Podcast: #Ruskin200 – Ruskin, Science and the Environment

You can listen to our #Ruskin200 podcast here. As well as telling you more about what’s in store at our 8th February conference and lecture, it also offers three scholars reflecting on how Ruskin has shaped their work.

 

  • Prof John Holmes (University of Birmingham) talks about Ruskin and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

“Perhaps Ruskin holds something for us now that perhaps twenty years ago we were less aware that he would hold for us”

 

  • Dr Fraser Riddell (Trinity College, University of Oxford) explains how Vernon Lee responded to Ruskin’s ideas

“Lee identifies in Ruskin three modes of transformation in how we live”

 

  • Prof Fiona Stafford (Somerville College, University of Oxford) considers the importance of trees to Ruskin throughout his life

“[…] the contemporary emphasis on economics over other types of value [Ruskin] would have been very troubled by”

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Ruskin, Science and the Environment – the schedule

Please find below the schedule for our one-day conference ‘Ruskin, Science and the Environment’ to be held at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on the 8th February, as part of the #Ruskin200 events. For more information, or to book your place, please click here.

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Victorian Speed – Time Flies When You’re Having FUN!

On Thursday 18th October, the Museum of the History of Science threw open its doors for its first ever ‘late’ – Victorian Speed: The Long History of Fast Living. With six separate activities based on our postdocs’ research interests and a Victorian photo booth to boot, we had a riotous evening of nineteenth century hijinks.

Here, the Diseases of Modern Life team reflect on their individual activities.

Dr. Hosanna Krienke

My “Timing the Victorians” quiz invited guests to try to guess the speed of various aspects of life in the 1800s. Many quiz-takers were amazed by how fast some things were (it took only 9 minutes to send a telegram from London to Bombay!), but were also caught off-guard by the slowness of other aspects of Victorian life (convalescent homes let patients stay by the seaside for a month or more to recover their health). I enjoyed hearing the ways people reasoned their way through the questions, and some even gasped or cheered when they discovered their hunches were correct. In the end, my aim was to help people imagine more concretely what life was like in the 1800s, so I was really pleased when one person reported that the event made her “reevaluate a nostalgic view of the Victorian era.”

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Hosanna Krienke, in Victorian dress, letting participants know they’re running out of time to answer! Photo: Ian Wallman

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Eager to find out if they are correct! Photo: Ian Wallman

 

Dr. Jean-Michel Johnston

My ‘telegraphic tweeting’ activity introduced visitors to the full experience of sending an ‘instant’ message in the Victorian age. After considering many of the practicalities of sending a telegram, from the limitations of post office opening hours to the relatively high cost of sending a mere 20 words, they were then encouraged to have a go at sending their chosen message to another visitor ‘across the line'(or, rather, table) using one of the replica telegraph apparatuses. It was great to see that people from a wide range of age groups had fun trying out this activity – some of the children who attended were natural ‘Morse coders’, and some of the adults enjoyed trying to bemuse their counterparts across the table by sending messages in foreign languages!

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Tapping out a Morse message. Photo: Ian Wallman

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Receiving and decoding – the effort is palpable! Photo: Ian Wallman

 

Dr. Alison Moulds

‘Death and Disease Behind the Counter’ introduced visitors to the pressures of retail work in the late nineteenth century. The title was drawn from Thomas Sutherst’s 1884 book about the plight of shop assistants, and I used pie charts to explore the long hours worked by those in retail, drawing on case studies from fiction, periodicals, autobiographies, and polemical writing. People were particularly surprised and aghast to hear about the demands placed on teenaged apprentices and the pressures of the ‘living-in’ system, which blurred the boundaries between work and leisure time. Visitors used blank pie charts and colouring pencils to plot their own average working day, and shared their retail work ‘horror stories’ on our interactive board. There were common themes between then and now, namely the long hours, the expectation to stand rather than sit, and the perennially rude customers. One women told me how, when working in a supermarket, a customer threw broccoli at her after hearing they’d run out of brie! In the feedback, several visitors suggested the activity had prompted them to find a new appreciation of our modern work-life balance.

