Ezra Keats and one special snow day

Does this illustration ring a bell? It is from a children’s book called ‘The Snowy Day’. Written in 1962 by Ezra Keats, a Brooklyn-born illustrator, this simple tale is still read by children today and I remember reading it in the 90s. Keats’ illustrations are iconic and though you may not remember the title, you certainly remember the unique collage-like and ‘blocky’ style. But if its not familiar to you, the story focuses on a little boy named Peter enjoying a particularly snowy day. What makes this children’s book so special is that Peter is African American, visible in a society that was struggling with racial hatred and the fight for civil rights. More importantly, Peter was the first black child protagonist in an American fully-coloured children’s book.

But Keats didn’t write this book to be an radical message of racial tolerance, Keats was just dismayed at the lack of African American children in books. During his acceptance speech for the prestigious Caldecott Medal, Keats cited a series of Time magazine photographs of a young black boy as his inspiration for Peter. He told the Caldecott audience that this unknown child planted the seed for Peter, one whom Keats would consistently refer back to. The thematic  mix of childhood innocence, colour blindness, and the wish for a progressive American made Keats’ book extremely popular.

However, Keats encountered criticism that his book didn’t utilise Peter’s character to address racial hatred in a radical way. Yet I still think that the timelessness of the story lies with the fact that it doesn’t directly concern issues of race, it centres around one little boy who happens to be black. In the book, Peter is undeniably and unapologetically the star without one mention of his colour, and therefore Keats never makes Peter’s race something worth debating – he is there because he has a right to be.

In 2016 Amazon produced a TV film version of The Snowy Day, mimicking Keats’ unique artwork. The film stands as a testimony for Keats’ timeless work but also perhaps as a testimony to the unaltered need for equal racial representation in children’s literature and film.

Edith Nesbit and her Victorian tales of horror

Edith Nesbit is well known for her wonderful contributions to the British canon of children’s literature. Her books have a transcendent quality. My grandparents read them, my parents did, and I was encouraged to as well. Yet, I discovered recently that Penguin re-published her collection of horror stories, titled ‘Tales of Horror’, and it includes some very creepy short stories. I cannot be alone when I confess that I had no idea that Nesbit authored four collections of horror stories. Whether or not this is down to an simple overshadowing by her acclaimed children’s books, or a more biased disbelief in the abilities of a female author to write horror, it is difficult to determine. Nevertheless, four collections of horror stories speak of Nesbit’s enthusiasm, or even a need to write using horror stylistics. Before I go into her stories, it is worth noting several biographical aspects that could shed light some light on her work…

Perhaps a more well known fact about Nesbit was her turbulent and seemingly abusive marriage to Hubert Bland in 1880, with whom she would co-found the famous socialist group the Fabian Society. Her life leading up to her marriage, aged 19, was equality as turbulent. Frequent moves around England and France with her mother and sickly sister, Mary, and the death of her father when she was just four perhaps instilled a resilience to the instability that stayed with her. I can find no other reason why Nesbit would have the courage to withstand her later lifestyle.

Hubert Bland

After falling pregnant, Bland and Nesbit married. Not long afterwards, Nesbit discovered that her husband had already fathered a child with his ailing mother’s companion. Bland would continue this pattern of self-indulgent infidelity, and would father yet another child with Nesbit’s close friend, Alice. It is a testament to Nesbit’s courage and comparative tenderness that she eventually allowed both Alice and daughter to stay within her house, Alice employed as Bland’s secretary. Her daughter was later adopted by Bland and Nesbit. It would appear that Bland’s infidelity stemmed from a desire of an open marriage, something that Nesbit was probably ignorant to until much too late, and of course a practice almost inconceivable for a wife to pursue too. Bland’s contemporaries and biographers have commented on his libertine behaviour,

He was pugnacious, powerful, a skilled pugilist, and
had a shrill, thin voice reportedly like the scream of an eagle. Nobody dared be uncivil to him.¹

 

Yet, it would seem that Bland encouraged Nesbit’s writing, if not only as a form of relatively stable income. As a man who professed he did not support women’s equal rights, and neither did Edith, it is to some credit that he was not so proud to disarm his wife of her pen. Moreover, he perhaps enjoyed the respect that was given to them as a literary couple, he with his journalism and Nesbit with her fiction. I would like to think that this kind-of partnership gave Nesbit at least some happiness and marital fulfilment in an otherwise fairly grim situation.

