Liverpool’s overlooked history?

The archives and libraries were closed today, so I took myself down to the riverfront to look around some of the National Museums Liverpool, specifically the Museum of Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum. The latter is currently located on the 3rd floor of the Maritime Museum, although it will someday have its own building.

They are very nice museums. The Museum of Liverpool only recently opened, and the outside is still being completed. The Maritime Museum opened in the 1980s. Both focus primarily on the history of Liverpool since about 1850, emphasizing urban development, Cunard and the Titanic, World War II, and Merseybeat. The International Slavery Museum, which grew out of an exhibit on the Atlantic Slave trade, is by nature of its subject centered on the 18th century, although it emphasizes that slavery is not merely a historical institution.

I enjoyed nosing about the museums in a general sort of way, but I confess I was disappointed in the lack of information on Georgian Liverpool. There is a timeline exhibit in the Museum of Liverpool, but the 18th century is in the same case as the 16th, with very little space given to it. Liverpool does not seem reluctant to talk about the fact that slavery played a large role in its development into a major commercial center, but the town during that era is largely left out of most narratives. With one notable and very enjoyable exception.

When I entered the Merseyside Maritime Museum, I noticed a banner with an 18th century looking map promoting a tour of the Old Dock. Curious, I wandered over to the desk and discovered a brochure, which confirmed that the Old Dock Tour related to an 18th century dock – as I was to learn, the first commercial wet dock in the western world. The tour required a booking but no fee, so I put down my name. I expected some sort of walk around the commercial area now laying over the old dock site, with some “this was here” comments. Instead, the tour goes to one corner of the Old Dock, all of which was preserved when the dock was closed in the 1820s. It is now the site of an archaeological excavation and was apparently featured on Time Team (a British TV show).*

I had fun. The two guides were informative, friendly, and well-versed in the topic. There were only two other people, local gentlemen, on the tour. After being conducted into the dig site (through a car park, under the square outside John Lewis in Liverpool One), we were given a brief lecture and then allowed to read the interpretive panels and ask questions. This was more than the glimpses of Georgian Liverpool I’d gotten in the museum buildings, this was a visit to a remnant of it. What’s more, I know that James Maury’s consulate office was about a block from the Old Dock, so I felt like I knew a little more about the Liverpool which he experienced (by the 1810s, the Dock was full of sewage, so I imagine he was well aware of its proximity).

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*I feel compelled to point out that the dock was closed because it was full of sewage, when it was re-opened as an archaeological dig there was still organic matter remaining, but the tv people didn’t show up until the professionals had dug through layers of Georgian excrement.

(Please forgive any formatting oddities – I’m using the WordPress app on my tablet for the first time)

National Museum of Iceland

I am in Iceland for roughly 26 hours (of which at least 5 are taken up with the airport and getting to/from it). Luckily, the friend-of-a-friend who is letting me stay the night lives within walking distance of the National Museum of Iceland.

My path through the museum was somewhat random, as I was doding a school group which entered about the same time I did, but the overall layout of the two gallery floors was more or less chronological as well as thematic. Themes overlapped, but everything pre-1700 was on the second floor, and everything post was on the third (the ground being for the museum shop and cafe).

I was frustrated by some things, for example the fact that it was unclear whether labels were indiciating where an item was found or where it was made. On the other hand, I thought the museum found clever ways to deal with lighting and sound issues in an open floor plan gallery. In at least two instances – medieval textiles and 18th century drawings – items were kept in plexiglass topped drawers which the visitor could pull out, but which were weighted to slide back when let go. view of a small room-like structure within the museum galleryIn addition, particularly on the second floor, the museum used partitions and coloured plexiglass to create small rooms or spaces with motion-sensor lighting. One of these housed medieval embroideries, and another included not only ecclesiastical art but a soundtrack of latin chant music, which was contained by the walls of the ´room.´Along with vertical display panels and cases, these room-like spaces created discrete areas in the museum for each theme or era.

It´s a very nice museum, with a lovely cafe on the ground floor (with free wifi!). If you have a chance to visit, I recommend it.

(P.S. please forgive any odd spellings or punctuation. I´m writing on a European/Icelandic keyboard)

Research travel: choose your tools

I will be spending the first week in June in the UK, conducting (preliminary) research. I plan to collect material related to my dissertation and also scope out the archives enough so that I can determine whether it’s worthwhile to return. This, and future trips (in state, thankfully), have me thinking about what tools I want to carry with me.

I was initially planning to only carry my iPad and its keyboard case to take notes and run a spreadsheet of photos taken which I could use when I got home. However, I will now also be Skyping in to class one night, and I’m a bit concerned about backing up my photos. I know that I can download the SD card onto my iPad and then upload them to Dropbox, but I have yet to figure out a good way of selecting 50-100 photos at a time on the iPad.

I could, of course, bring my laptop. My 15 inch, 6 lb, late 2008 MacBook pro which slows down running Chrome and TweetDeck at the same time. Now that I have a desktop (long story), I’d like to replace this with something lighter and more portable that I can use in archives or around town, but which doesn’t need to be able to run large-scale software programs. If I had a fairy godmother, or a winning Powerball ticket, I’d get a MacBook Air. It’s not that I’m wedded to Apple as a company or even as an OS, it’s just that I dislike Windows OS and have been using Apple products since the mid 1980s.

A much cheaper alternative would be a Chromebook (probably the Samsung model XE303C12). It’s got a small, solid-state hard drive, only 16GB, but it also has two USB ports, which would allow me to transfer files from my SD card to cloud storage or even an external drive. In some ways, especially given the limitations of the Chrome-based OS, it might seem little different from the iPad. On the other hand, it does have USB ports and file selection using a mouse rather than a touchscreen.

I’m open to advice from computer geeks, fellow researchers and digital humanists. What do you take when you travel, and what would you take if someone gave you a winning powerball ticket?

Old Haunts, New Views

This summer I’m working on a project which has to do with the history of the National Mall. It has been fun to learn more about a part of town with which I’m so familiar. Although I’m not a DC/Northern VA native, members of my family have lived in and around DC since the 1960s and we used to come visit at least once a year. I have fond memories of climbing on Uncle Beazley when he sat outside Natural History.

Today, despite the record-breaking heat, I ventured down to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to see the AIDS Memorial Quilt. It was the first time I’ve been down to the Mall since starting work on the Mall history project. Knowing what had come before made the very familiar landscape of flat, dying grass and beige gravel paths interesting again.

I metroed to Archives/Navy Memorial (to avoid crowds at Smithsonian and to get coffee at the Starbucks in the gold-domed insurance building on 7th) which obviously put me out near the National Archives. Or, in my new thinking, the site which once housed Center Market, where generations of Washingtonians bought produce, meat, and groceries. And, apparently, played billiards.

Then I wandered down the Mall towards 14th, passing construction just across from the sculpture garden which is, I think, roughly where there used to be temporary government office buildings.

I tend to see history wherever I go. Today I had more information and the memory of the many photos I’ve seen over the last month, making the past more vivid and certain than usual. I may have been to the Mall hundreds of times, but today it felt new.