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Monday, 18 December 2017

Religious experts: choosing which one to trust

Religious disagreements are widespread. People across the world, many of whom are seen as experts in their communities - priests, theologians, monks—disagree about the most basic facts of religion, for instance, about whether we can survive physical death, or whether there are one or more gods. As a philosopher, I’m interested what religious disagreement means and I am currently writing a monograph with Cambridge University Press on this topic, supported by research leave provided by Brookes. I think this work is important in the light of increasing polarization of beliefs about a wide range of topics such as economics and climate change, along political fault lines. Such polarization has given rise to a mistrust of experts (“We have enough of experts”, as Michael Gove recently said).

There seems to be an assumption that diversity in opinion among experts means that experts don’t know anything. Moreover, there is a worry for the public that it is hard to decide which expert to trust if experts don’t agree among themselves. My work will use tools from social epistemology – the philosophical study of how our beliefs are shaped in a social context – to help us find out what we do when we are faced with expert disagreement.

Religious disagreement among experts gives rise to many philosophical questions. First, there is the question of what an expert on religion might be. There are notions of expertise which see an expert as someone who has a lot of true beliefs, compared to others. The problem here is that it’s difficult to make out which beliefs are true. For religion, we face the additional problem that it is impossible to test who is right (e.g., about the afterlife, or the existence of God). A more useful notion might be a social notion of expertise, which has to do with an expert’s standing in the community. Take a rabbi in Judaism. Rabbis aren’t priests—the rituals rabbis can perform are the same as what other adult men (and in progressive Jewish communities, women) can do.  Rabbis, rather, are seen as people who have expert knowledge of Jewish law.

The philosopher Alvin Goldman has a hybrid notion of expertise that combines the social notion with the ability of experts to do things. Experts are people who can do things in their domain of expertise. Car mechanics fix cars, doctors can diagnose illness and propose remedies. Experts often help us by ‘imparting to the layperson (or other client) his/her distinctive knowledge or skills’, as Goldman puts it. The doctor helps you by telling you why you have painful joints (‘e.g., you have rheumatoid arthritis’), and can prescribe medications to manage the disease. This is a very useful notion of expertise as it gets around the problem of testing what an expert says is true, and can help us deal with disagreement.

Religious experts can, in this view, help us to do things in the religious domain, such as perform rituals correctly (in many religious traditions, laypeople can’t perform many crucial rituals on their own. This is the case with Roman Catholicism, for example, which requires a priest to celebrate the Eucharist. They also have expert knowledge about the domain in question, for example, about religious law or theological doctrine.

How, then, as a novice do you decide which religious experts to trust, especially if they disagree? You cannot evaluate the content of what they are saying since they are experts and you are not. The epistemologist Linda Zagzebski argues that we should choose our experts and then simply follow everything they are saying in that domain. Your expert is your guru. The problem is that it seems like a bad idea to screen off your own reasoning and beliefs. What if you pick someone who argues the Earth is flat?

Recently, I’ve been looking into Maimonides, Mōšeh bēn-Maymōn, a twelfth-century Jewish philosopher who wrote the influential Guide for the Perplexed (ca 1190), which was ostensibly written for a student who could not decide between the teachings of religion and natural science (which was called natural philosophy in those days). Maimonides lived in an intensely multicultural society, growing up in Cordoba, and then moving on to Fez in Morocco. All were areas which had multiple religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. There was also a large influence from natural philosophy, in particular Aristotle. Maimonides considered how to evaluate the testimonies of venerated Rabbinic scholars, the so-called Hazal or sages of the first five centuries. The Hazal were influential in shaping the Jewish tradition, including many practices of everyday religious observation. Maimonides respected their judgment very much, but he still did not think that a novice should put blind faith in what they wrote.

Maimonides considered what a reader should do if one of the sages plainly contradicted what was known from science. He urged the reader not to follow these sages disregarding other things they knew, or if what they said seemed to contradict common sense: ‘it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden...A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back.’ He also exhorted readers to think about the cultural context in which these authors lived: ‘Do not ask me to show that everything they [the Sages] have said concerning astronomical matters conforms to the way things really are. For at that time mathematics was imperfect.’ Maimonides thought that one should resist the halo effect: rabbis are experts in Jewish law; that does not mean they are experts in other matters.

So, what lessons can we draw from this, given that our society is highly secularized, that most people in the UK do not follow any religious experts, and are not religiously observant. However, some people continue to do so—they try to be practicing Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, etc.

Ultimately, you cannot escape a certain arbitrariness in how your beliefs are shaped. The beliefs we are ultimately attracted to, or interested in, are shaped by forces beyond our control such as our upbringing and which experts happen to be the ones trusted in our community. Inevitably, if you follow a religious expert you will not be in a position to evaluate if what the expert says is plausible. However, even if you pick one expert, or a set of experts in a religious tradition, it is wise to not disregard what you know from other fields such as science. 

Dr Helen de Cruz Senior Lecturer in Philosophy

Picture: religious leaders – Wikimedia

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

“Back to the Future”: Medical Humanities’ Contribution to the Education and Training of Mental Health Professionals

This conference, organised by Dr Maria Turri, Professor John Hall and Dr Marius Turda from Oxford Brookes University (1 November 2017), afforded a rare opportunity for mental health professionals and academics from the humanities to share ideas and experiences.  

In his keynote address, Professor Femi Oyebode (University of Birmingham) claimed that while doctors tend to think in terms of “facts”, they should also consider the impact of disease on the sufferer and those closest to them. Experiencing the patient-doctor encounter and patient accounts of their condition in literature, art, theatre and cinema can help trainee medical professionals better understand the patient’s perspective.

We learned how art and cinema could be used therapeutically with examples from an Oxford-based art counselling project and an Italian research project into the power of cinema in triggering memory.

We also heard about the Ashmolean Museum’s student engagement programme which helps to develop the skill of “close-looking” – an essential aspect of any medical examination.

It was clear that history could also make a contribution to the mental health professions.  Professor Waltraud Ernst explained that medical research often overlooked the historical dimension of such issues as problem drinking amongst the UK’s ethnic communities, leading to inaccurate generalisations and inappropriate health and educational policies. 

Jane Freebody highlighted teaching from nineteenth-century moral therapists and early twentieth-century occupational therapists which focused on developing self-esteem and a sense of usefulness, the satisfaction of growing your own food, and the joy associated with creativity – all of which have resonance today. 

We learned from Dr Bridget Escolme (Queen Mary, University of London) that the “mad” characters in historic plays were not passive figures of fun, but laughed right back at their audience.

The panel discussion at the end of the day concluded that the humanities had much to offer in the training of mental health professionals.  A focus on human relationships, the fostering of creativity and an examination of the origin of contemporary issues, ideas and practices could all add value to a training programme.

