Security in Museums, Libraries and Archives

Image from Night at the Museum (2006)

The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous. 

On a recent visit to the National Archives, I accidentally smuggled an eraser into the reading room. My clear plastic bag had been searched on the way in and I had been waved through. Not the end of the world. I’m not the kind of person who wants to rub out some of the national history, or deface a part of the UK’s heritage. Still, it got me thinking about how secure the repositories of the nation’s treasures are.

On visiting a museum to kill some time before a train, I was called across for a bag search. The steward had a look in my densely packed backpack and handbag and asked me what a few things were, what was in the carrier bag and so on, and trusted my responses. Obviously I’m far from alone in finding this process odd. An article in the Guardian from this time last year criticised the searches ‘discriminatory’ and ‘ineffectual’, but noted at least the Kensington Museums search everyone. This summer, that appears to no longer be entirely true. At some, the longer the queue and crowded the Museum, the less likely I am to be bag searched, perhaps in contrast to the proportional danger faced. While the Guardian is concerned with terrorism, the matter of artefact security is also an issue. The ‘search’ may only be the question of ‘do you have anything sharp?’ and if I was a vandal who wanted to cause some damage, I would say ‘no’ and be allowed to carry on.

What is this security meant to achieve? Anyone familiar with it is unlikely to see it as a deterrent to bringing prohibited items into a Museum, and those who accidentally bring prohibited items with them are unlikely to be the ones a Museum should worry about being in possession of such things.

Furthermore, cases of people damaging objects without the help of implements are perhaps more prevalent reason for concern. While the move away from glass cases and barriers in Museums is an important part of making them more universally engaging places, it also makes artefacts vulnerable. A couple of years ago I witnessed a child playing on a piece of [what I think was] art in a modern art museum, and stories of objects being broken, wilfully or more likely otherwise, are not uncommon. People are liabilities, but thankfully ones which can be mitigated against. If, as the Guardian suggests, current procedures for security in museums are a ‘farce’, perhaps it’s time for a rethink and a reallocation of resources. Greater warder presence in galleries may be more effective for all-round security than the current system of half-hearted bag searches. This may be particularly true when museums are at their busiest, when bag searches are briefest, and galleries most crowded.

I have been at the Science Museum during an evacuation, and it was calmly and swiftly enacted. There is no reason to suggest overall security procedures are weak. But there is the feeling that the current, token bag searches are a waste of time and money which allow museums to be seen to be doing something, while acting as little more than a placebo for providing a sense of security. This is surely unnecessary and wasteful, given that the more robust security procedures to protect against sinister threats no doubt are managed behind the scenes. Brains cleverer and more experienced than mine could come up with better ways to improve security for both artefacts and people, but there seems to be an opportunity here to put these resources to good use, namely protecting the nation’s collections from ourselves.

How do we find Common Ground?

Exterior of the Ron Cooke Hub.
Ron Cooke Hub. Venue for Common Ground

Andrew Lewis is a research associate at the University of York, with expertise in cuneiform reconstruction, 3D printing and scanning and digital heritage.

Multidisciplinary interaction has been a key factor in the advancement of many fields throughout academia and enterprise.  These cross disciplinary relationships are symbiotic – offering benefits to all involved. For the heritage community, the opportunity for community engagement, novel interaction, and unique methods of visualisation are just a small subsection of the advantages that collaboration can afford. New techniques, new standards of practice, new technologies and tools, and new avenues of research are all born from the crucible of interdisciplinary cooperation.

The AHRC Commons event (being held on the 21st June 2016, 10am-6pm, at the Ron Cooke Hub, of the University of York) aims to celebrate this synergistic approach to research, with all members of the AHRC Commons community invited to take part. The ARHC Commons is an inclusive community, bringing together universities, creative economy, the cultural, health, and third sectors, micro businesses, SMEs, corporations, community groups, and more. There are no membership fees to pay, and individuals or groups at any career stage, from any sector or discipline are welcome to register and attend here.

