Reflections on Research, and the Culture War being played out in Media

I’ve been updating the web site today, organizing pages (there’s now a page for Research in the UK and another for Laura Ingalls Wilder posts), and it made me consider the trajectory of my research thus far.

One of my particular early challenges was what appeared to be an inability to settle on a research area. It’s fairly clear by the volume and variety of subjects that I’ve written about that I enjoy a wide variety of interests. It took some time for me to settle on what has become the through-line, however, and that is actually fairly simple:

How do people underserved by traditional media platforms use media to build their own communities, bolster their own political power, and effect change?

“Underserved” is an interesting word. To use it means acknowledging that traditional mainstream media do not serve the same function for particular classes and groups of people that they do for those who are in control of the messages spread by it. It implies that mainstream media reinforce a status quo when it comes to power and control. Thus, people who recognize that they are not served by traditional media turn to other means by which they can get messages into the morass of mediated communication.

Today, this can be achieved through the construction of a relatively cheap web site, the networking of varied social media platforms, and the ability of those who want to get a non-mainstream message out to find like-minded people to help with those networks.

Such sites still face a credibility problem, because, of course, one way to maintain the status quo is to immediately downplay, discredit, and label messages that contradict the status quo as “not credible.” (Or, perhaps, “fake.”)

Originally, I was interested in how new media platforms (when they were new, in the late 1990s) would work alongside their traditional counterparts (newspapers, magazines.)

But as I dug more deeply, I realized that how media platforms are used, and for what purpose, is as important, or more so, than the mere fact that they exist. Local newspapers, for example, exist to provide news and information of local interest to the community, to build communal structures for communication across the area, and to provide common ground for discussion in public spaces.

National and international news platforms are meant to do the same, in a larger sphere, reinforcing public status quo at that level.

But the splintering of media platforms has meant that media consumers can choose, to a greater or lesser degree, which platforms they want to listen to. This has lead to more and more media consumers choosing to “listen” or pay attention to only those platforms that agree with their particular views of what the status quo should be. That has led to general upheaval, because in a world where many voices can be heard, with many ideas about how things should be, people have stopped listening to any voices that might contradict their own.

Thus, a culture war being played out on the public stage.

I mentioned, once, that I view history as music, in a way. Each chord reflects the voices of thousands, at all levels of society in all forms, and each is utterly necessary to create the music that is culture and structure in society.

Suppression of voices will mean instability.

Well. I don’t know that I’ve made any sense in this bit of exploratory writing. It’s tough to boil some of these thoughts down. But what I’m generally thinking, given the work I have done and will continue to do in exploring how underserved populations have found their voices and expressed them, using media platforms to build community and effect change, is that real social and political change can only come when the voices of the underserved are made manifest–and one listens to the stories they can tell.

Days 2 and 3 in Manchester: Archives, a Walking Tour, and Tapas for Dinner

My primary purpose for this trip, of course, was to gather materials for my ongoing research project, which focuses in general on the community-building function of media. In particular on this trip, I had intended to investigate the Manchester Guardian-turned-national newspaper, something that I still think a good idea.

But on my first day here, visiting the People’s History Museum, I stumbled across a working-class publication that was printed during four critical years in British history, and the archive maintained at PHM. Accordingly, I have spent the last two days acquainting myself with that period’s history, the struggles of the working-class, and the British press during that period.

I also digitized a significant chunk of the newspapers’ archive with which to continue my work.

So Day 2 in Manchester found me in St. Peter’s Square, looking for the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, at which I was to meet a walking tour group that promised a look at Manchester’s political roots and history.

Pankhurst, a pioneering suffragette, is said to have founded the militancy of the suffrage movement right there in Manchester. Her statue features the petite woman standing on a kitchen chair, arms outstretched as if to rally a crowd, and the half-circle of stone at her back reads, “Rise Up Women!”

