“Making the World Over”: An Interview with a New Age of Revolution Digital Resource

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We at Age of Revolutions (AoR) are always happy to see more online resources devoted to exploring the revolutionary era. On June 18, 2018, a new UK initiative titled “Age of Revolution – Making the World Over” went live with the goal of raising awareness and promoting education about the period.  The site originally began as a digital space to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo (1815), but has since shifted to the revolutionary period, 1775-1848. The site curates digitized historical objects from primarily UK museums, and resources relating to the period, for use in schools. What follows is our interview with the site’s content overseer Anna Husband, and the project’s lead historian, Ben Marsh,  where we learn more about the site and its goals.

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Age of Revolutions (AoR): We are excited to see this project go live. What are the goals of the website?

Anna Husband (AH): The Age of Revolution website is the cornerstone of this initiative. While it aims to appeal to all users, its primary goal is to support teaching and learning about the Age of Revolution in schools, using our rich collection items – objects, artworks, archive materials, even songs! – gathered together for the first time, from museums and galleries across the UK (and beyond).

Despite strong links to the curriculum, this period of history is often overlooked in schools in the UK, especially in primary schools where there are fewer history specialists, and teachers, understandably, tend to stick with topics they are more familiar with such as the World Wars, the Tudors, or the Victorians. The website has been designed for specialists and non-specialists alike, and to take learning across the curriculum. We hope that teachers will be inspired by the collection and use the website’s resources and activities to support classroom learning in a variety of subject areas including History, Art & Design, ICT, and Literacy.

Similarly, we hope people from all walks of life will delve into the collection and be inspired to find out more about this fascinating period.

The website also aims to foreground a wide range of collections from museums across the UK, through digital engagement, extending their reach to new audiences. Most national museums have now extensively digitized their collections and made them available to view on their websites, but for the smaller civic and privately funded museums, limited resources often make this difficult to do. We are offering all museums and galleries an opportunity to include ‘revolutionary’ items from their collection on the Age of Revolution website, creating high quality, digital images (some in 3D) where needed.

We also aim to explore the histories through multiple perspectives and connect them to people’s lives today. For this reason, we are gathering our ‘Revolutionary collection’ from as many different regions as possible from across the UK and making it representative of the diverse men, women, and children who live there.

The website will continue to grow until the project’s end in 2020. A further 150 collections items will be added, including: films exploring the question, ‘What does revolution mean to me?’; a set of digitally rich creative challenges for use in the classroom; and competitions for children and young people.

AoR: How did the website evolve from Waterloo200 to Age of Revolution? 

AH: The central feature of Waterloo200 was its 200 items, accompanied by information and learning activities all relating to the Battle of Waterloo and its commemoration. Age of Revolution has taken that idea and expanded it to illustrate the surrounding period: 1775–1848. This first phase features 50 objects, associated information, and learning activities, and will continue to evolve to 2020.

The website was created by an expert team of digital, cultural, education specialists, and historians.

The first step was to organize the complex and intertwined people, events, places and ideas of the Age of Revolution into our set of easily navigable “Themes”:

  • Political revolution – exploring the striking, imaginative, and enduring ideas about equality, rights and freedoms that were put forward – and challenged – during the period.
  • Social and cultural revolution – examining some of the ways in which rights and freedoms were challenged, opposed, and won, from the campaign against the brutalities of transatlantic slavery and its eventual abolition, to demonstrations and demands for better working conditions, and religious and political rights and representation for ordinary people.
  • Economic and technological revolution – the life-changing innovations and discoveries that scientific thinking, technology, trade, and medicine brought about in the Age of Revolution.
  • War and the international order – the wars and international upheavals precipitated by the struggles for independence, and attempts at empire building that characterize the Age of Revolution.

Then we approached museums and galleries to contribute items (50 total) to illustrate the different themes, spanning as many different examples of material culture as possible, from objects and clothing to paintings, sculptures, letters, and songs. A number of contemporary examples such as the Pussy Hat and the Tolpuddle Martyrs sculpture were integrated with historical items to help connect the past with the present, and draw parallels between the Age of Revolution and the present day.

Our team of historians carefully researched each item and then wrote content to appeal to both specialists and non-specialists alike, with a keen eye on helping teachers bring the period to life for children and young people. The resulting ‘Revolutionary collection’ combines the original 200 objects of Waterloo with our growing Age Revolution collection. Objects are tagged to make searching easy.

We created a suite of resources for learners of all ages to support teaching and learning across the curriculum through cultural collections, with an emphasis on opportunities to use digital resources and applications.

These currently include:

  • Guides for teachers
  • A suite of activities
  • Enquiries

Ben Marsh (BM): I joined the education committee in 2016, as Waterloo 200 was shaping up its educational legacy and the plans that were to follow the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. At that point, Mike Rapport (at the University of Glasgow) and I were finalizing a co-edited volume entitled, Understanding and Teaching the Age of Revolution with a great series dedicated to history and pedagogy at the University of Wisconsin Press, so we had been doing quite a lot of thinking about research in the field, and how to ensure that it filtered down into history classrooms. One of my interests and ambitions for the site and the project was in helping it to broaden out beyond its military framing – so to use the battlefield commemoration and focus as a means not an end. The Trustees and team were very supportive of this, and everyone involved recognized that placing a central focus on objects was a great way of reaching out and involving multiple themes, contexts, and subjects. Objects have points of conception, points of origin, have their own journeys and stories, and are great for asking big questions and exposing knowledge without getting bogged down in content and complexity. So the ambition for the website was to begin with a suite of objects that would excite and intrigue students in the classroom about the period, drawing on the fantastic – but sometimes hidden – collections especially in UK museums. I guess the harder part – which I’ve been heavily involved in – has been to try to impose some organizational logic on the period, and what could/should/would be included. In the end, we came up with a framework that defined our Age of Revolution as c.1775-1848, and broke the content into four overlapping themes that I felt cohered as much as any could be expected to: political revolution, social and cultural revolution, economic and technological revolution, and war and the international order.

