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‘smoke words languishing and melting in the sky’ — Stress: Remembrance, Trauma, Forgetting

By uclznsr, on 23 November 2015

by Niall Sreenan

This talk was delivered on the 11th of November 2015, at the UCL Art Museum, at a public event addressing remembrance and the exhibition “Stress: Approaches to the First World War”. It has been reproduced here largely unedited other than an expanded final paragraph and the addition of bibliographic references.

In the wake of recent events in Paris and Europe, an afterword has been appended by the author.


smoke words languishing and melting in the sky’ — Stress: Remembrance, Trauma, Forgetting

Walk west from where we sit now, past UCL’s Front Lodge, down the Euston Road, past Great Portland Street underground station, and you will come to a location of great historical violence and a site of present remembrance. At 12.55pm on the 20th of July 1982 a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded under a bandstand in Regent’s Park, killing seven members of the British Army. The soldiers, members of the Light Infantry Battalion, the Royal Green Jackets, were playing a scheduled performance of the music of Oliver!

Today, there exists a plaque in the same location that is both dedicated to the lives of the men who perished in that attack and which commemorates this act of brutality. The plaque reads: ‘To the memory of those Bandsmen of the 1st Battalion The Royal Green Jackets who died here as a result of a terrorist attack’. It is both a commemoration of life and a marker of death – one of many waypoints of remembrance that punctuate the public spaces of London. The specific wording of this particular remembrance plaque is significant here for it surely inflamed the righteous anger of the perpetrators of this heinous violence – and perhaps deliberately so. Members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army did not view themselves as “terrorists”, as such, but as members of a legitimate armed force attempting to land a cruel blow against a nation whose armed forces occupied what they considered their sovereign state.

In the wake of the attack, the Provisional IRA took responsibility for their actions and made a proclamation that turned the rhetoric of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher against her own people. They declared: ‘The Irish people have sovereign and national rights which no task or occupational force can put down.’ In asserting this, the IRA insisted they were merely repeating the very same appeal to national sovereignty Thatcher did to justify the British action in the Falklands war. The point of this act of rhetorical ventriloquism, for the IRA, was to legitimate their terror by framing it in terms of the language of international politics, and to muddy the difference between terrorism and any other “legitimate” act of war.

The plaque that adorns the bandstand in Regent’s Park, then, is not merely a marker of remembrance for the violence of that day, but a politically contentious reminder of a controversial war that took place thousands of miles away, of the lives lost there too, and of the way in which remembrance – the way in which we remember death and conflict – is always itself political. Today this plaque stands immovable and dumb, as inanimate as the well-oxidised bronze-roofed bandstand to which it is attached – and yet, it practically hums with the polyphonic dissonance of competing historical and political voices – as well as those of the dead.

Take a seat on a bench nearby in Regent’s Park and another set of voices makes itself heard. These voices are imaginary – but no less real for that – and these too provide an opportunity to remember. One, a soldier, Septimus Warren Smith, decorated for bravery, returned to London from the First World War. The other, Lucrezia Renzi, a 24 year old Italian hatmaker whom Septimus met while billeted in Milan following the armistice in 1918. They married soon after.

And on a bright June day in Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece, Mrs Dalloway, Septimus, ‘pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat’, and Lucrezia, ‘a little woman, with large eyes in a sallow pointed face’, sit on a public bench somewhere in Regent’s Park avoiding the bustle and noise of the city. They gaze upwards at the sky where a plane writes messages, white puffs scrawled against the blue tablet of the sky.

‘So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signalling to me. Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signalling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks.’

This moment of sublime happiness is, for Septimus, a momentary consolation for he is a sufferer of what, in the 1920’s, we called shell-shock. He is beset on all sides by perceived threats and visions of horror, and blighted by images of his departed friends and comrades. He talks to himself, talks to the dead, and sees their faces in trees. He threatens to kill himself.

