Category Archives: staff

Archival Provenance Project: a glimpse into the university’s history through some of its oldest manuscripts

              My name is Madeleine Reynolds, a fourth year PhD candidate in History of Art. I am fortunate to be one of two successful applicants for the position of Archival Provenance Intern with the Heritage Collections, University of Edinburgh. My own research considers early modern manuscript culture, translation and transcription, the materiality of text and image, collection histories, ideas of collaborative authorship, and the concept of self-design, explored through material culture methodologies. Throughout my PhD, I have visited many reading rooms, from the specialist collections rooms at the British Library and the Bodleian’s Weston Library, to the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge and the Warburg Institute. Working first-hand with historical material has been crucial to the development of my work, and I was eager to spend time ‘behind-the-scenes.’ This internship was attractive to me because of the more familiar aspects – like the reading room environment and object handling – but it also presented an opportunity to expand my understanding of manuscript production and book histories, develop my provenance and palaeography skills, and understand the function of archival cataloguing fields as finding aids through my own enhancement of metadata.

Madeleine (foreground) and Emily (background) in the reading room.

              The aim of the project is to create a comprehensive resource list concerning the library’s oldest manuscripts, which contain material from the 16th– 20th centuries, in particular pre-20th century lecture notes, documents, and correspondence of or relating to university alumni and staff, as well as historical figures like Charles Darwin, Frédéric Chopin, and Mary Queen of Scots (to name a few). An old hand-list (dating from 1934 or before) was provided for the shelf-marks under consideration, and, using an Excel spreadsheet with pre-set archival fields, provenance research is being used to uncover details such as authorship/creator or previous ownership, how the volume came to be part the university’s collections, and extra-contextual information, like how the manuscript or its author/creator/owner is relevant to the university’s history.

A collection of black notebooks containing transcribed lecture notes from 1881-1883. The lectures were given by various University staff on subjects such as natural philosophy, moral ethics, rhetoric, and English literature and were transcribed by different students.

A great #shelfie featuring gold-tooling, banded spines, vellum bindings.

              In addition to enhancing the biographical details of relevant actors in the history of the university, the research into this ‘collection’ of manuscripts provides a deeper understanding of the interests, priorities, and concerns – political, religious, intellectual, etcetera –  of a particular society, or group, depending on the time period or place an individual object can be traced to. Inversely, thinking about what or who is not reflected in this subset of the archive is as informative as what material is present – unsurprisingly, a majority of this material is by men of a certain education and class. Though I would like to think of an archive as an impartial tool for historical research, I have to remind myself that decisions were made by certain individuals concerning what material was valuable or important (whatever that means!) to keep, or seek out, or preserve, and what might have been disregarded, or turned away.

              While there is a growing list of what I, and my project partner, Emily, refer to as ‘Objects of Interest’ (read as: objects we could happily spend all day inspecting), there are some which stand out, either for their content – some concern historical events pertaining to the university or Scotland more generally – or their form.

Dc.4.12 ‘Chronicle of Scotland’, front cover; Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.

Dc.4.12 ‘Chronicle of Scotland’, ‘Mar 24 1603’; Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.

              This manuscript (above), ‘Chronicle of Scotland from 330 B.C. to 1722 A.D’, is notable for its slightly legible handwriting (a rarity) and its subject matter – the featured page recounts the death of Elizabeth I, James VI and I’s arrival in London, and later down the page, his crowning at Westminster. Mostly, its odd shape – narrow, yet chunky – is what was particularly eye catching. To quote an unnamed member of the research services staff: ‘Imagine getting whacked over the head with this thing!’

              Of interest to the history of the university is this thin, red volume (below) containing an account written by William Playfair concerning the construction of some university buildings and the costs at this time (1817-1822). This page covers his outgoings – see his payment for the making of the ‘plaster models of Corinthian capitals for Eastern front of College Museum’ and his payment for the ‘Masonwork of Natural Histy Museum – College Buildings.’

Dc.3.73 Abstract of Journal of William Playfair, binding, cover; Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.

Dc.3.73 Abstract of Journal of William Playfair, expenditures; Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.

              Of course, you cannot understand the scope of the history of the University of Edinburgh without considering its ‘battles’ – by this, I mean the ‘Wars of the Quadrangle’, otherwise known as the Edinburgh Snowball Riot of 1838, a two-day battle between Edinburgh students and local residents which was eventually ended by police intervention. This manuscript is a first-hand account from Robert Scot Skirving, one of the five students, of the 30 plus that were arrested, to be put on trial.

Dc.1.87 Account of the snowball riot; Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.

              Finally, this object (below), from the first day of research is particularly fascinating – a box, disguised as a book, used to hold deeds granting the university with six bursaries for students of the humanities, from 1674-1678. The grantor is Hector Foord, a graduate of the university. The box is made from a brown, leather-bound book, that was once held shut with a metal clasp. The pages, cut into, are a marbled, swirling pattern of rich blue, red, green, and gold. The cover is stamped in gold lettering, with a gold embossed University library crest. There are delicate gold thistles pressed into the banded spine. Upon opening the manuscript, it contains two parchment deeds, and two vellum deeds, the latter of which are too stiff to open. You can see still Foord’s signature on one of them, and the parchment deeds are extremely specific about the requirements that must be met for a student to be granted money.

Dc.1.22 Deeds by Mr. H Foord, cover; Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.

