David Clarke – the industrious journalist, folklorist, and professor at Sheffield Hallam University – recently gave a fascinating talk on his years of experience working with the UFO files of the UK Ministry of Defence. For those who would like to hear a relatively brief summary of some of the major highlights within those records, this is a must-listen.
Last week, I had the opportunity to pay a visit to the city of Torino (Turin), Italy, where I met with several of Italy’s most prolific UFO researchers associated with the Centro Italiano Studi Ufologica (CISU), The Italian Center for Ufology Studies. I was accompanied by documentary filmmaker Richard Sherman, a colleague with whom I am collaborating in making a film exploring the historical interest in UFOs.
Our guide was Edoardo Russo. Russo is Secretary of CISU and a researcher whose work and publications in UFO research date back to the 1970s. In addition to Russo, we met up with Paolo Toselli – a longtime researcher specializing in the psychological aspects of UFO sightings and the history of UFOs in popular media – and Paolo Fiorino – a founding member of CISU, an expert on close encounters of the third kind in Italy, and the key figure in prompting the Italian Ministry of Defense to declassify a good deal of its UFO files.
Together, Russo, Toselli, and Fiorino were kind enough to sit with us for a series of interviews covering their involvement in ufology as well as the history of UFO research in Italy. Among other things, I learned that the first sightings of “flying saucers” in Italy began days after Kenneth Arnold’s original sighting in late-June 1947. Similar to developments elsewhere, over the course of the 1950s and into the early-1970s, Italians involved in studying the UFO phenomenon tended to follow one of two paths: either they followed the more esoteric or theosophical tradition that emphasized fraternity with “our space brothers” or they tended toward a ufology modeled on scientific methods. Then, during the second half of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, a group of young ufologists began to be drawn to the so-called psychosocial approach to UFOs, taking their inspiration from the human sciences, especially psychology.
For those unfamiliar with the Center, its members conduct field investigations, meet to discuss recent reports, carry out research, and publish books and articles. For those of us with an interest in the history of the UFO phenomenon, one of its most important accomplishments has been collecting and cataloguing an impressive archive of materials chronicling the history of UFOs and ufology in Italy and elsewhere. For anyone with a serious interest in European – and particularly, Italian – ufology, a research visit to Turin is a must.
The Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine has just published an article of mine about a new film by documentary filmmaker Jonathan Berman exploring the life and legacy of George Van Tassel. Van Tassel is certainly well known among UFO enthusiasts – a man who counted himself among the original group of “contactees” during the 1950s. The film documents his life and work, but adds more to the story by interviewing those who still live around Giant Rock and who seek to realize his mission of creating a building that can reverse the aging process.
Andrew Liptak over at The Verge has posted a brief video that chronicles the history of art work found on sci-fi comic and paperback book covers in the 20th century. Liptak notes that the fact that the genre was considered pulp – read, “trashy” – throughout most of its early history, ironically enough allowed publishers and artists to enjoy a great deal of creative freedom.
Science fiction cover art was originally designed to attract the eye amid a sea of books on a shelf, especially at a time when the genre was demeaned as “sub-literary.” That has become even more important now, in an age where readers select their next reads from tiny thumbnails on retailer websites or via social media posts.
As he points, any of us can now own one of these gems from the past for pennies – just go to a local used bookstore, and many of these titles can be had for a dollar or less.
A couple of recent articles – one published in The Guardian, the other by David Clarke in his blog – shed new light on the process by which the UK Ministry of Defence went about closing its UFO desk in 2009.
According to Clarke, the evidence indicates that in the 1990s and 2000s there were some associated with British intelligence investigations who believed that research into unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) was warranted (the chief justification being concern over threats to national security). Nevertheless, a consensus had emerged around the mid-nineties that there remained little reason to continue the investigations. The focus of state officials then largely shifted toward two goals: (1) finding a way to end state-sponsored UFO investigation and (2) doing so in a manner that would avoid sparking a resurgence in UFO interest.
All in all, these findings – while important – are not all together surprising from a historical standpoint. My own research and the research of other historians and ufologists – most notably Kate Dorsch at the University of Pennsylvania – indicates that the work of the rather infamous Condon Committee in the U.S. during the years 1966-1968 was aimed at achieving the very same ends. And the recent revelations about the Pentagon’s Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (2008-2012) show there too that while some in the program believed there to be value in its work, others surrounding it considered it a waste of time and money.
To my mind, the most intriguing aspect of all this is the way in which all those involved considered the public relations side of things a primary focus. Sparking, maintaining, and thwarting public interest in UFOs and the possibility of extraterrestrial visitation have been a constant concern throughout the history of the UFO phenomenon. This is why, in my estimation, why one cannot write its history without paying close attention to not only the messengers, but also the media.
Last month, David Clarke posted on his blog his “Top 10 UFO Documents at the National Archives” in Kew, southwest London. An author of a number of books on the history of UFOs and ufology – most recently, UFO Drawings from the National Archives – Clarke has been the person responsible for curating and releasing the British Ministry of Defence UFO files – a massive undertaking (all told, he tells us, involving some 60,000 pages of reports and correspondence).
I had the good fortune to meet David Clarke in London last summer, where he personally introduced me to some of the archived materials held at Kew. Among other things, I had the opportunity to examine the original report of Lt. Col. Charles Halt regarding an apparent sighting in 1980 at RAF Base Bentwaters (now famously known as the “Rendlesham Forest Incident”).
Curating archival materials is arduous and sometimes rather thankless work. Those who undertake it are very often overlooked. So those of doing research on the history of the UFO phenomenon owe an enormous debt of gratitude to David Clarke, the staff at the National Archives, and those like them at other archives throughout the world.
Back to his Top Ten….Number 1 on his list?
Prime Minister Winston Churchill‘s memo to the Air Ministry, 1952: ‘What’s all this stuff about flying saucers? What is the truth?’ (PREM 11/855). His request followed a spate of sightings over Washington DC that were widely reported in the UK and international media.
An interesting article has recently appeared in the periodical University Affairs/Affaires universitaires, describing some of the new studies on the social science and history of UFOs being conducted by researchers in Canada. Matthew Hayes, Paul Kingsbury, Noah Morritt, and Laura Thursbury are among those conducting studies of ufologists and their organizations, the culture of crop circles, media responses to UFO events, and the Roswell festival. Last year, in May 2017, Thursby and Hayes hosted a conference at Trent University entitled “UFOs, Aliens, and the Academy: An Interdisciplinary Conference.” We can look forward to some fascinating new articles and books on the subject over the next few years.
*Thanks to the fascinating blog and facebook page of Andreas Sommer – Forbidden Histories – for the tip.