Woolf’s novel, which, among other things, depicts Septimus and Lucrezia’s trip to London to visit a doctor specializing in the treatment of the mentally infirm, acts as yet another form of remembrance. It is a fictional monument to the effects of the war on its survivors – on the soldiers that made it home – as well as on those who lived with these men, those who picked up the fragments of what was left of Europe in the wake of this First World War. What is distinctive about Woolf’s form of remembrance is that, unlike a plaque or cenotaph or another monumental concrete hulk, it is a supple and ambivalent form of remembrance. She neither offers judgement on an enemy or on a victim, and provides a perspective on the suffering of the First World War from within – from the subjective perspective of the sufferer who is also a killer, Septimus, and from the perspective of an innocent who must also bear that suffering, Lucrezia.

Woolf describes one particular moment in which Septimus submits entirely to his delusions:

‘He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids. There they waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself —

“For God’s sake don’t come!” Septimus cried out. For he could not look upon the dead.

But the branches parted. A man in grey was actually walking towards them. It was Evans! But no mud was on him; no wounds; he was not changed. I must tell the whole world, Septimus cried, raising his hand (as the dead man in the grey suit came nearer), raising his hand like some colossal figure who has lamented the fate of man for ages in the desert alone with his hands pressed to his forehead, furrows of despair on his cheeks, and now sees light on the desert’s edge which broadens and strikes the iron-black figure (and Septimus half rose from his chair), and with legions of men prostrate behind him he, the giant mourner, receives for one moment on his face the whole —“But I am so unhappy, Septimus,” said Rezia trying to make him sit down.’

Woolf depicts with terrible alacrity the horror-stricken, jumbled phenomenology of the shell-shocked Septimus, never deigning to explain or make coherent the set of visions and confusions to which he is subject. The scale and intensity of the trauma Septimus re-experiences is made clear: legions of the dead occupy a vast desert, watched over by a giant figure, a mourner of vast and monumental scale. On the other hand, this poetry of grief, its tacit sympathy for the griever, is interrupted and cut short by the rather more prosaic, if no less profound, melancholy of the griever’s wife. Lucrezia, struggling to keep Septimus earthbound, articulates in much more simple terms her fundamental dissatisfaction of life – ‘I am so unhappy’.

The passage, then, allows us to read – to sympathise with –  both sides of a conflict. Not a war, as such, but the tension or opposition between Lucrezia’s profound unhappiness at life lived in constant battle with a shell-shocked war hero, as well as Septimus’s life lived out of joint, haunted by visitations from a traumatic, violent past.

Remembrance – or perhaps more accurately – memorialization, is always polyvalent. Monuments, whether they are dynamic and deliberately ambiguous, as Woolf’s work undoubtedly is, or solid and monolithic, as in the stone monuments dedicated to violence and suffering sitting in public spaces, are traversed by choruses of competing voices – each straining to tell a story that goes beyond our capacity as societies and individuals to remember. Whether we as individuals and a society prefer the monolithic and stoic silence of stone or the ephemeral, ambivalence of poetic discourse, is a question of what we understand by remembrance. That is to say, what is the purpose of remembrance, and what is its value?

At this stage I want to turn to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche whose understanding of history and remembrance is somewhat at odds with that of our own time. In the second of his Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche takes the example of the contentment of animals, which live ‘unhistorically’ in a state of constant and pure present, and contrasts this with the tortured uncertainty of humankind whose slavery to history is a crippling encumbrance. We are, he writes, ‘all suffering from a consuming fever of history’ and ought, he believes, at the very least, begin to recognise this.

What happens in the past, Nietzsche believed, constantly and unproductively irrupts into the present, disrupting our lives in ways that are injurious to any possible feeling of contentment. ‘[I]t is a matter for wonder’, he writes, ‘a moment, now here and then gone, nothing before it came, again nothing after it has gone, nonetheless returns as a ghost and disturbs the peace of a later moment.’ However, far from wishing to entirely negate the value of historical knowledge at all, Nietzsche is railing against an obsessive relation to the historical which renders us as societies and individuals incapable of acting – of moving forward. As compulsive rememberers, constantly reflecting and ruminating on what has passed, we are in a state of sleeplessness, incapable of forgetting, and stuck in a state of paralysis.

This paralysis is recognisable in sufferers of PTSD or shell-shock, the primary, and most cruel symptom of which, is an inability to forget. Sufferers are visited and revisited, against their will, by images and memories of traumatic events from their past, forced to relive – over and over – the very events which caused their current paralysis, their submission to the horrors of the past.