(I’ve been unable to shake a tune from Mary Poppins from head, ever since. “We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats, and dauntless crusaders for women’s votes; though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid; …. Political equality and equal rights with men! Take heart, for Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!”)

The statue was a good place to start the tour, and the guide, Ed Glinert, was clearly knowledgeable about the political events in Manchester and the Peterloo Massacre, in particular. After a stop at town hall to see Pankhurst’s portrait in collage, and a look at the Peterloo memorial in a kind of walkway between it and the adjoining building, he headed us off to the site of the Peterloo Massacre itself. Manchester Central now rests on the site of the field that in August of 1819 saw peaceful protesters (agitating for universal suffrage) mercilessly struck down by an army of thugs hired for the purpose.

Glinert brought us to the site, discussed its history, showed us the place where the stage (built of two wooden carts spliced together) had been, and then walked us through the Radisson Blu, which now stands on that corner and retains memorials to the site’s history as a gathering place for protest. The Free Trade Hall stood there before it was torn down to make way for the hotel.

We walked down the steps where Christabel Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline) and Annie Kenney were kicked out of a liberal rally there in 1905 after shouting questions about whether the party would grant suffrage to women. The tour continued through town to St. Ann’s Square, site of the first public vote in Manchester in 1832, and by sites of Friedrich Engels’ offices, the Working Man’s Church, and Crown Court (where the last judicial decision to execute a criminal in Britain was handed down in 1864). We finished at the People’s History Museum, of course, and I spent more time with the exhibits there.

(All told, I’ve been at the PHM three days this week in Manchester, and plan to go again on Saturday to see the Peterloo exhibit that opens then. Truly a remarkable find; thanks to my friend Edwina Higgins for recommending I start there!)

Day 3 in Manchester put me back in the archives at PHM to complete the collection of data, and I had a good chat with the archivists about the press and Peterloo. While Peterloo isn’t my focus this round, it is relevant to the press struggles that followed it, and to the founding of the Manchester Guardian. To be here this week, when two different exhibitions are opening about Peterloo, feels serendipitous.

I finished Day 3 with tapas for dinner at Tapeo & Wine with friend Eddie. I love tapas, and it’s tough to find in my home state, so I expected to enjoy the meal. I wasn’t disappointed at all.

Fresh assorted breads, including olive bread, a Manchego cheese board, roasted eggplant with feta, meat cannoli in bechamel, Spanish omelet with potato, olives, and a multi-textured chocolate desert with Irish Cream foam rounded out the meal. I’d forgotten how lovely it is to simply relax, and take my time eating, chatting, and enjoying the food. The Spanish music playing in the background gave way to a live guitarist somewhere during the course of the three hours we spent there, and the laid-back but friendly ambience made the experience a joy. I’d head here again in a heart beat.

Day 4 in Manchester is a writing day, so there won’t be much to share. But I’m heading out with Eddie again on day five to tour some other memorable spots in Manchester, and looking forward to it.

Day 1 in Manchester: The People’s History Museum, the Poor Man’s Guardian, and the John Rylands Library

I’m in Manchester to continue my research into how varied media can be used to facilitate and build community. My original thought, to work with The Guardian, which was founded in Manchester in 1821, still seems like a viable avenue for study.

But today, at the suggestion of a friend, I visited the People’s History Museum, and found a story that needs telling.

The People’s History Museum focuses on the history of protest, the growth of socialism, and the movements toward equal rights that have deep roots and history here in Manchester. The exhibits feature banners and other protest materials, an overview of protest movements in Manchester within national and global contexts, and a special focus on the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, an event during which peaceful protest was broken up in bloody fashion.

The 200th anniversary of Peterloo is this year, and numerous sites around Manchester are preparing exhibits surrounding the events. As I’m here to look at media history here, I’m excited that I’ve apparently–and accidentally–chosen an excellent time to come to Manchester.

