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BY EMMA EDWARDS
As a historian I always feel a rush of gratitude for those diarists who maintained such painstakingly detailed and regular entries. Some diaries are preserved self-consciously for posterity; others avoid destruction or oblivion through good luck or meticulous care, only for the value of their contents to become apparent through chance investigation, donation or publication. Diaries are not, as few if any historical sources can be, objective, unbiased or comprehensive. Yet just as historical commentary is shaped by the perspective of the historian, diaries provide a fascinating insight into the perspective of one individual on wider historical events: perspectives that can be representative or completely unique. This intersection of the personal with the political lends greater colour to the narrative and reminds us that history is not just something that happened, but something that people actually lived.
In terms of diaries of historical significance, the diary of Anne Frank is arguably the most famous and certainly most widely read. As such I could not pass up on the opportunity to visit a monument to her experience and to the first primary source I had ever read as a child. Anne Frank House (Prinsengracht, Amsterdam) seeks to document Anne’s experience as a microcosm of the persecution of Dutch Jews and (as in the case of Anne’s family) of German Jews whose exodus to other European cities such as Amsterdam did not count on Hitler’s Blitzkrieg of 1940 and the extension of Fortress Europe to the Netherlands. As you enter the exhibition, context is provided on the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam and the anti-Jewish laws introduced after 1940. Documents are put on display in a space renovated in the 1990s to recreate the original front of the building, including the warehouse and offices of Opekta, Otto Frank’s business, licensed to sell pectin, the gelling agent necessary for jam making. The museum documents the gift of Anne’s diary and her cherished ambitions to be a writer. Text from its pages are used to narrate Otto’s decision to hide his family in unused rooms (the ‘secret annex’) in 1942 with the help of office staff while keeping it a secret from warehouse staff. Visitors travel up to the ‘secret annexe’ behind a bookshelf (the original bookshelf is on display) to enter the hiding place. Again excerpts from Anne’s diary are used to evoke the strained atmosphere of the annex with the Franks sharing the small space with another family, the van Pels, and a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer. Anne’s own sleeping space has been preserved and on display are copies of her posters of movie stars and the young Princess Elizabeth.
The visitor makes their way into a museum space that provides a sober reflection on the fate of the Franks, whose hiding place was stormed by the Security Police on 4 August 1944. Of the eight people in hiding only Otto Frank survived-he was in Auschwitz for its liberation. Short video clips provide first-hand accounts of the concentration camps, including an interview with a friend of Anne’s who met Anne in Bergen-Belsen only a few short weeks before her death. Another of the museum’s rooms reflects on the impact of Anne’s diary, preserved by Opekta office worker Miep Gies who returned it to Otto for it to be subsequently published in seventy languages. A manuscript version can be viewed in the museum. I was really interested to learn that in the months before the arrests, Anne had been editing and revising her diary and working on a novel The Secret Annex. This certainly prompts me to reflect on how much diarists consider if and how their personal entries will be preserved and received by posterity. The exhibition is a triumph of simplicity, in allowing the force and poignancy of the diary to be presented with the minimal intervention of audio-visual material that so often proliferates and which can, in some cases, distract from the contents and missions of museums. The curators thankfully resisted the urge to include too much material in the secret annex space which allowed them to successfully evoke the stark reality of two years of claustrophic confinement.
In terms of practicalities Anne Frank House is located quite close to the centre of Amsterdam and is easy to find via many of the tram lines. Booking a ticket in advance is strongly recommended as queues can reach epic lengths; however the museum staff do an excellent job of ensuring the small space does not become too crowded.
The Science Museum, London, was founded in 1857 as part of the South Kensington Museum, becoming an independent entity in 1909. Its foundation can be traced back to the Great Exhibition of 1851; this generated both the interest and money needed to found the museum. From early in the museum’s existence it was acquiring items of interest to the history of science and technology, including an early Boulton and Watt beam engine and Stephenson’s revolutionary locomotive ‘Rocket’.