Septimus is haunted by the death of his friend and fellow soldier Evans. He sees him in the park; he hears his voice from behind a screen; Evans stands silently outside his bedroom window. Septimus sees in the flowers that line the river banks near Hampton Court a sea of floating lamps. This brings to mind what Edward Grey, former British Foreign Secretary, is said to have remarked on the eve of the First World War: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’. But for Septimus, no such extinguishing of memory is available to him. We mark remembrance in Europe with the lighting of candles, the reconstitution of the light that was lost in War, but Septimus is doomed to live in a constant state of remembrance, the constant re-illumination of violence and horror, the only escape from which is the absolute blackness found in death.

There is a tension then in our desire to remember, our obsessive need to commemorate, the deaths of soldiers and the horrors of war. The adage ‘Never forget’ is perhaps the emobdiment of our ideology of remembrance. This takes on a sinister hue in light of what Nietzsche tells us of the dangers of history and what know now about the reality of post-traumatic stress: those afflicted by this awful condition are afflicted by precisely this – they never can forget.[1]

Forgetfulness is precisely what Nietzsche recommends to us as the remedy for obsessive remembrance. ‘To shut the doors and windows of consciousness for a while; not to be bothered by the noise and battle […] a little peace, a little tabula rasa of consciousness to make room for something new […] there could be no happiness, cheerfulness, hope, pride, immediacy, without forgetfulness.’

How then, as a society, can we avoid consigning ourselves to a state of societal post traumatic stress disorder. How can we remember the dead, commemorate their lives, and manage also to forget – to allow ourselves to move on?

The key, in Nietzsche’s terms, lies in the difference between active forgetting and passive forgetting. To passively forget the past is to submit oneself to it, irrespective of its value to the present. In passively forgetting, we let slide from view – or repress – that which is both difficult to apprehend and which is of value to a society today: complexity, ambivalence, the conflicted multi-perspectival historical dynamics that get lost in the shadow of a monument. We consign ourselves in this passive mode of forgetting to remembering by imitation – by repetition – obsessively recreating and insisiting on the authenticity of our remembrance.

In contrast, to actively forget is to allow the possibility of those ambiguities and complexities obtain in the present and to allow ourselves to stop being haunted by the monolithic, or reified form of history, that simplifies what happened in the past.

Here then, the way in which the monolith functions suddenly becomes clearer. It is a form of passive forgetting – enacted in remembrance. The inscription on the plaque in Regent’s Park, remembering the dead from that awful attack 23 years ago, is passively aggressive – couching its sentiment in remembrance but in reality consolidating an ideological and political statement that, whatever its accuracy, brooks no argument. It is an obsessive remembering of certain details, a refusal to let past conflicts recede from view, making forgiveness impossible in the face of the monolithic reminder of a heinous violence.

And in contrast, the literary word, the shifting meaning of poetic writing, ‘languishing and melting in the sky’, does the opposite. The details it depicts are, of course, selective. But, in contrast with the monolith, the reader’s assimilation, interpretation, and response to the memories it invokes is also selective – one has the option, when reading Woolf’s account of Septimus and Lucrezia, to sympathise with the plight of women, to meditate on the horrors of shell-shock and the inhumane way in which it was treated in the 1920s and beyond; we can, as readers, both marvel in the suppleness and energy of Woolf’s prose while simultaneously recognise the horror of what she describes. Literary language is ephemeral and polysemous – and therefore does not allow itself to become set in stone – it does not dictate its meaning to us or inscribe and official memory but rather invites us to draw on our own memories and create our own meanings.

This is how I conceived, curatorially speaking, of our modest exhibition in UCL’s North Lodge. In creating an exhibition about – or in relation to – the First World War, we are, in effect, creating a form of remembrance. However, the exhibition space, the objects, and the object labels are not there to instruct but to act as a springboard or space for the possibility of discourse and questions. This is why my own choice of objects, Noel’s phrenology heads and Leonard Darwin’s photos of soldiers bequeathed to the Galton Institute, testify to the hidden bio-political valences of imperial warfare. Monolithic statues do not remember the eugenic arguments made by Leonard Darwin, which stated that the wholesale destruction of young men at the front could only be countered by an active campaign to mobilise the reproductive faculties of women on the home front. Remembering the unremembered – stressing the unstressed – allows us, not to replace the prevailing narrative of remembrance, but to add to it a set of voices that are so often quietened amidst the din of trumpets and hooves.