Dc.1.22 Deeds by Mr. H Foord, inside of ‘box’ with all four deeds; Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.

              The project has only just concluded its second month and we are lucky that it has been extended a month beyond the initial contract. Despite how much material we have covered so far, we are looking forward to discovering more interesting objects, and continuing to enhance our resource list. Stay tuned!

Plaque Unveiled to Edinburgh University’s First Nobel Prize Winner

Today, at the Hermitage of Braid, Principal Peter Mathieson will unveil a plaque commemorating Edinburgh University’s first Nobel Prize winner, physicist Charles Glover Barkla (1877–1944). Barkla is one of a dozen figures being honoured in this year’s round of Historic Environment Scotland’s Commemorative Plaque Scheme. The plaque will be mounted at Barkla’s former home of Braidwood, which is currently the Visitors Centre for the Hermitage of Braid Nature Reserve.

Born in Widnes, Lancashire, Barkla studied at University College Liverpool, and occupied a number of academic posts in Cambridge, London, and Liverpool, before being appointed to Edinburgh University’s Chair of Natural Philosophy (Physics) in 1913. He held the chair until his death in 1944, playing a prominent role in instituting honours degrees in pure science and developing the honours school of physics.

Barkla was awarded the 1917 Nobel Prize for Physics for his ground-breaking work with X-rays. Barkla conducted experiments that demonstrated that X-rays could be partially polarized, thereby proving that they were a form of transverse electromagnetic radiation with properties similar to light. With the First World War still raging, the announcement of the 1917 Nobel Prize was delayed until 12 November 1918. Barkla’s Nobel Banquet was held on 1 June 1920, and he gave his Nobel Lecture on 3 June 1920.

Edinburgh University Archives hold Barkla’s Nobel Prize citation (E96.23; see images below), together with a collection of congratulatory letters and telegrams from fellow scientists (E96.10). Our Barkla Papers (Coll-296) also contain lectures and lecture notes (E91.105).

Barkla’s Nobel citation

Barkla is also commemorated by a plaque on the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Geography building (formerly occupied by Natural Philosophy). See here for more information:

Elizabeth Wiskemann, First Woman Professor and War-Hero

A university figure that deserves far greater recognition is our first woman professor Elizabeth Wiskemann (1899-1971), who held the Montague Burton Chair of International Relations from 1958 to 1961. Although her name is absent from subsequent published histories, the University Journal for May 1958 certainly grasped the significance of her arrival. Announcing ‘the first woman to be appointed to an Edinburgh Chair’, it presented her as ‘a writer of authority on international affairs’, who had held appointments as a ‘press attaché to the British Legation at Berne, as a correspondent of The Economist at Rome, and as Director of the Carnegie Peace Endowment for Trieste’.

While these are major achievements, her personal contribution to 20th-century history ran much deeper. From 1930, Wiskemann (whose grandfather was German) worked as a political journalist in Berlin for the New Statesman and other publications, and was among the first to warn of the dangers of Nazism. So effective were her articles in alerting international readers to the true nature of Hitler’s regime that she was expelled from Germany by the Gestapo in 1937. She continued to expose Nazi plans for German expansion in her influential books Czechs and Germans (1938) and Undeclared War (1939).

Wiskemann did indeed spend the war as a press attaché in Switzerland, but this was cover for her true job of secretly gathering non-military intelligence from Germany and occupied Europe via the contacts she had made as a journalist. In May 1944, British Intelligence learned that the hitherto unknown destination to which Hungarian Jews were being deported was Auschwitz. When the allies turned down a request to bomb the railway lines (due to limited resources), Wiskemann hit on a cunning ploy. Knowing that it would be seen by Hungarian intelligence, she deliberately sent an unencrypted telegram to the Foreign Office in London. This contained the addresses of the offices and homes of the Hungarian government officials best positioned to halt the deportations and suggested that they be targeted in a bombing raid. When, quite coincidentally, several of these buildings were hit in a US raid on 2 July, the Hungarian government leapt to the conclusion that Wiskemann’s telegram had been acted upon and put an end to the deportations.

IMG_1726Wiskemann continued to publish on German and Italian politics after the War. She was appointed to the Edinburgh Chair on the recommendation of William Norton Medlicott (1900-1987), Professor of International History at the London School of Economics, who described her as ‘a pleasant, active, middle-aged woman’ who would ‘be a very suitable choice’. Lectures by previous holders of the Chair had been poorly attended as they formed part of no degree course. Wiskemann, however, did much to boost the profile of her post by inviting national and international experts to lead discussion groups on issues of the day. The focus of her own teaching increasingly moved away from European issues to developments in post-colonial Africa. Click on the image, right, to see a handwritten list of lectures and discussion groups for 1961.

IMG_1725The Montague Burton Chair (endowed by Sir Maurice Montague Burton, founder of the men’s clothing chain) was a three-year appointment, at the end of which holders were eligible to apply for re-election. Wiskemann chose not to stand for re-election, much to the University Court’s dismay, as the Chair had proved difficult to fill. In a letter of 28 July 1960 (click right) Wickemann explained that deteriorating eyesight, exacerbated by a recent unsuccessful operation, had led to her decision. Tragically, this condition would eventually lead Wiskemann to take her own life in 1971.

Paul Barnaby, Centre for Research Collections