US Election – Déjà vu?

There is election tumult in the United States. One of the contenders for the White House can only be politely described as “larger than life”. At least half the voters have much more down-to-earth ways of labelling him. He is fond of addressing his supporters – cheerleaders might be a better term – at big rallies. And if he faces opposition to any of his populist policies, his favourite tactic is to call out the National Guard. During his first two years in office he deployed them twenty-seven times! He has been accused of racism and opponents condemn him as a white supremacist. Troubled times indeed.

But this is 1932 I am talking about, and the populist politician in the spotlight is William H Murray, or as his admirers call him, Alfalfa Bill. He earned the moniker for his passionate support for agriculture as the bedrock of America and particularly his enthusiasm for growing the forage crop alfalfa. Alfalfa Bill Murray was operating as Governor in the Great Plains state of Oklahoma during the worst of both the great depression and the man-made ecological disaster that was the Dust Bowl. Great tracts of the rich farming prairie grassland, which had been turned over for wheat, saw its topsoil simply blow away in the wind.

Alfalfa Bill, who was a Texan born in the town with the unlikely name of Toadsuck, was one of the founding fathers of the state of Oklahoma which was admitted as the 46th state in 1907. Unlike Republican Donald J Trump, he stood for the Democratic Party. Alfalfa Bill Murray also carried close to his heart many of the prejudices and racist views that are still being fought against today. The then President of the United States, the charismatic Teddy Roosevelt, made it clear to Oklahoma’s founders that the racist, segregationist “Jim Crow” clauses they had tried to insert in the state constitution could not stand if Oklahoma was to join the USA.

When running for the Governorship of Oklahoma, Murray bitterly opposed what he termed “The Three C’s – Corporations, Carpetbaggers, and C**ns.” He did make a run for President in 1932, campaigning with the promise to working folk of “Bread, Butter, Bacon and Beans.” It has been said he mistook notoriety for popularity and his campaign failed in the early stages of the primaries. A later Senate bid failed too. By the time he finished his term as state governor, he had used the National Guard on 47 occasions and declared martial law more than 30 times.

Digital Prairie

You can find out much more about Alfalfa Bill Murray in the wonderfully titled Oklahoma Digital Prairie, the electronic library operated by Oklahoma Department of Libraries. Like all such archives, Oklahoma has a treasure trove of yearbooks, photographs, postcards, and other records reflecting Oklahoma’s history and culture. There is a digital collection building project “Images of Oklahoma” which is making unique social, cultural, ethnic, and historical content from local collections accessible across the whole of the state.

Like so many enterprising and enlightened governments and organisations, Oklahoma is using the rich content from its archives to enhance its image and to engage with the world. Ailie Ferrari and I at Really Engaged have worked with Scotland’s 561-year-old University of Glasgow. The University’s Archives and Special Collections are world renowned and are used with flair and imagination to tell the University’s story to audiences around the globe.
The collections include the Scottish Business archive which covers almost all types of business and industrial activity in Scotland and the UK, with more than 400 collections from banking, confectioners and distillers to retail, solicitors and undertakers. The star attractions obviously relate to the industrial concerns in the west of Scotland such as shipbuilding, railway locomotive manufacture, textiles and mining.

One of my favourite examples of how the University of Glasgow brings its archive alive involves a fashionable Glasgow restaurant and bar called The Anchor Line. The opulent New York-style meeting place is in a magnificent city-centre Edwardian building that, in its pomp, was the offices of the fabled Glasgow shipping company the Anchor Line. The shipping company was a pillar of Glasgow commerce from 1855 to 1980.
Local entrepreneurs/restaurateurs acquired the building in 2009 and spent £1.5 million restoring it to its former glory. Working with the University archive, they used the rich advertising posters, branding and imagery of the old shipping company as part of the beautiful interior décor. They mixed the Anchor Line’s distinctive Scottish roots with exotic destinations. Diners are met with a fascinating collection of advertising boards, posters, tickets and correspondence. It is history brought alive and all thanks to inspired entrepreneurs and farsighted archivists.

When democracies fail

The idea of using archive material to create informative and engaging content for our own times is a fast-growing movement. The British journalist and broadcaster Jonathan Freedland presents a BBC Radio series called The Long View, which cleverly uses the archives and historical records to explore the way history can repeat itself. The series compares and contrasts past and present events, for example looking at the parallels between Greece’s financial crisis in the Eurozone and Britain’s departure from the gold standard in 1931.

BBC Television has had a ratings success with Who Do You Think You Are, a genealogy documentary series. In each episode, a celebrity traces their family tree. The programme has regularly attracted an audience of more than 6 million viewers. More than ten international adaptations of the programme have been produced. The production team’s skills at scouring archives and records is breath-taking.

It has long been one of Really Engaged’s ambitions to expand our work with archive services, especially in the University sector. The joy of this involvement is that each archive has its own special interests and unique treasures. Our good friends at Glasgow Caledonian University have a magnificent trove linked to Glasgow’s working-class roots and its traditional interaction with the Scottish and UK trade union movement.

The University traces its history to the Glasgow and West of Scotland College of Domestic Science (affectionately known as the ‘Dough School’) which was established in 1908 from the amalgamation of the Glasgow School of Cookery (1875) and The West End School of Cookery (1878). Both had aimed to help to improve the city’s health by educating working-class women about diet, nutrition and hygiene. The Dough School devoted its resources to training army cooks during the First World War. This back-story has proved a hugely valuable resource upon which to base public engagement.

Every day of every week is the anniversary of one milestone or another in history…for good or for ill. To partially quote Maya Angelou: “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going”. Or if you would rather, George Santayana: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Which perhaps is where we came in. From Bread, Butter, Bacon and Beans to Make America Great Again or if you prefer, Joe Biden’s Unite for a Better Future. Maybe what should give us cause for thought is the recent survey by the University of Cambridge which suggests millennials in democracies are becoming disillusioned by their system of government. The lead author says: “This is the first generation in living memory to have a global majority who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works.” Time for us to get busy in those archives reminding folks what happens when democracies fail.

With huge thanks to the brilliant staff of the Oklahoma Department of Libraries.

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