This is also why, when we as a group conceived of the exhibition, we wanted the “public engagement” aspect to be integral to the exhibition itself – and not as an afterthought. The presence of PhD researchers in the space at all times, to engage with the questions of visitors and to describe their own personal and disciplinary approach to curation, allows the space to be filled with a multitude of voices. The objects, the stories behind them, the interdisciplinary approach to understanding the war, and the questions and anecdotes of the visitors; these all work, I hope, to make the exhibition function as a monument in which remembrance can be enacted openly and actively.

 [1] It was pointed out to me afterwards that the adage ‘Lest we forget’ is more usually associated with the First World War (it is lifted from Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen” published in The Times in 1914) and would thus render my argument here slightly more complicated. The equivocal “lest” registers a sense of trepidation at what might happen should we ever entirely efface the memory of war and its victims. In contrast, “never” is both an appeal to a transcendental or eternal form of remembrance and a super-egoic injunction, something more akin to an order than a form of questioning. That said, the phrase ‘Never forget’ has gained a form of popular currency and is frequently used in conjunction with forms of remembrance in the USA – for 9/11, the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor – perhaps deriving from a speech given by Benjamin Franklin in which he urged ‘May we never forget’. That ‘Never forget’ came to mind as I wrote this piece might reflect my lack of erudition in relation to this period of history but equally might also reflect the way in which remembrance today is more often than not undertaken in the spirit of a disciplinary injunction than in the spirit of open inquiry.


Afterword – 19th November, 2015

Since delivering this talk on the Armistice Day, the 11th of November 2015, the atrocities committed in Paris and further abroad have thrown this essay into a new light. I thought carefully about whether it was appropriate or not to post this so close to the traumatic events themselves, when the grief, emotion, and outrage these killings demand has yet to give way to the forms of remembrance I tried to explore and question in my presentation earlier in the month. It is not my desire to undermine the anger, the horror, and the sadness which has characterised the Europe-wide and worldwide response to the attacks in Paris, the attacks in Beirut, and characterises our response to brutally violent terrorist attacks anywhere, at any time, or of any political persuasion. And it was certainly not my intention in this essay to directly address the myriad political issues and the symptoms of trauma and remembrance that blight the Middle East and which periodically irrupt into European society.

 However, if anything, it is now more crucial than ever to remember and to do so actively – to engage in acts of communal commemoration and solidarity – and to do this in the spirit of open, reasoned, and empathic inquiry that such a complex incident requires. The atrocities in Paris are the horrific culmination of a number of different and often conflicting historical, ideological, and civilisational currents – or voices. Let us not, in our desire to remember the dead, drown out the voices of the living and the oppressed and the other.

Armistice Day is celebrated and remembered not to glorify war but to celebrate peace. Let us hope we will have the opportunity to do so again soon.

Works Cited and Consulted: 

Encyclopedia of Terrorism, ed. by Peter Chalk (Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2013).

Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, Trans. by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Trans. Douglas Smith, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Peter Radamanovic, “From Haunting to Trauma: Nietzsche’s Active Forgetting and Blanchot’s Writing of the Disaster” in Postmodern Culture, 01/2001; 11(2).

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, Modern Classics, (London: Penguin, 2000).




Stress: Remembering Men

By Kevin Guyan, on 16 November 2015

By Kevin Guyan


In the latest blog post to accompany Stress: Approaches to the First World War, Kevin Guyan explains what James Andrew Wykeham Simons’ 1948 painting The Seven Ages of Man tells us about remembering masculinities in twentieth century Britain. 


The Seven Ages of Man

The Seven Ages of Man © the artist’s estate, photo credit: UCL Art Museum

A reproduction of James Andrew Wykeham Simons’ 1948 painting, The Seven Ages of Man is currently on display as part of the Stress: Approaches to the First World War exhibition.  I selected the work for inclusion as it tells us a lot about masculine identities of the past and raises particular questions about how we commemorate men lost in war, themes addressed in my PhD research.

Simons’ painting takes its name from a monologue in the William Shakespeare play As You Like It.  The painting’s title invites viewers to look for Shakespeare’s seven ages of man and rethink your view towards masculinity – not as something fixed but as something continually in flux.

