Monday, 23 May 2016

Grunts & Grapples Exhibition

Grunts & Grapples Exhibition      
Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery (15 September 2016 – 14 January 2017)

‘Greetings Grapple Fans!’ Kent Walton

For those of a certain age (and one could argue class), Kent Walton’s welcome will evoke the routine of Saturday tea-time’s in front of the TV, anticipating an exciting 45mins of grapples, grunts, and the ubiquitous incensed Granny scolding a wrestler. While wrestling was first broadcast on newly launched ITV station in 1955, its established slot (just before the football scores) came about with the launch of World of Sport a decade later in 1965, and would last for 24 years before being axed by the then Director of Programmes, Greg Dyke, in 1989. The magazine format sports show was originally intended as a direct response to BBC’s Grandstand, and ‘The Wrestling’ became a central feature of its programming. Part sport, part entertainment, at its peak wrestling garnered audiences of over 12 million, and the new commercial station seemed like a fitting home for a pastime that had emerged from the traditions of the music hall. Yet, in many ways, the balance between these two areas was always an uncertain one, and the pull towards celebrity and spectacle that the commercial element of the sport demanded, would eventually be wrestling’s downfall (at least in the UK).

Grunts & Grapples seeks to explore this much neglected area of social and cultural history. It is drawn primarily from my own personal collection of posters, photographs, programmes, and a handful of wrestling outfits. The aim of the exhibition is very much one of capturing how central the sport was to British life for most of the second half of the twentieth century and how it drew on earlier traditions of public entertainment. For example, in terms of design, there are various billposters, which in style reveal wrestling’s origins in the aforementioned music hall tradition, but also to those of the circus. The influence of these two forms of popular culture ran throughout the sport, from the portrayal of the wrestlers as baddies (‘heals’) or goodies (‘blue eyes’), to the widespread encouragement of audience participation. In terms of the wrestlers themselves, prevailing narratives of Otherness and racial stereotypes would commonly be utilised in the creation of personalities. Hence, you would have Johnny Kincaid and Dave Bond wrestling under the name the ‘Caribbean Sunshine Boys’, although as Kincaid noted in a recent BBC documentary, he had never been further than Wandsworth! Other such figures included the supposed Native American ‘Billy Two Rivers’ who would perform an “Indian” dance before each bout. And most famously, Kendo Nagasaki, who drew on popular imagery of ‘Japan’, in his use of Samurai swords and distinctive masks, all of which were frequently embellished by Kent Walton’s commentary on Nagasaki’s ‘mysterious origins’. This Otherness served as a uncomplicated signifier of badness, while in this crude worldview, ‘whiteness’ functioned as shorthand for decency and righteousness. Not that this binary was fixed, as there were many wrestlers who throughout their career switched from a ‘heal’ to a ‘blue-eye’ and back again. This play of characters across the hundreds of venues that hosted the wrestling during the week, and on the TV screens on a Saturday afternoon, was a carefully choreographed storyline, with long running grudges, feuds, and resentments. All of which were stage managed by the wrestling promoter Joint Promotions, who held a near monopoly on the sport during the period Grunts & Grapples explores (1955 – 1990).

When ITV’s broadcasting of wrestling was cancelled in 1989, one of the arguments appeared to be that the contrived storylines, larger than life characters, and manufactured bouts – the entertainment side of wrestling’s heritage - had overshadowed the sporting aspect. For many, the protracted battle between Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks throughout the 1980s served as prima facie evidence in the case for the prosecution. Judged as a mockery of ‘real’ wrestling – with the notorious 1981 Wembley clash contest lasting just 2mins 30secs – many fans and wrestlers alike considered the absence of skill and technique a step too far. With the arrival of Sky TV and the import of World Wrestling Federation (WWF) from America, it appeared such opinions were shared by Greg Dyke. Following its cancellation, wrestling continued in town halls and seaside piers well into the 1990s, but it never loomed as large in the public consciousness as it had throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  


Wednesday, 18 May 2016

TVAD talk on the Heritage of TV news

As a second year student on the DHeritage programme, I am still far from clear about my research question. So, when I was invited to give a TVAD talk, it was a good opportunity to think about where I was in the process, and how my research so far is beginning to collect around topics of interest.
As a professional doctoral student, my research is closely aligned to my practice as a corporate film-maker and broadcast journalist, so I tried to bring the two things together as a starting point, by looking at the heritage of radio and TV news.
From an outsider’s perspective, I would suggest that the heritage of TV news is its archive: the news broadcasts, on the spot reports and coverage of historic events, and this archive most definitely has a value. Every broadcaster has a department dedicated to selling the reuse of these assets.

