Museum Curators Create a Contest to See Who Has the Creepiest Object: Ancient Body Parts, Cursed Toys, and More

Museums around the world have temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and each of these institutions has used its downtime differently. Some have provided online versions of the experiences previously offered in their physical galleries; others have started prolonged battles on Twitter. No, not the kind of prolonged battle one normally associates with Twitter, but a friendlier, more productive competition between professionals. At times, however, the #curatorbattle, as it’s been hashtagged, has looked just as repulsive to the viewer as any Twitter conflict: especially last week, when the Yorkshire Museum threw down the challenge to pull the “creepiest object” out of the archives and post it.

“Museum curators are up to their ears in weird crap, some of which isn’t fit for display,” writes Ruin My Week’s Alison Sullivan. “There are lots of niche museums out there, too, who don’t get the kind of attention the Smithsonian receives. They’re about local history or specific interests, and their collections are the strangest of all.”

The Yorkshire Museum, which bills itself as offering “Britain’s finest archaeological treasures, and a walk through the Jurassic landscapes of Yorkshire,” is no different: they started off the challenge of the week by posting a “3rd/4th century hair bun from the burial of a #Roman lady, still with the jet pins in place” — albeit fully detached from the head it was buried on.

Other participating institutions saw the Yorkshire Museum’s hair bun and raised it a “sheep’s heart stuck with pins and nails, to be worn like a necklace for breaking evil spells,” a P.T. Barnum-style “mermaid” constructed through taxidermy, a “CURSED CHILDREN’S TOY that we found inside the walls of a 155-year-old mansion,” and small dioramas populated by gold-miners and card-players made of crab’s legs and claws.

In the tweet posting that last, the York Castle Museum describes the pieces’ creators as typical of Victorians, who “loved weird/creepy stuff.” If your own such love isn’t satisfied by the highlights at Ruin My Week and The Guardian, have a look at the replies below the  Yorkshire Museum’s original tweet. You may not have asked to see a beaked 17th- or 18th-century plague mask at this particular moment, but try to take it in the spirit of cultural exchange. View more creepy objects on Twitter here.

via Artnet

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Human All Too Human: A Roman Woman Visits the Great Pyramid in 120 AD, and Carves a Poem in Memory of Her Deceased Brother

The phrase “history is written by the victors” is a cliché, which means that it is at least half true; official histories are, to a significant degree “written,” or dictated, by ruling elites. But as far as the actual writing down, and excavating, narrating, arguing about, and revising of history goes… well, that is the work of historians, who may work for powerful institutions but who are not themselves—with several notable exceptions, of course—politicians, generals, or captains of industry.

This is all to the good. Historians, and Twitterstorians, can tell stories and present evidence that the victors might rather see disappear. And they can tell stories we never knew that we were missing, but which humanize the past by restoring the lives of ordinary people with ordinary concerns. Stories of everyday ancient Romans and Egyptians, for example, or of ancient Romans in Egypt, visiting and vandalizing the pyramids.

In one such poignant story, circulating on Twitter, a Roman woman named Terentia carved into the limestone facing of the Great Pyramid sometime around 120 AD a touching poem for her brother, who had just recently died. As told by medievalist, linguist, and Senior Editor at History Today Dr. Kate Wiles, the poem might have been lost to the ages had it not been discovered by German pilgrim Wilhelm von Boldensele in 1335.

Knowing Latin, Von Boldensele read the poem, found it moving, and copied it down. (See his manuscript at the top.) Wiles quotes a part of the prose English translation:

I saw the pyramids without you, my dearest brother, and here I sadly shed tears for you, which is all I could do. And I inscribe this lament in memory of our grief. May thus be clearly visible on the high pyramid the name of Decimus Gentianus….

We can surmise that Terentia must have had some means to travel, but in Wiles’ abridged Twitter version of the story, we also might assume she could be anyone at all, grieving the loss of a close relative. Terentia’s grief is no less moving or real when we learn that the inscription goes for on several lines Wiles cut for brevity.