The youngest man found in the painting is the infant, held in the arms of his nurse.  The men are looking out to a body of water where the next age of man is located, the emotional lover, whom Shakespeare describes as ‘sighing like a furnace, with a wofeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow’.  The turbulent years of being young and in love catches the attention of the other men in the painting.

The next stage to follow in a man’s life is the devoted soldier.  Shakespeare describes this man as ‘full of strange oaths, and bearded like a pard’, which was the Old English word for leopard and highlights young men’s tendency to grow patchy beards.

On his return from war, man enters the next stage of life in which they no longer feel the need to prove themselves and can instead sit back and enjoy commenting on the world around them.  We would today describe this phase as middle aged, and two characters in Simons’ painting fit this description.  At this point in Shakespeare’s journey through the seven ages of man the chronology becomes less clear, as it’s of course possible to be an older soldier or a younger man who is also self-assured.

Reaching the end of one’s life, and one becomes an old man who cares little about his dress sense, wearing ‘lean and slippered pantaloon’ to cover his ‘shrunk shank’ – his thin legs.  Finally, man’s life ends with ‘mere oblivion’ and is left ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’.  Death.

I am unable to tell why Simons made one slight change in his painting from the Shakespeare monologue – he does not depict the age of the schoolboy and instead adds two, rather than one, middle aged men – the youngest in blue and the oldest in grey.  My hesitant guess is that this change reflected the huge increase in life expectancy in the mid-twentieth century, with the middle decades of one’s life expanding and therefore justifying an additional character.

“Rethink your view towards masculinity – not as something fixed but as something continually in flux.”

My own research explores the relationship between masculinities, planning knowledge and domestic space in Britain between the 1941 Blitz and the early 1960s.  One of the biggest changes during this period was men’s movement from old homes into new homes after the Second World War and the new opportunities men found in terms of privacy, more space, use of a garden and private bedrooms.  The move into new homes made it easier for men to perform family-orientated masculinities and change what they did in the home as fathers and husbands.

In my study of postwar housing, men’s gender identity is not fixed but something that can change according to time and place.  Similarly, in Simons’ painting, men’s masculine identities do not change according to space but change according to time.

The Seven Ages of Man, when viewed within the context of the First World War, raises questions about how and who we commemorate.  When commemorating men who served in the First World War we need to think about their masculine identities as something unfixed that could be achieved, lost and rediscovered – there was and is no option for lifetime membership. And for millions of men in the early twentieth century, the opportunity to progress through the painting’s seven ages was viciously cut short.

It is always sad to hear when the linear path of a man’s life does not proceed through the generations as predicted – painted against the backdrop of the mid-1940s, I therefore read Simons’ painting as an anti-war statement that reminds us of the many male lives that were unnaturally disrupted by conflict.  Approaching the subject of commemoration through a gender history lens raises new ways to think about men’s lives in the past and reminds us of the need to stop history from repeating itself.


Stress: Using Oral History Interviews

By tcrnfmw, on 11 November 2015

Profileby Felicity Winkley 

This post is associated with our exhibit Stress: Approaches to the First World War, open October 12-November 20.



A visitor to Stress last week commented that the objects on display weren’t what she expected, that she had anticipated they would show much more directly the obvious effects, or stresses, of the First World War on men, women and children.

I wasn’t surprised by this response. We knew when we curated Stress that the interpretation of the objects was more convoluted than most traditional museum displays – the object labels are longer than best practice advises, the visual links between the cases difficult for the visitor to immediately grasp.

Part of this is owed to the fact that the objects have been chosen from the UCL collections – geology, pathology and science specimens among others – rather than from a military history assemblage. In equal measure, it is also because the objects have been chosen not only because of their relevance to the exhibition, but also according to the individual research interests of the curators.

One element of the exhibition breaks this mould however – the audio installation which plays two oral history interviews from the archives of the National Army Museum, recollections of two individuals who served in the First World War. For me, this part of the exhibition provides the visitor with the most direct link to the conflict – an immediate and very powerful ‘place-setting’ via the experiences being narrated, quite apart from the objects on display.

