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Lauren Padgett, Review: ‘Curating the Nineteenth Century’, Colloquium of the Nineteenth-Century Studies, 28 November 2015, University of Leicester

2016 January 15
by lucinda matthews-jones

Lauren Padgett is a PhD student at Leeds Trinity University. Her doctoral research explores representations of Victorian women in contemporary museum displays in the Yorkshire and Humber region. Lauren has a BA in History and English and a MA in Museum Studies, and worked in museums for several years.

On Saturday 28th November, 2015 was the second meeting of the Colloquium of Nineteenth-Century Studies, hosted at the University of Leicester. The theme was ‘Curating the Nineteenth-Century’. The day consisted of presentations by researchers whose utilise/d nineteenth-century collections in museums, talks by collaborations between researchers and museums, introductions to research which explores twenty-first-century curation of the nineteenth-century and discussions about CDAs (collaborative doctoral awards) with museums. The day started with a welcoming address by Professor Gail Marshall, the colloquium organiser.

The first panel had two talks, the first by Rachel Bates (nee Anchor, University of Leicester) and Alastair Massie (Head of Academic Access, National Army Museum) entitled ‘The After-Life of the Crimea and the National Army Museum: A CDA Project’. Rachel and Alastair explained the process and benefits of the CDA between the University of Leicester and the National Army Museum. This resulted in Rachel’s completed doctoral project investigating the ‘cultural imagination’, public reactions and responses to the Crimean War using objects and archival material from the Museum’s collections. Rachel spoke positively about the support and supervision she received from the Museum. Alastair discussed opportunities that the CDA had brought the Museum, such as hosting conferences/events and collaborative journal articles. Another outcome of this CDA was that Rachel’s research significantly contributed to the Museum’s understanding of its collections and the thesis itself provided a framework for gallery refurbishments at the Museum. Alastair emphasised the importance of choosing an appropriate museum for a CDA, for example consider whether the museum’s collections provide enough material for a viable doctoral project and does the museum have the staffing expertise required to co-supervise a PhD?

The second talk was by Jane Hamlett (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Hannah Fleming (Curator: Exhibitions and Interpretation, Geffrye Museum of the Home) on ‘Curating Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London’. [1] Jane and Hannah reflected on the process of working together to translate Jane’s research project ‘At Home in the Institution? . . .’ into the public exhibition Homes of the Homeless at the Geffrye Museum in 2015. [2] Hannah explained that a lack of existing nineteenth-century working class material culture meant that the exhibition was graphic and text focussed, centring on narratives and experiences of being homeless, supplemented with objects and material culture when possible. The exhibition had participatory elements to it, for example visitors could pick rope (oakum picking), a task endured by workmates in Victorian workhouses, or lie down in a reconstructed Salvation Army coffin bed. The partnership had mutually benefitted both. From Jane’s point of view, the exhibition had reached new audiences that academic research may not necessarily come into contact with (such as families and the local community); it was a good tool to widely diffuse her research. While the Geffrye Museum had hosted a successful and popular exhibition which utilised its collections.

The second panel consisted of three talks by Jack Gann, myself (both at Leeds Trinity University) and Cintia Velazquez Marroni (University of Leicester) about our doctoral projects which explore twenty-first-century curation of the nineteenth-century. Jack’s talk ‘Turning the Museum into Shop Windows for the Man in the Street’ presented elements of his research which explores the Victorian street display in contemporary museums. This style of display is not a new interpretive technique, as Jack explained that the International Health Exhibition in 1884 had a reconstructed ‘old London street’. Jack is particularly interested in how visitors interact with these types of displays, observing that visitors of Victorian street scenes in museums interact and act differently compared to traditional museum displays (object and label displays). Visitors on these streets act less like museum visitors and more like shoppers browsing shop windows and goods.

A reproduction of a woodcut depicting the reconstructed ‘Old London Street’ at the International Health Exhibition, 1884. Image from Wellcome Library, London.

A reproduction of a woodcut depicting the reconstructed ‘Old London Street’ at the International Health Exhibition, 1884. Image from Wellcome Library, London.

My talk entitled ‘Work in Progress: Representations of Victorian Women in Museums’ summarised previous studies over the last few decades that had analysed how women more generally are represented in museum displays. While further analysis is needed, I presented some initial findings and analysis from my pilot study at Abbey House Museum (Leeds Museums) of its Victorian street displays. For example, I pointed out examples of gender neutral language in the interpretation and instances of when the history and experience of both Victorian women and men are represented, such as the different mourning periods for a wife mourning a husband and a husband mourning a wife are acknowledged. I highlighted reconstructed gendered spaces, such as the pub, the school and washer women’s cottage.

The interior of the washer women’s cottage on one of the Victorian streets at Abbey House Museum, Leeds. The interpretation explains Victorian washing practices, the job role of the Victorian washer woman and mentions secretive washing by Victorian men. Photo taken by Lauren Padgett.

The interior of the washer women’s cottage on one of the Victorian streets at Abbey House Museum, Leeds. The interpretation explains Victorian washing practices, the job role of the Victorian washer woman and mentions secretive washing by Victorian men. Photo taken by Lauren Padgett.

