An Ancient Egyptian Homework Assignment from 1800 Years Ago: Some Things Are Truly Timeless

Every generation of schoolchildren no doubt first assumes homework to be a historically distinct form of punishment, developed expressly to be inflicted on them. But the parents of today's miserable homework-doers also, of course, had to do homework themselves, as did their parents' parents. It turns out that you can go back surprisingly far in history and still find examples of the menace of homework, as far back as ancient Egypt, a civilization from which one example of an out-of-classroom assignment will go on display at the British Library's exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, which opens this spring.

"Beginning with the origins of writing in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and the Americas, the exhibition will explore the many manifestations, purposes and forms of writing, demonstrating how writing has continually enabled human progress and questioning the role it plays in an increasingly digital world," says the British Library's press release.




"From an ancient wax tablet containing a schoolchild’s homework as they struggle to learn their Greek letters to a Chinese typewriter from the 1970s, Writing: Making Your Mark will showcase over 30 different writing systems to reveal that every mark made – whether on paper or on a screen – is the continuation of a 5,000 year story and is a step towards determining how writing will be used in the future."

That wax tablet, preserved since the second century A.D., bears Greek words that Livescience's Mindy Weisberger describes as "familiar to any kid whose parents worry about them falling in with a bad crowd": "You should accept advice from a wise man only" and "You cannot trust all your friends." First acquired by the British Library in 1892 but not publicly displayed since the 1970s, the tablet's surface preserves "a two-part lesson in Greek that provides a snapshot of daily life for a pupil attending primary school in Egypt about 1,800 years ago." Its lines, "copied by this long-ago student were not just for practicing penmanship; they were also intended to impart moral lessons."

But why Greek? "In the 2nd century A.D., when this lesson was written," writes Smithsonian.com's Jason Daley, "Egypt had been under Roman rule for almost 200 years following 300 years of Greek and Macedonian rule under the Ptolemy dynasty. Greeks in Egypt held a special status below Roman citizens but higher than those of Egyptian descent. Any educated person in the Roman world, however, would be expected to know Latin, Greek and — depending on where they lived — local or regional languages." It was a bit like the situation today with the English language, which has become a requirement for educated people in a variety of cultures — and a subject especially loathed by many a homework-burdened student the world over.

via Livescience

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

John Lennon’s Report Card at Age 15: “He Has Too Many Wrong Ambitions and His Energy Is Too Often Misplaced”

In September 1956, a young John Lennon took home a dismal report card--the kind that many smart, wayward kids can probably relate to.

French teacher: "An intelligent boy who could be very much better with a little concentration in class."

Math teacher: "He is certainly on the road to failure if this goes on."

Physics teacher: "His work always lacks effort. He is content to 'drift' instead of using his abilities."

Religion teacher: "Attitude in class most unsatisfactory."

Head master: “He has too many wrong ambitions and his energy is too often misplaced."

Guess they had him all figured out...

via @Michael Beschloss

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How Peter Jackson Made His State-of-the-Art World War I Documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old: An Inside Look

There are very few working directors today who can do what Peter Jackson does so well—create extraordinary spectacles on the grandest of scales while also staying tightly focused on character development and emotional depth. He’s made missteps. His Hobbit trilogy felt bloated, busy and unnecessary, but one reason it so disappointed was because he’d already shown himself a master of fantasy filmmaking with what many considered the unfilmmable Lord of the Rings.

Of course non-Tolkien-related Jackson films like Heavenly Creatures also showcase these strengths, on a smaller scale: the ability to retain the human dimension amidst cinematic spectacles and inhuman darkness (a quality he mined explicitly in his years as a horror director). All of these sensibilities, including a pronounced streak of dark humor and talent for manipulating his audiences, make him the ideal director for a documentary on World War I.




It's a conflict that makes little historical sense to most of us, that unfolded on a scale few of us can imagine, with few identifiable heroes and villains and a complicated geopolitical situation that can feel out of our grasp.