So this is where I turn to her horror stories. A few critics have noticed the ‘adult sadness’ present within her children’s books, and a few more have hinted that her tales of horror contain numerous superfluously perfect Victorian family norms, especially concerning the relationships between husbands and wives. But Victoria Margree has suggested that because these horror…

endings are frequently brutal, tragic and bleak, and refuse the happy endings that generic conventions compelled in her work in other genres²

 

… it has allowed Nesbit to introduce scepticism about the institution of marriage. For example, in her tale ‘The Violet Car’, an elderly couple struggle with the psychological effects of grief, injustice, and guilt after their daughter is killed by a car and the father is plagued by a ghostly vehicle that only he can see. The theme of blame and emotional suppression is obvious in this story, and Nesbit paints them as equally insidious as the supernatural apparition. The story ends with the father’s death, as if that would fix the problem, yet it only leaves the reader bleakly aware that nothing has been fixed and that the couple’s behaviour is the true horror component.

We cannot really paint Nesbit as a first wave feminist, but its evident that her life experiences and her socialist politics enabled her to question the status quo of the society in which she lived. And as with any thoroughly disturbing horror story, the heart of these stories is shot through with very human suffering, something that was all too familiar to Nesbit.

 

 

¹ Julia Briggs (2004) ‘Bland, Hubert (1855–1914)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press; online edn, May 2012, librarycatalog.vts.edu/view/article/47683

² Victoria Margee (2014) ‘The Feminist Orientation in Edith Nesbit’s Gothic Short Fiction’. Available at: http://eprints.brighton.ac.uk/13331/1/Nesbit_revised_submissionFINAL_Margree.pdf

#Book Club – Microhistories – ‘Perfume’

Microhistory is the “intensive historical investigation of a well-defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, or an individual)” (stolen from Wikipedia)

 

There has been quite a few books popping up recently that focus in on a small object or event, and then look at a larger picture in history. Its a refreshing perspective on the writing of history books, and in many ways makes vast histories of people and events more accessible. And I’m absolutely addicted to them.

As a new feature of this blog, I’m going to read and give short reviews of a few of these microhistories, beginning with ‘Perfume: A Century of Scents’ by Lizzie Ostrom (2015).


Perfume: A Century of Scents

 

The human ability to smell is not perhaps at the forefront of the list when we think about our most important human senses. Yet, smell is everywhere, and our brains are capable of storing and remembering around 10,000 various smells (according to the BBC…). Even more so, our brains constantly connect smells and scents with memories, which is why we can get all nostalgic when we catch a whiff of something, even if you can’t quite place where you’d ‘sniffed’ it before. Such is like the memories given to us by scents in the form of perfumes. Perfume is one of those things in the modern world that we often take for granted. Many of us wear it daily, or have that one bottle applied religiously on special occasions, it has become part and parcel of getting ourselves ready for life. It is because it is such an everyday thing that it is easy to forget that the wearing of scent has been around for centuries, if not millennia. Nobody would blame you if you thought there couldn’t be a rich cultural history attached to this. But as Lizzie herself comments in the first paragraph:

Scent has radiated from the the collars of politicians as they stand on the steps triumphant, and when they leave, hounded and broken. It has been dabbed on by performers getting into character  for their next role. And it has been present – even playing a supporting or confidence boosting role – in negotiations, tussles, crimes, parties, productions and seductions.

 

Lizzie, in this wonderfully glitzy hardback, reflects upon the last 100 years of perfume wearing by delving into exactly 100 different scents, popular in their time. She really captures the feel and the impact of each scent, without flapping about trying to convey the actual smell, seeing as they are, in fact, long gone. Its written in an entirely accessible way, and by no means do you have to be a history buff to follow it.