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Alison Moulds looks on as participants colour in their own ‘A Day in the Life’ charts by the ‘Retail Horror Stories’ board. Photo: Ian Wallman

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One member of the public shades in her ‘work time’. Photo: Ian Wallman

 

Dr. Sally Frampton

In the ‘Emergency’ quiz we introduced visitors to the history of first aid, as we got people sorting fact from fiction and past from present by testing them on first aid trivia. The development of the first aid movement was an important aspect to people’s growing awareness of the health risks of modern life in the nineteenth century, as organisations like the St. John Ambulance Association trained up railway workers, miners, police officers and others to deal with the accidents and illnesses that seemed to arise from new technologies and industries. For the game, visitors were given ten statements relating to first aid. They then had to decide whether they related to first aid practices in the past, current day first aid practice…or whether we had made it up! The idea was to get people thinking about how ideas and practices can come in and go out of fashion, and how even the strangest practices from the past were based upon theories that appeared valid at the time. For example, ‘Blowing tobacco smoke into the anus of a semi-conscious person will revive them’ (past) introduced people to the use of tobacco smoke enemas in the nineteenth century for resuscitation, a medical technology which seems completely bizarre now but which had its roots in the belief that quickly administering warmth and stimulation could be effective in to reviving the near dead. The tobacco enema also led to conversations about early attempts by doctors to find effective resuscitation techniques. The statement ‘a snakebite can be treated by sucking the poison out from the wound’ was another one that generated debate. Until relatively recently the practice was recommended in first aid manuals, but it today considered ineffective, and yet most people thought it a ‘present’ day practice, because it is still seen in TV and films. This led to discussion about how even when new medical evidence proves a medical idea is not right, the idea can linger on in wider culture.

Visitors enjoyed learning weird and wonderful facts about first aid and emergency medicine and the game proved a good way to get people thinking about first aid and to need to keep up-to-date with the current advice about what to do in an emergency!

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Our resident Victorian nurse, Dr. Sally Frampton, administers advice to players. Photo: Ian Wallman

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Who knew Victorian First Aid could be so fun?! (We had a hunch). Photo: Ian Wallman

 

Dr. Emilie Taylor-Brown

My exhibition, ‘Gastric Time’ started with a story. It was the story of Alexis St Martin, a Canadian man who was shot in the abdomen in 1822, which left him with a hole in his stomach through which the workings of digestion were made visible! People were intrigued and disgusted in equal measure as I recounted how American army surgeon William Beaumont carried out a series of experiments on St Martin which involved dipping bits of food into his stomach on a silk string and timing how long they took to break down! The language of ‘digestibility’ that was produced from the experiments led to a new way of thinking about food: in terms of time. After discussing how Victorian meals and dietetic rules differed from their modern experiences, they were keen to put their own hands in my oversized woollen stomach to choose their meals and try to beat the clock-time dice. If they succeeding in “digesting” 5 meals within 24 hours—symbolised by a giant steam-punk clock face—they were rewarded with a “good digestion” sticker, if not they were diagnosed with chronic indigestion! People enjoyed thinking about food in relation to broader ideas about standardising and controlling bodily processes and were not too shy to sit on our Victorian commode! My advertisement for a “rocking horse” cure for indigestion gave one man a new outlook on the French phrase “aller à la selle” (to have a bowel movement), while the exhibition as a whole purportedly changed many attitudes to dietary choices and even inspired a new MPhil project!