Turning to Emily Ann Hemelrijk’s book Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Elite from Cornelia to Julia Domna, Dr. Wiles’ source for the Great Pyramid poem, we find that Terentia wasn’t just an educated, upper class woman, she was a very well-connected one. The inscription goes on to identify her brother as “a pontifex and companion to your triumphs, Trajan, and both censor and consul before his thirtieth year of age.”

In his anthology Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome, Ian Michael Plant provides even more historical context. Of Terentia, we know little to nothing save the Von Boldensele’s copy of her six hexameters (and possibly more that he ignored). Of Decimus Gentianus, however, we know that he not only served as a consul under Trajan but also as governor of Macedonia under Hadrian. Terentia “chose the pyramid for her epitaph to provide a suitably grand and everlasting site for her tribute to him,” writes Plant. (Cue Shelly’s “Ozymandias.”)

Not only is the poem about a victor, but it appears to shift its address from him to the ultimate victor, Emperor Trajan, in its final lines. Should this change our appreciation of the story as a slice of Roman tourist life and example of ancient women’s writing? No, but it shows us something about what history gets preserved and why. Despite historians’ best efforts, especially in public-facing work, to make the past more accessible and relatable, they, too, are limited by what other cultures chose to preserve and what to pass over.

Hemelrijk admits, “the poem is no literary masterpiece,” but Von Boldersele saw enough merit in its sentiments to record it for posterity. He also made a judgment about the inscription’s historical import, given its references, which is probably the reason we have it today.

via Dr. Kate Wiles

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

Nine Things a Woman Couldn’t Do in 1971

As we barrel toward the centennial celebration of women’s suffrage in the United States, it’s not enough to bone up on the platforms of female primary candidates (though that’s an excellent start).

A Twitter user and self-described Old Crone named Robyn recently urged her fellow Americans to take a good long gander at a list of nine freedoms women in the United States were not universally granted in 1971, the year Helen Reddy released the soon-to-be anthem, “I Am Woman,” above.

Even those of us who remember singing along as children may experience some shock that these facts check out on Snopes.

  1. CREDIT CARDS: Prior to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, married women couldn’t get credit cards without their husbands’ signatures. Single women, divorcees, and widows were often required to have a man cosign. The double standard also meant female applicants were frequently issued card limits up to 50% lower than that of males who earned identical wages.
  2. PREGNANT WORKERS: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 protected pregnant women from being fired because of their impending maternity. But it came with a major loophole that’s still in need of closing. The language of the 41-year-old law stipulates that the employers must accommodate pregnant workers only if concessions are being made for other employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work.”
  3. JURY DUTY: In 1975, the Supreme Court declared it constitutionally unacceptable for states to deny women the opportunity to serve on juries. This is an arena where we’ve all come a long way, baby. It’s now completely normal for men to be excused from jury duty as the primary caregivers of their young children.
  4. MILITARY COMBAT: In 2013, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey announced that the Pentagon was rescinding the direct combat exclusion rule that barred women from serving in artillery, armor, infantry and other such battle roles. At the time of the announcement, the military had already seen more than 130 female soldiers killed, and 800 wounded on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  5. IVY LEAGUE ADMISSIONS: Those who conceive of elite colleges as breeding grounds for sexual assault protests and Title IX activism would do well to remember that Columbia College didn’t admit women until 1983, following in the marginally deeper footsteps of others in the Ivy League—Harvard (1977), Dartmouth (1972), Brown (1971), Yale (1969), and Princeton (1969). These days, single sex higher education options for women far outnumber those for men, but the networking power and increased earning potential an Ivy League degree confers remains the same.
  6. WORKPLACE HARASSMENT: In 1977, women who’d been sexually harassed in the workplace received confirmation in three separate trials that they could sue their employers under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex harassment was also unlawful. In between was the television event of 1991, Anita Hill’s shocking testimony against her former boss, U.S. Supreme Court justice (then nominee) Clarence Thomas.
  7. SPOUSAL CONSENT: In 1993, spousal rape was officially outlawed in all 50 states. Not tonight honey, or you’ll have a headache in the form of your wife’s legal back up.
  8. HEALTH INSURANCE: In 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act decreed that any health insurance plan established after March of that year could not charge women higher premiums than men for identical benefits. This was bad news for women who got their health insurance through their jobs, and whose employers were grandfathered into discriminatory plans established prior to 2010. Of course, that’s all ancient history now.
  9. CONTRACEPTIVES: In 1972, the Supreme Court made it legal for all citizens to possess birth control, irrespective of marital status, stating “if the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.” (It’s worth noting, however, that in 1972, states could still constitutionally prohibit and punish sex outside of marriage.)

