Caught between the past and present

With so much focus on the future, it can sometimes be rewarding to take a closer look at the past. In this text, Lotta Heikkinen writes about her joint internship between the Finnish Institute and The Public Domain Review.

For the past five months, I’ve been living a double life. Although it sounds rather sinister, it hasn’t been a Jekyll & Hyde existence. It merely means that my time has been divided between the Finnish Institute and The Public Domain Review, an online journal founded in 2011 by Adam Green and Jonathan Gray.

The not-for-profit project, which is part of Open Knowledge, collects and promotes works that have come into the public domain. The Institute’s interest in open data and digital cultural heritage led to a collaboration which took the form of a shared intern – hence the double life in which part of my time has been spent rummaging through material from bygone eras.

But instead of picking out well-known works by famous writers and artists, the focus is on the strange, exceptional, and forgotten pieces which we want to bring to the attention of a greater audience. Recent personal favourites have included butter sculptures made by Caroline S. Brooks (1840-1913), questions and answers by 17th century ladies and gentlemen wondering where clouds go when they are not in the sky, as well as the photographs of Finnish artist Hugo Simberg (1873-1917) which show both the work and leisure time of the painter.

While researching the various topics, I’ve navigated my way through articles and archives, often struggling to find information and sometimes succeeding in finding it where it would least be expected. Along the way I’ve encountered military campaigns and political negotiations as well as how to build early-twentieth-century DIY projects. The archives also offer a glimpse into forgotten lives, from 14-year-old Mary Browne (1807-1833) who wrote about her family holiday in France (”About Calais was the ugliest country without exception I ever beheld”) to the ladies and gentlemen of the seventeenth century who were unsure of who they should marry. One gentleman had a particular dilemma of having to choose between three ladies; one of which possessed beauty, the second a delightful personality, and the third a fortune. It seems like something out of a fairy tale and I regret that I do not know the outcome or whether he lived happily, unhappily, or indifferently for the rest of his life.

The material, which has been catalogued, is versatile in every way: the form it takes, the time period it represents, as well as the potential it has for further use. Books that are out of copyright can be printed, artwork can be used as starting points for collages and other artistic projects, music as the soundtrack for videos and so on. There is a plethora of material as well as opportunities for using it, which The Public Domain Review, along with other sites and archives, is attempting to bring to a wider audience.

Although copyright laws vary between countries, a good rule of thumb for those in the EU is to go by the “life plus 70 years” rule. If the author or creator has been dead for 70 years or more, and if the recording or print of an item was made 70 years ago, it is free for the taking. Unfortunately, some institutions apply further copyright to the digital copies of these public domain works so it’s always best to research the material. 2015 has seen the works of such names as Edvard Munch and Wassily Kandinsky enter the public domain, and it goes without saying that each year, the material will grow thanks to those preserving it for future generations. Apart from offering interesting research topics and the possibility of artistic or commercial uses, the material opens up the more unusual doors to history, showing the ingenuity found in all fields from medicine to photography and the ways ideas have spread and developed through various cultures.

Preserving this material means that we can have the best of both worlds, which is why I find it enriching to live with one foot in the future and the other one in the past. It is not only a source of knowledge, but an opportunity to see and experience the world around you from a different perspective.

Lotta Heikkinen is an intern at the Society Programme at the Finnish Institute in London. Her interest in the past span from Norse mythology to the everyday lives of Victorian servants.

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