THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Americas studies blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

15 September 2014

The Unbuilt Room

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Unbuilt-room411x195

Running on a mainframe at a firm working on the US military's contribution to the internet, ARPANET, the world's first text-based adventure gameAdventure (c1975), let the player wander around an underground cave system (supposedly based on the Mammoth cave system in Kentucky). Issuing typed instructions ("Go North", etc.), the player explored a world described in text and contained within 300kb; it was a world that would become very familiar to any players of similar games in the 1980s, or indeed viewers of Game of Thrones: swords, magic spells and strange creatures.

A bit nerdy, kind of old fashioned, and almost completely replaced by graphically expansive first-person simulations, text-based adventure games now only live on as a kind of retro-chic, or as a small sliver of popular culture (a line from a Australian game, The Hobbit, has just about made it out into the wider world: 'Thorin sits on the floor and starts to sing about gold'). As such, they may provide the fodder for artistic reinvention, or at least a fresh way to approach something you think you know.

The Unbuilt Room does this. I've just returned from a dummy run with the artist Seth Kriebel. He has performed a similar show at the Battersea Arts Centre, and now is offering a limited run of visits (if that is the word) to the room at the British Library for our Enduring War exhibition, a show that I helped to curate.  I can't give too much away, but it's part seance (think lights in a darkened room), part theatrical performance, and part (in a non-terrible way) team-building exercise, like a art-school version of the Crystal Maze or the Adventure Game.

There is also, following the trope set out by Adventure, a labyrinth. As such, it echoes the tunnels and darkness of the war. We managed to unlock some of its secrets, with Seth reading some startling extracts from some of the items on display in the First World War exhibition (Indian sepoys' letters home, the crash of a Zeppelin bomb under a moonlight sky, the last letter before going over the top). It's all appropriately unsettling, puzzling, and an intriguing way to set up a visit to an exhibition (which follows the performance), and which makes you read the items in a new way. The fantasy of the adventure form also echoes some of the dominant contemporary myths of the war - the belief in the honour of combat, the chivalric nature of military heroism, the search for adventure; myths which in part explain the motivations for some of those who fought.

The Unbuilt Room can be booked here (16, 23 Sept, 7 Oct).

[Matthew Shaw]

11 September 2014

Finding Franklin

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Franklin overland camp

Above: a camping scene from one of Franklin's earlier overland expeditions [G.7397]

With 'Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage' coming up in November it would be remiss not to pass a few comments on Canada's locating one of Sir John Franklin's ships. When news of this year's search came through I must confess I hoped they would find something (perhaps a spoon?) but I was doubtful something as significant as a ship would be found.

A few *spoilers* for 'Lines in the Ice' are in the following but rest assured there will be plenty more to see when it opens. So, for those reading on, a potted history of why Sir John Franklin found himself in the Arctic as executive officer of the ships Erebus and Terror. Leaving Britain in 1845 this was Franklin's third time in charge of an Arctic expedition and his fourth aboard one of the many voyages of exploration championed by Sir John Barrow. His previous two Arctic expedition commands had seen some success but also great hardship and starvation (leading to he and his men, famously, eating their boots).

Franklin artefacts

Above: Previously found Franklin artefacts (including a spoon) [Shelfmark: 1781.a.6].

In all these expeditions Franklin was searching for the Northwest Passage, a new trade route to Asia that would dramatically cut journey times for British sailors. English and, later, British sailors had been searching for the route at least since the time of the Tudors, largely hoping to break Spanish and Portuguese trade monopolies with the Asia. By Franklin's time, however, the aim was more broadly political, as much a way of expressing British power over the seas as it was an attempt to find a trade route that may, or may not, be practically viable. Indeed, while we think of this story as being one of Arctic exploration (and of Franklin as an Arctic explorer) it's perhaps worth thinking about the broader context at play here.