But from my point of view, there is something just as important behind the scenes that is less obvious as ‘heritage’. The stories that have made up my career have come from production in the newsroom, using the most up-to-date technology available (and affordable) to bring the news to the radio waves and TV screen.

So, I started to look at the machines I used to work with every day.
What is interesting about looking again at these machines is that they sparked off memories about the way we used to make the news, and I started to think about the things that have changed, and the things that haven’t.

I remembered what it was like to edit using razor blades and splicing tape, and how everyone who has ever cut tape has the same semi-circular scar on their thumb from the time when they were in a rush, decided not to put the tape into the editing block, and ended up embedding the razor blade in their thumb, which resulted in even more panic as they tried to get their report on air without bleeding on it.

Or the time when the beta-cart machine chewed up a report on tape, leaving me with a minute-long black hole in my bulletin. To add to that, the autocue also failed while we were on-air. When the presenter tried to read the ‘spare’ stories from the printed scripts to make up the lost time due to the tape being chewed, he found that the printer was short on ink and had not printed them legibly. So, he had nowhere to go, and wrapped up the bulletin, leaving us sitting on the ‘end slate’ of the weather for a full minute – the longest minute of my professional career.

Those memories were attached to these obsolete machines, that are in themselves not valued in any way except by collectors of niche technology, and rarely exhibited as heritage objects. But to me, those machines are a vital element of the heritage story of me and my colleagues, as the technology we used shaped and affected the way we brought the news to the listener or viewer.

Because these machines are obsolete, my own heritage - news programmes I have worked on and reports I have done - are inaccessible, because they are stored on reel-to-reel tape, Beta SP and video tape, none of which I can access without seeking out someone who keeps and uses these technical relics of newsrooms past.

This led me to think that this will probably soon be true of CDs, and perhaps even USB sticks and hard drives. So, thinking about technology from a perspective of heritage collections, could it be that museums and archives are better off with pre-digital systems such as card catalogues, because these have remained accessible for many years without becoming obsolete, since we can simply copy the information onto new cards when they get old and hard to read. Is technology really helpful at all for holding and accessing data in the heritage sector?

And, thinking about the old technologies that are now considered obsolete, what formerly vital machines and technologies are mouldering away in the back rooms of museums and archives, no longer considered of any value? What heritage stories might be attached to these?

My research question centres around digitisation, looking at how putting collections online may have altered the work of the heritage professional, and the way they communicate with the outside world. I would like to look at the way technology has both helped and hindered heritage professionals with their work, and will ask them to reflect on how the rapid rise of the internet has changed their practice, and the way they present their collections. 

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Reflections on my time as TVAD Visiting Researcher

D.J. Huppatz

As TVAD Visiting Researcher for 2015-16, my three weeks at the University of Hertfordshire in February seemed to fly by. After the initial shock of acclimatising from a hot Australian summer to an English winter, I settled into a busy program of events. Everyone I met at UH was friendly and I soon found that starting each morning in the café meant I would run into someone I’d met previously – intentional or not, the centrally placed café was well designed for a visitor to get to know people! As for the more formal program, over a period of three weeks, I presented lectures on contemporary art in Melbourne, modern Asian design and global design to students and staff across the art and design departments. I also reviewed Interior Architecture student work-in-progress, went to the opening of the Postgraduate Interdisciplinary Exhibition and participated in the postgraduate DHeritage Workshop. 
Cumberland Lodge

For me, one of the highlights of my time with UH was attending the History Department Annual Conference at Cumberland Lodge, over the weekend of 12-14 February. The location, a grand 17th century country house on the grounds of Windsor Great Park, was appropriately historic. The program of presentations, though varied, had two provocative threads. The first was a debate about historical agency, or, a series of questions around how we might recover the stories of everyday people – beyond kings, queens and “famous” individuals, researchers in history are working on issues such as the autonomy of 19th century working class women, for example. A number of the presenters focused on such finely nuanced histories that sought to give voice to “ordinary” individuals. 

