WW: Princess Sophia the Suffragette

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I don’t know how many of you have seen the film Suffragette staring Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, and various other very famous very white actresses, but there’s no doubt many people worldwide have done. Before I go into this I want to say that I definitely enjoyed the film, it was visually great, script was quite good, acting excellent, and it focused upon the working class suffragettes. But they were all white. Now, it is most likely that white British women were the majority, yet there seems to be an abyss where all suffragettes of colour disappear into. I don’t want to go into a fully blown debate on whether or not Suffragette was a product of ‘Hollywood’ white-washing, but I do want to tell you about Princess Sophia.

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Sophia Duleep Singh campaigning

Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of the last king of the Sikh Empire, Maharaja Duleep Singh. Her father was close to Queen Victoria, she had introduced the princess as a débutante, and the family had a respected standing within the British royalty. We know that there were plenty of well off and middle class white suffragettes within the movement, but less is discussed about the participation of Indian women from the Empire. Seeing as the British Empire grew to a ridiculous scale, I almost feel a duty to these ‘other’ suffragettes to follow up their stories and contributions.

Sophia was not the only Indian suffragette. An Indian women’s group took part in the 1911 coronation procession of 60,000 suffragettes.¹

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Ada Wright with Police on Black Friday.

Princess Sophia was not cautious of the effect of her suffragette status upon her royal status, and vice versa. Quite the opposite in fact. In 1910 she led a demonstration alongside the very Mrs Pankhurst as a reaction to the rejection of the Conciliation Bills, which would have given the right to vote to over 1,000,500 wealthier women. It would have been a parliamentary start to female equality. To those unfamiliar with this event, it was dubbed ‘Black Friday’ after it was made clear that 150-200 women were injured after riots broke out between suffragettes and police. Alongside her diplomatic immunity, Sophia also had contacts within the Indian Nationalist Movement, securing herself as an outright rebel, and used her wealth to help fund the Suffragettes. So much so that she was eventually disowned by her father after an arrest warrant stopped her from travelling to India. Fortunately for Sophia, this wasn’t as disastrously problematic as it would have been for the working class suffragettes. Sophia would carry on participating and vocalising injustices such as battling gender inequality in the British army, and her very presence in India in 1924 helped booster the Indian Suffrage movement.

A few other quick facts:

  • Princess Sophia would mostly dress in Edwardian styles, and rarely in traditional Indian dress.
  • Her mother sadly died of typhoid when Sophia was just 10 years old.
  • In 1909 she joined the WSPU, a controversial Suffragette movement that used militant tactics such as violence and hunger strikes.
  • Her hobby of cycling brought her to become the poster girl for the activity, encouraging women to embrace it when it was still considered vulgar and dangerous for women.

 

¹ British Library intro to Sophia Duleep Singh, http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item124196.html

M Shed: Things I REEEALLY liked.

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It has taken me near enough 22 years to visit Bristol, even though it is only a two and a half hour drive from where I live. Bristol didn’t fill me with thoughts of a vibrant and artistic city, but BOY I was wrong. There is a myriad of local and semi local museums/heritage sites, and the majority are free entry. As you can imagine, then, I spent a large percentage of my time making the rounds with my boyfriend in tow.

We started off with M Shed. I had previously googled this museum for background info, and described itself in a way that focused upon Bristol’s industrial heritage. I’m more about ‘social’ history, people, stories, social change etc, so the possibility of seeing machine after machine didn’t appeal at first. It is true that outside the museum it has some very large but very impressive 1951 electric dock cranes. The best thing about these is that they are working museum pieces, and were restored by a lot of TLC from volunteers. I started to change my mind by this point – they are just that impressive.

M Shed is an enormous building, with three floors of exhibitions and collections. Each floor is themed, starting off with the various sections that Bristol is split in to. The first is dedicated to the people of Bristol, and the second floor to Bristonian life. This museum isn’t just about Bristol’s industrial heritage, so by now I’m wondering about pleased as punch. I won’t ramble on about what M Shed displays, you can see that for yourself one day. However, I do want to ramble about the way they have displayed.

Features of M Shed I REEEALLY liked:

For this I will enlist the use of a list, because its easy and not boring:

  1. image8(1)I loved the use of this old illustrated map as a background for a large case. Its a great way to make an impactful [not a word I know] use of document and photograph collections.

 

 

 

  1. image7(1)The ground floor that is dedicated to places was sectioned, with various bits of the outer wall split up into Bristol’s numerous districts. Here they have used smaller floating cases filled with what local residents felt most summed-up their district. This is an effective way not only to engage with the community, but also provide a town/city with depth, showing us that Bristol does have a collective history, but each place also has it’s own distinct voice.