As I went through the Museum, one thing stood out to me–a coffin stuffed with copies of a workers’ newspaper called the Poor Man’s Guardian. My interest piqued, I took myself down to the front information desk to discover the museum has a complete archive of the publication, which ran from 1831-1836 and directly engaged with protest against the law that restricted press content–passed in response to the Peterloo Massacre.

I spent hours digging through that archive, before fatigue sent in and I left for the day. This is the story I’ve found that needs telling to a broader audience, and I’m already crafting the first draft. I’m really excited.

Next, I stopped at the nearby John Rylands library to see its printing press, Gutenberg publications, and the oldest known shred of the New Testament (in Greek on papyrus). It’s well worth the trip for the bibliophile, and I found some great examples of type for use in my visual principles of mass media course.

It was a busy day, but I look forward to heading back this week to continue gathering my research data.

Tomorrow, though, I’m taking a bit of a break and heading to Liverpool. It’s time to see about the Beatles experience.

Day 3 in London: The British Museum, Cream Tea, and A Walk around Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia

One of the great things about the hotel I stayed in for my trip to London is its central location, near the University College of London on Gower Street. It’s a few blocks from the British Museum, in an interesting neighborhood called Fitzrovia, and within quick walking distance from two different Underground stations.

So for my third full day in London, I chose to spend my time exploring the neighborhood a bit, and I started off with a trip to the British Museum.

The last time I was in England, 26 years ago, I’d set aside a Saturday for the Museum only to find, once I’d gotten there, that a bomb threat had forced its evacuation for the day. Therefore, it fell into the realm of “things I hadn’t seen” in London, and I made it a priority stop.

The line to get in to the Museum seemed long at first glance but moved quickly. In no time at all I was walking through the front door, buying a guide book, and making a plan of attack for my visit. The place is huge, so seeing it all in one trip is nearly impossible, and I decided I wouldn’t try. I opted to pick a few exhibits I was most interested in, and spend the time really exploring those things.

I started off in the rooms that focused on British history, and I stepped into the medieval period. The collection there includes jewelry, coins, and other fine artifacts from the Isles, and I was drawn to a ring that once was worn by Richard I (Lionheart) and to a cache of gold coins. (In fact, I started to think treasure hunting in the United Kingdom could be a viable career, what with all the hordes and caches of coins and jewelry found around the island and displayed there.)

I also viewed the Sutton Hoo helmet, and numerous artifacts from various periods in British history.

I took a break then, and had cream tea. Cream tea is fairly unique to Britain, and it includes tea, a scone, clotted cream, and strawberry jam. The scones at the Museum were plump and bursting with sultanas, and the clotted cream tasted as good as I remembered. It’s something I can’t find in the States, but love when I can get it.

After tea, I headed to Rome and Greece. Well, not literally, but I walked through the rooms with the artifacts that featured Ancient Rome and Greece, past the Egyptian mummies, and up to the fourth level to see the special exhibitions, one on postcards and another on Rembrandt drawings. The exhibitions were in adjoining rooms, and, paired together, made for an interesting juxtaposition of art, class, and social change.

A trip through the shop for samples for future class display, and I headed back out the door to walk through the Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia neighborhoods.

Numerous blue heritage signs dot the front walls of varied residences through the neighborhoods, indicating locations of significant historical interest. My favorite sign along the walk was for a renowned hostess, Lady Ottoline Morrell. I’d never heard of her, specifically, but the idea of a society matron whose life centered around providing a space for literary folk to gather, socialize, and share ideas has great appeal. I looked her up when I got back to my room, to find she’d hosted numerous gatherings of the famous Bloomsbury group, which included Virginia Woolf. I found her designation of “Literary Hostess” truly aspirational.

A wander through the neighborhood shops turned up several interesting bookstores and souvenir places, as well as some tasty-looking menus. I stopped for a delicious dinner at a small Italian restaurant, called Marciello RC, which is housed in a renovated and reclaimed petrol station. Known for its steak, the restaurant features dry-aged beef. I wasn’t interested in anything too heavy, so I opened for the beef-and-spinach stuffed ravioli with house ragu of beef shoulder, and it was utterly delicious.