 Windsor Great Park and Cumberland Lodge
The second provocative theme was the impact of new technologies on history. From analyses of “big data” such as population or environmental statistics to crowd-sourcing information, the “digital humanities” approach to historical research presents numerous new avenues for research. Perhaps because of the emphasis on statistics, information and data, the new approach seemed a little at odds with the more traditional, archival research presented at the conference. It may also be that the individual voices tend to get lost in such big picture analyses. Finally, both the surrounds of Cumberland Great Lodge and the chance to walk around Windsor Great Park rounded off a great weekend. 

I managed to squeeze in a day trip up to Norwich where Dr Grace Lees-Maffei treated me to a wintery English walk (complete with ankle-deep mud) and a day at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. I had read about Norman Foster's large hanger-like construction for the Sainsbury Centre - one of his earliest designs - so it was good to finally see it. There was also an excellent exhibition of Alphonse Mucha's posters, paintings and graphics (no photos allowed though!). 

Norwich in winter and Norman Foster's 1978 Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Heritage was a topic I spent a lot of time pondering while at UH. In fact, heritage was something I felt like I couldn’t escape while in the UK. Even turning on the TV at night, I saw several documentaries on heritage topics such as railways, canals and historic homes. For me, it was therefore a great opportunity to participate in the University of Hertfordshire DHeritage workshop. This was a chance to hear postgraduate students’ projects and perspectives on heritage and to understand a little about heritage as a practice in the UK (and globally). A  starting point for understanding heritage – a shared past, protected for all to remember – soon became more complex with questions such as which past should we protect? How should we protect it and whose past is it anyway? From the many questions that emerged, I left with the idea of heritage as a contested, dynamic and contemporary practice. 

A sign warning motorists of the high-tech surveillance equipment in operation in Hatfield

Beyond my TVAD Visiting Researcher trip to Hatfield, I also spent a few days in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s National Art Library and the British Library, as well as a couple of days in the University of Brighton’s Design Archives. This archival research and the chance to have another look at the V&A collection provided invaluable material and ideas for my forthcoming book, Modern Asian Design. Back at UH, I also gained a great deal from an informal research workshop with Dr Steven Adams and Dr Grace Lees-Maffei in which I presented some work in progress from the book.  Overall, my three weeks in the UK as TVAD Visiting Researcher was a fantastic opportunity to engage with stimulating ideas and meet a lot of great people. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

New Podcast Series, 'Your History'

In 2015 the University of Hertfordshire’s Heritage Hub commissioned Nick Patrick, the producer of Radio 4’s Making History, to create six podcasts addressing the value of public history, heritage, and academic-community partnerships in contemporary society.

The podcasts are based on interviews with a range of academics, leading heritage and public engagement professionals, and community-based organisations. They consider the ways historians, artists, and social scientists conduct and share their research with people outside the academic community.

They are now being made freely available thanks to a partnership with the London Centre for Public History. They will be released individually over the next few weeks, each accompanied by an introduction from a practitioner in the relevant field. 

Listen to the first podcast in the series, 'Universities as Anchor Institutions in Local Communities' and read the introduction by Dr Susan Parham, Head of Urbanism at the University's Centre for Sustainable Communities, here:

This podcast picks up some of the issues raised by Dr Parham, Sarah Lloyd and Alix Green in their article 'Living heritage: Universities as anchor institutions in sustainable communities' in the International Journal of Heritage and Sustainable Development (2013). Read and download the full article here:

Join the debate around the issues raised by each of the podcasts @UHertsHistory and using the hashtag #uhyourheritage