Cintia’s talk ‘Curating Diaz and the Porfiriato 1877 – 1910’ introduced her research which examines museum visitors’ historical understanding of and responses to representations of President Diaz and the Porfiriato period in two history museums in Mexico. [3] Cintia examined the curatorial approaches to representing Diaz and the Porfiriato by the two museums and interviewed visitors to gauge public opinion about Diaz after viewing the displays. The Q&A at the end of the panel raised interesting thoughts about the place museum exhibitions have in shaping the general public’s understanding of the nineteenth-century. Should museums perpetuate popular culture (even if wrong) or attempt to challenge popular culture at risk of alienating audiences by presenting an unfamiliar representation of the nineteenth-century?

An illustration called ‘Natural History’ by the Dalziel Brothers from Griset’s Grotesques by Ernest Griset (1867) satirising pseudo-naturalists. Image scanned and text by Simon Cooke, Victorian Web

An illustration called ‘Natural History’ by the Dalziel Brothers from Griset’s Grotesques by Ernest Griset (1867) satirising pseudo-naturalists. Image scanned and text by Simon Cooke, Victorian Web

After a lunch break, the third panel was about the project ‘Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries’ (ConSciCom), as introduced by Gowan Dawson (University of Leicester), which examines the participation by the public in the nineteenth-century with citizen or amateur science, with a view of translating these models and methods of interaction to the twenty-first-century digital age. [4] The project is a partnership between several museums, organisations and institutions, drawing upon their collective expertise, collections and archives. As part of ConSciCom, Geoff Belknap is examining the communication of science through illustrations within nineteenth-century Natural History periodicals, while Matthew Wale is investigating how the periodicals facilitated the involvement of amateurs. Both researchers are extensively using the collections and archives at the Natural History Museum.

There was a workshop on ‘Working with Museums’ where the attendees had an opportunity to split into two groups to discuss amongst themselves and, more importantly, with museum professionals from the Geffrye Museum, National Army Museum and National Railway Museum about how academic institutions can work more with museums. It was acknowledged that CDAs cannot be doctoral projects which essentially catalogue or rationalise the collections for the museum with doctoral students taking on the role of archivist or collections assistant. The CDAs need to be research intensive and innovative. Many museums are keen to diversity their research outputs so interdisciplinary CDAs (for example, science and literature or geography and history) may more be appealing. Many of the museums have existing long-term relationships with academic institutions, or research centres within them, so a new collaboration must be justifiable in terms of the legacy, publicity, research area and output. CDAs and research-based exhibitions (like Jane’s) are not the only way academic institutions or individual researchers can work with museums. Other ways include participating with a museum’s public programme (such as talks or study days), working on a collaborative blog, online exhibition and publication together, or co-organising events (such as conferences). Following a break, there was a plenary discussion where conversations continued about working with museums, such as the logistics of CDAs and geographical proximity needed between the museum and academic institution. A possible bias towards major London-based museums (neglecting local, private and Northern museums) was noted. Discussions moved onto the next colloquium meeting with a possible suggested theme being the digital nineteenth-century.

The day ended with the annual Victorian Studies lecture. Professor Simon Knell (University of Leicester) spoke about ‘The Politics of National Galleries’, drawing from material from his forthcoming book National Galleries: The Art of Making Nations (January 2016). Knell took us on a whistle-stop tour around the world showing us an array of national galleries explaining how the architectural style of the building, the contents and curation of them reflected the nation’s history, and past and present political ideology. We travelled from the conservative National Gallery in London built in the nineteenth-century to Berlin’s celebrating the unification of Germany to Costa Rica’s national gallery in a converted airport terminal, to name a few. The lecture was fascinating and I am eagerly awaiting the publication of the book.

The colloquium was a great day. As an ex-museum profession, I was pleased with the enthusiasm about the opportunities that museums can potential provide the Academy, and vice versa. The innovative and varied collaborative work already happening between museums and researchers was interesting to learn about. It was great to continue conversations about curating the Victorian period/nineteenth-century. I feel that there is much more to be discussed and debated about this overlooked research area.

Thanks to Gail Marshall and her colleagues from the Victorian Studies Centre and the School of Museum Studies at University of Leicester for organising the colloquium.

[1] Dr Oliver Betts reviewed the exhibition for JoVC Online. See Oliver Betts, ‘Review: Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London Exhibition’, http://blogs.tandf.co.uk/jvc/2015/07/08/homes-of-the-homeless/ [created 8 July 2015]

[2] For more information about the ‘At Home at the Institution? Asylum, School and Lodging House Interiors in London and South East England, 1845 – 1914’ project, see https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/history/research/researchprojects/athomeintheinstitution/athomeintheinstitution.aspx.

[3] Porfirio Diaz was the President of Mexico from 1876 to 1911. The period of his regime is known as the Porfirato. He is a controversial figure as he seized power via a coup and initially brought about internal stability and modernisation; his eventual repressive regime resulted in him being overthrown.

[4] To find out more information about the ConSciCom project, visit http://conscicom.org/.

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