I headed back to my hotel to get off my feet. When I booked the Ridgemount Hotel, I’d placed my trust in numerous positive reviews online, and I wasn’t disappointed. Everything was impeccably clean, the service stellar, and the location couldn’t be beaten. It even included full English breakfast.

It was perfect for my needs, and I’d stay there again in a heartbeat.

Next stop: Manchester. Day 4 featured a train ride and a catch up with an old friend.

Day 2 in London: The Tower, Westminster Pier, and the Thames

As I planned this trip, I tried to focus on things I had never done before. As a student in England in 1992, I managed to cover a lot of ground, and that did include large swaths of London itself.

That said, I decided to revisit a favorite spot: the Tower of London.

I’ve always been drawn to the Tower. I have distant British royal ancestry, if the records are accurate; my last direct ancestor on the throne was Edward I, Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots. I didn’t know about this family history when I was last here, but this time around, I did. When I saw that one of the self-guided audio tours for the Tower focused on the life of Edward and his father, Henry III, I opted to do that, first.

The tour took me into a section of the complex that I don’t remember climbing before, up along the battlements on the side of grounds facing the Thames. Henry built his medieval palace construction there, away from the central White Tower. I walked up a flight of stairs along the wall and into the main receiving hall for the king, which was flanked by a tower at a corner and featured an enormous fireplace. Broad wooden beams kept the high ceilings safe under the heavy guns that would have rested on top of the roof.

The room itself lacked the luxury it would have had in the thirteenth century; its wooden floors and clean brick-and-stone walls would have been the same, but they would have been covered with carpets and tapestries against the chill. The large room adjoining the private hall, Edward I’s bedroom with small adjoining chapel, remains furnished as it might have been in his time.

It’s an odd feeling, walking in the footsteps of ancestors who lived hundreds of years ago.

I enjoyed the tour, which also included re-enactors in Edward’s chambers talking to school groups about the castle’s construction. In fact, there were numerous school groups present throughout the grounds, with older students discussing the bloody history of parts of the tower and younger students enjoying the Crown Jewels, and some of the specially tailored children’s activities (including knight’s training). I’m looking forward to bringing my own children here some day.

I revisited the execution site of Ann Boleyn and the prison of Beauchamp Tower; I also revisited the study kept by Sir Walter Raleigh when he and his family were confined to the Tower under Queen Elizabeth I. I also enjoyed the peek at the ravens of the Tower, and the walk along the Thames after my visit that culminated in amazing fish and chips from Josef’s stand.

I debated my next move from there, but as I was fairly tired from walking all those battlements (and up and down miles of twisty medieval staircases–I’d forgotten the sheer number of steps that go along with exploring castles and castle-like structures), so I decided to take advantage of the pass I had to take a Thames River cruise.

This meant first taking the Tube down to Westminster Pier to collect the ticket associated with my London Explorer Pass, which was no trouble. Once at Westminster Pier, I took note of the protesters on the square near the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, and promptly turned down toward the water, instead. I collected my ticket, then headed down to the water to board the City Cruises boat.

The river cruise was definitely a first for me, and it afforded me the opportunity to take pictures from the water, which gave me some fantastic views, including a spectacular shot of the Tower featuring the Traitor’s Gate from the water. The boat took me back up the Thames to Tower Pier (I could have continued to Greenwich, but felt immeasurably tired at this point). I enjoyed the live commentary and the company of other Americans who sat with me by the front of the boat.

It was a good day.

Day 1 In London: Baker Street, Piccadilly Circus, and Betrayal

While it’s actually my second day in London, I lost a day to jet lag and poor decision-making, so today was the first day I spent out and about.