 

  1. Also another great way to display photograph collections and get kids to engage with them. This may look clunky, but the orange colour and wheel handle make it fun, not to mention the design suited the industrial aspects of the museum. M Shed had three of these and it was almost permanently in use by small children running between them.

 

 

 

  1. Now, the tiny image9(1)toy boats. I stood looking at these for a long time. They had been placed in cut-out sections of the museum wall that faced the docks, looking over the boats and machinery. I thought it was a brilliant way to bring the outside in, and also make use of some uninspiring toy boats. This is clearly a design feature of the building, therefore hard to copy, but nevertheless a very creative way to use physically tiny collections.

 

  1. image2(1)I have left the best for last. As I have said, the first floor was dedicated to the stories of Brisonians. This was the first space in which you were deliberately guided through exhibits. Above the panels and cases were long signs asking very personal and possibly quite troubling questions. The one in the photo below was above a case showing objects collected from the 2011 Occupy Bristol protest which lasted about 2/3 months in a public park. Mostly I admired M Shed’s sense of urgency to display such a recent and controversial event, especially adding it not as a temporary feature, but to their permanent exhibition.

WW – Mary “Perdita” Robinson

‘Women Wednesday’ will hereby be a pit-stop, quick-fire, on-the-go history of numerous historical women. Historical men are great, too, but who doesn’t love an underdog? I plan to take a sneaky peak at those women who got lost in translation.

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Quick note – ignore that this was posted on a Thursday. It won’t happen again. Maybe.

Anyway, I want to introduce you to the badass Mary Robinson (née Darby) 1757 – 1800.

Mary was, in essence, a kind of human embodiment of the 18th century fascination with both morality and debauchery. Her careers included actress, author, and mistress, all of which caused a cocktail of fame and ridicule in the public eye.

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Caricature of Mary & Prince of Wales. Much satire would be produced about them.

Now, Mary didn’t lead a ‘bad’ life, but it wasn’t easy being a woman in the 1700s, let alone a woman with several lovers and some naughty literature under your skirts. Her father, having galloped off with another woman when Mary was young, was the beginning of her bad luck. Following this, and a brief interlude of acting, her mother married her off to a money-squandering scoundrel who ended up in debtor’s jail (they eventually separated, but this was the least of her troubles). Mary then went back to acting as a way of financial support. This, pretty much, is where she gets shoved into the sour limelight.

It was her performance as “Perdita” in Florizel and Perdita  that caught the regal eye of George IV, Prince of Wales (who, may I add, was a few years her junior) and consequently bribed into becoming his mistress. Mixed feelings on her part, euphoric on his. Unsurprisingly, the boy Prince of Wales then got bored, and poor Mary was kicked out without a redundancy package, with just her damaged reputation in tow.

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Excellent biography and worth reading for more on her life.

It was now that Mary started to swing between more high-profile lovers, and write seriously, contributing some amazing works to 18th Century literature. I will highlight two of her writings, Sappho and Phaon: A Series of Legitimate Sonnets, and A Letter to the Women of England

– Mary also contributed much to the emergence of Romanticism, but that’s a whole other story.

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Title page of ‘Sappho and Phaon’. Copyright (c) 2000, University of California

In short, Sappho and Phaon is a ~naughty~ poem. But a naughty poem that was way ahead of it’s time, and one that is arguably proto-feminist. It concerns Sappho, an ancient authoress, and Phaon her lover. Now, Mary deliberately uses Sappho as a character to convey her own romantic and sexual experiences. Themes of sex in 18th century literature were usually rare, covert, and almost always masculine. So not only does Mary dare to write about this, she also writes about this from her perspective. Bad. Ass.

Three years after this, and a year before her death, Mary would pen a letter to the women of England. In this letter, she draws attention to the issues and injustices against English women. Most interestingly is that Mary writes this after the death of the famous proto-feminist Mary Wallstonecraft,

I will not expatiate largely on the doctrines of certain philosophical sensualists, who have aided in this destructive oppression, because an illustrious British female, (whose death has not been sufficiently lamented, but to whose genius posterity will render justice) has already written volumes in vindication of The Rights of Woman.

Mary clearly saw her strength of character and intelligence in Mary Wollstonecraft, and this letter in her memory thus serves as a kind of reiteration of her progressive beliefs. Mary was ruthless, even to the end.

She died in 1800 at the age of 43, partially paralysed, very ill, and unfortunately in poverty.

 

You need to know about: Edward King

I recently visited Portsmouth Museum, and those who are familiar with Portsmouth are aware of it’s rich naval history and museums relating to such. However, I was pleasantly surprised to have been greeted with an art exhibition as the first port-of-call there. The artist in question is the quite unknown Edward King. Born in 1862, and living through both wars, he died of a stroke at St James’ Hospital in Portsmouth in 1951. He made the move to St James’ after a breakdown after the death of his wife. Consequently he was plagued by depression, and spent 26 years in the institution. But rather like many other famous artists, King’s work was revered during these troubled times.

