Mediterranean material culture from prehistory to now

Back in March my chapter on material culture for the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Mediterranean History came out.

It was a challenging exercise to condense into 8000 words the essence of the study of material culture in a Mediterranean geo-historical context and also to represent all periods of human history at the same time.

I have always been interested in the making and circulation of objects and this interest has never really obeyed traditional geographic or period boundaries. I feel as comfortable analysing an inventory of a 12th-century monastic treasury as I do trawling through 19th century order books. I know my way around early medieval metalwork as much as I do modern souvenirs in social history collections.

My background in museology has without doubt influenced my points of view and perceptions. As someone professionally involved in the presentation and interpretation of artefacts I am responsible for finding out what stories objects can tell, while also presenting a lens on the world through human creativity and productivity.

Finger ring, reusing a late Roman agate seal, from southern Italy, late 7th century (credit: Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli).

Finger ring, reusing a late Roman agate seal, from southern Italy, late 7th century (credit: Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli).

This attitude towards historical material culture and our sources for it is summed up in the first paragraph of my chapter:

The creation and use of complex tools are distinguishing traits of the human animal. As such, material culture is intrinsic to the humanities, whether approached through archaeology, anthropology, history, art or museology.

Fundamentally this chapter attempts to blow apart academic tendencies to narrow down–but this doesn’t mean that it eschews detail and depth. It provides food for thought on how we understand people’s relationships with things, with production and with consumption. That the basic need for humans to have and exchange commodities is as crucial to life as food and water. Most studies of material culture tend to speak in non-human terms, are clinical and distant from experience, or otherwise concerned with artistic conceits.

Ore procurement book from Grenfell and Co. copper company (credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Aylesbury).

Ore procurement book of Grenfell and Co. copper company (credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Aylesbury).

I was inspired in part by Fernand Braudel’s approach to studying and comparing economic and material life, and in part the seminal work edited by Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things. The abstract to my chapter explains its contents.

This chapter explores how the study of material culture illuminates Mediterranean history in new ways. Early discoveries in the Mediterranean influenced the development of material culture studies from archaeological classification to the phenomenon of making collections of classical artefacts during the Grand Tour which formed the basis of modern museums. Taking inspiration from Braudel’s other paradigm on the inter-relationship between economic and material life, this chapter then presents a series of vignettes on the materiality of eating, sitting and sleeping, which address how and why Mediterranean object cultures should be perceived in a globally-comparative context. There follow three epochal studies that apply Braudel’s global approach as well as object biography and documentary reconstruction to provide new perspectives on the prehistoric, ancient, medieval, early modern, modern and contemporary Mediterranean, taking examples from ceramics, the copper industry, the consumption of silk, textile conservation, souvenirs and mass craft manufacturing.

Cornish heritage is a man’s game

Geevor, near Pendeen, one of Cornwall's last mineral mines, now a heritage site and museum.

Geevor, near Pendeen, one of Cornwall’s last mineral mines, now a heritage site and museum.

Cornwall Councillor Bert Biscoe today published a really thought-provoking article on the recommencement of mining in Cornwall:

To manicure or mine, Cornwall’s modern dilemma.

Amongst other points he raises the issues of the tensions between preservation, environmental sustainability and economic gain; he also makes the point many of us have been thinking about not really articulating, that will this perceived economic boon really benefit the Cornish economy in terms of jobs, incomes and keeping a fair share of the profits? Considering the international consortium that is spear-heading the prospecting who is asking the right questions and seeking these assurances of local communities and Cornwall as a whole?

Surely our politicians can’t be so naïve to assume that any mining back in Cornwall is somehow a manna from heaven?

But that is not the point of this post. I have no quarrel with these excellent points.

Cllr Biscoe’s article begins with this sentence:

“Good news that Cornish tin has quickly become economic to mine. It is no shock to those who, like many Cornishmen all over the World, closely study the metals markets and geology. It offers an opportunity to rekindle skills and wealth generation and also to place Cornwall once again in the forefront of economic life – innovating, supplying, managing risk and prospecting.”

That such a statement could come so naturally, and be made without need for qualification in this day and age seems to me astonishing.

The Hypatia Trust recently commenced a project called History 51: Unveiling Women in Cornwall and Scilly. History 51 aims to rebalance Cornish narratives about the past by flooding public consciousness with information on the lives and achievements of women both in traditionally male industries and walks of life, as well as those dominated by women. The project is based on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection whose books, archives and reference material bring together just some of the work of and about women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

Yesterday I attended an excellent field trip organised by the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall to Wheal Jane, Baldhu, near Truro. I later posted to the Elizabeth Treffry Collection’s Facebook group  how heartening it was so see so many women working at Wheal Jane in internationally-important laboratories processing and analysing minerals and ore, and much more besides.

Cllr Biscoe’s starting sentence of course did not intend to be sexist but in the context of the above, what does it say about Cornish identity and heritage more generally? That such a statement could come so naturally, and be made without need for qualification in this day and age seems to me astonishing.

To me this highlights the great gulf between our public narrative, dominated by (small c) conservative politicians and the fear-mongering media, and reality. The irony here is that much of the management of Cornish heritage is under the care of women.

We clearly have a lot of work to do. The parlance of Cornish history, identity and heritage is entirely dominated by stories of men and a masculine take on the past.

You seldom read the words of women who have something to say about Cornwall and Cornishness.

You will note that women make up more than half of our population, always have done and always will–we are the 51%.

One commentator on Facebook said:

“A lecturer on Cornish mining told me (this century) that women didn’t use to work underground in Cornish mines because a Cornishman was too much of a genetleman [sic].”

Cornwall used to a hotbed for radicalism and thinking differently. Think about what Methodism and Non-Conformism used to be about?