I think the best way for me to explain this book is to give you a little sniff of it:

 

Mouchoir de Monsieur by Guerlain, 1904. (p.22-23)

I thought this would be a great example from the book to illustrate whats included, not just women’s scents!

Lizzie tells us that this one by Guerlain was what was known as a ‘handkerchief’ scent. Scents in this period would often be daubed onto pieces of cloth or clothing, rather than onto the skin. This was designed to ward off the ‘bad airs’  or revive someone with the flick of your handkerchief. But, as Lizzie explains, these scents weren’t just meant to be strong and powerful, like Dettol, they were designed by expert perfumers.

Lizzie explains that this particular perfume’s cultural history ties in with the Flaneurs. This was a name given to certain men of leisure, men who wandered about towns from cafe, to  theatre, to park, seeking philosophical enlightenment (probably unsuccessfully). A little like a rich bohemian, perhaps. Finally, somehow Lizzie has been able to track down how this perfume actually smelt. She describes it as a “balance between creamy-smelling coumarin and campherous lavender” with some “typical animalic dirtiness beneath” to mimic the urban smells of the Flaneur’s city.

I quite like to imagine this book as a sort of tour-de-force exhibition on the history of perfume. In fact it would make a great physical exhibition, say, at the V&A. But for now we have Lizzie’s book, and I can only hope someone who reads this will give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.

Available at: 

Waterstones

Amazon UK

The next #BookClub microhistory will be ‘The Button Box’ by Lynn Knight.

 

 

 

MoM recommends: Fashion Museum

The Fashion Museum, in Bath, is one of those museums that could not be located in a better place. Bang in the middle of the city, and only a short walk from other attractions such as the famous Roman Baths, it gets away with charging £9 for a standard adult ticket. Rather a costly sum for most, especially in a family-touristy area, but I can tell you I was glad that I paid it.

The museum is located inside the old Assembly Rooms, built in 1769, for the Georgian social elite. This of course lends a certain added meaning to the collection on display in the museum, as each piece is of exquisite quality, just like the Assembly Rooms themselves. The museum’s main exhibition, A History of Fashion in 100 objects, has been nestled into the building’s basement, with some perfectly purpose-fitted display cases. The galleries aren’t particular large, and in fact I imagine it would get a bit claustrophobic if it was very busy. Instead its somewhat cosy, and requires you to follow the perimeter of the rooms in chronological order.

The first gallery, 1660-1770s.

The historic costumes are beautifully displayed with what appears like minimal effort. Of course we know that in fact a lot of time and design went into this, but it appears so effortless and effective. I was more than glad that they had opted to use headless mannequins to display the garments, one of my pet hates is old-style creepy mannequins (often old shop stock) so often seen in older, underfunded museums.

We were also given an audio guide, free of charge, and incredibly easy to use, and which gave us a little description for each object on display. Although the audio guide wasn’t overly informative, only a snippet of interesting background for each, it really did help me to engage with the many chronological garments. As well as this, the signs for the objects were located towards the ground, and so it limited the amount of times you had to bend your head up and down between object and interpretation.

Collection of C17th gloves with archival boxes

The majority of items on display were dresses, suits, or other quite formal items of clothing. But there were also items of underwear, hats, and shoes on display. There was also a small collection of fans and some fantastic gloves in the first gallery. Some of the gloves on display dated from the period of Shakespeare, making an excellent start to the exhibition. But from the viewpoint of a museum professional, I absolutely loved the design of the glove display. The use of archival boxes in exhibitions is fairly common these days, but its so effective. Usually freely available from your own collection, and with the added benefit of being aesthetically simple yet effective, they’re a great way to create a modern looking display without using lots of extra funds.