Although the audio is on a permanent loop, no matter at what stage you join in the story you are transported: with Adelaide Marian Davies, who served with the Women’s Army Aux Corps in France, you can picture the scene as she describes the dances held for troops at the Front, where it was forbidden for her rank to dance with the officers; with L/Cpl Billy Meade, you might join him at the Dardanelles, Ypres or later at the prisoner of war camp where he tasted Schnapps for the first time.

The Oral History Listening Post at Stress

The Oral History Listening Post at Stress

The resonance of these anecdotes illustrates just why oral history interviews are important, and why they are such a useful element to incorporate in exhibitions, or indeed many kinds of research. As opposed to much of the written historical record, oral histories are collected directly from the source and feel so much more authentic for it. For the purposes of my PhD, I used a ‘go-along’ interview technique, which involved talking to respondents whilst walking, in order to glean accurate insight to their experience of being in that environment. More recently, I volunteered as an oral history interviewer for the London Bubble’s After Hiroshima project which explores the responses of Londoners to the dropping of the first atomic bomb on 6 August 1945, both in the immediate aftermath and throughout the peace movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Oral histories lend themselves to many situations, not only to provide a means for gathering unique, illuminating and personal records and reflections, but also – in the process of their collection – to involve a wider community in research and offer an opportunity for participation in history and heritage in practice. We were thrilled to be joined on the Stress opening night by the family of Billy Meade, including his daughter (now 84), who had never before heard his recording.

Stress: Selecting and Engaging with Pathology Specimens in the Exhibition Space

By Sarah Savage Hanney, on 28 October 2015

By Sarah Savage Hanney

Over the past two and a half weeks, I have had the pleasure of engaging with visitors in the Stress exhibition at the North Lodge. When visitors first come into the space, many ask questions about the concept behind the exhibition and the selection of objects. In the planning process, each exhibition curator chose objects from the UCL Collections that related to his/her approach to stress in the First World War and significance within individual PhD research.

When the Student Engager group first discussed curating an independent exhibition using UCL Collections objects and specimens in summer 2014, I already knew exactly what collection I wanted to use: the Pathology Collection. Unlike the three UCL Museums on campus, the Pathology Collection was less accessible to the public due to human tissue licensing restrictions. For the previous Engager event Movement in May 2014, I used photographs of Pathology specimens to enhance visitors’ understandings of the effects of disease on the human body. Visitors were especially interested in the photographs of a coal miner’s lung, diseased human heart, and a haemorrhaged brain. I kept these interesting specimens in mind and hoped to use them in our future exhibition.

Luckily, the Pathology Collection received its license to display human tissue early in 2015 and it would be possible to display Pathology specimens in the Stress exhibition. The curator of the Pathology Collection, Subhadra Das, was incredibly helpful in suggesting specimens and organising the conservation work for the two final selections: the coal miner’s lung and the diseased human heart.

Visitors can now see the coal miner’s lung and diseased human heart suspended in a clear, preservative liquid on either end of the long wall display in the exhibition space. As a historian of medicine specialising in the early twentieth century, I wanted my contribution of specimens to highlight little known medical conditions that affected people in the First World War period.

Although we do not know specific dates for these specimens, the organs came from patients at University College Hospital in the first half of the twentieth century.

At first glance, the specimens can be a bit off putting. The coal miner’s lung barely looks like a lung apart from the general shape. The lung is nearly completely black and exposes the harsh reality of the health of British coal miners. For those men who remained in Britain mining coal for the war effort, their efforts would eventually cost them their healthy lungs.

Coal Miner's Lung- UCL Pathology Collection

Coal Miner’s Lung- UCL Pathology Collection


The diseased human heart also holds special significance for health in the First World War period. Over the course of the war, the British military medical officers discovered that many young men who enlisted to fight had pre-existing heart conditions that would affect their ability as fit, healthy soldiers. After speaking with visitors about this specimen, many visitors commented on how they never associated heart disease with the early twentieth century.

Diseased Human Heart- UCL Pathology Collection

Diseased Human Heart- UCL Pathology Collection


By having these specimens on public display, I hope that visitors contemplate the stress that the First World War placed on the physical bodies of those who fought and contributed to the war effort. The exhibition presents a rare opportunity for visitors to examine these remarkable specimens in person and engage in discussion with curators about their different approaches to stress in the First World War.