Conference report by Jane Freebody, PhD Candidate, Oxford Brookes University

·         Professor Femi Oyebode (University of Birmingham)
·         Dr Maria Turri (Oxford Brookes University/University of Oxford)
·         Dr Jim Harris (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
·         Professor John Hall (Oxford Brookes University)
·         Ms Teresita Valverde (Tobias School of Art and Therapy, East Grinstead)
·         Dr Daniela Treveri-Gennari (Oxford Brookes University)
·         Professor Waltraud Ernst (Oxford Brookes University)
·         Ms Jane Freebody (PhD Cand., Oxford Brookes University)

·         Dr Bridget Escolme (Queen Mary, University of London)

Photograph: Two of the Conference Organisers Maria Turri and Marius Turda

Monday, 13 November 2017

The role (roll) of language – a different take!

This September, I took part in the Great Research Bake Off, a competition based on the idea that researchers would bring a cake that represented their research, and use it to speak to the public about what they do, as well as be judged for best presentation and taste. It was one of the many events organised for Oxford University’s 2017 Curiosity Carnival.

I’m a critical applied linguist. I see language as the raw ingredients with which our social worlds and identities are built. I am particularly interested in examining the part language plays in ensuring that certain ways of knowing and styles of reasoning, such as Western scientific objectivity, acquire dominant status around the world, at the expense of other ways of knowing.

Why ‘critical’? Put simply, this adjective which precedes ‘applied linguist’, symbolises a commitment to questioning the power dynamics behind the givens we take for granted in our everyday lives, in the hope of offering a more plural view of knowledge categories.

As such, I am a qualitative researcher who emphasises the non-measurable, partial and contextual nature of my findings, and the subjective part I play in analysing their meaning and significance. I am not interested in universal truths and generalisations, but in those often hidden living aspects of our beliefs and practices, that form the rich singularity of who we are and can be.

Very excited by this alternative to a conference paper, I wanted my Curiosity Carnival cake to represent recent close reading of undergraduate assessment texts, in which I identified instances of use of words which problematize the mainstream assumptions in academia and the wider world that language is a neutral medium used by researchers to present the results of their experiments. These snippets of student work also support the argument that the criteria such as ‘innovative’, ‘critical’ and ‘original’ by which we evaluate academic work relating only to thinking, or findings, or arguments –also relate to the actual ways of writing. In other words, writing itself allows for creation and expression of new knowledge and ideas: even scientific ones.

Accepting the limitations of my baking and icing skills, I decided to take a conceptual approach and present a straightforward Swiss roll vertically rather than horizontally, in order to lead the viewer step-by-step to understanding the part I see language and systems of representation playing in propping up dominant ideas about its status as a neutral medium. I should point out here that mine was the only conceptual cake, all others were wonderful, colourful, and very well crafted, literal representations of research projects, but then I was the only presenter not a scientist …

I began by asking ‘Who says a Swiss roll should be horizontal?’ Answer - all cookery books images, and videos present it as horizontal. If we order it in a restaurant we expect it be served this way. Horizontal Swiss rolls are an arbitrary socially agreed upon norm that has been reproduced for at least a century, which we all play along with.

Same thing for its name. We all agree to call it a Swiss roll, when all the historical evidence suggests it originates elsewhere, perhaps in central Europe, perhaps in the United States. Not confirmed. So whilst apparently it has nothing to do with Switzerland, we name it as if it did.

All this – the horizontality, the name - is a given we do not stop to question when we buy, make, or eat a swiss roll. An assumption we roll with (geddit).

I then related that idea to academic writing of lecturers and students, of which I identified two norms and commonsense understandings.
    1. Language is a neutral medium used to convey the innovative, original thinking and researchers. One way this idea of the neutrality of the language used is reinforced is through the use of the passive voice in academic writing e.g. don’t say, ‘I did an experiment, but the experiment was conducted using …
    2. As a neutral medium, the writing, presents objective, factual findings about the nature of the material and social worlds. We hear about these in newspaper articles, books etc. Hence the assumption is that the language and the knowledge and science are two different things. One the actual knowledge, the other the medium of communication.
      My final step was to ask where these norms about the western rationalist way of writing about academic research and knowledge come from? Two quick answers were given:

        1. As a style of writing they echo and model ideas and theories of objectivity, science, empiricism and rationality inherited from long time ago: the Enlightenment;
        2. They are reproduced in countless academic journals and books, and are the model of writing taught to undergraduates.
          These rather inflexible ways of writing are underpinned by basic assumptions about the nature of being human: I think therefore I am, cogito ergo sum.

          I concluded by suggesting, as with Swiss rolls, so with academic writing, we are so blinded by our commonsense norms, we don’t see the hidden, creative dimensions of academic writing.

          It was an amazing, exciting afternoon, and I got a lot out of my dialogue with all the different people who attended and wanted to know all about our research, and taste our cakes!

          Juliet Henderson
          Senior Lecturer in Communication, Culture and Language

          Monday, 30 October 2017

          Writing an undergraduate dissertation on comic representations of unruly women in film

          According to a great deal of literature on comedy, film, and gender within these two topics, comedy is a skill attributed to men, and not women. As a film lover, and a feminist, I thought such statements were ridiculous, and thankfully so did my CMC dissertation supervisor Dr Hannah Yelin, as well as a few excellent authors such as Kathleen Rowe of The Unruly Woman (1995). In this book, Rowe discussed the idea of the ‘unruly woman’ in comedy with theories surrounding excess, the public sphere, and the subversion of patriarchal norms through women’s comedy. This book became the groundwork for my third year dissertation, aiding the development of my question surrounding female comics in film across the years. Ultimately I wanted to discover how subversion of the female gender resulted in comedy, and decided upon four films to analyse: That Touch of Mink (1962), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Miss Congeniality (2000), and Bridesmaids (2011). Although being keen on the films already, they also represented a fifty year period that covered three waves of feminism and a multitude of societal changes, and I was curious to see how things had changed.

          The process began with a great deal of reading, and truthfully stayed that way for the number of months that followed, with my completed reference list featuring almost 100 titles from feminist film theory, to male comedy, and gender performativity. Some books such as Gender and Popular Culture (Milestone and Meyer, 2012) or Representing Women (Macdonald, 1995) became increasingly useful throughout my project, seeming to have something to say about almost every aspect of analysis. To begin with however, I needed a slightly broader, and less focused understanding into what would help both myself, and any readers of the key foundations of the project. In undertaking my literature review, I immediately divided up my reading into three topics: the waves of feminism, historical attitudes to gender, and femininity. Looking into femininity, specifically how ideas are constructed about what it means to be female or ‘feminine’ actually ended up being a key part of the project and its conclusion. It also led me to a new gap in research that gave the project more purpose; understanding how this concept of comedic femininity offered opportunities for ideas about the female gender to be subverted, but was not so easy to read up on. I discovered my rationale and aims in the lack of literature on why it was funny when women didn’t conform to behavioural norms of femininity.

