Archive for May, 2011

Q. What does a shell, a cable and a football match ticket have in common?

Today’s blog has been written by Katharine Robinson,  a placement student at the museum. The blog looks at the strange links you can find between two very different object.

A. They are all linked in some way to the SS Great Eastern. It is amazing the kinds of similarities and links you can find between seemingly unconnected objects within the collection. The point of this blog was to highlight the connection found between two objects which at first glance were of different materials, different purposes and different relevance to the collection. 

The first object is a shell. James Cunningham a Butler, Brewer and eventual mayor of Blackburn visited Bristol in 1861 where he took a trip to see the ‘Great Eastern’, the steam ship built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and at the time the largest ship in the world. There he bought this souvenir shell with an image of the ship painted on the surface and the inscription ‘Purchased on board by James Cunningham’. 

The Shell bought on Board the Great Eastern by James Cunningham

The second object is a piece of Atlantic cable from 1858. Those of you with some knowledge of the field will know that the Great Eastern was the ship which laid the successful telegraph cable connecting Europe with Americain in 1866. Whilst the cable in the collection was considered unsuccessful – communications lasted no longer than a month – it did send the first ever trans-Atlantic message, from QueenVictoria to US President James Buchanan. 

"Hello James, It's Vicky" - The first translatlantic message ran along this cable

The connection of these objects got me thinking; what is the criteria we use to group things together? Must we always prioritise one thing about an object over others? For example, the shell is exhibited due to its connection to James Cunningham, but it could also be displayed alongside other souvenir memorabilia or with a collection of shells, just as the cable could be exhibited alongside a letter, telephone and email. And when does a connection become too dubious? Well there is a Liverpool VS Blackburn Rovers match ticket in the collection that links straight back to the Great Eastern via the fact that the ship’s mast became Anfield’s flag pole! Too tenuous? Perhaps.

A Sign of the Times

I know what your thinking.

I had similar thoughts when I spotted it in the store. The red background and the symbol give a very distinctive Nazi impression to this postcard but all is not what it seems. The Swastika is a symbol that is believed to have originated in Ancient India and has influenced many different cultures.

The point of this blog entry is to look at how something like a symbol can be ‘claimed’ by a person or people and keep an association with it. World War II is still something which intrigues and haunts many paeople. It is still possible to speak to someone who fought in the war. The effect the Nazi’s had on our society is hugely profound and the way they have affected the use of the swastika is a perfect example of this. Use of this symbol in Germany is almost unheard of and in many countries is seen as inherently racist.

My eyes were instantly drawn to one thing...and not for the right reasons

Which brings us to the postcard. Why is it here? Where does it come from? What does it mean?

To find the answers to this we need to look back to the late 1700’s.  Archaeological finds of the time catapulted the symbol into the spotlight and brought it to a new wider audience. Its use rose and it became a very popular symbol. Adorning buildings and flags the symbol even became a logo of Rudyard Kipling. By the start of the 20th century the symbol had become associated with good luck and friendship.

The postcard itself has been sent as a seal of friendship from a friend holidaying in the Isle of Man to someone who lived on Railway Road in Blackburn. It was sent on the 7th June 1922. This postcard was not sent with any political or racist undertones but reflects the use of the symbol during the era it was sent in.

When the Nazi’s used the symbol for their flag it changed it’s meaning and how the symbol would be used for years to come. Would you send this postcard now? Probably not. However, with the current trend of ‘reclaiming’ words maybe there will be a day when the swastika will once again adorn postcards and buildings as a sign of friendship and luck. If it does, I imagine it may not be in my lifetime.


Blackburn Museum can be found in Blackburn, Lancashire. It houses objects documenting Blackburn's industrial past as well as a world class collection of Fine Art, Japanese prints, Icons, Numismatics and Manuscripts. Come and visit us to find out more.

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