If you are interested in speaking with Engager Sarah Savage Hanney in the exhibition space, she will be at Stress each Friday from 1pm-5pm for the next three weeks.

Stress is open Monday through Friday from 1pm-5pm and on alternating Saturdays.

For more information about visiting the UCL Pathology Collection at the Royal Free Hospital Campus of the UCL Medical School.

Upcoming Events:

Commemoration Event, November 11, 2015  1pm-3pm UCL Art Museum

Bloomsbury Walking Tour, November 20, 2015  1pm-2pm UCL Quad

Stress in Non-Human Animals

By Stacy Hackner, on 14 October 2015

DSC_0745This post is associated with our exhibit Stress: Approaches to the First World War, open October 12-November 20.

By Stacy Hackner


A pig’s skull may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of stress. You may not think of non-human animals at all. However, humans are not the only animals that experience stress and related emotions. Many of the behaviors associated with human psychological disorders can be seen in domestic animals. Divorced from the dialogue of consciousness and cognition, animals have been seen exhibiting symptoms of depression, mourning, and anxiety. Wild animals in captivity ranging from elephants to wolves have exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress disorder; this is also an argument for why orcas in captivity suddenly turn violent. According to noted animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, animals that live in impoverished environments or are prevented from performing natural behaviors develop “stereotypic behaviors” such as rocking, pacing, biting the bars of their enclosure or themselves, and increased aggression. Many of these bear similarities to individuals with a variety of psychological conditions, and (most interestingly) when given psychopharmaceuticals, the behaviors cease.

The First World War unleashed horrors on human soldiers, resulting in shell shock (now called PTSD). However, many animals were also used, including more than one million horses on the Allied side, mostly supplied by the colonies – but 900,000 did not return home. Mules and donkeys were also used for traction and transport, and dogs and pigeons were used as messengers. (Actually, the Belgians used dogs to pull small wagons.) Since the advent of canning in the 19th century, armies no longer had to herd their food along, but apparently the Gloucestershire Regiment brought along a dairy cow to provide fresh milk, although she may have served as a regimental mascot as well – some units kept dogs and cats too.

Horses in gas masks. Sadly, they often confused these with feed bags and proceeded to eat them. Credit Great War Photos.

Horses in gas masks. Sadly, they often confused these with feed bags and proceeded to eat them. Credit Great War Photos.

The RSPCA set up a fund for wounded war horses and operated field veterinary hospitals. They treated 2.5 million animals and returned 85% of those to duty. 484,143 British large animals were killed in combat, which is roughly half the number of British soldiers killed. Estimates place the total number of horses killed at around 8 million.

The horses in particular had a strong impact on the soldiers. Researcher Jane Flynn points out that a positive horse-rider relationship was imperative for both on the battlefield. She cites a description of the painting Goodbye Old Man:

“Imagine the terror of the horse that once calmly delivered   goods   in   quiet   suburban   streets   as, standing hitched to a gun­carriage amid the wreck and ruin at the back of the firing line, he hears above and all around him the crash of bursting shells. He starts, sets his ears back, and trembles; in his wondering eyes is the light of fear. He knows nothing of duty, patriotism, glory, heroism, honour — but he does know that he is in danger.”

"Goodbye, Old Man" used in a poster. Credit RSPCA.

“Goodbye, Old Man” used in a poster. Credit RSPCA.

Historical texts tend to consider horses and other animals used in war as equipment secondary to humans, and even the RSPCA only covers their physical health. Horses don’t only have relationships with their riders, but with the other horses nearby and with the environment. They can easily be frightened by loud noises, not to mention explosions, ground tremors from trench cave-ins, and other things that scared humans sharing their situation. Many horse owners (many pet owners, in fact) argue that their horses have and express human-like emotions. Even if we can’t verify this scientifically, we can observe that horses experience fear, rage, confusion, gain, loss, happiness and sadness. Grandin argues that horses have the capacity to experience and express these simple emotions as well as recall and react to past experiences, but are unable to rationalize these emotions: they simply feel. It’s impossible to say whether that makes it more frightening for a horse or a human to wade through a field of dead comrades. In Egypt, I took a horse ride around the pyramids. The trail led us through what turned out to be an area of the desert where stable owners execute their old horses, resulting in a swath of rotting corpses. I was shocked, and my horse displayed all the signs of fear: ears pinned back, wide eyes, tensed muscles. He recovered after we’d left the area, but I wondered what psychological impact having that experience day after day would cause. If they are able to remember frightening experiences, they might be able to experience post-traumatic stress and be as shell-shocked as the returning soldiers. British soldiers reported that well-bred horses experienced more “shell-shock” than less-pedigreed stock, bolting, stampeding, and going berserk on the battlefield – all typical behaviors of horses under duress, – but did not elaborate on the long-term consequences of this behavior. It would be interesting to explore accounts of horses that survived the war (and were returned to their original owners instead of being sold in Europe or slaughtered) to see whether they exhibited more stereotypical behaviors of stress and shell-shock just as human soldiers did.