          Looking back now, it’s harder to recall why I chose the films I did, but I do remember my mother acting as a soundboard for all the good female-led comedies I could think of. With more time, and more words available to me, I’d gladly extend my research to an earlier decade in the form of His Girl Friday (1940), and equally fill out the gaps further with films like Overboard (1987) that fit more neatly into the subgenre of ‘romantic comedy’. The want for more space and time to research grew with the depth of my analysis. Even now, months after completion, there’s so much more I want to know and uncover. The actual process for analysis was very simple, and included me watching a few of my favourite films over and over, and making notes simultaneously. I was, however surprised that it wasn’t always obvious what I was looking for, and how much the dialogue and storyline of a film could be just as key as the female characters and visuals could be. I was surprised most when I struggled to generate a lot of data on When Harry Met Sally and learned that subversion of gender wasn’t always as simple as the bodily functions produced by the stars of the Bridesmaids film, but sometimes lay in comparison to male counterparts, or in the case of Miss Congeniality, the contrast to male counterparts.

          The results that appeared in one film generally seemed to resound with the others albeit a few differences here and there in portrayal of gender, and obviously altering in line with the context of each decade. In discussion with friends and family about my dissertation topic, most have asked generally said at some point or another “So what is the answer?”. In attempts to sum up my project in a few short and easy sentences, I’ve almost always noted the crossing of boundaries between private and public spheres, and how the female gender is linked to ideas of femininity. The version between these short statements and a 9,809 word project lies somewhere in the idea that, within the filmic universe, to be female is to be feminine, which also means to stay in the private sphere, and essentially act as an opposite to masculinity as stereotypical traits would have it. There’s also an interesting feature of shock involved in that comedy found in films like Bridesmaids, The Heat, or similar that centre on jokes about diarrhoea or vomiting that are common in male-centred comedies, but in these films presents a slightly different angle; one of women behaving badly.

          Briony Brake, CMC Graduate

          Friday, 27 October 2017

          Beyond photography: A history of criminal identification

          I research the visual dimensions of criminal identification from the nineteenth century to the present day. Oftentimes I work with photography - a visual medium that revolutionized the state’s criminal identification practices from photography's inception in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, photographs are iconic when it comes to criminal identification; they are the focal point for exhibitions on the history of crime and they continue to captivate popular-cultural imagination in contemporary social life. Just think of Moors murderer Myra Hindley, or the so-called ‘hot felon’ cum model, Jeremy Meeks (figure 1).

          But a research focus on photography alone threatens to obscure other visual histories of criminal identification. And so, whilst photography informs my research it does so only to the extent that I use it as a point from which to compare and contrast other kinds of visual media used to represent criminals. As such, I like to think beyond photography to reveal the broad range of visual media implicated in criminal identification. In particular my research uses visual media that are considered artistic rather than scientific, which is how photography is viewed within criminal identification studies.

          Focusing on artistic material allows me to reveal the extent to which criminal identification was a cultural and specifically creative and even artistic practice so that I re-read the history of science in terms of art and the history of art in terms of science. At the same time, this kind of interdisciplinary approach brings the arbitrariness of disciplinary boundaries and boundedness into view. For example, my doctoral research tackled the scholarship of one of the most famous figures in the history of what today we call criminology, the criminal anthropologist, Cesare Lombroso. My research began from a point of irony: Lombroso’s work was so materially comprised and received as visual, yet this aspect of his work is almost completely ignored.

          This led me to researching never-before translated aspects of Lombroso’s entire oeuvre which revealed his thinking on the epistemology of the visual arts as it contributed to his criminology. And although art historians have pointed, mostly in passing, to Lombroso’s consideration of prisoners’ creative outputs, my research shows how Lombroso disregarded their outputs as mere craft, not art - adding the interesting nuance of a 'born-criminal' identity to the craft/art distinction. Indeed, Lombroso spent a great deal of time considering the artworks of the most famous (and sometimes infamous!) practitioners of the visual arts in Western-European art history. Fascinatingly, those artists who were not 'born criminals' who had murdered or raped had produced, Lombroso argued, consummate evidence of his theory of criminal identity.

          It would be easy to think that these, overtly artistic representations of criminality are defunct today. However this story is not so straightforward. Indeed, even in Lombroso’s time, the gentleman-scientist himself was citing works from the history of art which dated long after photography’s inception and even dominance in studies of criminal identification. And today it remains the case that artistic media continue to embody a curious relationship with crime and criminality. By the twentieth century crime scene images in Scotland were still being line drawn and rendered in watercolour (figure 2; thanks to Anne-Marie Kilday for showing me one such image) as was the case pre-and-post-photography, as in Lombroso’s research.

          Today in British court rooms photography is still relegated to the margins by legislation. It seems that when it comes to representing crime and criminality, even within the formal institutions of criminal justice, line drawings, rendered in charcoal, pastels and watercolour remain the preferred media. It turns out, then, that little has changed from when Edgar Degas; well-known post-impressionist but probably not-known criminal courtroom artist, was creating his own images of defendants in the Parisian criminal court. This reflection steers my next major research project as I delve further into the relationship between art and objectivity, this time away from the history of science and criminology and into the court of law.

          This resonates with my undergraduate studies in Law. I wanted to practice as a criminal lawyer; but spare time spent in criminal courts quickly became a fascination with the remnant iconography of the courtroom. During my taught postgraduate Masters I wrote essays and a dissertation on images and crime and justice. For instance, the image on the front of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (figure 3) was probably the most captivating part of that canonical work for me and so I interpreted Foucault’s history of modern punishment through that one, single image.

          In terms of Brookes’ emphasis on research-led teaching, my research has already had an impact. Walk into any introductory/early undergraduate lecture you are likely to be met with the rows-upon-rows of portrait photographs from Lombroso’s criminology. Indeed, this remains the most reproduced aspect of Lombroso’s scholarship (Past, 2012). On delivering the first degree lecture in criminology here at Brookes it was refreshing not to reproduce those tired, photographic mug shots from Lombroso’s criminology. Instead I was able to show some of the most famous artworks in the history of Western-European art!

          By Kate West, Lecturer in visual criminology

          Figure 1: Stockton Police Dept.
          Figure 2: National Archives, Scotland
          Figure 3: The Prison Courtyard (1890) Vincent Van Gogh: with permission from the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

          Wednesday, 4 October 2017

          The Strange Death of Liberal England Revisited and Revamped

          'Such is the brief opening scene of a political tragi-comedy. And since dramatic irony consists of the audience's knowing what the actor does not know, it is at least an ironical scene. History unfortunately has decreed that the rest of the play should be somewhat wanting in nobility and balance; that is it should be hysterical, violent, and inconclusive: a mere fragment of the play, with the last act unwritten.'

          Is this Britain after the Brexit vote? Or perhaps this is a wry comment on the precariously ambiguous and vanishing mandate of the new Conservative government elected in June 2017. No, this comes from a judgement about Britain's dangerously volatile political scene just prior to the First World War. It comes from George Dangerfield's Strange Death of Liberal England and I was reminded of this text when I suddenly confronted an old American copy of this book in my local Oxfam bookshop. 