“If you can see light, shade and shadow, you can paint and the picture will come.”  – Edward King.

The exhibition was split into lose segments, grouping his work into themes such as his work depicting the WWII bombing of Portsmouth, fishing, and rural scenes. His painting technique includes a particularly warm feeling even to those of bombed buildings. In turn this creates a sense of hope in the morning after, the feeling of warm sunshine that somehow belittles the harrowing nature of the attacks, and shows that Portsmouth will steadfastly carry on.

King, Edward; High Street, Old Portsmouth; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/high-street-old-portsmouth-24193
King, Edward; High Street, Old Portsmouth; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/high-street-old-portsmouth-24193

Another feature I observed was his use of near-impasto painting technique, as can be observed in Cabbage Field on the farm at St James’ Hospital, 1941 (see below). This use of impasto, alongside the use of perspective, draws you deep into the scene an creates the illusion you are either part of the farming staff, or a casual walker wondering past this beautiful scene. It does give you the impression that Edward King saw beauty in the darkest of his experiences, as St James’ Hospital was an Asylum.

In regards to the displaying and conveying of Edward King’s work and history, PM did a paired-back, engaging, but altogether wonderful job. I have seen comments from people who have wondered why his works aren’t available to see, this was a few years ago, and seems to be a man that belongs to Portsmouth. It is evident that the museum is lucky and holds an extensive collection, seeing as King gave many of his paintings away, and we are met by a self-portrait at the beginning giving us an immediate connection with this local man.

King, Edward; Self Portrait; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-24363
King, Edward; Self Portrait; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-24363

I enjoyed the basic but modern signage as it let the paintings do most of the story-telling. It was also the little touches, like the quotes and his signature on the walls, that helped to bring the character alive as well as the paintings. In terms of connecting this exhibition with the community, it was indeed minimal. However, the use of a washing-line with memories of Portsmouth residents pegged to it, plus the space in the centre for quiet study, acknowledged the city’s links with WWII and the University’s Art School. Moreover, it reminded people that like WWII, King has not left Portsmouth’s conciousness just yet, and his artistic influence will continue to stir up thought in people’s minds.

Photos from the exhibition

 

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Generation Game

How did you feel when you last visited a museum? Did you feel like the exhibitions were accessible? How much technology was employed? As brilliantly pointed out by Hamish Robinson in April’s edition of Museum’s Journal,

“The key issue is how prepared are our institutions and societies for living in not just an ageing, but aged, world?”¹

Perhaps this thought has been sparked because a large amount of new technology and scientific advancement stands to prolong life, and, although there is a large number of octogenarians who are tech-savvy, many aren’t and for various reasons will not learn these new skills. This is just an observation, but it leads me on to ask what are museum’s doing to accommodate the 80+ visitor.

Sensory and cognitive functions can, and often, diminish in later life. Pair this with an ageing populace, museums are left wondering how much are they truly engaging with their elderly visitors. Whilst features such as interactive screens, virtual reality, and other technologies that require a certain level of sensory engagement are fantastic for those who have grown up with it, it can be alienating for those who haven’t.

So what can we do?

Firstly, there has always be debate and a beady eye kept on the standards of sign usage in order to constantly offer peak accessibility for those who choose to read the history. However, I tend to feel that our generation is, rightly or wrongly so, opting out of reading what they can see and feel. I cannot be the only one that has visited an exhibition on a time limit and later, from the comfort of home, researched the topic myself online. Therefore I often feel that keeping descriptions and short histories black text on white, bold, un-crowded, and with short sentences will often convey information better. Its wonderful to go to a museum and feel they are sharing as much knowledge as possible, yet more is sometimes less. This is even more so when we consider those with concentration difficulties.

Other areas such as lighting can help with understanding. Darker exhibitions can feel claustrophobic and can somewhat suppress the absorption of information when your sight is deteriorating. Plenty of seating is also another feature crucial to encouraging older visitors, having several displays at seating level provides a calmer and more comfortable way to engage with information. And, in terms of technology, those museums with the funding or contacts, could also consider how some use of specialist technology can also help the older generation.

I can propose no immediate solution to this, it is a complex and possibly expensive issue, however I do believe that museums should take advantage of their mixed audience and gather as much generational feedback as possible. How does a family, say a grandchild and a grandparent, react to a single exhibition, did they absorb the same information, if not then why? Striking the right balance will be tricky, trying to create an ageless, but an all catered for space can be done but with plenty of marketing and demographic feedback (which can be a task for visitors and museum staff alike).

¹ Robertson, Hamish, ‘The challenge of preparing for the aged world’ (Museums Journal vol 116 no 4, April 2016)