As one of the zone co-leads for this event, I can tell you that the event promises to be far more than an just an ordinary conference. There will be hackspaces, wet-work rooms, lectures, debates, and demonstrations on a huge range of multidisciplinary projects spread over nine zones. The diversity of these conference zones is a marker of the inclusive scope of the AHRC Commons. The celebrate zone focusses on entertainment and performances. Stand-up comedy, poetry, storytelling, music, drama and other performances about ‘common’ experience are all presented here. In the Co-create zone, participants are focussed on conducting research through practice, collaborative arts, and fostering accessibility through analogue and digital pathways. This includes live arts and crafts, demonstrations, taster sessions, and exploration of the arts and humanities in any artistic form. The Stimulate zone takes a more traditional approach, with high profile and provocative speakers exploring the challenges and opportunities faced in all subjects related to the arts and humanities. In the Innovate zone, you will find hackathons and 360 degree digital screenings, with workshops on embracing the digital aspects of social media, and showcases of the equipment found in a modern makerspace.

Each zone at the Common ground will have a unique feel, but the underlying intention for all zones will be those of collaboration, cooperation, the dissemination of good practice in research, and public engagement. I strongly recommend attending what promises to be a ground breaking event.

You can book to attend the AHRC Common Ground event directly via Eventbrite. There are a limited number of tickets available, so book early to avoid missing out on what seems likely to be one of the most diverse and interesting academic events that you will ever attend.

Between degrees: history outside academia

Detail from the the Rochester Bestiary (BL Royal MS 12 F XIII, f4r)
Detail from the Rochester Bestiary (BL Royal MS 12 F XIII, f.4r)

Tim Wingard is about to begin a History PhD at the University of York.

I finished my Masters in Medieval History at York in September 2015, and within weeks I was already desperate to return to academia. As things turned out, I now look set to return to begin my PhD research on late medieval sexuality and animality in October this year. The intervening months have been something of a liminal zone – I have needed to continue research necessary to write funding applications, research proposals, conference papers and blogposts, but have done this without formal institutional backing. It is my intention to use this opportunity to talk about my experiences – very much the definition of ‘doing history in public’ – and outline how modern technology makes it possible to participate in academia outside of a formal programme. This is of course merely a snapshot of my own particular experiences and not indicative of everyone who engages in alt-ac research; nevertheless, I hope that I can provide encouragement to current students who are facing the dilemma of applying to further study.

The most fundamental challenge facing the student outside academia is finding the time to do research at all. Since completing my Masters, I found that balancing the demands of working a 9-5 job and then returning home to work on proposals and papers has been tricky to manage even with all the privileges I have benefited from in terms of being able to live with my family, and I have immense respect for peers who tackle this challenge alongside the additional demands of caring responsibilities, ongoing mental or physical health problems, or erratic and unpredictable work schedules due to zero-hours contracts or multiple part-time roles. And, of course, these practical challenges will be a reality for many currently in universities studying while disabled or already undertaking part-time courses alongside work.

Perhaps equally as uncomfortable to acknowledge is the truth that without institutional affiliation, the budding historian faces significant restrictions on access to the material. Much scholarship still remains behind journal paywalls or in prohibitively expensive and hard-to-find books. However there has been a growing movement towards open access scholarship, entailing greater availability of the fruits of historians’ labour to all, and hopefully this trend will continue. In the meantime, open access provides opportunities for learning and research even without access to the full resources of a university. Many researchers, especially younger ones still in the earlier stages of their career, are beginning to make part of their research available for free through sites such as When I was writing initial applications to potential supervisors for instance, I always made a habit of looking up their profile on the site and reading through any of their research which they had published on here.

Open access isn’t just limited to secondary scholarship. Many archives and libraries are beginning to digitise and make available their manuscript collections so that anyone can read the primary sources of history for themselves. Globally, some of the biggest repositories are the British Library, the Danish Royal Library and the National Library of France. For my own research into bestiaries, I found that all three had a number of digitised manuscripts that were invaluable for drawing upon material for my conference papers – see for instance, the British Library’s beautiful Rochester Bestiary. Other ambitious projects seek to make professional, annotated translations of major medieval works available online, such as the Online Froissart Project or the Aberdeen Bestiary.

