Weekly Witter: Picturing the Camera Obscura

For seven weekends from the 31st of August this year, the National Trust will be exploring seven aspects of the landscape (Uncovered: the story of British Landscape). Seven properties (Attingham, Chartwell, Ham, Northey Island, Sheringham, The North Lakes and Wimpole) have been selected to present a different aspect or use of the landscape whether for agrarian purposes, woodland management, the management of large, self sufficient estate, recreation, reflection, inspiration or how environmental forces have moulded the coastal landscape. A wide range of talks, walks and demonstrations by various experts will reveal our landscapes from these different perspectives.

Johannes Keppler in the early 1600s coined the phrase “camera obscura” which comes from the Latin meaning “dark room”

As part of this programme, I have been exploring the history and use of the camera obscura as a tool used by artists to capture images of the landscape. The phenomena of an image forming of an object when light passed through a small hole to create an inverted image of that object on a surface was first noticed by Aristotle. The earliest type was simply a room with a hole in the wall or the window blind which projected the inverted image onto the opposite wall. Johannes Keppler in the early 1600s coined the phrase “camera obscura” which comes from the Latin meaning “dark room”. Since then various types of cameras have been developed which incorporate a lens to focus the image, a mirror to invert the image and a ground glass plate on which the image is projected. The cameras were made in a variety of sizes from a large free standing box room to a smaller camera which could be fixed on a tripod within a tent like structure to the simple hand held camera.

The advantage for the artist was that it enabled him to capture the perspective of the landscape or an interior without using the more complex method of lines and vanishing points.  By placing a semi transparent paper over the ground glass surface, he could trace the image which could then be transferred to canvas.  Large complex scenes could be created by taking several tracings of different parts of the landscape and compiling them into one large image.

Various art historians and artists have attempted to identify which artists have used the camera obscura in their work as there is little documentation from artists as to their use of this method.  The most intriguing study in recent years has been the work undertaken by the British artist, David Hockney, and the physicist, Charles M Flaco, in their book,  Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. 

As part of Uncovered: the story of British Landscape, we are making a hand held camera obscura for use during the event to show visitors how it would have been used to record our stunning landscapes.

  • Christine Sitwell- Paintings Conservation Advisor for the National Trust
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: The future of our heritage – under the microscope

Andrew Bush – Adviser on Paper Conservation for the National Trust finds that there is more than meets the eye down his microscope.

One of the favourite tools of my trade is a trusted digital microscope, not much bigger than a fat cigar but capable of up to 200 times magnification. It’s a very portable piece of kit, which is a good thing as I travel all over examining collections in any of the 200 or so historic properties on my patch. Although I have had it for a couple of years now, I am only just beginning to realise its wider potential use, of which more later.

A typical use for the microscope is to help me examine the condition of some of the Trust’s 1,400 portrait miniatures, many dating from the 18th century. The majority of these are painted in watercolours, with a very fine brush on wafer thin sheets of ivory. The ivory is so thin, and translucent, that it can be painted on the reverse to give subtle toning to the face as seen from the front. Sometimes a sheet of silver leaf was placed behind to give added luminosity.

As far as conservation and stability is concerned, the marriage of ivory and water based paints is not a happy one. It is the inability of the watercolour to keep a grip on the smooth surface of the ivory together with the shrinkage and expansion of this thin organic support that leads to flaking and splitting. This, along with keeping an eye out for mould growth, is the purpose of my visit…..At least I used to think that this was the purpose of my conservation assessments, things have changed.

Antoine Vestier (Avallon, Yonne 1740 – Paris 1824)  The Artist's Wife: Marie Ann Révérend, Madame Antoine Vestier.

Antoine Vestier (Avallon, Yonne 1740 – Paris 1824)
The Artist’s Wife: Marie Ann Révérend, Madame Antoine Vestier.