A macaroni’s outfit

It was made clear that each piece of clothing was selected as example of clear changes in fashion history. For example, a suit dating from the 1780s is described by the museum as an example of the kind of clothing sported by Macaronis. I’ve an endless fascination with the escapades of C.18th gentleman, especially the Grand Tour undertaken by many a young man in the making. Macaronis symbolised everything fashionable and epicene. Macaronis, kind of fops, were essentially a precursor to the more known and rather more masculine dandies of the later C.18th. As the audio guide was explaining the outfit to the right, the clothes were far narrower and more well fitted than previously more conservative styles. Another little display design I liked went with this item in the form of an C.18th caricature included next to the signage text. I always like extra interpretive material, especially if it grounds an object in the historical context it is trying to convey. C.18th caricatures have an almost innate way of being able to interpret another self-reflective perspective of an event/object/society, as they are themselves a direct product of the attitudes of the time. This allows both curators and visitors a window to engage with the object’s past in a humorous way.

Macaroni caricature
Stomacher

Another fascinating element to the exhibition was how you were encouraged to see the change in women’s history through their dress habits. The first gallery included some beautifully crafted dresses, with examples of various dress types, such as the open dress. It also showed various parts of a woman’s dress, including the horribly named ‘stomacher’, a piece of v-shaped stiff fabric placed across the stomach and chest in the inside of an open dress. It was great to see an attempt to describe the separate elements to these complicated garments, in contrast to the easier, more convenient styles later on.

The exhibition design in terms of lighting was also excellent, with signage being well lit from within, a great addition for visitors with depleted eyesight. Each garment was beautifully lit, not letting any detail get lost in shadow.

Though the Fashion Museum may not be to everyone’s tastes, I can guarantee that there is a garment for everyone here. The exhibition’s use of the ‘100 objects’ framework lends an accessibility to those without any kind of previous fashion knowledge, and yet remains fascinating and very enjoyable.

Now here’s a bonus picture:

 

A Rapid Response

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Copyright V&A Museum. V&A’s first accessioned app.

 

So this is not breaking news any more, I am more than slightly late for the party, but I think the V&A’s decision to adopt a new strategy of ‘Rapid Response Collecting’ is very cool. This was introduced in 2014, and it isn’t a ‘new’ idea per se, institutions have been collecting contemporary items for years, but the V&A have deliberately made it their business to immediately collect items from breaking events from around the world. For example, they accessioned their first phone app, Flappy Bird, after it’s creator made the mildly controversial decision to remove it for sale when the public got a little too obsessed with it. I don’t know how they plan to conserve the app, but it is nevertheless a valuable asset to a museum that focuses upon design and its impact upon society.

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Rana Plaza Building after collapse. Photo from The Telegraph Online.

My favourite, however, is the pair of cheap and dull trousers from Primark. An item that is so easily collected that anyone could do it. But what makes this item collection-worthy is the shared experience of thousands of factory workers employed at the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh to make Primark clothing, and also a building that collapsed in 24th April 2013 killing 1133 employees and injuring thousands more. This event brought to light the dangerous working conditions of those employed, just so Britain could purchase cheap garments. Also, the tragedy highlighted the rapid changing of clothing trends, and the need of the market to keep up, much to the detriment of large communities of people.

It is hard not to be awed by the complex history of a simple pair of trousers. The way that the V&A have constructed this new strategy allows them to respond quickly to modern events without the paperwork and committees needed for new acquisitions. In turn this also allows them to collect in the moment, theoretically meaning that the item chosen will have a stronger historical connection in a few decades.

Museums are no longer places that solely put the past on display, and no longer do the public take interpretation as gospel. Museums are evolving into spaces for reflection on current events, and although the public engage more critically with what they’re seeing, museums have a unique advantage in that people still trust them as an institution.

museums are not just bystanders or “witnesses to history”, they are becoming a voice and a force in shaping the social future. Museums are looking to create emotional experiences that inspire visitors to take action.”¹

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Life jackets on display. Image from http://www.unitedagainstracism.org.