I knew going into the day that I had an afternoon commitment, so I focused on spending the morning doing one thing I’ve wanted to do for some time: I visited 221B Baker Street, the Sherlock Holmes Museum. I have been a fan of the mystery stories for a very long time, and the Holmes stories stand out as an exemplar of the best there are. With the recent resurgence in Holmes’ popularity, due in large part to the Robert Downey Jr. films and BBC’s Sherlock, I have been joined by many others. The original stories have also made their way into the public domain at this point, so people who are interested in recreating, retelling, or otherwise reusing the Holmes premise are welcome to do so, within reason.

That said, the Baker Street museum, as a living representation of a fictional space, was a fun stop for the true Holmes fan. Set up in rooms that actually were used as a lodging house during the period Holmes purported to live there (1881-1904), the museum features Holmes’ study, furnished with period furniture as well as his violin, chemistry set, and other notable artifacts from the books. His bedroom adjoins the study, and up a flight of stairs, visitors find John Watson’s room, furnished with writing desk and other necessities, and Mrs. Hudson’s room, which features glass cases filled with artifacts from the books.

Up another flight, rooms feature truly creepy mannequins made to look like characters from the books. I took a selfie with Moriarty, because I’m like that.

For a Holmes fan, it was a good stop. I also discovered that Baker Street Underground Station, recently refurbished, is a good place to regroup and seek a next stop. Literally.

I “hopped on” a tour bus to get out of a sudden drizzle, and it took me to the London Eye. After a quick off and back on again for pictures, I took the hop-on bus up through the old City of London to Tower Hill, catching some amazing shots from the upper deck when the sun came out. While I was familiar with the London history our tour guide, Christopher, imparted–quite well, and engagingly–I felt a bit like I was coming home when I saw the dragon that guards the entrance to the City. And I did see the new Millenium Bridge. And crossed the Thames three times–on the bridge to Waterloo, London Bridge, and Tower Bridge.

Assured by Christopher that no, I would not make it to Picadilly Circus by 1:30 on the tour bus, I hopped off at Tower Hill and took the Tube back to Picadilly for lunch, and to walk around the corner from there to the Harold Pinter Theater for the 2:30 production of Betrayal featuring Tom Hiddleston.

Hiddleston, who is better known to American audiences as Loki from the Marvel movies, remains a stalwart of the London stage, and in the 90 minute performance, I could see why. He’s incredibly expressive, and the play, with its cast of three, helped him demonstrate that. At one point, from my seat in the front row (dress circle), I could see tears reflecting in his eyes. The show was brilliant, and his fellow cast members, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox, do their roles justice. I was spellbound. And sort of patting myself on the back for blowing my theater budget on one ticket, because at least it was this show.

The review to which I linked above sums up the experience nicely, and includes photographs, which of course are a no-go in the theater.

On to adventures for Day 2.

The Impulse to Preserve

I was talking with a friend this morning about my research into American farm women’s history, research that became a dissertation that became a book.

As part of that work, I interviewed and corresponded with several hundred women who lived on or worked on farms between 1910 and 1960.

One of the findings that emerged didn’t actually make it into the final book, because it was interesting, but not part of the original research questions. And that is the impulse to preserve their own histories that permeated so much of the information shared with me.

Numerous memoirs, hand-typed, or self-published, came to my desk. Whole boxes of family journals and memoirs (which I have kept, unable to part with memories) came to me with the line, “I hope you can use this. We have no use for it but are glad someone might.” Some elderly women in care centers talked to me with tears in their eyes, voices soft as they related stories from their childhoods, and talked to me of “Mother.”

One of the connections I made in my talk this morning made me think about this work within the context of my Laura Ingalls Wilder research.

Wilder’s personal story, when told, often starts with the idea that as a “retired” farm woman, she decided to write out the memories of her childhood so that they wouldn’t be lost. While this is ostensibly true, it’s also a carefully crafted myth spun by her publishers and daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, to lend mystique and pathos to the elderly woman sharing her stories.