When I am carrying out a survey, I am usually with our collections in our showrooms and often the house will be open to visitors. If I am looking at something particularly delicate, or if distractions are to be avoided, I might be tucked away in a quiet corner, but increasingly I am working in front of the public, discussing what I am doing with anyone interested. It is this interaction with the visitors that I believe could potentially have just as much significance for the future well being of our collections, as any observations and recommendations for care or remedial treatment that I make in my reports. It is not only in raising awareness of the need for conservation, but showing that there are career opportunities in conservation. This is where my digital microscope has such a powerful role, it acts as a magnet to nearly every young visitor, and hopefully, who knows, for some of them it will be a way marker on a route to a career in conservation. Until I was at University I had absolutely no idea that a career as a conservator was possible, hopefully through the powers of microscopy others might cotton on faster than I did.

  • The Weekly Witter is a regular mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

USA: Living Classrooms on Guam

The National Trust for Historic Preservation

In partnership with INTO and ICOMOS, today we are celebrating the International Day for Monuments and Sites. This year’s theme is the “Heritage of Education.” And one of the very first places in the world to greet the day is Guam, over 8,000 miles from the U.S. Capitol in the Western Pacific Ocean. Its indigenous inhabitants, the Chamorro, became U.S. citizens in 1950 though the territory has yet to achieve its self determination status.  Since the 16th Century, Guam has operated as a strategic outpost for the Spanish and United States, and, briefly, during World War II, the Japanese.

In recent years, Guam has seen a resurgence of interest in the values and belief systems of the ancient Chamorro. This cultural renaissance has resulted in a resurrection of the Chamorro language particularly among the island’s youth, and prompted renewed interest in traditional music and dance, arts and crafts, and medicinal practices.

Educators have found that teaching about the ancient Chamorro way of life can be greatly enhanced by on-site visits to the village sites that predated Western contact. However, the U.S. military owns roughly 30% of the island, much of it on the island’s north where several potential teaching areas remain. As a result, these places are virtually impossible for school groups to access given rigid base security procedures.

Hiking to Pagat

Hiking to Pagat

Enter Pågat: one of the last ancient village sites that is still publicly accessible on Guam, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Mostly owned by the Chamorro Land Trust, public access to Pågat requires a steep descent down a coastal bluff from a main highway on the island’s northeastern edge. The site includes tangible artefacts of the past life there before the Spanish forcibly removed its inhabitants in a 16th Century campaign notoriously known as reducción.

Dr. Marilyn Salas, Professor of Culture and Education at University of Guam, frequently leads groups of college students to Pågat to show them firsthand the medicinal plants, potsherds, and pillar foundations of ancient houses, known as latte stones, which have became the most recognisable symbol of the island’s pre-colonial heritage.  Regarding the significance of the site as a teaching tool, Salas exclaims:  

“Taking my students to Pågat village is the core and essence of culture and education on Guam. Teaching and learning takes place the moment we step onto the head trail.”

A central feature at Pågat is its deep limestone cave, which contains a cool pool of freshwater and requires a flashlight to enter. In addition to being a great respite from the tropical heat, one can imagine how spiritually significant the cave must have been as the only freshwater source in the area.  It was literally the lifeblood of the village that once thrived there.

Starting in 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the U.S., in cooperation with We Are Guahan, and the Guam Preservation Trust successfully led an effort to keep Pågat open to the public and free from the nuisance of a complex of firing ranges. The U.S. military had proposed the training facilities on a nearby bluff which sparked outrage in the community.  Prompted by a court ruling in 2012 in favor of heritage advocates, the military has now pledged to do additional studies, putting the threats to the site on a temporary, and, hopefully, permanent hold.

I had the chance to visit Pågat several times with Joe Quinata, Chief Preservation Officer with the Guam Preservation Trust. Joe promotes heritage education on Guam in classic Chamorro style – with a joyous spirit and infectious enthusiasm for teaching others.  Though western archaeologists have confined the site’s significance to its tangible remains, Joe explains that the site’s significance is much broader, taking into account the traditional cultural practices that take place along the eastern coast of the island. Fishing, hunting, and most importantly medicinal practices occur seasonally in the area. On the hike he points out medicinal plants, significant breadfruit and banyan trees, and remind travellers that respect for the whole cultural environment which supported the survival of the site’s people is necessary to true preservation.