This unique trust should be put to good use, and adopting a rapid collection strategy allows museums to keep up to date with social and political changes, local or global, it doesn’t matter, just engaging with their visitors. This does require a LOT of guts, many local museums perhaps do not have that levity to risk rocking the boat with local communities, as many people do still see museums in the classic, traditional framework.

Museums are also becoming more transparent in their operations and processes, involving the public more and more with the complete ‘museum process’, would this not be a brilliant time to invite visitors to discuss issues in a increasingly transparent society? The People’s History Museum in Manchester, for example, created a wooden ‘EU tunnel’ in their gallery as a place for visitors to discuss the EU Referendum. Another example, perhaps more troubling, is the installation of life jackets worn by refugees, and the stories of those who wore them, in an exhibition called Call me by my name: stories from Calais and beyond by the Migration Museum Project. The project leaders saw the opportunity to purchase these life jackets and ship them to Britain for the exhibition, and thought it would be a compelling collection of items that would challenge how visitors view migrants and refugees.

mmp-calais-facebook

On an more local museum scale, the M Shed in Bristol has a permanent exhibition about the Occupy Bristol protests in 2011. included in the exhibition are items such as a radio, placards, and other objects collected from the protest camp site. The M Shed actually opened a few months later, showing that the decision to accession these items matched the thoughts of the V&A’s Rapid Response strategy, but on a local scale.

Museums are, at heart, democratic. They should be “by rule of the commoners” and the freedom for the public to expect, and demand, exhibitions and events that reflect the rapid way in which we experience the world should be adopted as at least a ‘way-of-thinking’ in each museum. Working it into museum policy would be even better.

¹ Brown, Clare, ‘Future of Museums: Social Impact + UX + PHYGITAL’ from http://www.museum-id.com/idea-detail.asp?id=283

 

The Wipers Times

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. A battle which, in the first day alone, injured 60,000 men and wounded/killed more than 1 million soldiers in just a few months. We find it hard to truly get our heads around the horror experienced by these men, especially when statistics, artifacts, and photographs are all we have now. But there is something that we still have that gives an insight to those experiences, a perspective that is both brutal and absolutely hilarious. The Wipers Times.

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Capt. F J Roberts, M.C

This is Capt. F. J. Roberts, M.C. He was part of the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters, and stationed in Ypres Salient at the front line. Early on in 1916, Roberts and his soldiers (I’ll get to the names later on) stumbled across a printing press, apparently abandoned by a Belgian, forced to flee from his building. It was a brilliant stroke of luck that there was a sergeant in the Foresters who happened to be a printer in civilian life, and thus The Wipers Times was born.

(‘Wipers’ after the Tommy slang for ‘Ypres’)

Other contributors to the paper were Lieutenant J. H. Person DSO MC, Artilleryman Gilbert Frankau, and E. J. Couzens contributed brilliant engravings of a platoon commander that became the paper’s motif.

The Wipers Times, in essence, was a home-grown satirical magazine rather like today’s Private Eye. In fact, Ian Hislop has himself done a huge amount for pushing this piece of WWI history into the public eye, and even co-wrote BBC drama The Wipers Times in 2013. Yet I still believe this wonderful section of WWI history isn’t talked about quite enough as it deserves.

thewiperstimes
A group of soldiers reading the Wipers Times, circa 1916

The first edition was published on Saturday 12th February 1916, with 100 copies printed and distributed. Now whilst that doesn’t sound a lot, these guys were printing with limited resources, and under dangerous conditions. Plus, copies would have been read aloud communally and passed from solider to soldier. The Wipers Times was a lighthearted approach to the daily horrors of Ypres. It is also interesting to note that the paper’s name changed in accordance to the movements of the regiment, at times being the “New Church Times” and “The Kemmel Times” etc., which only fueled the amusement at their unrelenting determination to publish.

The content of this magazine was a mish-mash of amusing faux adverts, love-lorn letters to agony aunts, bets, editorials, programmes at ‘Cloth Hall’, and submissions from everyday soldiers. Before I get to the hilariously satirical material in Wipers, I just want to highlight the importance of those submissions by soldiers. Many of those submissions were poetry, often naive and overtly passionate, by amateur poets who craved an output for their strained emotions.

