Although I’m not particularly well versed in maritime history, I’ve noticed that there have been plenty of historic ships in the news this week. The new Titanic Belfast visitor centre has been heavily publicised ahead of its opening on March 31st. There is even a large poster at Oxford station, the startling building – evoking the doomed ship and its iceberg - looming over the passing trains. It’s interesting to see that Titanic Belfast has galleries about the city’s shipbuilding past and the vessel itself, but a good part of its focus seems to be on Titanic’s afterlife, on human interaction with the wreck and also ‘myths and legends’. In that sense, this new centre (which insists on calling itself an experience, rather than a museum) appears to take as one of its main subjects historical consciousness, popular and cinematic memory, and even (although they’d never call it that) historiography, the shifting interpretations and responses to the events of April 1912. It’s an arresting and rather postmodern approach – very different, say, to the fine but earnest Mary Rose visitor centre in Portsmouth. There the ghostly wreck itself, half-glimpsed in a hall dark with water-spray, is presented above all as a window onto Tudor social history, as a way of recovering the everyday life of the unjustly forgotten common man via his flutes and medicine pots… an approach which in itself reflects an earlier set of historians’ agendas.
This week, it was also announced that the good ship City of Adelaide is to return to Australia. This ship, which carried an estimated 250,000 visitors and settlers to Australia from its construction in 1864, now sits ignominiously rotting in Irvine in Scotland, having been rescued from the waters of the Clyde, in which it sank in 1991. The City of Adelaide is finally going back to Port Adelaide, for a projected new visitor centre, its preservation secured. It’s interesting to see the varied ways in which we treat the physical remains of ships (as relics, or junk), and to be reminded of how central ships are to national and urban stories, of how certain vessels become iconic, and of the very different ways in which we choose to remember them and decide what they represent about ourselves and our pasts.
'The City of Adelaide', Irvine
Photo copyright wfmillar, reproduced under Creative Commons license.
Now that Hilary term is over, and the undergraduates (barring our revising Finalists) have gone home, it is time for tutors to head back to the library. In the Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room, I’ve been working on early Polish polemics against the Reformation. This has involved both reading about early modern practices of handling and producing books, while also handling a large quantity of printed books myself, as a 21C scholar. At my desk in the Bodleian, I’ve feel as I’ve been literally juggling books – trying to consult 3 volumes of the Jagiellonian Library catalogue simultaneously, while typing on my laptop at the same time. At the British Library, there are laminated A3 sheets on the desks which sternly warn readers of all the things they should not to do to books – such as weighing them down with a mobile phone, or a hefty dictionary, to keep their pages open. I sometimes feel as if I literally don’t have enough hands.
Handy? Ramelli's bookwheel
Image from Wikipedia Commons.
Medieval and Renaissance scholars had this problem too, and I think their solutions were a little more ingenious than the crumbling, green-grey foam book rests which are sometimes made available to researchers in British libraries. Looking at Dora Thornton’s The Scholar in His Study(1997) last week, the illustrations leapt out at me. There was a 14C illumination of an Italian cardinal sat at his desk, in a chair with a bookcase built into its back. Not very comfortable, perhaps, but handy. There were woodcuts showing men craned over giant book rests, which held 3-4 works open at the same time, in a nice straight line, so you could scan across them all. There were images of book wheels, which displayed volumes open at the requisite page, but on a little carousel like those you find today in greetings card shops. One of the most grandiose solutions to the simultaneous consultation of multiple books was Agostino Ramelli’s 1588 design – a contraption reminiscent of a giant hamster wheel, which the scholar at his (or, theoretically, her) desk could manually rotate, to see mounted books whizz past their face. (This design impressed the Princeton historian Anthony Grafton so much, he had one constructed for his office). In some ways, our 21C book technologies, with digitalisation and e-readers, are breathtakingly sophisticated; in others, when the only bookholder on sale in Blackwells on Broad Street is a 30cm strip of blue plastic, perhaps we lack a little imagination.
This week I’ve written a guest blog on the Oxford University Press Blog site (http://www.blog.oup.com/), so for the latest blog ‘New Books, Old Story?’ - about links between the new Roman missal launched by the Vatican at the end of 2011 and late medieval church - see here.