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Are you going a little ‘Brumas’? The Opie Archive opens a window onto a 1950s phenomenon

The cataloguing of the Opie Archive of school-children’s play, lore and language is yielding some fascinating examples of playground terminology. Some is familiar from our own childhoods but one contribution from Sale County Grammar School for Boys dating from the early 1950s had us puzzled. The contributor had submitted the word ‘Brumas’, translating it as ‘a little bear on top – a bald man’.  Our confusion was compounded by further information from the child’s teacher and Opie correspondent who indicated the presence of some punning word-play, ‘A bald man – Brumas (the “Bare”)’. It took some 21st-century web-surfing to shed light on this bald spot in our knowledge.

So who, or what, was Brumas? Our search for the answer opened a window onto a phenomenon of the early 1950s – the first ever polar bear cub born at London Zoo in 1949. Although a female bear cub, the press had reported that the bear was male. Given her portmanteau moniker through the combining of her keepers’ names (Bruce and Sam), Brumas was a sensation. Her presence at London Zoo boosted visitor numbers as members of the public flocked to catch a glimpse of the new arrival. A report from The Observer newspaper in April 1950 records people standing ‘in solid blocks’ around the polar bear enclosure from 9am to 7pm to catch a glimpse of ‘the baby’, as this clip shows:

Not only a celebrity bear, Brumas was also a brand, with books, toys (such as this mohair model of Brumas and her mother Ivy held at the V&A Museum of Childhood), and even soap manufactured in her image. Her popularity also made her the subject of song, as this cabaret performance demonstrates. Not surprisingly, Brumas became a national phenomenon. Sir Michael Palin remarks in his 1992 account of his travels from ‘Pole to Pole’ that he is keen to see a polar bear, having been ‘brought up on Brumas’.

Equipped with this knowledge we’re now able to interpret this multi-layered archive entry. The joke rests in the use of the homophones ‘bear’ and ‘bare’ and relies on the widespread awareness of bear-of-the-moment Brumas, who came to public attention via popular media and commercial influences. Perhaps too, the widespread assumption in the media that Brumas was male affirmed the connection with male pattern baldness.

Reference to Brumas in teacher’s letter to the Opies (cropped). Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Opie 1 fol. 146v

We will never know who the unfortunate ‘Brumas’ of Sale was and are as yet unclear whether the epithet was common or confined to this area. However, this data demonstrates how assemblages can act as a prompt for our own cultural responses, informed here by the ‘desire for fun’ that the Opies observed as embedded in schoolchildren’s language, with nicknames an exemplar (The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, 1959, p. 154). In this case, Brumas’ fame became a stimulus for playful use of language that now, at this historical distance, recalls an event that impacted on the national consciousness.  Brumas died in 1958, but her linguistic legacy lives on in the Opie Archive.

 

Header image: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Opie 1 fol.143r

Playing the Archive begins Motion Capture work

The Playing the Archive team have been busy working on sound recording and motion capture for the interactive elements of the project. Children from schools in London, Sheffield, and Aberdeen were recorded reading out children’s descriptions of games from the Opie archive.

These descriptions will be used as part of an interactive ‘Time Telephone’ that will be displayed at the V&A Museum of Childhood and other locations around the UK. The CASA team also used motion capture equipment with the children to create a virtual avatar which will be used as part of our interactive Clapping Hero game, where users will be able to hone their clapping skills with the avatar.

Playing the Archive team present their work

On October 26 at the British Academy, the Playing the Archive team held its first interim conference, with a number of members of the Advisory Board in attendance.

Courtesy of @dylanyamadarice

After an introductory presentation by Andrew Burn, who talked about the project’s emerging themes of memory, nostalgia, continuity and change, and the structures of time and space, Julia Bishop and Cath Bannister offered an introduction to Iona and Peter Opie’s historical archive. Their presentation focused in particular on the Opies’ surveys as a means of better understanding their research methods. Afterwards, Cath and Alison Somerset-Ward offered an inventive account of the archive as an interactive ‘box of delights’, whose many-faceted exploration of the archive fascinated our attendees. Steve Roud then rounded off the morning session with a discussion of the challenges of creating a classification scheme for the Opie archive.