Feminism is NOT just for other women.

– Old Crone

Via Kottke

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, October 7 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates the art of Aubrey Beardsley. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

We’re Gonna Build a Fourth Wall, and Make the Brechtians Pay for It


By now, you undoubtedly know what happened when Mike Pence went to see Hamilton on Friday night. And the brouhaha that unfolded from there, particularly on Twitter.

Tweets came and went throughout the weekend. But, if you’re keeping score at home, none outfunnied this tweet from Jeremy Noel-Tod. We’re suckers around here for Brechtian humor.

Find us on Twitter at @openculture.

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Three University Projects Use Twitter to Understand Happiness, Hate and Other Emotions in America

It turns out that the fleeting pronouncements we post on Twitter are catnip for academics and others eager to find the elusive pulse of American society. Since Twitter launched in 2006, researchers have been hard at work figuring out how to turn those 140-character musings into tea leaves with something meaningful to say about us all.

Here come three new projects that claim to provide a window into the American soul through Twitter. Whether they succeed or not, well, that’s still unclear. (And, by the way, you can start following Open Culture on Twitter here.)

Most feverishly excited about its work are the team behind the Global Twitter Heartbeat, which so far focuses mostly on the United States. With the help of a huge SGI processor to process a live feed of public social media data, a team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has made a heat map to show how people react (through Twitter) to big events.

They looked at two things: Hurricane Sandy (top) and the 2012 Presidential Election (above). Using Twitter’s “garden hose feed”—a random sampling of 10 percent of the roughly 500 million tweets sent every day—researchers color-coded tweets red for negative tone and blue for positive and showed the shifting concentrations of Twitter activity across the country. It looks like a map of a talking weather system as occasional dialogue boxes open up to show representative tweets. Researcher Kalev Leetaru argues that tracking Twitter activity gives us the potential to track the heartbeat of society.


Two other projects look in an on-going way at tweet “tone,” or the negativity/positivity of messages. One spin on this research is the Geographic Hate Map (sample map above), a project by Dr. Monica Stephens of Humboldt State University in Northern California. To begin their work, Stephens and her team accessed a massive database of geographically tagged tweets sent between June, 2012  and April, 2013.

They used only tweets that contained any of ten “hate words.” They read each tweet to be sure the words were used in a negative way and built a map based on where the tweets came from. Then they aggregated to the county level and normalized for the amount of twitter traffic in that area so that densely populated areas don’t look more racist or homophobic by default.

Then there’s the glass half full. The Hedonometer measures happiness, or lack thereof, as expressed by tweets, calculating averages based on what the researchers call “word shifts” (watch an explanation above). This research project, put together by the University of Vermont Complex Systems Center, uses the same garden hose feed as the Global Twitter Heartbeat. This project searches for frequently used words to measure how good a day Twitter users are having. Since 2008 the Hedonometer has kept track of how often words like “happy,” “yes,” and “love” pop up in tweets, as opposed to “hate,” “no,” and “unhappy.” The saddest day on Hedonometer record so far is April 15, 2013, the day bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line. Christmas Day tends to rank as the happiest day of the year.