Many documentaries on the war are informative but, frankly, quite dull. In striving for objectivity, they lose sight of humanity. Rather than adopt the voice of god and newsreel look that characterizes the usual fare, Jackson has taken an active role in shaping the narrative for us with cutting-edge blockbuster cinematic techniques. He gives us characters to care about in showing the horror of trench warfare, the confusion and camaraderie of war. Though he uses original footage, it is digitally enhanced and colorized, screened in 3D, with recordings of remembrances from the soldiers themselves dramatically overlaid to create the sense that the figures we see onscreen are speaking to us.

The result, as Guy Lodge writes at Variety, “is a technical dazzler with a surprisingly humane streak…. So dazzlingly transformative is the restoration of this footage that it may as well be the product of a movie shoot.” Indeed, once the credits roll, viewers see the same “veritable army of magic-working technicians’ names” as they would on any big-budget action movie. Jackson has, in effect, produced “the world’s most state-of-the-art educational film,” applying all the emotional levers and pulleys of feature filmmaking to a historical archive.

Like most of us, students have trouble understanding the scale of the war and connecting with the lives of people so indistinctly photographed and far away in time. Jackson makes sure that they can do both, and his film will be sent to every high school in the U.K. Those schools will not, of course, be able to reproduce the 3D effects. Yet even these, though they sound “gimmicky on the face of it,” writes Lodge, prove “to have an experiential purpose, conveying the juddering movement and chaos of a conflict many of us have largely viewed through calcified still images.”

In the interviews and behind the scenes videos here, we learn how Jackson and his team solved the film speed problem to make the old reels look natural, how they created a color palette and removed blurriness and blemishes. Jackson also talks about his own personal stake in the project, imagining what his grandfather endured in the Great War. This connection seems to have spurred him all the more in the effort.

"To memorialize these soldiers a hundred years later," he says, "is to try to bring some of their humanity back into the world again, to stop them being a black and white cliché.” In creating this moving memorial, Jackson goes far beyond the mandate of an educational film. He has used all the techniques at his disposal to make good on the promise in Robert Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem “For the Fallen,” from which the documentary takes its title:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Solar System Quilt: In 1876, a Teacher Creates a Handcrafted Quilt to Use as a Teaching Aid in Her Astronomy Class

Dedicated teachers often go well beyond the call of duty, sacrificing large amounts of free time for the betterment of their classrooms and their pupils.

Any teacher who’s ever paid for supplies out of their own pocket, then spent the weekend constructing an elaborate bulletin board display, will appreciate the herculean efforts of Sarah Ellen Harding Baker.

Baker, a teacher and astronomer in Cedar County, Iowa, is rumored to have spent 7 years embroidering a beautiful appliquéd quilt to use as a visual aid in lectures.




Finished in 1876, the quilt is large enough that even a near-sighted student could see its planets and moons from the back row.

Orbits are indicated with silken threads against a black background.

A comet in the upper left is thought to be Halley's Comet, whose last appearance would have been in 1835, 12 years before Baker’s birth.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where Baker’s quilt is housed, notes that astronomy was deemed an acceptable interest for 19th-century women, which may explain the number of celestial-themed quilts that date to the period.

Author and quilt historian Barbara Brackman includes a few on her Material Culture blog, while her Historically Modern blog visits some more recent examples, including one that makes use of a stars-and-earth hot-iron transfer published in Good Housekeeping magazine, to accompany an article celebrating the winners of its 1939 World of Tomorrow Quilt Contest.

Baker got just ten years out of her quilt before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 39, the mother of 7 children, 5 of whom survived her.

via Messy Nessy

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC this December for the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa, and the next monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Library of Congress Makes Thousands of Fabulous Photos, Posters & Images Free to Use & Reuse

The history of the venerable Library of Congress demonstrates the vast importance that the founders of the U.S. accorded to reading and studying. It may be one of the country’s most durable institutions, “the oldest federal cultural institution in the nation,” it proclaims. While partisan rancor, war, and violence recur, the LoC has stolidly held an ever-increasingly diverse collection of artifacts sitting peacefully alongside each other on several hundred miles of shelves, a monument to the life of the mind that ought to get more attention.

