A to Z

This section explores an A-Z of the themes that reoccur throughout the images that we gathered for this project. 

P is for Past

Would future societies immortalise or destroy the past? In Albert Rodiba’s La vie électrique (1893) a horse and cart transport history and tradition away from castle-like building, whether as nightsoil for the dungheap or for future preservation is unclear. 

Certainly, many nineteenth-century images did envisage a future for the past. In 1878 Punch Magazine imagined a ‘Museum of Modern Antiques’ that would become necessary given the ‘rapid development of invention’. The assembled articles of the past (or, of course, the nineteenth-century present) that were deemed significant enough for preservation included a ‘rare specimen’ of a gas street-light, wood pavements, sewing machines, and a model of a steam locomotive. Museums, as spaces where a sense of past-ness was manufactured and curated, were therefore central to imagining the pace of future technological change. When it came to what these obsolescent objects said about future society, Punch’s choices raised as many questions as they answered. Were ‘instruments of torture’ and ‘Henry Martini’ rifles included in the museum because judicially-sanctioned torment and violent conflict would become a thing of the past or because human society would develop ever more dangerous and efficient tools for these purposes?

What was not preserved might be destroyed. Rodiba’s image envisaged the violent destruction of the past’s architectural legacy by dynamite, whilst the high smoke-stacks of new buildings can be seen on the horizon. Yet others predicted that the crumbling remains of the past might be allowed to survive, if only as a lesson for the future. In Edward Bellamy’s 1897 work, Equality an architectural remnant of the past is preserved in order to present a lesson in the dangers of inequality. In the new city with its wide airy boulevards Bellamy’s narrator discovers an unusual ruin:

I found myself face to face with a typical nineteenth-century tenement house of the worst sort… reeking reservoirs of foetid odors, kept in by lofty, light-excluding walls…. It seemed to exhale an atmosphere of gloom and chill which all the bright sunshine of the breezy September afternoon was unable to dominate

The narrator’s chaperone Edith informs him that these are ‘ghost buildings’ and a sign outside the house adds that ‘This habitation of cruelty is preserved as a momento to coming generations of the rule of the rich’. 

In Rodiba’s vision a female statue of the ‘old ideal’ would be transported to a museum with ‘other curiosities’. The question of future memorialisation in the form of statuary was also dealt with in a more tongue-in-cheek way by the Daily Mirror in a 1911 cartoon, which suggested that in the future immortalisation in sculpture would serve as a form of punishment: The Mirror‘s imagined malefactors included ‘Rhode Hogg Esq.’ whose pose holding a steering wheel gestured to his criminally careless driving and the brass-instrument-holding ‘Herr Tromboneheim’ whose crime was to have ‘annoyed 50,000,000 people annually for 40 years’. 

But visions of the future also often involved a complex recycling of the past. When it came to clothes, as in W. Cades sketches in 1893 for the Strand Magazine, the fashions of the future were not infrequently portrayed as a bricolage of previous costume history. In some utopias, perhaps most famously in William Morris’ News from Nowhere, the route to the future was through re-engaging with the architecture, social relations, and modes of production of a romanticised, pre-industrial, past. 

Morris was not alone. As many nineteenth-century visions suggested, the future could often only be understood through the destruction, preservation, recycling, or lampooning of the past.

‘The Old World’s Dishonesty’, in Albert Rodiba, La vie électrique (1893).