I’m spending time this summer proof reading my new book – been trying to read it on the screen, but there’s something about holding an actual copy that seems to make a difference. I’ve been working on this for several years now, and finally it’s come together (mostly) – the words, the images. Going through it now with a red pen, waiting to see what readers think of all 325 pages — it’s an exciting moment. Slightly terrifying, must admit. The world I’ve been trying to put together – the lives of orphaned and abandoned children who lived over 250 years ago — now makes more sense to me — what makes history come alive for you?
April 2017 saw the release of a new documentary-length film about Gertrude Bell, Letters from Baghdad featuring remarkable footage and recreations of Bell’s life from her correspondence and photography. Helen Berry joined the film’s Directors, Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum, diplomats and politicians from the Middle East for a round-table discussion of Bell’s life and legacy with a public audience of 200 at the Royal United Services Institute, London. View a trailer for ‘Letters from Baghdad’ narrated by actor Tilda Swinton here, and a video of the panel debate.
At a time of global political uncertainty, there are serious and hotly contested debates over the role of the arts and humanities in civil society. Has the discipline of history become the handmaiden of contemporary politics? Can history really make a difference to how government policies are made, considering the ‘lessons of the past’? Should valuable public resources be going into preserving our heritage in an era of austerity? Organized and chaired by Prof. Helen Berry, this debate was presented on in collaboration with the British Academy, Newcastle University’s Institute for Social Renewal (theme ‘Past in the Present’) and the Newcastle University Humanities Research Institute.
Participants: Prof. Diarmaid McCulloch (Oxford), Vice-President (Engagement), The British Academy, author of Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700 and writer/presenter, A History of Christianity’(BBC); Dr Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and writer/presenter, The Ascent of Woman (BBC); Dr Sam Willis, author of The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution and writer/presenter, The Silk Road(BBC).
To listen to the debate online, click here
Watch Helen Berry – and Ella the horse – feature in a video made for The Extraordinary Gertrude Bell Exhibition at the Great North Museum (2016) – click here
Click here to listen to Helen Berry’s ‘Insights’ public lecture at Newcastle University (February 2016) on ‘Gertrude Bell and the ‘Woman Question’, including fascinating examples of photography from the Gertrude Bell Archive.
This lecture was in association with ‘The Extraordinary Gertrude Bell’, a blockbuster exhibition at the Great North Museum, Newcastle Upon Tyne (January-May 2016).
I’ve witnessed and taken part in many debates recently about the future of the Arts and Humanities. In a world where finances are tight and there’s a drive to do better with less, while trying to’measure’ the difference that education makes, investing in subjects like music, literature, history, classics and art is made to seem like an indulgence. Meanwhile we are producing ever-more complex information systems for producing ‘big data’ – generating statistics about human activity on a global scale. For example, the effect we are having as a species upon the planet is now measurable. We can measure the exponential growth of geoengineering, the presence of radioactive isotopes and carbon particles in the atmosphere, increasing ocean acidity and ice cap melt, or even in the number of McDonalds restaurants, spreading virally across the globe. Big data tells us we could be entering the Anthropocene – a new historical-geological epoch, and that as never before we need to get wise and organise to live sustainably and thrive in the twenty-first century. But what will motivate us to lobby for political change, as well as adapt our own behaviour? Big data can make us feel powerless and very insignificant in the face of monumental challenges. This needn’t be the case. We have to find ways to engage people in co-creating a new and better future, and in this endeavour the arts and humanities have a very special, indeed critical, role to play. It is partly a question of scale (the particular and specific over the vast and impersonal), partly about the humanitarian values that can and should underpin creativity, and partly about using powerful media to communicate ideas and narratives, while giving people space to draw their own conclusions. One recent example is the 2015 migrant crisis in Europe. Overwhelming statistics alone were not enough to engage citizens in lobbying for political action to alleviate the humanitarian crisis that unfolded on our doorstep. It took a photograph to bring this back to a scale we could understand – the horrific sight of the body of a single child, Aylan Al-Kurdi, being carried from the sea, to change public opinion. There are still desperate scenes at European checkpoints, but the cheap rhetoric of scapegoating ‘economic migrants’ no longer stands.
At the recent launch of the Newcastle University Humanities Research Institute, historian David Armitage spoke about the need for deep-time perspectives in order to understand present conditions, and develop future solutions. His book ‘The History Manifesto’ has been misinterpreted as a call for ‘big history’ to supercede microhistory – but my reading is that, like Willliam Blake, Armitage believes it’s possible to see the world in a grain of sand. My view is that the microcosm is not only valid – it’s essential to our ability to grasp and engage with the macrocosm. We need the arts and humanities more than ever.
Colm Toibin’s Ravishing: the Sex Lives of Castrati features Helen Berry’s work on the castrato Tenducci in this month’s London Review of Books – read it here
Helen Berry will be speaking on ‘Shopping and Sensibility’ at the Fairfax House symposium in association with their exhibition ‘Consuming Passions: Luxury Shopping in Georgian Britain’ Follow the link for more details:
View unseen footage of Helen Berry in conversation with Frances de la Tour from Who Do You Think You Are? here