Touting itself as “the largest library in the world,” its collections “are universal, not limited by subject, format, or national boundary, and include research materials from all parts of the world and in more than 450 languages.”




Its first materials were, of course, books—including over six-thousand books purchased from Thomas Jefferson’s private collection after the British burned the original library down in 1814. Now, it “adds approximately 12,000 items to the collection daily,” in every possible format one can imagine.

And since its digital collections came online, anyone, anywhere in the world can call up these vast resources with an internet connection and a few clicks. Though we tend to take such things for granted in our fervidly distracted times, a little reflection should remind us of how incredible that is. But before we wax too rhapsodic, let’s remember there’s a business end to the LoC and it’s called the U.S. Copyright Office, that guardian of intellectual property that both ensures creators can profit from their labors and prevents the free and open use of so many enriching materials long after those creators have need of them.

But the Library has done its digital users a service in this regard as well, with its “Free to Use and Reuse Sets,” a sizable collection of images that the Library “believes… is either in the public domain, has no known copyright, or has been cleared by the copyright owner for public use.” (The use of the word “believes” seems to leave room for doubt, but if you got it with permission from the LoC, you’re probably safe.) Need photographs of Abraham Lincoln—and scans of his speeches, letters, and “dueling instructions”—for that book you’re writing? You’re covered with this gallery. Need a collection of classic children's books for your website (or your reading pleasure)? Here you go.

From the graphic genius of vintage WPA and travel posters to iconic jazz portraits by William Gottlieb to baseball cards to endlessly quaint and quirky American roadside attractions to pictures of dogs and their people… you never know when you might need such images, but when you do you now know where to find them. Want to know what’s in the set called “Not an Ostrich”? A valkyrie cat named Brunnhilde, for one thing, and much more here.

The Library currently highlights its “Poster Parade”—a set of posters from the 1890s to the 1960s featuring “travel, commercial products, war propaganda, entertainment, and more”—in collaboration with Poster House, a museum opening in New York next year. These range from delectable art nouveau ads to shouty broadsides telling you to drink your milk, brush your teeth, or have “More Courtesy.” Sensible prescriptions, but we also need more knowledge, study, and thought. Start at the LoC’s Digital Collections here and harvest your free to use and reuse images here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

 

36 Artists Give Advice to Young Creators: Wim Wenders, Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Patti Smith, David Byrne, Umberto Eco & More

"Whatever you do, nobody else can do that better than you. You have to find what you can do better than anyone else, what you have in yourself that nobody else has in them. Don't do anything that you know, deep in your heart, that somebody else can do better, but do what nobody else can do except for you." That sounds like fine advice, but when receiving advice we should always consider the source. In this case we could hardly do better: the source is Wim Wenders, director of Alice in the CitiesParis, TexasWings of Desire, and many other films besides, an auteur seldom accused of making movies anyone else could make.

Wenders' interview clip and the others here come from "Advice to the Young," a video series created by the Louisiana Museum in Denmark (which has quite an impressive gift shop, incidentally, if you happen to need advice on gift-shopping). Jonathan Franzen, author of novels like The CorrectionsFreedom, and Purity, admits to feeling embarrassment about "giving advice to the young writer," but he still has valuable words for creators in any domain: "The most important advice I have is to have fun, to try to create something that is fun to work on."




And by fun he means fun like you have on a tennis court, where "you're not just messing around, you're not just hitting the ball wherever you want — you are focused on having a game, and once you are in it you are having fun. That's the kind of focused fun I'm talking about, and if you are having that kind of focused fun, there's a good chance that the reader will too."

The range of writers from which Louisiana Museum has sought advice also includes Lydia Davis, whose sensibility may differ from Franzen's but who has garnered an equal (or even greater) degree of respect from her readership. "You learn from models and you analyze them, you study them, you analyze them very closely, one thing at a time," she says, beginning her more expansive advice based on her own method. "You don't just sort of read the paragraph and say, 'Oh, that really flows, you know? That's good.' You say, 'What kind of adjectives? How many? What kind of nouns? How long are the sentences? What's the rhythm?' You know, you pick it apart, and that's very helpful." Her other suggestions include to "be very patient, even patient with chaos" and to keep a notebook ("it takes some of the tension and the worry away, because if you write it down, it may just be a note. It doesn't have to be the beginning of anything").