Wilder, in fact, wrote for publication for years before her “retirement,” and Lane acted as guide and mentor in many ways to her mother, shepherding her career. The work of her writing is disguised by the myth that developed around her.

However, the myth itself seemed to inspire something fascinating: the impulse to preserve the memories before they’re lost.

Numerous volumes of memoir rest in my office. Some I drew on as I wrote the first book. But upon reflection, I think there’s another work here, something that ties into the reflection of memory, nostalgia, and a search for a past that seemed somehow better.

And yet, too, many of the women I spoke to were clear about the hazards of being a woman on the farm, as well as the joys. Lack of adequate medical care, schooling, and public transportation topped that list, along with the sheer volume of work ascribed to women only.

I’m not clear on where this work will go, yet, and I’ll need to go and re-read my own works to find the right direction. But I want to encourage those who have written their own histories and families’ histories down. An historian is always looking for your work. Everyday history needs to be preserved, and it’s often challenging to find those original resources.

(And yes, that includes preserving letters.)

Making Travel Plans: England-bound, again

I have been going over plans for a two-week trip to the United Kingdom in March to conduct research for my large-scale sabbatical project.

I’m excited for the project, which explores the role of a community newspaper in Manchester, England. But I’m also excited to re-visit spaces I fell in love with more than twenty years ago.

In 1992, I spent a semester studying at Harlaxton College, near Grantham, England. Over the course of the term, I completed my history minor by taking interdisciplinary coursework in the history of the U.K., the history of British music, and medieval European history. I lived in a manor house that looked more like a castle to my Midwestern American eyes, and I indulged a need to see everything my young romantic heart wanted to see.

I walked the walls that circled the city of York.

I danced with friends in the courtyard of Nottingham Castle, and sipped a cider in the oldest pub in England.

I drank single-malt whiskey on the moors outside of Haworth, thinking about the Bronte sisters and visiting their home there.

I waited with friends at the front of the line for day-return tickets to see Phantom of the Opera in the West End, and we put out a hat on the street corner to catch the coins we earned while singing there.

I saw Les Miserables for the first time, also in the West End.

I watched Guy Fawkes fires burn across the countryside on my train trip north to Scotland from Grantham. I toured the Scots Whiskey Heritage museum on an empty stomach, and made my way, typsy on good single-malt, down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. I stood on the beach where Chariots of Fire was filmed in St. Andrews, and stood silent at the chapel there on November 11.

I wandered around Stonehenge, and took enough pictures to waste an entire roll of film. I fell to my knees in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, in prayer, and my phantom eyes saw the complete walls of my monks’ cell.

I saw Byron’s original writings, under glass in his home, and the Crown Jewels, under guard in the Tower of London. I saw the place Anne Boleyn was beheaded, and heard the stories of the princes in the Tower from the Yeoman Warders.

I toured Windsor Castle before part of it was destroyed and rebuilt in a fire.

I explored the Roman ruins of Caerleon in Wales, seeking connection to the tales of Camelot, and I finished my Christmas shopping under the lights of the castle at Cardiff.

I woke up, and I embraced life.

My trip in March will not encompass all of those things. It’s not possible, in two weeks, to cover all that ground, especially when research will take most of my time. I do plan to catch a show in London, and hit a couple of the museums I missed the first time around. My plans to visit the British Museum one day in 1992 were unwittingly sabotaged by the IRA, so I plan to make up for it in March. I also want to visit 221B Baker Street in London, and the Beatles Museum in Liverpool.

It’s because of my experiences as an international student that I will always advocate study abroad for my own students. Aside from seeing all these things I’d always longed to see, the overall experience helped me to see outside of my self and my own culture, and opened my thinking up to embrace new ideas. As a scholar, I gravitate toward cultural studies even now, and as an historian, I look for narratives that fall under and around those that have already been established.

I look forward to March, and I wish for all of you to do one thing this year that you’ve never done before, but always wanted to do. Cheers.