Box of Delights. Photo courtesy of @shelleuk

In the afternoon Jackie Marsh looked at the palimpsests of play across two projects conducted at a nine-year interval, drawing on social anthropology and new materialism to illustrate the mutually reinforcing relationship between children and their playground environments. This was followed by a fascinating presentation by John Potter and Kate Cowan, who looked at how children remediate popular culture (in particular YouTube), and how the use of GoPro cameras, 360 degree video and iPads offer a variety of perspectives for researchers of children’s play. John introduced us to the ways that the VAR technology showcased during the 2018 World Cup has made its way into playground games of football, and how ‘Neymar’ has now become a synonym for unconvincing play acting.

The team from CASA, Duncan Hay, Valerio Signorelli and Andy Hudson-Smith then presented their experiments in re-purposing old or obsolete technology as a means of engaging the public with the Opies’ work, and asked how these evocative, sensorially-rich technologies might constitute an ‘interface’ to memory. Finally, Helen Woolley drew on the Opies’ The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) to look at the calendar of play, and the distinct temporalities of time (daily, weekly, seasonal) that they revealed. In a tasty conclusion to the event, she offered the attendees a home-baked ‘soul cake’, a small cake made to remember the dead on All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. It provided a tasty conclusion to a wonderful day of discussion. Thank you to the Advisory Board for all their useful and far-reaching comments!

Mathias Poulsen, an advisory board member, has written a blog post with his comments, which you can read here.

Playing the Archive Visits the Bodleian Library

The newly-appointed cataloguers joining the Sheffield team, Alison Somerset-Ward and Cath Bannister, accompanied by Helen Woolley, Julia Bishop and Steve Roud, recently got a taste of the task ahead during a visit to the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library to view documents from the Opie archive.

Helen Woolley with Sarah Thiel from the Bodleian Library

The team members were warmly welcomed by Bodleian project archivists Svenja Kunze and Sarah Thiel, creators of the Opie archive finding aid funded by the Wellcome Trust. Svenja and Sarah shared their own experiences of cataloguing the material and their growing sense of familiarity with Iona and Peter Opie’s distinct characters as their work progressed.

The Sheffield team were delighted to be able to view the original materials, which included some of the children’s papers, teacher correspondence, and the Opies’ working files on an array of subjects – from ‘pavement lore’ and the consequences of treading on cracks, to rhymes romantic and otherwise for Valentines’ cards, including light-hearted instructions to the postman. Of particular interest were the Opies’ questionnaire templates which were a key means of data collection.

The visit helped make the team more aware of the human stories behind the Opies’ remarkable collection, their contributions, all in different handwriting, bringing alive the variety of people who were involved.

Banner image: Archive of Iona and Peter Opie, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Opie 90.

New Augmented Reality prototypes in development

Over at CASA, Valerio Signorelli has been developing prototypes for Augmented Reality play. Playing the Archive will bring to life the play experiences of children in the 1950s and 1960s captured in the Opie archive and make it available to visitors at the V&A Museum of Childhood and the Weston Park Museum in Sheffield. AR technologies will also inform the development of experimental play spaces in Sheffield and London.

In this video, Valerio showcases an early prototype of ‘sonic hopscotch’, which uses documents and audio recordings from the Opie Archive as well as a video recording taken as part of the Children’s Playground Games and Songs in the New Media Age project. (Note that as this is a prototype, the recordings and the game don’t yet tie together: the audio and video are for a clapping game, while the document describes a game played using cigarette cards.)

 

Work with schools begins

Kate, John and Valerio joined a staff meeting at our London project primary school. John introduced the work of the Opies, showed the teachers the Playtimes site from the previous project and gave a broad overview of the project. Kate talked about how the researchers would work with the children discussed the various play spaces in and around the school. Valerio gave a great presentation about his work, explained the difference between AR (Augmented Reality), VR (Virtual Reality) and MR (Mixed Reality), and gave the teachers a range of equipment to play with and explore. There was great enthusiasm at the school for the project and we are all looking forward to getting started!

Teacher Tom tries out a VR headset while a Times Education journalist takes pictures

Playing the Archive

Playing the Archive: Content Creation and Consumption in the Digital Economy is an ambitious programme of research and cultural production, exploring the nature of play by bringing together archives, spaces and technologies of play, along with people who play, both old and young. It runs from September 2017 to August 2019.

Funded by the EPSRC through the Content Creation and Consumption in the Digital Economy call, the project will digitise and catalogue substantial sections of the Opie manuscript archive at the Bodleian Libraries, creating a new catalogue designed and hosted by the Digital Humanities Institute at the University of Sheffield; design a virtual reality play environment based on the archive and install it at the V&A Museum of Childhood, London, and the Weston Park Museum, Sheffield; and build experimental ‘smart’ playgrounds in London and Sheffield.