As is quite common in preservation advocacy, the efforts to “Save Pågat” have resulted in even greater attention to the site’s unique qualities and consciousness for the betterment of Guam’s heritage. It has proven that the protection of tangible places is necessarily intertwined with protecting the intangible – the values that embody the culture we put forward in the present.

USA: Lincoln and Self-Education

The National Trust for Historic Preservation

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Late one evening in the fall of 1864, President Lincoln received some unexpected visitors to his summer residence at Soldiers’ Home. George Borrett was visiting the United States from England, and wanted an audience with the President. Despite the late hour, Borrett and his escorts managed to talk their way into an audience with “the highest in the land,” and after waiting a few minutes Lincoln appeared with his “hair ruffled, eyes very sleepy and feet enveloped in carpet slippers.” Despite this “abrupt introduction” Borrett recorded that Lincoln spoke at length about his boyhood in Kentucky, and the Englishman detected a “quiet pride” in Lincoln’s voice as he talked about “his rise from the bottom of the ladder.” The scene is amusing in hindsight: a bedraggled president roused from his bedroom to meet with unknown visitors late in the evening. However, Borrett’s account also underscores Lincoln’s firmly held belief in what historians have labeled the “right to rise,” or the right to benefit from one’s hard work. Despite Lincoln’s lack of formal education, or perhaps because of it, Lincoln always insisted that it would play a critical role in facilitating other individual’s betterment of their own lives. Yet Lincoln also directly connected education to the citizenry’s appreciation of the American Union; it “was the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in,” because an educated people could “read the histories of his own and other countries” and thus “duly appreciate the value of our free institutions.” As a result, education could help people understand what the Union meant, and ultimately, why it would be worth fighting to preserve.

While Lincoln’s formal education amounted to little more than one year, what might be termed his self-education continued unabated throughout his life. Undoubtedly the most critical part of Lincoln’s self-education process was his love of reading, and perhaps the President’s favorite author was Shakespeare. Tales of political intrigue, deception, and bloody civil wars provided Lincoln with a framework for understanding his own struggles, with a means of conveying that understanding to the Northern public. For example, in June of 1864, as the President was preparing to spend what would be his final summer at Soldiers’ Home, he told an audience in Philadelphia that “this war has carried mourning to almost every home, until it almost be said that ‘the heavens are hung in black.’” In Shakespearean theater, the curtains were hung in black to inform the audience that a tragedy was about to be performed. Right around the same time Lincoln was declaring that ‘the heavens are hung in black’ the area apportioned for Civil War soldier burials at Soldier’s Home National Cemetery was filled to capacity, and a new cemetery opened across the Potomac at Arlington. Thus, Lincoln was using a reference gleaned from his own self-education to convey to the Northern public that he understood the depth of their frustration and despair at the seemingly unending bloodshed.

Lincoln's Cottage

Lincoln’s Cottage

As I sit here writing this post on the 148th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, I am reminded not just of the cost of the Civil War, but of the destruction that Lincoln faced everyday while staying at Soldiers’ Home. It is precisely this legacy of perseverance in the face of overwhelming obstacles that visitors to President Lincoln’s Cottage connect with—the human Lincoln, the man and president who could never escape the war—even at his beloved summer retreat.

India: Culture and education in rural areas

The Indian Trust for Rural Heritage and Development (ITRHD) is focussed on restoration and development of heritage in rural areas. Rural areas are the back bone of Indian culture, which in turn, is recognised as one of the most vibrant cultures in the world.

A good proportion of India’s population lives in the rural areas; which means that the agriculture remains the prominent employer and remains the main source of livelihood and economic activity.

Admittedly, technology is rapidly changing our life styles, and one has to factor in the impact of this change on rural India as well.

Although, the windfalls of applying appropriate technology in the rural areas, especially in agriculture and allied fields, are heartening, total dependence on modernisation is not desirable and has to be avoided. This can be achieved right from the formative years of children, when they have just begun acquiring knowledge.

