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What will history make of your desk’s contents?

1 Jul

I pick up the Washington Post Express on my commute most mornings, and yesterday, among the numerous things that I totally have to check out (FOLKLIFE IS DOING R&B AND THE DIXIE CUPS WILL BE THERE, oh Internet don’t even get me started on girl groups I can’t even), there was this piece about “For All The World To See”, an exhibit about the narrative of the civil rights movement as told in everyday objects, currently at the National Museum of American History. Which, first of all, I totally have to check out. But second of all, I had a bit of a chuckle at the vaguely startled tone of the article. Everyday objects? In a historical collection? Interrobang?!?!?

Dude, that’s what history is. That’s why, for all the jokes that got made when the Library of Congress announced it was going to start archiving tweets, it’s important that they’re doing it: because history is the little things. Museums might put the shinies on display, but the tiny fraction of their catalogues that you see are joined, behind the scenes, by the less-pretty things that will tell you a lot more about the realities of everyday life.

In conclusion, for all you historians from the future, the contents of my desk are as follows: tea, chocolate from the UK, a broken rubber band, a post-it containing the details of an appointment with my therapist, my keys, a couple of Kate Beaton cartoons, a pair of scissors, and some packing tape. And binder clips. Lots of binder clips.

(Actually, now I’m going into Material History mode and I am getting ready to tell you all what impressions I, a historian, might draw from those things, but that’s an entry for another time.)


In which the legends are indeed true

29 Sep

What’s that I spy in the distance? Is it another mirage, or is it indeed an article that isn’t defending Roman Polanski for raping a child? Oh my God, it is!

Roman Polanski may be a great director, an old man, a husband, a father, a friend to many powerful people, and even the target of some questionable legal shenanigans. He may very well be no threat to society at this point. He may even be a good person on balance, whatever that means. But none of that changes the basic, undisputed fact: Roman Polanski raped a child. And rushing past that point to focus on the reasons why we should forgive him, pity him, respect him, admire him, support him, whatever, is absolutely twisted.

Like, I was willing to hear out the people who didn’t think Michael Jackson did what he was accused of. I wasn’t sure I agreed, but I could see where they were coming from.

But when we are dealing with a dude who actually pled guilty to raping someone (sidebar: I love that in the linked piece, Harding notes how the defenses would probably get even creepier if the girl hadn’t been thirteen at the time), uh, I’m sorry, but how is there any room for debate there?

I have more thoughts on this, obviously, but that will probably be something for tomorrow instead.

In which Indiana Jones better step up.

23 Sep

I had not heard of Rose Valland until a few years back, and I think I found out about her by following a random sequence of links on Wikipedia. Man, okay, here are three things I love:

  1. Stories about spies, spying, and espionage
  2. Museums
  3. Stories about badass ladies

This lady was a curator at the Louvre’s Jeu de Paume. When the Nazis occupied Paris and the Third Reich’s Special Staff for Pictorial Art was headquartered at the Jeu de Paume, she was enlisted to work as a cataloger (and in addition to the Louvre’s own works, the Germans were using it as a waystation for storing works raided from throughout occupied territories). So she started passing details of the works, where they were being transported to and how they were getting there, along to the French Resistance, who sabotaged German efforts to get them back.

In conclusion, you know that saying about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and how she did everything he did except backwards and in high heels? Basically substitute “Rose Valland” for “Ginger Rogers” and “Indiana Jones” for “Fred Astaire”, and also add in that she’s not a fictional character, and you have my point here. MUSEUM CATALOGERS DEFENDING FREEDOM, HECK YES.

Tragically, there is nothing in the way of a biopic (The Train is about the French Resistance staging a daring raid on a train carrying artwork to Germany, and it’s based on her memoirs and features a Resistance informant based on her, but there’s not much about Valland specifically) or English-language book (though she’s featured in The Rape Of Europa)! I would love to read her memoirs, too; I just need to do the following:

  1. Learn French
  2. Get my hands on a copy that doesn’t cost $400+ like the ones on Amazon

Whatever, details.

In which a venture is proposed.