AoR: So is this a serious shift away from Napoleon, or do you see Napoleon’s presence in the Age of Revolution as fundamental to our understanding of the period? Explain your answer, if you would.  

BM: I think Napoleon remains fundamental to our understanding of the period, but that he ought to be seen not so much as a super-historical agent, but as a catalyst for ongoing structural changes and reactions – accelerating what might otherwise have been incremental (for instance in terms of the shakedown of European geopolitics, the independence of Spanish American colonies, or the watering down of many of the social and cultural legacies of the French Revolution). We tend to use “catalyst” rather lazily in historical parlance, but lots of the chemical properties and processes involved in catalysis (itself expounded by chemists in 1794-1835) are particularly resonant for the period: think about how we could adapt the following phrases constructively into our discussions of revolutions: reaction pathway, activation energy (less required if there is a catalyst), transition state (a level at which change has definitively and irreversibly occurred), intermediates (where the catalyst reacts with one reactant some time before a final product emerges). As far as British history is concerned, the notion of catalyst inhibitors is also attractive as a way of thinking about what factors limited the reach of Napoleon’s military and economic dominance, and how cultural fears and depictions played a role in tandem with imperial and political actions. And the key thing about a catalyst is usually that it survives and is not itself consumed by the reactions it causes – an approach that allows us to think not only about Napoleon’s person and personality, but also the core impact he had, perhaps in terms of the Napoleonic Code or paranoia about a balance of power. So it’s a question not so much of shifting away from Napoleon, but shifting Napoleon away from the battlefield to consider him and his impact in different contexts, as many fine recent publications have done. To put it another way: I think there would have been an Age of Revolution without Napoleon, but it wouldn’t have been as spectacular or compressed.

AoR: When conceiving of the site’s structure, you sought to define the revolutionary era thematically. Beyond these themes, the site is also fairly euro-centric. You include Haiti. Do you think you do justice to the other revolutionary movements around the Atlantic world during the era, particularly in Latin America?

BM: Frankly no: I don’t think we do justice to revolutionary movements around the Atlantic world, nor do we do justice to those beyond it – which are being increasingly well documented, in research terms, every month! But unless we are in the midst of the sort of radical chaos that a few revolutions threw up, I guess I’d say that the dispensing of “justice” almost always reflects the legal framework within which judges, jurors, and barristers operate. Our framework is one that is pinned to the school history curriculum in the UK, which reflects some national priorities but allows some freedoms, and on which myself and a colleague involved in the project, Ben Walsh (Associate Vice President of the UK’s Historical Association), wrote a short piece for the TES – a UK magazine dedicated to teaching. The structure does include sub-themes that might be thought of as case studies, however, with the “War and the International Order” theme including objects and coverage of the Haitian Revolution, the Irish Uprising (somewhat parochial in contrast, but nonetheless very important to sensibilities and identities in the British Isles – right through to contemporary Brexit positioning), and the Spanish American Wars of Independence. The Haitian and Latin American revolutions have arguably attracted some of the most interesting and exciting attention in the historical scholarship of recent years, yet these still feature very little in classroom coverage. So there is a balancing act to strike to try to appeal to hard-pressed teachers while drawing attention to new areas and directions. I guess in a way, I might imagine sister versions of the same thematic structure that might rotate in and out more regional coverage and phenomena, so a North American version might substitute Texas instead of Ireland, or a Mediterranean version the Greek Revolution; likewise, emancipatory impulses could be framed around serfdom instead of slavery if in Central Europe. So any eurocentrism is a function of educational geography and the project’s origins in the commemoration of the Battle of Waterloo, and hopefully therefore at least a few steps removed from ideology, neo-imperialism, or unthinking Palmerianism. Of course, the Age of Revolution is actually a great vehicle for thinking about Britain’s place in the wider world, and our intention is that many of the objects and linkages – such as Cary’s map of Africa, or Tipu’s Tiger– insistently showcase global connections. I’m delighted that we have an implicit reference to Thomas Paine in the project’s tagline, “Making the World Over” (originally in Paine’s formulation in the appendix of Common Sense, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again”) – as both a doffing of the liberty cap to one of its seminal agents, and a chance to emphasize the worldwide developments and markets that became increasingly interlinked between 1775 and 1848. We are still driving towards many more objects until the project ends in 2020, so as far as I’m concerned, the more we can pin collections and features to global developments, the more we are enhancing the subject area and positioning it in an outward and inclusive way. Indeed, at a point where we have a Prime Minister who lately told her party conference that, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” it’s vital that we take sometimes hallowed British-centered themes, such as abolitionism, liberalism, or reformism, and use them to challenge myths and expose connections, confrontations, and inequalities in our past. If people want to know in a bit more detail what we have in mind for these different themes than we were able to flag up on the site itself, then feel free to dip into my attempt at summarising.

Title image: Death of General Picton, 1817.

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