Spread over a number of floors the Science Museum is divided into galleries which focus on different aspects of the history of science, technology and medicine. These include ‘Glimpses of Medical History’, ‘The Science and Art of Medicine’ and ‘Making the Modern World’. The displays vary in their focus with some concentrating on the historical collections and providing context to their creation and use while others are more concerned with the museum’s other central aim: the education and promotion of the sciences. Therefore while some displays are concerned with the preservation and contextualisation of the museum’s vast collection of historical scientific, technological and medical instruments and objects, other displays are much more interactive. These displays are more concerned with engaging and entertaining the museums younger visitors. The amount of children who were at the museum, and enjoying the experience, was definitely a defining feature.
An example of the many displays on offer is the new ‘Information Age’ gallery. This gallery traces the development of telecommunications technology with displays ranging from one of the first Cooke and Wheatstone five-needle telegraphs to satellites (in this case a real satellite rather than a replicate). Not only is there an amazing range of unique and rare telecommunication apparatus but the gallery is very successful in contextualising their development, use and the impact that these technologies had on society. A highlight is inclusion of the NeXT computer which Tim Berners-Lee used in the 1980s to develop the World Wide Web; for a brief moment in time this computer was the only server in operation and therefore it was the World Wide Web. The gallery uses multiple methods to engage the public including written panels accompanying displays, audio-visual, interactive computer panels and the availability of good, old-fashion guides to expand the visitor’s knowledge and understanding of the role that telecommunications played in the development of the modern world. The ‘Information Age’ gallery has an accompanying website which can be found at http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/online_science/explore_our_collections/information_age.
Entry to the museum is free and it is well serviced by the tube and bus routes. Several other museums are also located in the immediate area. More information can be found on the Science Museum’s website http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/home.aspx.
A recent trip to Kilkenny offered the opportunity to tour Kilkenny Castle, which I had long heard about but had never visited. The Anglo-Norman castle was built for William Marshall, 4th Earl of Pembroke, in the early-1200s. From the late-fourteenth century, the castle was the principal Irish residence of the Butler family (the Dukes of Ormonde) and in 1967 the Sixth Marquess of Ormonde presented the castle to the people of Kilkenny for the token sum of £50. Since then, it has been managed and restored by the Office of Public Works and is open to the public for tours.
The castle is located on a prominent site in the middle of the city, overlooking the River Nore, and is, therefore, easily accessible for anyone staying, or travelling through, Kilkenny.
The most surprising feature of the entire visit was the view immediately upon coming through the entrance courtyard: turning to the right, one is met by far-reaching parklands, as far as the eye can see, and utterly (yet refreshingly!) out of place in a castle setting in a modern city centre. As with so many medieval castles and early-modern ‘big houses’, Kilkenny Castle underwent extensive renovation in the nineteenth century. The entrance hall is one part of the complex that was remodelled in this period, and today is dominated by a marble table which was spared from auction in 1935 (like many landed familes’ houses, Kilkenny Castle was subjected to a clear-out sale, as the family could no longer the upkeep of the building) due to the fact that it was simply too heavy to move! A notable feature of the library is a wooden table specially commissioned to mark the passing of the Act of Union (1800) and which is emblazoned with the shamrock, rose and thistle of Ireland, England and Scotland. (I cannot recall whether the Welsh were represented by the leek). The picture gallery is a highlight of the visit, from the hammer-beam roof to the Carrara marble fireplace, which carries depictions of various events from the building’s history, such as the purchase of the castle by the earl of Ormonde in 1391 and the triumphant return to Dublin of the Duke of Ormonde in 1662. (The late architectural historian Maurice Craig famously wrote that this event marked the Renaissance’s eventual arrival in Ireland). A favourite engraving of mine is a depiction of a lady from the Ormonde family dispensing alms to the poor, emphasising the family’s self-image of itself as exerting a paternalistic duty of care to their tenants.
Kilkenny Castle is certainly one of the most significant sites, and the home to one of the most important families, in Irish history. A visit, which takes approximately two hours, is highly recommended, particularly if you are in Kilkenny during the forthcoming Arts Festival (8-17 August 2014).
(As photos are not allowed inside the castle, these pictures are all from the exterior. But, we hope that you enjoy them all the same!)