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No. 2: Vol. 1 – 26th February 1916

“Now hope lies buried, all that once could give a satisfaction, or could soothe the eye, with signs of work, which, being done, would help those other who with jar of rum did hasten about their nightly duty in the line.”

Although the paper teased the infantry about their incessant poetry, “We regret to announce that an insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry.” it was in-fact a genius way to get men talking about their experiences, and also letting those at home know, as a small facsimile of copies was published as soon as 1918. This was an important aspect in a time where news from the front was often ‘sugar coated’,  a fact that The Wipers Times often satirized:

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No. 2 Vol. 1 – 26th February 1916

“By Belary Helloc.” was a satirical feature of the paper. It was a crude swipe at the war commentator, Hilaire Belloc, who frequently wrote about WWI in the Land and Water magazine. His articles and political views were not met with widespread agreement from soldiers, his writing could be impersonal, cold, and less than realistic in a time where the reality was destroying lives.

Another feature that I truly love is the ‘Things we want to know’ list in each paper. This part was not meant for outsiders, it was designed to boost morale by shared experiences, and wasn’t afraid to be hilariously rude. For example,

  • “The most pop’lar tree in Belgium”
  • “The price of second-hand Flammenwerfer”
  • “Who leads in Kirchner collections” (‘kirchner’ a euphemism for local brothels)
  • “Who is it that makes an infernal din on a horn at 2am???”
  • “The name of the subaltern who told the Major that to take his wife to Nottingham Goose Fair was like taking a sandwich to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet.”

Finally, I have to mention the spoof diaries of ‘Lieut. Samuel Pepys’ entitled ‘Our Diary’ (again with the shared-experience thing) and amusingly describes the day-to-day life of a lieutenant, such as rum-drinking and brothel-attending. The lightheartedness and pomposity of the ‘diary’ almost takes away the drudgery and hurt caused by daily life. However, the idea is a product of the better educated editors (like much of the paper is), and I hope that it wasn’t lost on the majority of working class soldiers.

If you want to find out more, and read The Wipers Times for yourself, Conway have published a complete book of every edition of the paper.

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Chawton House Library

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Chawton House Library exterior

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.” – Persuasion, 1818.

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The store room

This time one month ago I was packing my bags, ready to begin a month-long residential internship at Chawton House Library. It was somewhat of a dream come true; I had visited three times before, and have always been impressed by the library in general. However, this time I was able to get behind the scenes, and try it out for myself, all the while being able to stay in the very grand converted Old Stables.

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Conservation work drying

Fast forward one week and I find myself deep into the various different aspects of running the library. Each morning I was taking the ritual readings for Environmental Monitoring, and making sure the dehumidifiers were empty for the day. I had also been taught the basics of book conservation by a very knowledgeable volunteer, learning how to repair tears, holes, and ‘lifting’ of edges. I also had the chance to assist the Wedding Manager with two Saturday weddings. As many of you probably know, the pressures of funding often means other possibilities are explored, and with CHL’s beautiful house and setting, it is ideal for the use of a beautiful wedding venue, so was a valuable experience. On top of weddings, CHL also hosts other events such as conferences and lectures, and an ever-growing programme for visitors. Even in my inexperienced eye, I can tell that in the year or so that they have been functioning both as a library and an attraction, Chawton already seems remarkably comfortable with balancing both aspects.

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Corridor leading to the Dining room

Other tasks I was busy working on included cataloguing the secondary research material donated by Deirdre Le Faye, proof reading The Solemn Injunction for their Novels Online Project, letting visitors in and out of the charming Lower Reading Room (and hearing MANY a good word), writing the information cards for the future ‘Adopt-a-book initiative’ display, and also assisting the Librarian with the general upkeep of the storeroom collection.