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Dr. Emilie Taylor-Brown engaging her audience. Photo: Ian Wallman

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Happy game players – some already wearing stomach stickers! Photo: Ian Wallman

 

Dr. Sarah Green

‘Clusters of hard wart-like growths around anus, causing considerable discomfort’. This was the kind of symptom that those visiting the Victorian Sexual Diseases Tombola were (hopefully) surprised to be presented with. And things didn’t get much better from there. In an age without antibiotics, chances of recovery from syphilis, gonorrhoea, and a whole host of other nasties were slim. By dipping into the tombola drum, visitors had assigned to them a variety of treatments that were at best useless, and at worst downright painful. Fancy a urethral cauterization? A spiked ring to wear round the penis at night? A washing out of the intimate parts with champagne? No, me neither. And that, as visitors came to realize, was the slow, tedious and repetitive nature of Victorian sexual disease treatment. As one visitor commented, ‘I’m glad I got my STI in 2018!’

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Sarah Green explains how the Sexual Health Tombola works. Pick a card, any card… Photo: Ian Wallman

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One of the more horrifying treatments for problems of a sexual nature. Photo: Ian Wallman

 

We also had an extremely popular Victorian photo booth, enthusiastically run by Decadent Times. (We may have got in on the action ourselves at the end of the evening…).

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They’ve got props at the ready and poses sorted… Photo: Ian Wallman

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…e voilà! Photo printed (a bit more instantaneously than in Victorian times). Photo: Ian Wallman

 

None of this would have been possible without a collaboration with colleagues at the Museum of the History of Science, especially Robyn Haggard: thank you for lending us your space to us – it formed the perfect backdrop for our research! For our Victorian get-up, we kindly thank the Oxfordshire Drama Wardrobe, and for our wonderful props, The Prop Factory

Most of all, thank you to our photographer, Ian Wallman, for capturing all the different facets of #VictorianSpeed so beautifully!

Thank you to everyone who came

or, in Morse Code,

– …. .- -. -.- / -.– — ..- / – — / . …- . .-. -.– — -. . / .– …. — / -.-. .- — .

 

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

PS. I got caught taking twitter photos by our fabulous photographer, Ian Wallman…

‘British moths’, ‘Old wedding cake’. An unusual museum taxonomy.

In the nineteenth century, natural history was an increasingly popular pursuit. As our sister project Constructing Scientific Communities is exploring, the 1800s saw the growth of several specialist organisations and periodicals devoted to the field. Enthusiasts from various sections of society – both ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ – worked to build up collections of their own, or formed networks with others to share their findings and contribute to classificatory schemes.

One such enthusiast was Mervyn Grove Palmer, a naturalist who spent several years  travelling throughout Central and South America in the early 20th century. Many of the specimens that he collected can still be seen today in Devon’s Ilfracombe Museum. Opened by Palmer in 1932, the Museum housed his growing collection of specimens from afar as well as items donated by local people providing an insight into Devon’s social history. In the main room of the Museum is an unassuming set of dark wood display drawers, adorned with plain typed labels indicating their contents. Many of these drawers contain familiar natural history displays – beetles, moths, and other insects. In one, butterflies are arranged in precise formation, as if flying away from the viewer, their bright yellow and vivid orange wings perfectly preserved.

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In another, bird’s eggs are nestled into fluffy clouds of cotton wool – spotted, speckled, pearlescent, sometimes cracked. Their labels are handwritten on delicate ribbons of paper strung between each grouping, adding aesthetic appeal to the display at the same time as they organise it.

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There are also less familiar, and unexpected, items in the drawers. Several hold timber samples, again artfully arranged  into patterns: Hungarian ash, almond, pine, elm, American walnut, brown burr oak.

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Most striking, though, are the drawers that work to construct rather novel ‘natural histories’ of local life and custom. Beneath drawers containing British moth specimens is a suddenly incongruous label that reads ‘Old wedding cake’.

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Opening the drawer, we find a series of squares separated by coloured cord, each containing a small piece of wedding cake donated by a happy couple. Ensconced under glass, an 1887 sample is presented alongside some of its accompanying leaf and berry decorations. Other couples have donated silver leaves, flowers, and yellowed fragments of icing.

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The placement of this natural ‘social’ history next to entomological and other specimens is a wonderful surprise to the visitor. It is a neat illustration, I think, of how we might preserve material fragments of social, as well as natural, histories.

Photos: David Kerekes