After all, Franklin was not just a polar explorer. He was a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, deafened by the roar of conflict but otherwise unscathed, and in between Arctic journeys he served in the Greek war of independence and was Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land. Further, by 1845 he was a fixture of Lincolnshire and London society. In short, his career spanned the globe and he was as much a citizen-officer of the British Empire as he was anything else.

So, when Franklin went missing with his ships (which had also seen a diverse and international series of duties) this was not a disappearance of an Arctic specialist on the edge of the world; instead a British officer vanished trying to bring a space into the service of the globe-spanning British Empire. While the distinction is subtle it helps explain the significance of this event, why we remember it so strongly and why such bad-feeling ensued when Dr. John Rae announced the grim fate of Franklin's crew.

Investigator sledge party

Above: a man-hauling party from HMS Investigator. Dragging huge weights across the ice was a fate awaiting a number of Franklin's crew, as well as those searching for them [Shelfmark: 1259.d.11]

Parks Canada's locating of a Franklin ship also operates in a wider context than the narrow geography of the Northwest Passage. It allows Canada to perform geopolitical sovereignty, display technical expertise and set a media agenda on a global scale - this story is being read far and wide beyond Canada and the U.K. For 'Lines in the Ice' this is quite a happy development as it is a further example of the exhibition's main point, that the Northwest Passage and Arctic Ocean exploration in general are areas of global significance. Embedded in all of this are complex networks of cause and effect, especially considering that the Arctic is not an unpopulated space for Europeans and Americans to express their desire for exploration.

Indeed, Inuit who lived in what is today Canada have played an integral role in other nation's exploration of the Northwest Passage - and paid a heavy price for it. A great Franklin search example of this was sketched out by Ken McGoogan in the Globe and Mail and there are many more such stories to tell; but that is for another blog post and the exhibition itself.

[PJH]

05 September 2014

Farthest North Cricket (and other Arctic sports)

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Cricket on the ice

Above: HMS Fury and Hecla in winter quarters near Igloolik (1822-23). Frontispiece to vol. 1 of Parry's account, 'Journal of a second voyage for the discovery of a North-West Passage...' [BL: G.7394]

Last week two Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers reached the North Pole. In and of itself there's nothing unusual here as planes, ships and subs have been reaching the Pole for a long time now. What made the news story, though, was how the Canadian crew celebrated - with a game of hockey at the North Pole.

Interestingly, while this is a news-worthy pastime, it is not a new way of celebrating a milestone or just filling time in the High North. For many years sports have been played to celebrate reaching notable locations (when the German ship Polarstern reached the North Pole in 1991 a game of football ensued) or just to pass time while locked into the ice. Such was the case during the search for the Northwest Passage where the monotony of long periods of time spent locked into the ice were broken up with many activities, not least a bit of sport on nicer days (i.e. when not snowing, foggy, blowing a gale, etc.).

At the top of this post you can see a plate depicting a scene near Igloolik in 1822-23, where sailors pass the time standing around, hunting, working with local Inuit (right in the background) and playing a spot of cricket. We can only imagine how it must have felt, so far away from home and in such an alien environment, to break out the cricket bat and be taken back to memories of leisure time cricket on the green wickets of an English summer.

Farthest North Football (Cameron)

Above: Inuit children from the Arctic Red River area play football during the summer. In, 'The New North' (p.232) [BL: 010470.ee.18]

A later photograph from the travels of Agnes Cameron captures what she calls, 'Farthest North Football' and it's a reminder of how much cultural exchange was instigated by whalers, traders, prospectors and explorers making their way north in ever greater numbers. Unfortunately Cameron's work doesn't make it into 'Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage' but Parry and his cricket playing crew do; so for more on them, the history of cricket in the Arctic and the expedition's interactions with local Inuit make sure you come along to the exhibition once it opens on November 14th. 

Finally, it's worth noting that Santa has also (unseasonably) visited the icebreakers' crew, but that is a story for another blog post and for his (more timely) appearance in 'Lines in the Ice'.

[PJH]