Alongside my work with the team, I have gained quite a good knowledge about the history of the house itself, and the grounds that surround it. CHL is unique in that it has a rich history to each aspect of the house, including the grounds, ancestry, paintings, architecture, and the collection, and is an endless source of fascination to staff and visitors alike.

The past month has been an invaluable experience, not only have I progressed my own skills, I am able to say that I have had experience with a very special collection, in a very special location, with some very special people. It has further fuelled my passion for literature and heritage, just in time to begin my Masters course in Cultural Heritage and Resource Management in the autumn. Thank you, Chawton, this is not goodbye!


Working with a special collection naturally involves handling rare and interesting items, and it would be a little mean of me not to share some of what I found with you:

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Yarrow for staunching blood
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Yarrow illustration – with seeds

A Curious Herbal (1737) by Elizabeth Blackwell is an oversized book about herbal remedies. It is an impressive and beautiful book in itself, with each remedy alongside delicate botanical illustrations. The story behind the book, however, adds a new level of meaning. A Curious Herbal was born out of a  period of financial and emotional stress, Elizabeth’s husband having gone to debtor’s prison, and it provided her with an incentive to gain financial stability and focus her mind upon something positive. Chawton’s Garden Manager has created a unique herb garden inspired by Elizabeth’s work.

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By Mary Astell – 1694

A Serious Proposal (1694) by Mary Astell is essentially a pocket sized letter addressed to the women of England, to refine their minds, not their aesthetics. Astell says, “your glass will not do you half so much service as a serious reflection on your own minds.” Not a lot is known about Mary’s biographical details, and, as a woman, details of her life were little documented. However, her ideas and publications have had a lasting effect upon feminist thought, and she promoted the idea that women were born capable of equal intelligence to men.

“If all men Men are born Free, then why are all Women born Slaves?” – Astell – ‘Reflections’ 1700.

IMG_5220Diverse Observations (1617) by Louise Bourgeois Boursier is the second publication by Louise, the first being Diverse Observations on Sterility and, as it stands, is the first known publication on midwifery by a female author.  Louise was midwife to French Royalty, and was respected enough to have been awarded 6000 livres and 300 livres a year pension by the French Royal family. She spent her retirement writing about obstetrics and passing on her knowledge to other women. Her publications were translated in several different languages, and were widely used into the 1700s.

 

 

 

WW – Margaret Fountaine, Lepidopterist extraordinaire

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LepidopteristNoun: A person who collects or studies butterflies and moths.

Margaret Fountaine, Victorian lady, and a serious lover of butterflies. Margaret spent the best part of her lifetime collecting and creating illustrated guides to her vast collection of butterflies. She was part of the Victorian craze for collecting and cataloguing natural history, but few men or women came close to her obsession. Many historians love to portray Margaret’s hobby as a convenient way to travel and escape domestic duties, there may be truth to that, but the primary fact is that she just LOVED these winged creatures.

In 1978 a trunk, left by Margaret, was opened after one hundred years according to her instructions. Inside this trunk were twelve volumes of her personal diaries, from aged 15 to her death in 1940. Having literature alongside entomology collections isn’t rare, but the amount of detail in her diaries and collections are of outstanding quality. She isn’t a lady to be ignored.

Some writer has said (I think it is Bulmer Lytton[6]) that “a woman’s whole life is a history of the affections – the heart is her world.” And indeed, there is alas!

Margaret wrote this note to go with her diaries, presumably not too long before her death, in regards to her ill-fated infatuation with a man named Septimus Hewson. Yet, I think the quote says the same for her passion for lepidopertry – it was in her heart. Just because a Victorian woman chose to travel & study rather than marry does not mean her life went unfulfilled. In fact, Margaret writes fondly of her close companion, Charles Neimy,

whose love and friendship for me endured for a period of no less than 27 years, ending only with his death, I felt a deep devotion and true affection; and certainly the most interesting part of my life was spent with him.

In Charles, Margaret found a perfect unromantic but not dispassionate person to share her hobby and life with. Maybe today we would consider them soul-mates. But that’s enough of the men, back to Margaret.