But ultimately, what was perhaps even more important was to retain links to the academic community and to continue to feel part of the wider body of students and researchers. And that is where the internet really comes into its own, in the form of the connections offered through social media. During my months out of university, Facebook and Twitter enabled me to keep in touch not just with friends from my course, but also with peers and colleagues from around the world. In terms of practical support, it means being able to ask for advice, guidance and reassurance from people who have already navigated the system, which is especially helpful when you may not have access to the formal guidance of a supervisor in the same way as you do during a degree.

Twitter in particular is a great resource for the researcher out of academia. Anecdotally, I have heard that many newcomers can find it intimidating to approach, with all its unfamiliar culture and traditions– but overall, I have found the niches of Twitter devoted to my field to be incredibly friendly, welcoming and helpful. Getting started is a matter of learning the most popular hashtags for your field – in my instance, #medievaltwitter – and starting to follow relevant people. It’s an incredibly diverse, if informal network – undergrads, postgrads, lecturers, archivists, experts in heritage and amateur enthusiasts all intermingle and talk to each other! I cannot overstate how important the site has been to me over the last year.

Overall then, my experience of being a student between degrees has been largely positive. It is hard work, and trying to fit research around the demands of non-academic employment is challenging – and it will make you truly appreciate the resources that are available to a scholar in a university environment. However, modern internet technologies enable the ‘alt-ac’ researcher today to achieve far more than was possible in the analogue era. Crucially, I want this post to be a message of encouragement to current students who are thinking of applying for further study, a position I was in barely a year ago. Don’t feel rushed into applications while you’re still studying! It’s natural to fear that you’ll ‘fall out of the loop’ if you wait until you’ve finished your current study, but the benefits of taking time out from university (another blog post all on its own) combined with the ability to stay connected mean that you should seriously consider it as an option.

Liquid bread, global circuses and China’s German heritage

Qingdao Old TownDr Oleg Benesch is Lecturer in East Asian History at the University of York.

As a historian of East Asia, I often travel to China. In 2014, I spent the summer there, mainly in order to do some intensive language work in the coastal city of Qingdao. I chose Qingdao also because of its deserved reputation as one of the most pleasant places to spend the summer in China, as much of the country can be oppressively hot. Qingdao lies on the southern coast of the Shandong Peninsula, with convenient links to other cities in North China, as well as Korea and Japan. There was also a historical reason for choosing Qingdao as my base, as it was a German colony from 1898 to 1914, and I was keen to explore the remnants and portrayal of this heritage. My timing was fortuitous for several reasons. One was that it was the centenary of the Fall of Qingdao, when the Japanese took the territory from the Germans after the outbreak of the First World War, permanently ending German colonial involvement in Asia.

The second reason, which was less foreseeable, was that 2014 was the year of the World Cup in Brazil, which Germany would go on to win. In spite (or perhaps because) of the terrible time difference, with kick-off times in the middle of the night, the streets of Qingdao were packed with football fans watching on screens set up in front of many restaurants. As China was not represented at the tournament, Chinese Central Television dedicated its round-the-clock coverage primarily to the glamorous Brazilian team. In Qingdao, however, the mood was decidedly more in favour of Germany, especially after they defeated hosts Brazil 7-1 in a historic semi-final. I must confess that, as a German, I was not an entirely unbiased observer of these events, nor was I wholly averse to basking in (very distantly) reflected glory when the locals would raise their glasses after inquiring about my background. This, it must be said, is not the reaction Germans traditionally expect when traveling abroad.

Today, almost nine million people live in Qingdao, and the surrounding Shandong region is one of China’s major industrial centres. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, it was little more than a rural fishing village and minor naval outpost when its fortunes changed dramatically due to much larger events. China ceded the Shandong Peninsula to Japan following the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, but Germany joined Russia and France in intervening immediately after this, forcing Japan to hand over the territory. China was in no position to resist and reluctantly leased Shandong to the German Empire for 99 years in 1898. An influx of German colonists soon set about transforming the sleepy backwater of Qingdao into a thriving port city boasting many of the comforts of home. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Qingdao had over 50,000 residents and was the primary trading port in the region, as well as the base for the Far East Fleet of the Imperial German Navy. Japan quickly seized on the opportunity of the war to ‘take back’ Qingdao and the other Chinese territories that Germany had taken from them at the end of the previous century.

