This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Usage de nouvelles mesures, Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From German dystopian tales of Brexit Britain to the enduring revolutionary dream of the metric system, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

German sci-fi fans lap up dystopian tales of Brexit Britain

Philip Oltermann

The scene is Europe, about 40 years from now. Climate change has turned the Netherlands into a swamp and Portugal into an economic powerhouse, thanks to wave-energy plants paid for by wealthy Brazilian investors. Across the continent there are fears about Christian fundamentalist terrorists carrying out arson attacks on abortion clinics. Europol use walkable holograms to recreate crime scenes, and swarms of drones patrol the streets of Brussels, the administrative capital of an EU recently expanded to 36 member states. Britain, however, is still part of the bloc of nations. Because, although Margaret Thatcher is by now only vaguely remembered as an “English separatist from the 20th century”, the joke for anyone reading Tom Hillenbrand’s sci-fi thriller Drone State now is that Brexit still hasn’t happened.

“One basic rule of dystopian fiction is that the future should be worse than the present,” said the German novelist. “But in this case it turns out I was a bit too optimistic. “In my book Britain has actually worked out how it wants to leave and the EU is preparing a new constitution as a result. The real Brexit is actually much more dystopian.” Since Drone State was published in Germany to critical acclaim in 2014, two years before the EU referendum on EU membership, a new micro-genre has flourished in the country’s publishing industry: dystopian fiction about Brexit Britain. [continue reading]

David Motadel
New York Times

The European Parliament opened in Strasbourg, France, this week to chaos. Outside, Catalan separatists protested the decision to bar their elected representatives from the chamber; inside, members of Britain’s Brexit Party turned their backs while the rest of the Parliament stood at attention for the union’s anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

The disorder upstaged what was perhaps the most significant event of the day: the debut of a new alliance among Europe’s leading far-right nationalist groups. There, in the chamber, sat members of the populist far right, from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, from France, to Matteo Salvini’s Northern League, from Italy. Their cooperation is worrying enough. But it also raises a question: Why are nationalists so eager to embrace an ethos of international cooperation? [continue reading]

No sex please: how Northern Ireland was united by ‘evil’ films

Rory Carroll

It was the height of the Troubles, with Northern Ireland teetering on all-out civil war, but Catholics and Protestants found at least one cause to unite them: banning films. Conservative religious and political leaders from both sides rallied to block Last Tango in Paris and other “evil” films in the 1970s that were deemed threats to morality, according to new research. Protestant churches in particular sought to create a de facto cultural border along the Irish sea to separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, said Sian Barber, a film studies lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast.

“It’s the classic have your cake and eat it: ‘we want to be part of things but we’re different and you need to understand that,’” she said. Drawing on archives at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, Barber uncovered an energetic censorship campaign by local authorities that overrode decisions by the London-based British Board of Film Classification. [continue reading]

Should museums return their colonial artefacts?

Tristram Hunt

“I am from a generation of the French people for whom the crimes of European colonialism are undeniable and make up part of our history,” announced Emmanuel Macron to a crowded lecture theatre at Ouagadougou University, in Burkina Faso, in November 2017. “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France … In the next five years, I want the conditions to be created for the temporary or permanent restitution of African patrimony to Africa.” In case anyone missed the significance of the French president’s remarks, the Elysée Palace was swift to spell out the new policy: “African heritage can no longer be the prisoner of European museums.”

The following year brought another notable intervention, this time from supervillain Erik Killmonger in the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther. Surveying the African collection at the “Museum of Great Britain”, Killmonger corrects the exhibition’s patronising white curator about the provenance of an axe: “It was taken by British soldiers in Benin, but it’s from Wakanda. Don’t trip – I’m gonna take it off your hands for you.” When the woman replies that the items are not for sale, Killmonger says: “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?” As the poisoned curator collapses, Killmonger deaccessions the artefact. Black Panther took just 26 days to reach $1bn (£784,000) in worldwide box office sales and, in one compelling scene, highlighted all the current controversies over museum collections and colonial injustice. [continue reading]

The Metric System: An Enduring Revolutionary Dream

Emma Privignano
Age of Revolutions

Speakers at the Open Session of the 26th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) described the revision of the International System of Units (SI) as “the greatest revolution in metrology since the French Revolution.” We usually think of science as intrinsically forward looking. Yet, the Nobel laureate Bill Phillips concluded his presentation on the revision by congratulating his colleagues on fulfilling a dream dating from the eighteenth century. At the CGPM, held in Versailles on 16th November 2018, delegates from the fifty-nine Member States to the Metre Convention approved unanimously to redefine four of the seven base units of the SI according to physical constants. The star of the reform was the kilogram. Since 20th May 2019, when the revision became effective, the definition of the kilogram is based on the value of the Planck Constant from quantum mechanics. Previously, the unit was defined as the mass of the Grand K, a platinum cylinder manufactured in 1889. While this definition was easier to grasp for the general public, its instability was becoming problematic: the Grand K was progressively losing matter. As a consequence, everything else on the planet was slowly gaining weight.

In the 1790s, the French government and state scientific academy created the first version of the metric system, in an unprecedented effort at standardizing weights and measures. Early modern European marketplaces were a jungle of units: different products (for example wine and milk) were measured with different units; the same material was measured with different units at extraction, wholesale, and retail; units varied at local level and, often, within parish. To make things more complicated, each of these units was defined as the length of a specific rod or as the capacity of a certain container. These precious objects often got altered or lost. Absurd from a present-day perspective, the system reflected a different culture of measuring. Early modern units expressed more than quantity: they reflected the quality of the product, its process of production, and the power relations of the feudal and corporative system. [continue reading]