To be sure, any tool that uses tweets for data is measuring a very young and specific subgroup of people. Tweets are not a reliable measure of anything, really, but maybe with some tweaking, these research models will come up with something interesting.

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Kate Rix writes about education and digital media. Follow daily ups and downs on Twitter @mskaterix.

Steven Soderbergh Writes Twitter Novella After His Retirement From Filmmaking

How does one read Twitter literature? Your thoughts are as good as mine. I suppose I’ll have to learn or end up in the ash heap of old-timey turners of pages. Because Twit Lit is upon us, manifested by Jennifer Egan and now, under the twitter handle “Bitchuation,” by mercurial filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. Having announced his retirement from filmmaking in 2011, Soderbergh made another announcement at the San Francisco Film Festival on the State of Cinema (video above, transcript here). The following day, Soderbergh’s Twitter novella Glue began with the laconic April 28 tweet “I will now attempt to tweet a novella called GLUE.”


Some unique features of Twit Lit: Soderbergh can twitpic an establishing shot—which he does, of Amsterdam—along with pics of other locations (or just vaguely suggestive images). The individual tweets often read like Horse ebooks absurdities. He’s up to Chapter Fourteen now. The later tweets replicate screenplay dialogue, with copious insertions of BEAT to signify dramatic pauses. Taken together, I suppose there’s coherence, though as I admitted above, I have not mastered the ability to pull tweets together into longer text in my mind, Twitter being where I go when my attention span is spent.

I leave it to savvier, more patient readers to judge the success of Soderbergh’s attempt. It may suffice to say that his pessimism about the state of film does not apply to Twitter Lit. Or maybe he’s just passing time before he makes movies again.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness 

Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize-Winner, Tweets New Story with The New Yorker

In March, Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad) paid a visit to Google and was asked to sum up her year since winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. She said: “I am still not used to the idea that I won it. Maybe I will finally really grab hold of that idea when someone else wins it. I will say ‘No, I want it!'” Little did she know that just a few weeks later the Pulitzer Prize judges would decline to name a successor, leaving her in mental limbo for yet another year. She seems to be handling it pretty well — well enough to publish a new short story on The New Yorker’s Fiction twitter stream. Yes, you read that right, its Twitter stream.

Starting last night, The New Yorker began tweeting her new story, “Black Box,” and the story will continue to unfold over nine more nightly installments. It’s a gimmick, you’re thinking, right? Well, for Egan, it’s not. She explains on The New Yorker web site:

I’d also been wondering about how to write fiction whose structure would lend itself to serialization on Twitter. This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one—because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters. I found myself imagining a series of terse mental dispatches from a female spy of the future, working undercover by the Mediterranean Sea. I wrote these bulletins by hand in a Japanese notebook that had eight rectangles on each page. The story was originally nearly twice its present length; it took me a year, on and off, to control and calibrate the material into what is now “Black Box.”

If you’re a Twitter user, you can catch the live stream between 8 and 9 P.M. EDT. (And you can also follow our lively Twitter stream here.) If micro-serialized fiction isn’t your thing, then you can always follow the story on The New Yorker’s “Page Turner” blog.

Alain de Botton Tweets Short Course in Political Philosophy

Alain de Botton has mastered the art of popularizing great philosophy. His books, lectures, televised programs and the London-based School of Life – they all help de Botton get great ideas “out there.” And now he turns to Twitter. On Friday, @AlaindeBotton tweeted a short course in political philosophy in seven parts. The course, with each lesson presented in 140 characters or less, begins like this:

1: Plato: We should be ruled not by leaders chosen by a majority, but by those who are most intelligent.

2. St Augustine: We should not try to build paradise on earth. Aim for tolerable government, true government only possible in the next life.

3. Machiavelli: Politician must choose between serving the interests of country and the interests of Christian morality. Can’t have both.

You can finish the course here, and start following us on Twitter here, where we post a steady flow of cultural goodies throughout the day. If you like Open Culture, you will love our Twitter stream (and our Facebook page)…

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