          It is a demonstration that how we react to history texts can really be shaped by the context in which we read them! I first encountered the lyrical and winding prose of Dangerfield in the autumn of 1980 when I was a first year history undergraduate. Reading this next to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen's The River and The Clash's London Calling was incongruous and perhaps showed me how much had changed in a whole range of ways. But the killer impression this experience had on me was realising I was reading this during the first stages of the Thatcher revolution. From every pore of her government the desire to sweep away the cobwebs of the past was evident. Britain, so this narrative argued, had been irreparably damaged by the actions of complacent and old fashioned men schooled in the ideas and sentiments of a thoroughly liberal past. These evil men, so the Thatcher Revolution argued, should be discredited and held to account for the damage they did and for the havoc they wreaked. But actually so many of us in my small seminar group were still obvious products of the dying remnants of the consensus that had been an important part of the 20th century. Some of us even deployed regret in noting its passing. Many of us were exactly the right age to have had parents who had been involved in the War. Even then it seemed crucial that Mrs Thatcher was the first Prime Minister who really did not understand the War's impact upon people and political culture.

          So all this meant that Dangerfield's book and its analysis was remote and bewildering. The ‘death’ described happened long ago and Thatcher's Britain really did seem to be the greedy predator feasting on the carrion left behind. Dangerfield painted a fragile Britain outflanked by the uncertainties surrounding it and the growing number of enemies from without and within that it was helpless to combat. In contrast Thatcher's Britain, at least to start with, just seemed to carry all before it and was capable of vanquishing anything that lay in its path. The apogee of this was reached with victory in the Falklands which harked back to a time I was only just starting to read about professionally, but one which my generation had been told was irretrievably past. Anachronism could be reborn in our lifetime if you could recapture Churchillian rhetoric, if only for a moment.

          But fast forward thirty seven years and encountering Strange Death once again invokes entirely different thoughts. The Britain of today is a thoroughly different place in which to read this enthralling work and it just gets still more enthralling when its story is used to think about contemporary events. Dangerfield described Liberalism as an out of date ideology that became an overbearing burden to carry around. Moreover, its tacit acceptance meant it was thus capable of inspiring discontent on the grand scale. For this read the modern Conservative Party which chose to wash its dirty linen in public in what has proved to be supremely damaging to its sense of coherence. Many believe this act risked destroying the country merely to save a tired ideology. Some of the cultural assumptions of free market capitalism are also being questioned in everything from complaints about corporate tax avoidance to what goes in our food and our building materials. For the various foreign policy problems faced by Liberalism on the eve of the First World War read the looming leap in the dark of Brexit negotiations and their multiple potential outcomes. Ulster said NO in 1912 and its politics have similarly ground to a halt in a fashion that creates headaches for Westminster. Ulster is even now in a position to demand YES from an embattled and beleaguered Conservative government. This text, The Strange Death of Liberal England is now alive and real in a way that it simply was not 37 years ago. The question is does a new Dangerfield wait in the wings to write lyrically and enthrallingly about our own time?

          Professor David Nash who works on blasphemy, history of shame, blame and culpability, links between religion and crime, history of secularisation, history of radicalism and the affinities all these have with cultural history.

          Monday, 2 October 2017

          Telling stories with the Census

          I’m a quantitative historian. I like to know that I have a good stack of evidence to support the things that I say. My graduate students frequently have to endure scrawls of ‘is this representative????’ when they cite a particular individual, or a nice vignette, but I think it’s really important to know whether the stories that catch our attention in the archives were interesting one-offs, or a common experience.

          But on the other hand, all of my research is focused on everyday lives of everyday people, and I very much do want to know what my numbers might have meant in terms of lived experiences. That’s the fun part of quantitative history: putting the ‘real life’ back in again. Of course it’s also its biggest challenge as numerical sources don’t often contain personal reflections, and we can’t assume that people in the past felt the same about any given circumstance as we do today.

          It’s an approach I’ve used fruitfully since my PhD study of healthcare and survivorship among abandoned babies in eighteenth-century Europe. I spent a lot of time doing what was probably the most technical statistical work I’ve ever done (thanks to the expertise at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, where I was based), working out what factors made it likely that some ‘foundlings’ made it through childhood, while others (very many of them, sadly), did not. However, once the analysis was complete, I felt it was important to return to what that might have meant for all those babies and young children, for the mothers who in all likelihood would never see them again, and for the institutional officials who looked after them (a telling note in a committee minute mentioned the problems that went with large numbers of four- and five-year olds returning from placements with country wet-nurses and never having encountered stairs before!). Some of this came from records like letters and minutes, but a lot of it is about simply thinking in more personal terms about the bald data generated for survival or regression analysis.

          I’ve spent my summer busily interrogating another source that lends itself well to large-scale analysis: the British census. These have been taken every ten years in one form another (world wars excepted) since 1801, and I’m using the one recorded in 1851. Of course, many people use the census precisely to help them tell very personal stories about their own families. I’m doing something slightly different: I’m using it to reconstruct the households of Jews in several growing cities, in order to examine how a self-bounded and highly mobile population arranged itself in a time of huge economic and social change. In total, my database contains over 3500 individuals, arranged in 853 households across seven towns. It’s allowed me to examine whether Jews lived with family beyond the basic parents-and-children core; whether they employed Jewish servants (rarely – possibly because Jews didn’t work as servants very often); whether Jewish lodgers boarded with co-religionists, and whether they clustered together in the same parts of town.

          But, as ever, the bigger-picture perspective, with individuals bundled into statistical categories and variables, does also allow me to draw out something of what that might have meant in terms of family relationships. While many families and individuals lived without other relatives in their house or even the town, others were well connected. Jacob and Juliana Myers, for instance, who were living at 2 Bordesley Street in Birmingham in 1851, had a wide range of relatives on Juliana’s side of the family nearby (Jacob, like 40 per cent of my database, was born abroad, in Strasbourg, and does not seem to have had other relatives in Britain in 1851). Juliana, in contrast was a Brummie born and bred, and all seven of her siblings were also resident in the town in 1851. Her brother Isaac shared a home with their widowed mother, while siblings John, Emma and Henry lived together in a separate house. Being close by didn’t mean that family members necessarily saw or helped each other, of course, but Jacob and Juliana’s three year old daughter Sarah was staying in her grandmother’s house on census night, which certainly suggests that there were close and useful bonds at work. Information on birthplaces shows us that this was not a family who stayed put all their lives though – the Myers’ six children had been born on the south coast, variously in Lymington and Portsmouth. They were to remain physically close though: their son Joseph was living either next door to, or opposite, his widowed mother in the 1881 census.

          We see another little glimpse of these sorts of family relationships in the household of the Simons family, also living in Birmingham in 1851, this time in Cleve Terrace. Here, the parents were actually absent on census night, leaving four children aged between 14 and 2 in the care of their grandfather, 76 year old Nathan Aaron. If only we knew a little more about what that experience was like! I have a similar yen to know more about the living arrangements of the 24 employees of Benjamin Hyam, a Jewish clothing manufacturer in Manchester, male and female, Jewish and non-Jewish, who all shared a residence at 35 Pall Mall. The house next door contained a similar mix of workers, enlivened by the presence of two prostitutes. Benjamin himself lived in Salford, with his wife, three daughters, two sons, a niece, and that rare addition: a Jewish employee, acting as a governess.

          There is a limit to the details we can add back in to the census data without the sorts of personal reflections and diaries which become more common over time. However, my current project is showing that the household is a very fruitful level of analysis when it comes to combining numbers with stories. As I continue, adding in charity records and more sophisticated mapping techniques, I hope to be able to reveal much more about how the Jews of the mid-nineteenth century lived, intermingled, and assisted one another.