Thanks to Anna Sarfaty for advice.

Animals in World War One. RSPCA.org.

Bekoff, Mark. Nov 29, 2011. Do wild animals suffer from PTSD and other psychological disorders? Psychology Today (online).

Flynn, Jane. 2012. Sense and sentimentality: a critical study of the influence of myth in portrayals of the soldier and horse during World War One. Critical Perspectives on Animals in Society: Conference Proceedings.

Grandin, Temple and Johnson, Catherine. 2005. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. New York: Scribner.

Shaw, Matthew. ND. Animals and war. British Library Online: World War One. 

Tucker, Spencer C. (ed.) 1996. The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland.

Stress: Building an Exhibition

By Kevin Guyan, on 20 July 2015

Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan


With the announcement of the Student Engagers’ autumn exhibition, here is the first in a series of blog posts that share personal insights into the curatorial process.


Stress offers the student engagement team an opportunity to curate an exhibition that counters the traditional view of museums and galleries as fixed spaces that display objects that convey a message. Instead – I see this as a chance for us to experiment with bold and exciting ways to share knowledge and create a space on campus for three-way conversations between curators, objects and the public.

The inception of our exhibition first found life in the summer of 2014 during a conversation between the student engagement team and the UCL Art Museum. Over one year later and, as design ideas and draft event listings are shared via email, the exhibition at last feels like it is coming together.

As our more experienced colleagues in UCL Museums and Public and Cultural Engagement warned, ‘exhibition time’ runs significantly slower than ‘normal time’ and we now appreciate starting this project with 16 months to spare. I remember looking at action plans with distant dates and the feeling that our plans were a lifetime away. Those dates have now come and gone as we hurtle through 2015 and towards our opening night on Friday 9 October.

The meat and bones of the student engagement project is the presence of researchers in UCL’s three public museums. Therefore, one of the key hopes for Stress was to import this practice and create an exhibition where a researcher was always present, waiting and ready for conversation.

The researcher’s presence will also create a way to feed-back information from visitors into the planning of events, pre-empting many questions and queries fielded and offering a more tailored visitor experience. It further gives us opportunities to adapt the exhibition during its run. For example, conversations between engagers and visitors will inform the writing of blog articles that will then shape how future visitors perceive the objects on display.

Like our previous events and exhibitions, Movement, LandSCAPE and Foreign Bodies, the theme of Stress brings together the research interests of a diverse group of PhD students under one overarching theme. This means that the visitor experience will differ according to the researcher in the exhibition space and their interpretation of the objects on display.

North Lodge

UCL’s North Lodge will house a team of postgraduate researchers throughout the exhibition.

I am excited to see how this works in reality – the continual presence of a researcher in the North Lodge exhibition space may prove overbearing and turn-off visitors looking for a space of solitude in busy Bloomsbury. More optimistically, the space will become a talking shop at the entrance to UCL’s campus and create a different, yet equally enriching, experience for visitors.

For me, public engagement is about more than sharing research ideas with other people. The benefits should reach far further than dissemination alone and empower researchers to enter into dialogues with people from different backgrounds. The process of sharing ideas with people unfamiliar with our own field will foster new and unexpected connections and force us to change the way we share our work, ultimately resulting in a deeper understanding for everyone involved.

We are attempting to build an exhibition with public engagement as a foundational building block and create a space that gives researchers and visitors opportunities to follow pathways unaware where they might lead. This is very much the ethos of the student engagement project – let’s see how our ideas work in reality.