We were very privileged to have been able to welcome Professor Sally Shuttleworth and Dr Catherine Charlwood from the University of Oxford Humanities Centre (TORCH) to introduce an exciting project on the theme of 'Diseases of Modern Life' to Year Eight students a few weeks ago, which culminated last night in Year Eight artwork, poetry and other responses being projected at Victorian Night Light as part of the Oxford Christmas Lights Festival.
They started off by looking at a statement made by a Victorian doctor, James Crichton Browne, who observed in 1860: "We live in an age of electricity, of railways, of gas, and of velocity in thought and action. In the course of one brief month more impressions are conveyed to our brains than reached those of our ancestors in the course of years, and our mentalising machines are called upon for a greater amount of fabric than was required of our grandfathers in the course of a lifetime".
The groups discussed how this might not be what you might expect a doctor to focus on - how usually our expectations of doctors were to be concerned about bodies and medication rather than technology. We then looked at another doctor's comment about the dangers of catching trains! It was not just trains that changed the pace of life in Victorian lives, but also the introduction of the 'Penny Post', whereby people could buy a stamp and post letters - in some cities this enabled people to exchange and receive responses to letters up to five times a day.
Catherine and Sally encouraged everyone to think about comparisons with the number of instant messages, texts, snap chats, and similar technological exchanges which have increased in modern life and how they made people feel. Many students observed that they could make you feel overwhelmed and anxious. However, others noted that it enabled you to make new friends and be in better touch with friends and family.
In our Rumble Museum's Design and Technology collection in the Library, you can see a range of artefacts representing the rapid changes in technology through the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Another transformation was the use of the telegraph. We talked about how in some ways this allowed us to communicate in beneficial ways - such as the cartoon depicting policeman tracking down a murderer. We also explored how the telegraph was much less personal than a handwritten letter. We also looked briefly at the development of Morse Code technology!
Catherine and Sally then set the students the challenge of creating their own response to the material we discussed, and how technology has impacted lives throughout history, which will be displayed at the Christmas Lights Festival on 16th November in St Luke's Chapel. There was also a competition to create a design that could be projected onto the Radcliffe Building. This was won by Helena Khan, Bella Goff and Freya Blundell! Their projections appeared across the whole front of the building for frequent intervals throughout the evening to be admired by more than a thousand visitors.
We are really grateful to Catherine and Sally for this very engaging session on technology and how it affects us. If you would like to learn more about the Diseases of Modern Life project, please visit the website here or follow them on @diseasesmodlife