          Dr Alysa Levene, Reader in History.

          Note: the British censuses did not record individuals’ religions until 2011. The identification of Jews within the 1851 census has been carried out by a team of researchers and combined into a searchable database curated by Petra Laidlaw. It can be found at The note on the Myers family in 1881 is taken from there. My work enriches these data by returning to the census to recreate whole households, including non-Jewish members, and building in new measures of relatedness, geography and community ties.

          This image is the Perkoff Family from the collection of the Jewish Museum London

          Friday, 4 August 2017

          Air: an Exhibition and a Symposium

          Air: an Exhibition and a Symposium

          Exhibition: ‘Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art, 1768-2017’, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, 16 June – 3 September 2017

          Symposium: ‘Breath, Flight and Atmosphere: The Theme of Air in British Culture’, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, 26 June 2017

          At first sight, the theme of ‘Air’ might not seem very promising for an exhibition.  Rather nebulous, airy-fairy, you might think. But the show I have recently co-curated at Bristol has proved to be immensely satisfying, bringing out important interlinked themes in historic British art as well as tapping into the current preoccupations of many contemporary artists.

          The idea for the show began as a sequel to The Power of the Sea, an exhibition that I co-curated at the RWA with the artist Janette Kerr in 2014. Once again, I worked with an artist, Stephen Jacobson, and with Gemma Brace, the Head of Programmes and Exhibition Curator at the RWA. I was responsible for the historic section.

          A wish-list of possible exhibits was rapidly drawn up: sky studies by Turner and Constable, Millais’s notorious Bubbles, paintings of air balloons, musical instruments, windy days at the seaside, polluted urban landscapes, aerial activity in the two world wars – all provided different ways of approaching the central theme.

          Top of our list, however, was Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768). This is a large and very important painting, which normally hangs in the same room as Turner’s Fighting Temeraire and Constable’s Hay Wain in the National Gallery.  We were all thrilled when the National Gallery agreed to lend.  I was especially pleased as my colleague at Brookes, Matthew Craske, is writing a major book on the artist, and he was able to contribute an essay on the painting to the catalogue.

          Conservators from the National Gallery hanging Joseph Wright’s Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

          The contemporary section included a pair of lungs in glass, by Annie Cattrell, the artist who made the installation, Resounding, that hangs above the Forum in the John Henry Brookes Building. Themes of the fragility of breath and the dangers of atmospheric pollution were prominent in the contemporary section. Coincidentally, the opening of the exhibition coincided with the first national Clean Air Day.

          Annie Cattrell, Capacity (2007), borosilicate glass made by human breath to form the intricate structure of human lungs

          A week after the exhibition opened, we held a Symposium on the theme of ‘Breath, Flight and Atmosphere’. The speakers included the artist Polly Gould, whose delicate glass globes, based on her research on the watercolourist Edward Wilson, were in the exhibition, two literary scholars, Erin Lafford and Elsa Hammond, and a Brookes alumnus and independent art historian, Jan Cox. 

          Polly Gould’s Observation Hill, Anamorphic Landscape Series (2012), with Jemma Grundon’s series of cloud images, Mono no Aware, behind

          Subjects ranged from the underfunding of research into Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease to the responsibility of artists and art institutions to take action on climate change. Along the way, we heard about the discovery of carbon dioxide, the war paintings of C. R. W. Nevinson and Paul Nash, the poetry of William Cowper and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was a day of lively debate and stimulating exchanges.

          The next element to be explored is ‘Fire’ – tentatively scheduled for the late 2019/early 2020.

          The catalogue for ‘Air’ is for sale from Sansom and Company, price £25.

          Christiana Payne

          Friday, 28 July 2017

          “Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society” – International Research Symposium, 29-30 June 2017

          Academics of eleven different nationalities gathered for a symposium to address the historical links between alcohol, psychiatry and society (Convened by Professor Waltraud Ernst, Oxford Brookes University, and Professor Thomas Mueller, University of Ulm/Centre for Psychiatry, Suedwuerttemberg Ravensburg). We learned that definitions of excessive drinking, drunkenness, alcoholism, and addiction varied across national contexts and that what was an acceptable – or even desirable – level of drinking in one culture, was considered problematic in another. Alcohol could be a sign of civilisation or individual status; it could be perceived as a medical treatment as well as a poison; and as a source of tax revenue or mental degeneration.

          The symposium took us from the “gin craze” of eighteenth-century London to the streets of fin-de-siècle Paris, where drunk horses, dogs and cats made public nuisances of themselves, and onto post-war Japan, where a drinking culture developed despite the inability of the Japanese to metabolise alcohol effectively. The complexities of alcohol in the colonial settings of Algeria and Nigeria were addressed, as were the deliberations of early twentieth- century Greek psychiatrists who were divided between those who condemned alcohol for its adverse effects on health and those who recognised its value to the Greek economy. We heard about drunk Irish asylum nurses in the nineteenth century and the use of alcohol to build up the strength of women suffering from puerperal insanity. A variety of approaches to the treatment of alcoholism were discussed, from the administration of LSD to work therapy and self-help groups.

          French psychiatrists, who recognised the link between “lunacy” and “inebriety” in the late nineteenth century, propagated the belief that alcoholism was inheritable and would ultimately lead to the degeneration of society, thus fuelling anxiety about mental and physical degeneration across the continent. By the end of the century even moderate drinking was frowned upon by the German state. In the USSR and communist Czechoslovakia, alcohol was believed to compromise a citizen’s ability to work and to threaten productivity.

          The papers highlighted the influence of transnational networks in terms of responses to the social and individual problems caused by alcoholism, but they also revealed that alcohol can be perceived very differently in different national contexts and cultures.

          Jane Freebody, cand. PhD, Department of History, Philosophy and Culture, Oxford Brookes University

          Thursday, 13 July 2017

          ‘The Man without Desires’: A review of an Exhibition about Max von Baden, the Last Chancellor of Imperial Germany

          In the secret correspondence that preceded the last restructuring of the German government before the end of the First World War, Max von Baden featured under the code name “the man without desires” (“der Wunschlose”). Prince Max who would eventually become the last chancellor of imperial Germany has always been a somewhat enigmatic figure. The regional archive of Karlsruhe has dedicated a major exhibition to him that was first presented at Karlsruhe, is now shown at Salem and will finally go to Berlin. Salem manor is a particularly well-suited place for the exhibition. The manor house (formerly Salem monastery) together with its park, the medieval Cistercian church and the world famous Salem public school form a unique ensemble that is well worth a visit all by itself. Large parts of the Salem premises are still in the possession of the Baden dynasty.