Culture, Education and Development

It is commonly believed, in development circles, that social and cultural development in rural India has been slow. But on the other side, it has the positive view, which non submission to modernisation has actually preserved our heritage, culture, identity and held us together in rural India.

The trust “ITRHD” is pursuing a culture-sensitive approach to development, and in the process felt the need to better understand cultural diversity and how it affects/ marks on the process of development. Many festivals, fairs, melas denoting the rich cultural heritage of the area fall in cyclic and sequential manner and boost the business of the area. The cyclic and cascading effect of the above process is the reason behind the development and prosperity of many a culture rich civilisation.

2013-04-15

Artwork in Chacha Nehru Primary School

Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan said, “ The aim of education is not the acquisition of information, although important, or acquisition of technical skills, though essential in modern society, but the development of that bent of mind, that attitude of reason, that spirit of democracy which will make us responsible citizens.”

Indeed, a sensitive and comprehensive education system would help to shape the younger generation into ethically correct and socially conscious youth /adults.

Culture and education cannot be separated but are complementary to each other and interface at various junctions. Both are interwoven in various ways. While culture impacts the quality and purpose of education, whereas education brings a sense of pride in our culture which is manifested in all stages of individual growth.

Primary education is where it all starts and the child begins to respect the importance of a value based life as she/he sees things and events happening, and the behaviour of others, around. The trust has adopted a unique model in imparting elementary/primary education so the youth is focussed on preservation of culture and heritage.

ITRHD has set up a primary school “Chacha Nehru Primary School” in village Hariharpur, a village famous for its classical music tradition which is 400 years old. Harihar pur is a village in District Azamgarh, up in North East India. The school which started in Feb 2013 has 64 registered and enrolled children in the age group of 4-6 years. Priority has been given to poor and marginalised girls.

The school is run by female teachers belonging to the same village, who have been formally trained as primary school teachers. The majority of them are daughters-in-law, so the resource remains in the village even after marriage!

The school offers mid day meal which is a very balanced, freshly cooked meal, where most of the provisions are donated by the villagers.

The happy atmosphere and nutritious food are the biggest attractions for the children and they are too keen to attend the school. The children are often present on the school premises much before the school start time!!

The school building (currently on hired premises) is being constructed, again on land donated by villagers, partly funded by British Council and mainly through corporate CSR funds and donations.

The school is a unique example of community, NGO and international agency participation in development through all its stages of coming up- designing, planning, construction, conceptualisation and implementation.

Fiji: Welcome to World Heritage Day

The National Trust of Fiji

As April 18 dawns on the world, the National Trust of Fiji, a member of the INTO, will be the first organisation to kick start the celebrations for World Heritage Day. And it has a special programme planned out.

The National Trust of Fiji, through its site, the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park will be celebrating World Heritage Day 2013 with its neighbouring primary school, Kulukulu Public School.

The Kulukulu Public School is close to the National Park and has over the last few years participated in a few of the National Park’s education and awareness programs.

This year, the National Trust of Fiji together with the Kulukulu Public School, will engage the school children in the celebration of World Heritage Day 2013- “Heritage of Education”.

Both places share a common history. They are places where people from different walks of life come to learn, share and get enlightened. They are special places and will continue to be special to those who appreciated them then and appreciate them now.

This partnership provides a chance to capture the essence of World Heritage Day and reward the many young eager minds, the value of our heritage. These young minds will become our future heritage ambassadors who will remind our people, that our past greatly influences our futures and hold the key to opening tomorrow’s door.

April 18 is a celebration of the National Trust of Fiji and the Kulukulu Public School as not only being special places but being places that nourish our future.

Our celebration program for the day will happen in two parts: the first part will take place at Kulukulu Public School. The lower and middle primary school students (mainly Years 1 to 6) will be engaged in an Art and Craft competition followed by a ‘Chorus’ competition. Both activities will be themed on ‘My School, My Heritage’. These young students will be encouraged to capture through their artwork and creative drama what their school has come to mean to them and the people around them. It provides our young heritage ambassadors a chance to expose their creativity through a media that is already part of their cultural heritage. The children will be rewarded for their contributions through prizes and certificates.

