where the idea of being a participant in history is key to the marketable appeal.
I won’t lie, reality TV isn’t my thing and I wasn’t queuing up to get tickets to the Big Brother house. But I am pleased that the National Trust have done this, for if nothing else it serves as a useful site of cultural debate for thinking about the meaning of heritage, national identity and cultural value, and reassessing the sites that remain meaningful locations of heritage today.