          Max von Baden (1867-1929) was the cousin of the Grand Duke of Baden. He only became the head of the house of Baden in 1928 a few months before his death. The exhibition draws attention to Max’s favourable position in the intricate network of aristocratic families that still governed Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

          An entire room of the exhibition is dedicated to the personal contacts and interests of the prince. Even though he made a good career in the Prussian army, Max seems not to have been too interested in Reich politics, the court and aristocratic representation. Kaiser Wilhelm II who features in the exhibition in a series of sketches for ‘court’ portraits never formed any kind of meaningful relationship with the aristocratic officer from the South German province. The exhibition presents Max as a keen mountaineer, enthusiastic Wagnerian and sophisticated aesthete. He moved in the heterogeneous circle of intellectuals the theologian Johannes Müller gathered at Elmau manor (that last made headlines during the G7 summit of 2015) where the prince established contact to liberals and social democrats, among them Anton Fendrich. Whereas some of the Elmau circle later on turned to the extreme right, Max von Baden kept his distance from any kind of extremism. The tone of this part of the exhibition is private, almost intimate. Personal possessions and private papers of the prince are on display that offer a glimpse into his daily life and personal feelings.

          Even though Max von Baden had already retired from the military, he served again in the general staff after the outbreak of the Great War. After retiring from active duty due to his failing health prince Max began his real work during the war: He arranged support for prisoners of war inside and outside Germany. Max organized large scale exchanges of prisoners of war between Germany and other nations. A number of original documents including newsreels rightly emphasise Max’s humanitarian activities and achievements.

          The fact that Hindenburg und Ludendorff, the de facto military dictators, tried to use Max’s honest efforts for their propaganda does not lessen the merits of the prince. Given his international reputation and his connections to the Social Democrats, Max von Baden was almost the ideal candidate when the German Reich needed a new chancellor after the fall of von Bethmann-Hollweg and the resignation of von Hertling. It was clear that it would be the most invidious task of the new chancellor to admit defeat and to arrange the surrender of Germany. The exhibition presents a number of original documents including a placard with an entire speech by Max von Baden in which he tries to sketch terms for peace. Still, it would have paid to say even more about the last weeks of the war, Max’s negotiations with the Social Democrats, especially Friedrich Ebert, and Max’s fight against Ludendorff that ended with the latter’s downfall. We learn almost nothing about the constitutional reform of October 1918 that completely redefined the role of the Reich parliament vis à vis the monarch, and about Max’s decision to force Wilhelm II to finally abdicate.

          The last part of the exhibition is about Max’s relation to Salem public school he helped to found in 1920. The fact that Max von Baden publicly urged Reich president Ebert in 1923 to fight both Communists and Nazis more vigorously is mentioned but not explained any further. More could have been said about Max’s memoires, originally published in 1927.

          The exhibition strikes a good balance between original text documents and other exhibits. It is necessarily somewhat ‘talky’ but never ‘chatty’. Indeed, a little more background information might have helped to understand the complicated developments of 1918 better.

          The exhibition certainly succeeds insofar as it helps the visitors to understand the ‘man without desires’ somewhat better. Even though it is in part based on primary sources that came into the possession of the Karlsruhe archive only in 2014, the exhibition admits that it offers new insights but no spectacular news that would answer all open questions. One might see it as part of the success of the exhibition that it modestly refrains from trying to explain the enigmatic figure of the Baden prince fully. One of the most impressive exhibits is a statuette the prince had created according to his own wishes: It shows Max von Baden in his officer’s uniform complete with ceremonial sabre. Avoiding the beholder’s glance, he stoops down to read in a large book his balances awkwardly in one hand.

          Review by Professor Johannes Dillinger

          Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday, 10am-6pm, Sunday and bank holidays 10:30am-6pm

          Admission fee (including the exhibition, the manor, the park – plus two mazes - , Salem monastery church and school grounds): 9 Euros

          The special exhibition ‘Der Wunschlose. Prinz Max von Baden und seine Welt’ is on display till October 3, 2017.

          A collection of essays about Max von Baden is available at the museum: Konrad Krimm (ed.), Der Wunschlose (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer 2016).

          A: Max von Baden
          B: Max von Baden surrounded by released prisoners of war.
          D: Salem manor

          Friday, 7 July 2017

          Beyond Brutalism: Architecture, Citizenship, and Space as a way into 20th-century British Architectural History

          A great privilege of academic life is the opportunity to convene with scholars in one’s field and share new research. Most recently, this took the form of the conference ‘Architecture Citizenship Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s,’ that I convened with Dr Alistair Fair of the University of Edinburgh. Held here at Oxford Brookes on 15-16 June, it was funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, with additional support from the Research Fund of the School of History, Philosophy and Culture.

          Re-thinking how we do architectural history

          In convening the event we had a number of aims.  Central was to bring together excellent scholars – from early career to emerita professor - who are producing excellent work in the field of twentieth century British architectural history – and to give them an opportunity to share their research and enjoy a conversation about it. 

          More particularly, we wanted to bring together scholars who are working on that history in a particular way. All the work presented at the conference took as its starting point an understanding of architectural production in the widest sense, encompassing not only completed buildings and unbuilt projects but also texts and the media, clients, builders, and users. That is, we are all part of a turn in twentieth-century British architectural history away from primarily formalist accounts of style (we’re just a bit bored with Brutalism). This new architectural history – now beginning to consolidate itself - is rooted in the archive and asks how cultural production functioned as a vehicle through which to explore such ideas as modernity, identity and community. In essence, the material and spatial culture of architecture is conceived as a commentary on these ideas, whether by embracing or resisting them. 

          The Pivotal Decades: Re-thinking Architecture and Nationhood 1918-1939 

          The conference began with a focus on the 1920s and 1930s, which, speakers argued, was the period when architects and others self-consciously began to re-evaluate the purpose and nature of architectural culture as Britain entered full democracy. This would be done through the creation of prototypical new sites (such as the Pioneer Health Centre, discussed by Elizabeth Darling), through architectural journalism (Jessica Kelly on the Architectural Review) or through a re-invention of the architectural profession, especially in the wake of the inter-war Registration Acts (Neal Shasore on the RIBA). 

          What emerged in these papers was the idea of the building, as the creators of the Pioneer Health Centre put it, as ‘an inter-facial membrane’: an active and dynamic set of spaces in and through which ‘publics’ could be or become modern.

          Elizabeth Darling explored this idea through a consideration of the concept of the ‘Centre,’ and the examples of the Pioneer Health Centre, the Building Centre, the Housing Centre and the Community Centre. These addressed a number of publics – another key theme in this session. This might be a working-class public, as was the case at the Pioneer Health Centre, enabled to assume a fuller role in society through improved health care and access to birth control, or a more affluent, middle-class public who, through access to information about modern products for their homes at the Building Centre, could create domestic settings as modern as they were.

          Speakers were careful to note the difficulty of the term ‘public,’ noting a tension between the intentions of middle-class/upper middle-class reformers, journalists, architects, and the audiences they addressed. Jessica Kelly’s paper showed how the Architectural Review  negotiated a relationship with a reading public from the late 1920s onwards, when it became a proselytiser for architectural modernism. From problematising a (middle-class) public (and equating femininity with poor taste in articles such as ‘The Architectural Consequences of Women’) and which thus needed to be instructed about the new architecture, she charted the emergence of an idea that the architectural press might collaborate with its readership in the advocacy of a specifically national form of modernism. 