By Adrian James Kirwan This site has an ancient history of use as a defensive fortification with the oldest surviving building, St Margaret’s Chapel, dating from the twelfth century. Other noticeable additions are the Great Hall and the Half Moon Battery both built in the sixteenth century. The first thing one notices on the way to Edinburgh Castle is the steep ascend (the planners just weren’t thinking of the poor tourists!) and how perfect the location was for defence. Unfortunately the view upon approach is obscured by the modern seating erected for public viewing of the military tattoo. Once you are past this however the view opens up to reveal this ancient stronghold. Holinshed recommends that those with a passion for military pageantry arrive prior to 9.00am. This will allow them to view the trooping of the guard before the 9.30am opening (bearing in mind the upcoming referendum, this could be one of your last chances to see this done by the British Army). The castle has been added to extensively over the centuries and in order to properly understand the significance and history of the structure it is recommended to get a guided tour. Audio tours are rentable at a kiosk to the right of the portcullis gate. This is a multi-faceted destination; the castle itself contains a wealth of architectural gems that tie strongly to Scottish history, in particularly with James V &VI and Mary Queen of Scots. A visit to view the Scottish Crown Jewels is a must and keep an eye out for the dog cemetery, where regimental and officer’s dogs are buried. Added to this are the stunning views of the city provided from the battlements. An important and often overlooked part of the castle is the Scottish National War Museum. Featuring material relating to many prominent Scottish military figures, the museum is divided into multiple display areas focusing on different aspects of Scotland’s military history. In addition to the displays of military uniforms, weapons and medals are audio-visual exhibitions explaining various areas covered by the displays; with a particularly enjoyable one showing original black and white film footage of the First World War. This museum alone is well worth a visit and is particularly good at demonstrating the importance of Scottish involvement in the British Army not just for that institution but also for Scotland and its place within Great Britain. As an aside, the castle’s gun is still fired at 1.00pm as it has done since 1861. This was originally done to allow ships in port to align their chronometers but quickly became the tool by which the city regulated its clocks; maps were even produced so that the city’s residents could compensate for the time delay between the firing of the gun and the sound reaching their part of the city. Priced at £16, a visit to the castle is an enjoyable excursion. Its close proximity to the National Gallery of Scotland and the Walter Scott memorial makes it the ideal starting point for a historical and cultural tour of the city. For more information see http://www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk/
By Emma Edwards
If you are looking for an alternative heritage experience Glasnevin Cemetery Museum provides a unique insight into modern Irish history. Glasnevin Trust runs excellent walking tours of the cemetery which recount the tragic, macabre and colourful history of Dublin’s necropolis. The guides are enthusiastic and adept at ensuring that everyone, of all ages, gets involved in the story of the cemetery. The Trust works hard to make history come alive. Our tour began with a rousing re-enactment of Pádraig Pearse’s oration at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa. The tour ticks off the cemetery’s ‘greatest hits’-bringing visitors to the graves of the main movers and shakers of modern Irish history and culture. The drama and pageantry that accompanied the burials of political giants such as Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Collins is relayed in vivid detail. A visit to the towering round tower crypt of the ‘Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell is a thoroughly memorable (and somewhat spooky!) experience. The establishment of a national graveyard for those of every and no religion was the cherished ambition of O’Connell but the tour does more than chronicle the ‘great men’ of Irish history. Our guide made a special effort to draw attention to the interred women and men who were airbrushed or overlooked from mainstream history. The tour also provides moving details and social commentary on the lives of ordinary Dubliners and remembers the poverty-stricken victims of malnutrition and disease epidemics for whom Glasnevin also serves as a final resting place. Quirky accounts of nineteenth century efforts to deter erstwhile grave-robbers adds a frisson of ghoulish excitement to the tour. Within the museum itself sophisticated interactive exhibits allow visitors to learn more about the graveyard’s beginnings and its illustrious residents. Visitors with genealogical objectives can also access the Trust’s astonishingly comprehensive burial records. Owing to the precise gridding of the graveyard, if your ancestor was interred in Glasnevin, you will be able to locate the burial location, even if a gravestone or marker is absent. A highly original museum experience. See http://www.glasnevintrust.ie/