14 Sep

The New York Times says that Dogfish Head brewery in Rehoboth Beach has a new idea for beer, using a traditional Peruvian method! This sounds pretty exciting—

“You need to convert the starches in the corn into fermentable sugars,” the always entertaining Mr. Calagione said by phone from his headquarters in Rehoboth Beach. “One way is through the malting process. But another way — there are natural enzymes in human saliva and by chewing on corn, whether they understood the science of it, ancient brewers through trial and error learned that the natural enzymes in saliva would convert the starch in corn into sugar, so it would ferment. It may sound a little unsavory.”


“We’re going to have an archaeologist and historians and brewers sitting around and chewing 20 pounds of this purple Peruvian corn,” he said. “You kind of chew it in your mouth with your saliva, then push with your tongue to the front of your teeth so that you make these small cakes out of it, then lay them on flat pans and let them sit for 12 hours in the sun or room temperature. That’s when the enzymes are doing their work of converting the starches in that purple corn.”

—okay, though, I have to say, if I get to drink it afterwards, I am so up for historically-accurate beer. I need to round up some historians to make beer with. Or at least drink beer with.

This attempt in particular ended up flopping pretty epically, but man, now I am all jazzed about historical beer. Drinking it or making it. Look, being a Serious Historical Expert does not pay all that great, and I will definitely take Serious Historical Beer-Making as a job. I mean, it combines two of my favorite things: history and beer.

In which there is a lot of saturated fat.

13 Sep

Wow, looking at my stats apparently there has actually been traffic to this blog lately! I am surprised, and now I am sure I’ve jinxed it and I’m probably going to forget all about it soon. Consider yourselves warned. I should also apologize for my lack of interaction; besides generally being terrible at replying to comments and having a pretty terrible couple of days (I spent about six hours straight on Friday crying for no really good reason, that was good times), I am not used to having comments to reply to! It is a strange and somewhat disturbing development. But I really appreciate the thoughts, and, heck, the traffic. It is very cool to know that people are interested in hearing me yammer about things. Well, okay, let’s be honest: complain about things.

Anyhoo, I feel like I have neglected the whole history aspect of this blog pretty badly lately, and that is a shame! Like I say, I had a pretty lousy couple of days, so today my mother and I got together and made brown-butter oatmeal cookies. I saw this recipe in the June issue of Vogue while waiting around for a job interview yesterday, and I didn’t quite trust myself to be stealthy enough to rip it out, nor was I quite shameless enough to just rip it out regardless of stares. Fortunately, the Internet exists, so I used the magic of Google and turned it up at another blog! Hooray!

I would give you delightful photos, but alas, I have lost the charger for my camera’s battery. Instead, because I am sure you are wondering what the heck this has to do with history (we can have a philosophical debate about this, I’m sure—rather, people can, but I am pretty crappy at philosophical debates, so I will probably not have much to say—but I’m fairly certain the June ’09 issue of Vogue does not have that much significance as a primary historical source just yet), here are a few facts about butter throughout history! Who doesn’t love lists of random facts about butter.

  1. According to Peter Hammond’s Food & Feast in Medieval England, gentry families could (did is probably another matter, but they could) purchase butter all year ’round, although “fresh butter must have been in very short supply at some times in the year”. Hammond also says that butter was apparently “very heavily salted”, citing by way of example that “in 1305 the Bishop of Worcester used 1lb of salt for every 10lbs of butter or cheese”.
  2. This 1835 article on butter suggests that “The Romans, who adopted it as an unguent or medicine to anoint the bodies of their children, learnt the invention from the Germans; but neither Greeks nor Romans applied it to the art of cookery.” However, historian Andrew Dalby finds that Northern Europeans did eat butter during the classical period. Frankly I consider that article even more interesting than the facts it contains, since I find the way historical studies and writing have progressed to be pretty interesting in and of themselves. Personally, I’m reassured by the fact that I am not the first person to think it would be interesting to learn a little more about the history of butter. When you start saying to yourself that butter might be interesting to learn about you also start to get a little troubled by the state of your life.
  3. How far back brown butter might go, I’m not sure; a little cursory Googling turned up a recipe from 1918, and no instructions for how to brown butter are given, which suggests that it would’ve at least been common knowledge among chefs. It’s not hard to imagine that someone, somewhere along the line, probably came up with the idea of cooking butter, especially since it’s made in much the same way as clarified butters like ghee.
  4. Just a couple of weeks ago, a couple of peat workers in Ireland found an Iron Age barrel filled with butter out in a bog. Alas, it’s now hardened into a waxy substance called adipocere, so there can be no exciting museum heists that result in cookies made with three-thousand-year-old butter. :(
  5. The seventeenth century finds samp (dried and powdered corn) mixed with milk and butter and “eaten hot or cold” as a breakfast staple in the North American colonies; it comes recommended by Roger Williams! If it’s good enough for the founder of Rhode Island, it’s good enough for you.
  6. The first time I tried to type out “other” in Item #3 there, I came up with “udder”. Apparently I cannot resist a pun.