"Do what you want to do," Davis concludes, "and don't worry if it's a little odd or doesn't fit the market." That bit of guidance seems to have worked for her, and in the great variety of forms it can take seems to have worked for seemingly every other artist. Take Ed Ruscha, for instance, whose canvasses of gas stations, corporate signage, and other icons of American blankness must hardly have seemed geared toward any particular "market" when first he painted them. For the young he has only one piece of advice, received second-hand and briefly delivered: "No one could ever beat this thing that Max Ernst said. They asked him what a young artist should do, and he said, 'cut off an ear.' That's good advice to follow. You can't beat that."

Other artists featured in the video playlist include Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Umberto Eco, Patti Smith & more.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Art Institute of Chicago Puts 44,000+ Works of Art Online: View Them in High Resolution

After the fire that totally destroyed Brazil’s Museu Nacional in Rio, many people lamented that the museum had not digitally backed up its collection and pointed to the event as a tragic example of why such digitization is so necessary. Just a couple decades ago, storing and displaying this much information was impossible, so it may seem like a strange demand to make. And in any case, two-dimensional images stored on servers—or even 3D printed copies—cannot replace or substitute for original, priceless artifacts or works of art.

But museums around the world that have digitized most--or all--of their collections don’t claim to have replicated or replaced the experience of an in-person visit, or to have rendered physical media obsolete.




Digital collections provide access to millions of people who cannot, or will not, ever travel to the major cities in which fine art resides, and they give millions of scholars, teachers, and students resources once available only to a select few.

We can’t all take the day off like Ferris Bueller and stand in front of Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. But thanks to the Art Institute of Chicago, we can all view and download the 1884 pointillist painting in high resolution, zoom in closely like the troubled Cameron to specific details, share the digital image under a Creative Commons Zero license, and similarly interact with an oil sketch for the final painting and several conté crayon studies.

And if that weren’t enough, the museum also includes a bibliography, exhibition history, notes on provenance, audio and video histories and descriptions, and educational resources like teacher manuals, lesson plans, and exams. This goes for many of the 44,312—with more to come—digital images online, including such famous works of art as Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 The Bedroom, Grant Wood’s 1930 American Gothic, Pablo Picasso’s 1903-4 blue period painting The Old Guitarist, Edward Hopper’s 1942 Nighthawks, Mary Cassatt’s 1893 The Child’s Bath, and so many more that it boggles the mind.

Browse Impressionism, Pop Art, works from the African Diaspora, Cityscapes, Fashion, Mythological Works, and other genres and categories. Search artists, dates, styles, media, departments, places, and more.

A personal visit to the Art Institute is an awe-inspiring, and somewhat overwhelming experience, if you can get the day to go. You can visit the website, with full unrestricted access, and gather information, study, marvel, and casually browse, at any time of day—every day if you like. No, it’s not the same, but as a learning experience, in some ways, it's even better. And if, by some awful chance, anything should happen to this art, we won’t have to rely on user-submitted photos to reconstruct the cultural memory.

The launch of this collection comes as part of the museum’s website redesign, and it is an extensive, and expensive, endeavor. The Art Institute, which charges for entry, can afford to make its collections free online. Some other museums charge image fees to support their online work. Ideally, as art historian Bendor Grosvenor writes at Art History News, museums should offer free and open access to both physical and online collections, and some institutions, like Sweden’s Nationalmuseum, have shown that this is possible.

And, as Grosvenor shows, the success of open access online collections has yielded another benefit, for both viewers and museums alike. The more people are exposed to art online, the more likely they are to visit museums in person. Chicago awaits you. Until then, virtually immerse yourself in the Art Institute’s many thousands of treasures here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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