          Neal Shasore showed how the architectural profession similarly sought to engage with a middle-class public through a new headquarters building (opened 1934) notable for its openness (in contrast to other profession’s more monumental and private institutional interiors) and a newly-founded PR committee: its aim to create the idea of architecture as a public service and the architect as indispensable in the formation of the commonweal. 

          This linking of the architect/architectural culture and the public realm; buildings as some form of setting for transformation; and more national or regional forms of modernism would find full expression in the reconstruction of Britain after the Second World War. Subsequent sessions explored their manifestation in the fields of education, urban planning, and the cultural sphere.

          Educating the Nation after 1945

          In this session speakers considered how the new Welfare State’s concern for citizens from cradle to grave, began with a massive school (and later university) building programme. Roy Kozlovsky showed how a concern for children’s emotional well-being (largely stemming from the experience of wartime evacuation) led to carefully designed, domestic scale, school environments, settings for a more informal education with the ultimate aim of creating the child as a (proto) ‘social democratic self.’ 

          Catherine Burke picked up this theme of the school as an early training in democracy – so important to a nation reconstructing. She also demonstrated how a new understanding that all children were entitled to the best was manifested in how architects (now very much public servants) designed these new schools meticulously: from structure to fixtures and fittings. In such attractive settings children received an education in culture as well as the 3 Rs.

          This nurturing was continued through to higher education buildings, the subject of Louise Campbell’s paper. Again, the state understood education not simply as a means to an end, but a good in and of itself; the university was a site to train a new generation of engineers, civil servants and so on, but more generally to enable generations to become cultivated citizens of both a modern Britain and a modern Europe.

          Architecture Citizenship Space: Beyond the Academy

          Discussion took a slightly different tack in our final session of day one, a roundtable to which we had invited the blogger Municipal Dreams (John Boughton); the Manchester Modernist Society’s Jack Hale, and Verity-Jane Keefe, who runs the Mobile Museum

          Working beyond the confines of an academic context, each engages with the architecture of the period under discussion with a particular emphasis on its lived experience and its enjoyment and appreciation. How often the architecture of the Welfare State (and indeed pre-war social architecture) has come to be dismissed and understood as a generic misstep in social policy, was a theme that quickly emerged. Thus work to remind a wider public and politicians that, for example, council estates are not anonymous agglomerations of housing, but Places inhabited by communities, or that Manchester’s modernist office blocks and highways might be important markers of a local identity, is a central activity of all our discussants whether through community workshops, blog writing or walks and publications. Emphasis was also placed on the importance of grassroots responses to local architectures versus the parachuting in of outside bodies unfamiliar with the particularities of a place.

          Where and how to live

          Day two saw our final sessions. In the first, new ideas of urban form and dwelling, as well as new methods of designing them, formed the subject of discussion. Otto Saumarez Smith explored post-war urban planning, favouring the concept of ‘urbanity’ as a lens through which to understand design rather than stylistc tropes like Brutalism or the New Empiricism. Urbanity – a term deployed by architects and sociologists working together – argued for higher-density city redevelopment that drew on the traditions of Georgian town planning to create urban spatial forms that retained the social relations of working-class communities but in much better designed and spatially generous surroundings. 

          Christine Hui Lan Manley considered a different form of urbanity - this time a more visual form - in her discussion of Frederick Gibberd’s work at Harlow and Hackney. Gibberd sought to blend local references be that to Georgian architecture in an urban context or vernacular in a more rural setting with the more usual tropes of modernism to again create decent well-designed homes and neighbourhoods. 

          Ruth Lang’s paper offered a parallel commentary on the development of modern ways of working through her discussion of the London County Council Architects’ Department’s method of design organization. She showed how small teams comprising not just architects but other specialists (including sociologists) worked communally on projects: experts dedicated to serving a post-war public that warranted - without question - the best of environments. 

          Culture and Democracy

          Finally, and in keeping with the theme that the post-war world required a cultured citizenry, speakers explored the nationalisation of culture from the mid-1940s onwards. Alistair Fair argued that for both Left and Right, the theatre was understood as a site in which all people could enjoy access to culture (as opposed to the less highbrow, and American, forms of culture such as the cinema). Through the Arts Council, successive governments in the 1960s and early 1970s supported the building of new civic theatres which, in their combination of performance with social spaces for mingling and eating, created sites of cultivated leisure. As Fair pointed out, the plays put on might not, however, always be to locals’ taste: in response to a play rich in its language, excused by its director as ‘idiom’, a woman complained ‘what you call idiom, I call filth.’ 

          Reflecting the tensions in that letter, and also raised in the first session’s papers, that the intentions behind such projects were not always met on the ground with appreciation, Rosamund West’s paper outlined the London County Council’s policy of including artwork (usually sculpture) in its housing estates. This might be understood as a further echo of the policy of surrounding children in their new schools with well-designed furniture.  While some work was very popular, locals did not always appreciate the modernity of the sculptures commissioned.  

          Lesley Whitworth’s paper showed how a parallel organization to the Arts Council, the Council of Industrial Design (COID, founded 1944) similarly sought to foster an awareness of the importance of design and the designer in the formation of a modern Britain. This most certainly had an economic motive: the purchase of consumer goods would help the British economy and fill the homes of those re-housed in the estates designed by Gibberd et al. But, more particularly, as Whitworth noted, and reiterating the idea of the importance of the arts per se, the objects that the COID approved as examples of good design, were talismanic for those who promoted them, and those who bought them. They were signs of Britain’s and Britons’ modernity.

          These papers were all delivered in an atmosphere notable for its friendliness and collegiality, and each session ended in useful and constructive discussion. We finished with the observation that having considered the historical moment when culture was seen as transcendant, rather than tied to measurable outputs, and that the provision of spaces and things through and in which individuals might negotiate their place in democracy was the goal of architects, designers, their clients and their users, we were rather a long way from our present reality. The theme of architecture, citizenship, space, seemed therefore especially timely.  

          Dr Elizabeth Darling, Reader in Architectural History 

          Image one: Elizabeth Darling & Alistair Fair introduce the conference
          Image two: Roundtable speakers

          Monday, 3 July 2017

          The Witchcraft Exhibition at Ravensburg: A Review

          The municipal museum of Ravensburg (Baden-Württemberg, Germany) is currently hosting a major witchcraft exhibition. ‘Hexenwahn 1484. Frauen auf dem Scheiterhaufen’ (‘Witch Craze 1484. Women at the Stake’) is the somewhat curious title of the event that includes the exhibition itself, a series of public lectures, and the publication of a collection of essays about the witch hunts in Ravensburg and the surrounding Lake Constance area.

          Ravensburg is clearly a good place for a witchcraft exhibition, since it has largely escaped the air raids of WW2 and large parts of the old town centre are still intact. A number of buildings mentioned in the Ravensburg witch trials therefore still exist. The former imperial free city of Ravensburg, one of the more affluent semi-republican city states that had flourished in South Germany in the late Middle Ages and experienced a slow but steady decline in the early modern period witnessed some of the earliest German witch trials. 