The second part of the programme will happen at the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park. It will involve the upper primary classes, mainly Years 7 and 8. These older students will be the first to pioneer the Park’s Heritage Race. This is a first for the National Trust of Fiji. The Race is in essence like the renowned ‘Amazing race’. Children in their little groups will race around the National Park’s Yatolekaleka Track (1 hr track), with ‘task stops’ along the track. There will be 7 task stops that each group must visit in order to complete the Race. The task stops provide the Park Heritage Rangers a chance to get the students to test their knowledge and dexterity on ‘heritage-themed tasks’. Tasks can range from mind teasers like ‘4 Pictures, 1 Word’, to seed hunting and structure building along the beachfront to identifying native birds. The group that finishes all their tasks successfully and makes it to the finish line first, wins the Race. The winner gets the Heritage Trophy. The Heritage Race will become an annual event for the National Park.

The day’s program is designed to be interactive, fun and educational and will highlight the special attributes of the Sigatoka Sand National Park and the Kulukulu Public School.

April 18 promises to be a memorable day for everyone. We wish you all a Happy World Heritage Day!

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  • The National Trust of Fiji is a statutory organisation established under the National Trust Act Cap 265 in 1970. The Functions of the National Trust of Fiji are: to promote the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands (including reefs), buildings, furniture, pictures and chattels of every description having national, historic, architectural or natural interest of beauty; the protection and augmentation of the amenities of any such land or buildings and their surroundings and to preserve their natural aspect and features; to protect plant and animal life; and to provide for the access to and enjoyment by the public of such lands, buildings and chattels.

A curate’s egg of a curriculum?

There’s been a fair amount of coverage and comment recently on the Government’s consultation on the National Curriculum. Andy Beer, the National Trust’s Head of Visitor Experience and Learning, provides an overview of the questions we are asking ourselves as we draw up the National Trust’s response to the Government’s proposals:

The proposed new National Curriculum is an interesting reminder of the diverse interests of the National Trust. Just about every subject area touches on some aspect of our work. Coastal change, nature education, fostering a love of history, climate change, citizenship and identity are all things that bear closely upon our purposes as a charity.

So, how do we respond? Firstly, that it’s a bit of a curate’s egg. There are some good things, but also some areas that cause us, and others, some concern. We are compiling a response by talking to our staff, volunteers and partners, but in doing so here are some of the questions that we are asking ourselves:

The consultation document asks us whether we agree that “we should free teachers to shape their own curriculum aims based on the content of the programmes of study” and this seems an entirely laudable aim. However, if that is the ambition then why does the history curriculum not look like the geography curriculum? The latter is a broad framework, which appears to have been well received, whereas the former appears a prescriptive list of tasks, perhaps best accompanied by an atlas shaded in pink.

This leads us to a second question in relation to a history curriculum, for which the answer is self evident: “can we engender an understanding of chronology (a good thing) without teaching things in rigid chronological order?” The delight felt by the National Trust’s archaeologists that prehistory is now included in the curriculum has been somewhat tempered by the understanding that it appears to only figure between the ages of 5 and 5 and half. I sense we are underestimating the ability of children to organise information and, in doing so, might we squander the chance to fire them up about history?

Nature education is also an area we feel passionate about. The science curriculum places strong emphasis on the importance of first hand experience (something we would strongly support) and is also littered with the phrase “pupils should use their local environment throughout the year” and an increased emphasis on some basic skills of taxonomy potentially providing opportunities for learning about plants and animals. Is that sufficient?

Climate change is another thematic area of study that is not explicitly mentioned. Interestingly this forms part of a wider pattern of a move away from cross disciplinary areas of study. The curriculum looks as though it is split into separate silos, which is unhelpful given that most of the problems these children will face when mature cut across subject boundaries. That said, it will be very hard to teach “weather and climate” and the interaction of “human and physical processes on landscapes” without reference to it. However, it is a curious inconsistency that students will be required to know about the Heptarchy (I had to look it up) and Wycliffe’s Bible, but that knowledge of climate change is only optional.

Find out more about the government’s consultation on the National Curriculum.