Plus, the cookies were incredible.

In which I say “oh dear” a lot.

9 Sep

The Telegraph reports that the Church of England is recommending a mosque as a tourist destination. Okay, not so terrible, right? Depending on what wording they may have used, I suspect it might be kind of problematic in terms of othering, but it could be—wait, sorry, what’s that?

Oh. It turns out that the mosque in question was the one used by the suicide bombers who committed the London attacks of July 7th, 2005. It’s where they worshiped, and it’s also where they recruited. Oh, dear.

It’s also the only Islamic place of worship included in the places-of-religious-interest-in-Britain web page the Church put up on its site. Oh, dear.

In which I wax melancholy.

1 Sep

So the other day, at a forum I hang out on, we were talking about books we’d read in school, and someone took a casual poll: how many books had we read that didn’t feature white male protagonists? The responses ran the gamut from a lot (from people who’d gone to girls’ schools) to none. I guess I was lucky: for twelve years of public school, I need two hands to count the number of books I read featuring protagonists who weren’t white males (plus a couple like Frankenstein, about white males but written by women).  The response that stuck out in my mind, though, was the person who mentioned that they’d read none, and while they were supposed to read Lois Lowry’s Number The Stars (still one of my favorite books since I first read it in third or fourth grade), “they got worried that the boys wouldn’t read a book about a girl”.

Let me repeat that: the one book about a female character this woman was supposed to read in twelve years of public school was pulled from the curriculum, because they were worried that the boys wouldn’t read a book about a girl. Did anyone think to ask whether the girls were interested in reading more books about boys? Did anyone think “gee, maybe this is how the female students feel all the time“? If they did, they never said it, or there weren’t enough people saying it.

(I wonder, sometimes, whether all the handwringing about how hard it is to get boys to read isn’t related to the fact that if girls want to see people like themselves in their books, they have to learn to seek books out on their own. This is far too simple an explanation to be the only one, and of course I have no evidence to back it up; it’s more an idle thought.)

This sat with me for a week or so after I read it, and I had a whole lot of rambling thoughts about how we devalue women’s stories, tying in chick lit and romance. But I couldn’t really come up with anything to tie it all together. Then, yesterday, it was announced that Disney had bought Marvel Comics, and the Washington Post wrote (emphasis mine):

Disney also gets a way to latch onto new boy fans, Iger said during a CNBC interview on Monday morning, a demographic the company has overlooked in recent years. Disney has successfully repackaged female characters such as Cinderella and Pocahontas into a “princess” line of merchandise. The move brought in more girls as fans but largely excluded boys.

Never mind that every single Pixar film has been about a male or male-coded protagonist. Never mind that girls might be interested in superheroes as well as princesses, just like they’re interested in robots falling in love and clownfish families trying to be reunited (or, for that matter, just like boys like a friend’s then-two-year-old son might be interested in pretending to be princesses). No—the only consumers Disney is interested in are the male ones.

I guess in light of the Sodini shooting it does make a little more sense: given how little women’s lives mean to our society, it’s not surprising women’s stories don’t mean anything, either.