          The municipal museum ‘Humpis Quartier’ is a unique place that would be well worth a visit all by itself. The museum is not really housed in a building. Rather, it houses itself in a number of late medieval buildings. The modern museum space integrates a courtyard and some old buildings into a complete new system that is artificial and yet seems to have grown organically out of medieval architectural roots. The symbiosis of ancient half-timber, rough masonry, concrete and glass is almost in itself ‘magical’. At times, the visitor may wonder where exactly in the architectural space and where in time he is.

          The exhibition uses what is in Germany sometimes called the ‘taxi approach’ to the eternal problem of getting the general audience interested in a very specific academic question: You’ve got to pick them up where they stand. The visitors are greeted by three screens with videos that talk about modern concepts of the witch most visitors would be familiar with. The screens present witches in the popular imagination (long noses and red hair seem to be of the essence), literary witches (‘Faust’ and fairy tales), and the witches of the Southwest German street carnival (male mummers wearing grotesque wooden masks). In order to see these screens the visitors have to go through a comparatively dark and narrow corridor. This corridor leads into a big open space under a high class roof. 

          The room itself is a symbol: Here, the exhibition ‘illuminates’ and ‘clarifies’ matters. A series of reproductions of pictures with explanatory texts present the five elements of the demonological definition of the witch: A witch is a person who has made a pact with the devil (1). She (the witch is usually female) has sex with demons (2). She meets regularly with other witches. This so called witches’ Sabbath is usually not imagined as a ‘Black Mass’ but rather as a peasants’ feast (3). In order to join these secret gatherings quickly and without being seen, witches fly magically through the air (4). Witches use magic to do harm (5). This essential part of the exhibition is much too ‘talky’: The explanatory texts matter, the (not very well chosen) reproductions of pictures do not. It seems as if the organizers of the exhibition simply wanted to get the basics out of the way. The visitors cannot help a feeling of anti-climax. The fantastic open exhibition space and the three screens that made the visitor think about various concepts of the witch seem to be wasted.

          The next room presents a number of most interesting artefacts: talismans and bits of paper with magical writing and symbols. While these are clearly the most interesting pieces of the exhibition, they have hardly anything to do with witch trials: All of these items belong to the huge area of folk magic. They were supposed to ward off misfortune, illness and any kind of evil influence, at times including witchcraft. However, contrary to popular knowledge, folk magicians were usually not accused of witchcraft. Nevertheless, the room does provide a glimpse into actual magical practices from the early modern period that the visitors will appreciate.

          So far, we have learned little about the actual Ravensburg witch hunt of 1484. The next sequence of rooms is dedicated to it and to one of its key players, the witch hunter Heinrich Kramer. Kramer, also known as Institoris, was the author of the notorious demonological manual ‘Malleus maleficarum’ (Hammer of the Witches). A local clergyman invited Kramer to Ravensburg so that he could lead an investigation against witches in his capacity as papal inquisitor. Kramer preached sermons against witchcraft and tried to talk the people of Ravensburg into denouncing their neighbours as witches. However, the crop of actual trials was rather scanty. Six women ended up in court, only two of them were found guilty and executed. 

          The exhibition tends to overlook the basic fact of the Ravensburg witch hunt. Even though Kramer was an inquisitor, the court that tried the alleged witches was not an inquisitorial court. It was the municipal court of Ravensburg i.e. a secular, not an ecclesiastical court. Without the active support of the town authorities, Kramer would have failed utterly. The two women executed were persons of ill repute whom the people who mattered in Ravensburg saw as likely disciples of the devil. This exhibition fails to make the interrelation between Kramer, the local authorities and the inhabitants of Ravenburg sufficiently clear. Indeed, the selection of exhibits and the explanatory texts re-affirm the old misunderstanding that the inquisition was responsible for the witch trials. 

          Visitors who have no prior knowledge are not likely to learn about the basic findings of witchcraft research, therefore. Almost all witch trials were conducted by secular authorities, not by the church. The driving force behind the witch trials were the so called common people, peasants and town people, not learned witch hunters. Instead of teaching this essential (and certainly somewhat disillusioning) lesson, the Ravensburg exhibition goes into details of individual trials and torture. The visitors are confronted with an executioner’s sword, and a torture device used for the ‘strappado’ the most common and most simple form of torture. Strangely enough, the organizers of the exhibition decided to include the so called ‘torture chair’ in the display, a rather ridiculous forgery from the 19th century that has a lot to do with modern sadomasochistic fantasies about the so called ‘dark’ Middle Ages but nothing at all with early modern criminal trials. 

          One display case presents an original text from a Ravensburg witch trial, interestingly one that documents an acquittal. Audio tapes play excerpts from trial records. A most helpful map identifies buildings and places connected with the witch hunts in Ravensburg: The visitors may continue their tour outside of the museum and go to the actual places that can still be found in today’s Ravensburg. These include the Green Tower where the alleged witches were imprisoned and a nice residential neighbourhood near the town centre, formerly a bit of woodland just outside the city walls where the witches’ Sabbath supposedly took place. This is clearly relevant and important. However, the exhibits do not stress the big inconvenient truth that the local authorities - not just the learned outsider Kramer - were responsible for the Ravensburg witch hunt.

          Kramer used the experiences he had made in Ravensburg and other places in the German South when he wrote his manual for witch hunting, the ‘Malleus maleficarum’. The point of the book was to convince secular authorities that they should take a more pro-active stance toward the alleged threat of witchcraft. One early modern copy of the ‘Malleus maleficarum’ is on display. A series of panels without any original exhibits informs the visitors about Kramer’s further career and witch hunts that took place in some South German principalities. The last room of the exhibition confronts the visitors with the contemporary witch hunts that are taking place right now in large parts of Africa. Many experts agree that one of the main factors that hinder the further economic and political development of African societies is the fear of witches and actual witch hunts. There are a number of informative texts and photographs, but no original exhibits whatsoever.

          The Ravensburg exhibition is highly informative. Visitors with little or no expert knowledge will learn something about the history of the witch hunts. However, some the explanatory texts are clearly misleading. There are too many of these texts and not enough original exhibits. It would be highly unfair to compare the Ravensburg exhibition to the big historical witchcraft exhibition in Karlsruhe in 1994, clearly the best one so far, or even to those in Berlin 2002 and Speyer 2010. The municipal museum of Ravensburg simply does not have a million-Euro budget to spend on an individual exhibition. Still, it would have paid to invest just a little more time and effort into the exhibition. The wonderful historical sights of the Lake Constance area are always worth a visit. So, if you go there this summer anyway, make sure to include the Ravensburg witchcraft exhibition in your itinerary.

          Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 11am -6 pm (Thusday 11am -8pm)
          Admission fee: 5 Euros

          The special exhibition about witchcraft ‘Hexenwahn 1484. Frauen auf dem Scheiterhaufen’ is on display till October 3, 2017.

          1. Cradle with a pentagram (five-pointed star) that is supposed to ward off evil spirits who might threaten or steal the baby
          2. Modern mummer from Ravensburg wearing a wooden witch mask. Strangely enough, no such mask was on display in the exhibition
          3. Executioner’s sword

          Review by Professor Johannes Dillinger, Historian of Witchcraft and Magic