Margaret was fortunately fairly comfortably off, which allowed her to travel across the globe for rare specimens. In fact, she managed to hop around 60+ countries, across 6 continents, in a time where women did not travel as freely as perhaps men did, and especially when unaccompanied by a husband. Her diaries from these study trips thus add to the growing plethora of women’s travel writing, a genre that provides us with an insight to the freedom of movement for oppressed women and the experiences that came with it.

As well as her diary entries, Margaret also wrote numerous papers for entomology publications, helping to further the knowledge and interest surrounding butterflies. Her diaries and her outstanding collection of around 22,000 butterflies are kept in the Fountaine-Neimy collection at Castle Museum, Norwich. Her beautifully illustrated entomological sketchbooks are kept at the National History Museum in London.

 

“Not relevant to their everyday lives”: A Millennial Problem

millennialsThere has recently been a tonne of discussion surrounding Millennials, and how on earth do Museums engage them?

I find this question of Millennials in museums especially interesting and relevant considering I am one who both visits and works in them. Also, when you think about it, a large number of young people make up a museum’s workforce. Probably most of the people I know in museums are under 35.

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In 2013 Time issue this cover, addressing the warped opinions about Millenials.

Now, I don’t think this is a new ‘phenomenon’, but young people are working in museums probably more than perhaps three or four decades ago. But how do we encourage young visitors to fully engage with museums? Firstly we need to get rid of any preconceptions about millennials, just as Time Magazine wanted to do in 2013. Despite what the media loves to report as a growing tidal wave of narcissistic and idle youths, a recent survey highlighted the fact that out of a choice of valuing a good career trajectory against a good social life, most chose the first. Perhaps this is because of a deep dissatisfaction with the movement of careers, many of us feel as though its near impossible to graduate and get a job in your desired sector within a few months. Just as people believe money will equal happiness, many believe the same for a good job.

So, who can blame us for wanting to relax? There is perhaps a misconception for many young people, especially those who didn’t grow up with trips to cultural venues, that museums require serious thinking and a lot of spare time. With this train of thought, it isn’t purely because millennials don’t care enough about their heritage, its a question of accessibility.

But many museums are hosting late night arts and culture events to cater for those millennials who work during the day, and do indeed like a party in the evening. Much of these events are proving extremely popular, even if they are only feasible for larger museums.

There is a lot more to late night events than just keeping the doors open for an extra few hours, and music, DJ sets, poetry readings and film screenings regularly feature.

Julie Nightingale wrote a great article for MA about millennials in museums, who points out that a huge variety of events need to be offered if a museum is providing late nights, not all young people enjoy loud music and dance, and the same can be said about interactive workshops. She also points out that if museums are to take on this task then it should be vital to communicate with local universities, youth clubs, colleges, employers etc not only to get the word out, but to learn what those young people in their area are looking for. In other words, setting up Youth Panels should be a given. But evening events aren’t the only option we should be considering, a regular timetable of classes, workshops, lectures, and temporary exhibitions at various hours of the day should be on the card; not all millennials enjoy late nights.

What I believe to be the most effective answer for the future, is to encourage the next generation of 18-35 year olds by engaging them now as a family. Kids in Museums commissioned a review entitled ‘Hurdles to the participation of children, families and young people in museums.’ which, in short, showed that if parents had not regularly taken their children to cultural venues, then these children grew up with a “negative view of museums as remote and inaccessible, and not relevant to their everyday lives.”¹ And I truly believe that is this idea that museums do not fit into the ‘everyday’ that stops many millennials from engaging.  The defining features of our generation, arguably, is our interest in diversity, culture, technology, self-expression, and everything unique. Therefore ensuring that all museums try to host events and put on exhibitions that are relevant to the shared experience of young people is the tool to unpick the issue.

Here is a list of exhibitions that are accessible for all but particularly young people:

(Of course these are all subjective to personal interests)

¹ Whitaker, Sally. Hurdles to the participation of children, families and young people in museums: a literature review. Kids in Museums. p.2