Using a Marxist lens, visitors are invited to rethink about the ways that war creates a by-product of human waste from a capitalist mode of production; more to the point: the ways that we consider certain people disposable and devalued in society. Specifically, Marx argues that capitalism and war perpetually generate humans as disposable products in the form of a “surplus population” of workers (1976) and, moreover, “squanders human beings, living labour,” resulting in a “waste of the workers’ life and health” (Marx 1976, p. 182).
Born in 1880, Hereward Thimbleby Price (aka HT Price) grew up attending schools in Britain where he ultimately earned his bachelor’s degree in English at Oxford University. He began his career as an assistant in the offices of The Oxford English Dictionary, which fostered his lifelong love of learning and words. He later went on to teach English at the University of Bonn in Germany, becoming a naturalized citizen, “receiving assurances that if war broke out, he would not be forced to fight his countrymen.” But, much to his chagrin and protests, he was drafted as a private in 1915 and left for the Russian front to fight with minimal training. “That summer, he was captured by Russians and packed off on a six-month trek on foot, by wagon, and finally by train to a prison camp in distant Siberia. He was almost certainly the only English lexicographer in Russian custody."
As a prisoner of war in Siberian, Price experienced the atrocities of war firsthand. “We had to undergo horrors which even now it appalls me to remember.” But his Russian guards were mostly “careless, happy-go-lucky fellows” who did more harm to prisoners-of-war through inefficiency and corruption than by deliberate cruelty. As winter set in, he was struck with snow-blindness and the extreme cold was brutal. Many, many prisoners died and were callously tossed aside by the guards. Typhus, brutal cold, starvation, and inhumane treatment resulted in the deaths of many prisoners.
An image of “The Debtor’s Prison” by Henry Rushbury can be viewed here on the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art website.
Price never gave up. He saw moments of beauty in his experience despite the desolate, bleak misery of his situation. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “on approaching the great towns we felt the charm and mystery of ‘Holy Russia’ of story, when we saw the gilded crosses and domes of the cathedrals flashing splendidly in the sun and heard the deep melodious tolling of the bells.”
At one point, he received his first reading material in months: a copy of St. John’s gospel. “The very poverty of our circumstances allowed us to concentrate our minds upon it as we could never have done before. The impression made was not altogether a religious one … But its poetry and fire worked upon us in such a way that, although I may forget everything else that came to me that year, I shall not forget the hours spent in reading St. John.”
This ultimately lead to some Hungarian officers learning that Price taught English and they tricked the Russian officers and smuggled him into better living quarters where he taught them English classes five times a day, which ultimately saved his life and fed his spirit. “Although I had never been hungrier, dirtier, in greater danger of my life, or in worse company,” it was also “a period full of fascination. The camp in time became like a great university.”
In 1917 he was released conditionally from prison, but sent to tutor a wealthy Russian family. But as Revolution was on the horizon and the Bolsheviks breaking down all social order as had been previously known, he managed to get diplomatic protection and ultimately ended up in China teaching English as a missionary.
After the war ended, he reunited with his family and eventually went on to become a full professor of English at the University of Michigan, contributed to many dictionaries as an experienced lexicographer, and was well respected and honored in his field.
More information about Hereward Thimbleby Price can be read here in a Michigan Today article from the University of Michigan.
The robe below, allows viewers to rethink about the ways the HT Price transformed his situation into a way that empowered him, and ultimately helped him to survive. He was able to draw from his education, writing, and find solace in the written word, which not only led to his future as a professor and lexicographer, but also helped him to both mentally and physically escape from prison. This beautiful robe is a reminder of the ways that we can reclaim our own lives by drawing on the powers that reside inside of us.
Rose Pink Silk Robe
Donated by Mrs. Urie Bronfenbrenner
Brought back from China in 1919 by Hereward T. Price, the father of the donor Mrs. Urie Bronfenbrenner, after he escaped from a Siberian Prison Camp. He managed to save the coat and a few other items obtained in China when his boat hit an iceberg and had to be abandoned. The item is said to have been worn at home. The luxurious women’s rose hot pink silk robes is in plain weave with open weave medallions in designs of dragons and flowers. The robe follows the design of a traditional Chinese cut robe: wide sleeves, slits at side seams to waist, and front wrap closing at left side. The front closing, neck, side seams, and sleeve cuffs are trimmed in applique decoration of black silk trim with woven embroidered flowers and butterflies, followed by brocade ribbon in jade green. Gold bead closing are at the top neckline and right-side seam.