Although brief, the sixteen-year period of German colonial rule has become a defining characteristic of Qingdao identity. The pride in this German heritage radiates from the carefully preserved colonial villas, churches, schools, and government buildings in the old town, centred on a market square that would not be out of place back in Germany. This narrative is especially pronounced in the expansive Qingdao Municipal Museum, which dedicates a considerable amount of its floor space to the history of the German colonial period. Photographs depict interactions between the city’s German and Chinese elites, and Chinese children studying in the German schools. One of the most surprising exhibits in this context is a two-metre cutaway section of the sewer pipe that the Germans laid beneath the city. This infrastructure is something of which Qingdao residents are most proud, and the visitor frequently hears that this German engineering is the reason that the streets of Qingdao don’t flood during heavy rain, unlike other Chinese cities. While the accuracy of this claim is debatable, it reflects the largely positive portrayals of Germany in Qingdao today.

The most prominent symbol of the German presence is not a structure, however, but one of China’s truly global brands: Tsingtao Beer. Tsingtao, another spelling of Qingdao, has its origins in the Germania Brauerei founded by an Anglo-German investment team in 1903. The brewery remained under the direction of German brewmasters until it was taken over by the Japanese Dai Nippon Beer Co. during the First World War. Although the city of Qingdao was returned to Chinese control in 1922, the brewery remained in Japanese hands through the re-occupation of Qingdao by Japanese troops in 1938. This situation continued until 1945, when the brewery was briefly under the control of the Nationalist Government before being nationalized following the Communist victory in 1949.

The brewery was privatized again in the wake of economic reform in the 1990s, and rapidly expanded to become a multi-national corporation exporting throughout the world. In spite of its turbulent history, it is the German heritage that is most celebrated in the Tsingtao Brewery Museum on the site of the original brewery. It is also very publicly on display at the annual Qingdao International Beer Festival, first held by the brewery in 1991. Modelled on the Oktoberfest, this beer festival attracted a reported four million visitors in 2015 alone, making it roughly two thirds the size of the Munich original.

The very public pride and celebration of Qingdao’s German heritage typically takes an idealistic view of this colonial interval, which was a relatively brief, if important, episode in the city’s history. In many museums and other displays, however, it becomes clear that this idealism is also driven by a simultaneous desire to discredit the periods of Japanese rule that followed. For the German visitor, the feeling that positivity towards Germany in Qingdao is at least partially constructed on far older and more immediate East Asian rivalries cannot but induce a slight sense of disillusionment. Fortunately, this disappointment is most fleeting when one can watch the World Cup with an ice-cold lager on the neon streets of Qingdao.

The past, society and the meanings of public history

Cable Street mural
Cable Street mural (Dave Binnington Savage) photographed by Alan Denney (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Dr Geoff Cubitt is Director of the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past.

How a society organises its relationship to the past is a key element in that society’s culture, integrally connected to other aspects of its social, political and cultural life.  Such a relationship is shaped by many individual and collective contributions, playing across a multiplicity of fields, involving a diversity of media, and reflecting many different institutional or social interests.  Historians have a role to play both in forging society’s engagements with the past and in analysing them – only, however, if they recognise that their own working habits and forms of knowledge are not an absolute standard against which other approaches or understandings are to be measured, but are themselves culturally shaped and socially and institutionally positioned. This blog, which is grounded in the interests of historians with a connection to the University of York and its Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past (IPUP), seeks to promote debate and reflection on the multiple ways in which the past is engaged with, understood, represented and put to use in our own and other societies, and on the role of historians as participants in and interpreters of these processes.

Much recent thinking on these issues has deployed the notion of ‘public history’. The term entered common currency in the United States in the 1970s, quickly becoming the label for a new practitioner identity.  From there, the language of public history, articulated and institutionalized in journals, conferences, associations and educational programmes has spread across the continents – to Australia, South Africa, Europe and elsewhere. In Britain, public history, first nourished by the History Workshop movement and brought to attention through conferences at Ruskin College, Oxford, has developed through a wide range of initiatives, including the establishment of Public History MA programmes at Royal Holloway University of London and the University of York.

But what is public history? As the term has spread, so its meanings have diversified. Conceptions of public history have been enriched and complicated through exchanges with other simultaneously evolving conceptual vocabularies (heritage, memory, historical consciousness) and forms of historical practice (oral history, community history, popular historiography). Robert Kelley’s pioneering definition in the first issue of The Public Historian (1978) – that ‘Public history refers to the employment of historians and the historical method outside of academia’, and that it exists wherever historians are professionally involved as ‘part of the public process’ – no longer captures the range of meanings that the term has taken on; in particular, it fails to grasp the radical edge it often carries. But finding an alternative formulation is not easy.  Even the seemingly basic question ‘What makes public history public?’ produces a stream of not always compatible answers: it is aimed at a public audience; its producers are located in public institutions or communities; it is rooted in public or popular culture, it addresses issues of public concern or contributes to public decision-making. No clear or coherent definition emerges from this diversity.

Two distinctions are, however, helpful in making sense of it. The first distinguishes public history as hands-on practice – a way of doing history that involves various kinds of public engagement and that is defined chiefly by its self-proclaimed practitioners –  from public history as an analytical field – a cultural realm whose constituent practices and relationships may be analysed from different scholarly standpoints. Ideally, pragmatic and conceptual perspectives should reinforce each other: conceptual analysis of how a society organises its historical engagement should draw on concrete knowledge of working practices, and should in turn inform them, prompting a reflective self-awareness in practitioners. In reality, however, the practical commitments of public historians and the perspectives of those who analyse those commitments as part of a society’s culture do not always fit easily together, and may generate tensions in the way an ostensibly shared conceptual vocabulary is used. Bringing these perspectives into creative interaction remains a key challenge for the field.

The second distinction identifies two different understandings of how public history relates to academic and non-academic cultures. The first sees public history as academic history in outreach mode; the second sees it as non-academic historical practice.

In the first formulation, history is seen as a cultural good incubated in academic circles and then transported into the practical settings of society through the missionary agency of publicly inclined historians.  These may be either academics seeking non-academic impact through popular publication or work for the media or heritage sectors, or – in the model envisaged by Kelley – academically trained historians embedded in governmental, corporate, media or heritage institutions.  Public history, here, means applied history – history brought to bear on the practical issues confronting society, whether through the kind of involvement in corporate or governmental decision-making that Kelley himself was aiming for, or – in the more liberal democratic formulation recently advanced by historians like John Tosh – through the stimulus that history imparts to ‘active citizenship’ and democratic debate.

The second formulation, by contrast, defines public history in opposition to its academic counterpart. Public history, here, is history-making in the media, in museums and heritage institutions, in pageants, re-enactments, commemorative practices, on the internet, in art and literature, in local history societies – anywhere, in fact, that the past is engaged with outside the confines of academia, and without the presumption of academic leadership.  It covers a wide range of cultural products, from highly commercialised media productions and state-funded heritage presentations to popular forms of community history. An interest in these multiple forms of public history-making, influentially mapped and celebrated in Raphael Samuel’s Theatres of Memory, usually entails some calling in question of traditional academic claims to pre-eminence: even if not denounced for its elitist tendencies, academic history is reduced to one form of knowledge among many, sustained by the labour of non-academic co-workers. The opening up, through digital technology, of new possibilities for the consumption of history and for active participation in history-making that bypass traditional academic channels has reinforced the tendency to downplay the influence of academic historians in shaping society’s historical sensibilities.

The most creative ventures in public history entail an effort to build a bridge between these two competing understandings of public history – to find terms and terrains of engagement that will enable academic historians and other makers of historical knowledge to arrive at what Michael Frisch has called ‘a shared authority’.  The politics of this are often complex: the opportunities, power structures and interactive relationships that are generated, for example, by the ‘impact agenda’ in universities, by the dynamics of HLF funding, by the structures of the Internet, or by the widely promoted cult of public anniversaries require careful critical analysis. What is clear is that the historical cultures of contemporary societies are changing rapidly, in ways which involve a continuing realignment of relationships both within academia and in society at large.  The conceptual language of public history can help us to meet the challenges of this situation, not because it gives us a stable framework for dealing with them, but because its tensions and ambiguities give us a way of exploring the implications of major shifts in the meanings of history for society.