This conscious and unconscious privileging of some occupations over others has just reinforced the partial narratives of our past. Why do we romanticise and get nostalgic about those at the rock face but not about our midwives? Why do we privilege ‘bread winning’ occupations over ‘bread making’ occupations?

Women are just as much to blame for maintaining the silence of their female ancestors because they loyally adhere to what they have been made to believe are the most ‘important’ aspects of their heritage.

The emphasis on Cousin Jacks in the parlance of the World Heritage Site is regrettable. This stems both from folklore and school education. It then enters our history books, then onto our heritage interpretation and then into the vocabulary of the marketeers and PR officers.

Cornwall used to a hotbed for radicalism and thinking differently. Think about what Methodism and Non-Conformism used to be about? I find it very frustrating that this has been displaced by a general feeling of apathy, lack of aspiration and fear. Its impact on girls and women, boys and men, is plain to see in almost every Cornish town.

If only both boys and girls in Cornwall were given the opportunity to learn more about the diversity in their heritage, things may start to change. But while we privilege the vocabulary and narratives of men  we are a long way off.

History 51 and All Our Stories

History 51 logoIn November 2012 the Hypatia Trust was awarded £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s All Our Stories programme for a project entitled History 51: Unveiling Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

History 51 has been designed as a community-led project  based on the Hypatia Trust’s Elizabeth Treffry Collection to trace the journeys, make things inspired by, and document and publish the life stories of historical Cornish and Scillonian women.

Why we applied

At the instigation of Hypatia Trust Founder-Chairman Melissa Hardie, I was commissioned to design the project and write the application. This was my first attempt at writing a funding application for someone or an organisation other than myself and so I was personally delighted that it was successful. However, on a more altruistic level, I was pleased that the subject of women’s history was deemed worthy enough to fund.

Is it really a niche or minority subject to study and promote the history of 51% of our population?

Part of the Judith Cook archive, Elizabeth Treffry Collection.

Part of the Judith Cook archive, Elizabeth Treffry Collection.

The small team that runs the Hypatia Trust has long lamented the seeming dearth of women’s history in history curricula across school, further and higher education. Many women’s history courses have been displaced by more theoretical programmes on gender history, which is not at all the same thing. Is it really a niche or minority subject to study and promote the history of 51% of our population?

With the recent appalling treatment of the Women’s Library in London we felt there was no better time to do our bit to raise public awareness about the importance of women’s history for everyone, women and men, old and young.

When I became Honorary Curator for the Hypatia Trust my immediate priority was to find a way to dramatically raise the profiles of the historical women that the Elizabeth Treffry Collection represents. This, in my view, was more important than immediately focusing inward on cataloguing the collection itself. Melissa Hardie and previous Hypatia volunteers had already undertaken significant work through the Trust’s publishing and indexing activities. What was needed now was a project that had the potential make a much wider impact.

History 51 and me

Cornwall is a deeply patriarchal part of the UK. This is reflected in our politics, media, industries and job market.

History 51 is also personal voyage of discovery. I have not undertaken women’s history, to speak of, for many years. However my curiosity and sense of duty have been peaked. Cornwall is a deeply patriarchal part of the UK. This is reflected in our politics, media, industries and job market.

That’s not to say women aren’t doing anything. They are, but their work is not recorded or noted in the same way as that of men. I want this HLF project to be the beginning of a radical new movement to raise the profile of women and women’s heritage.  Women are in the majority and yet the structures of traditional historical study do not allow for the subject to be considered as anything other than a marginal element of social history. This is wrong.

Designing History 51

We had two unique selling points. Firstly that our project would represent the biggest under-represented group in the UK, i.e. women, and secondly that it would advance the history of a currently marginalised aspect of British history, that of Cornwall and Scilly.

HLF’s All Our Stories programme (now closed) was a fantastic opportunity for many local groups, networks and societies to contribute to ‘grassroots’ or people’s history. It was pitched as part of Michael Wood and the BBC’s Great British Story which aired in 2012. In HLF’s words:

“From researching local historic landmarks, learning more about customs and traditions to delving into archives and finding out the origins of street and place names All Our Stories will give everyone the chance to explore their heritage and share what they learn with others.”

Early and formative discussions suggested very strongly that the project’s activities should allow participants to both contribute and discover. The classic platitudes of a funding application, you might say.

We had two unique selling points. Firstly that our project would represent the biggest under-represented group in the UK, i.e. women, and secondly that it would advance the history of a currently marginalised aspect of British history, that of Cornwall and Scilly. In addition, HLF South West identifies South East Cornwall as being one of its five priority areas.

Early and formative discussions suggested very strongly that the project’s activities should allow participants to both contribute and discover. The classic platitudes of a funding application, you might say. However for me this meant that the open sharing of information about women represented in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, and elsewhere, was paramount. It also meant that we would emphasise the team, the network and the community that would produce the information as much as History 51 and Hypatia Trust themselves.

What we are promising

We want to make sure that HLF gets its money’s worth and that we aim for both high impact and sustainable deliverables that will also contribute to the long-term objectives of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection.

£10,000 is not a lot of money. However it is more than we started with. We want to make sure that HLF gets its money’s worth and that we aim for both high impact and sustainable deliverables that will also contribute to the long-term objectives of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection. This is what we are going to deliver:

  • Train volunteers to explore, research, catalogue and create information
  • Develop a Wikipedia-style Cornish Women’s Index that will create hundreds of free, publically accessible records of women
  • Hold six local community workshops on different women and themes in locations across Cornwall (and hopefully Scilly too).

What we are asking from contributors and correspondents

Information comes in many forms and it should be expressed in as many different ways as possible.

We do want well-researched, well-considered information to result from this project. However it is not intended as a scholarly study or library project. Information comes in many forms and it should be expressed in as many different ways as possible. So what we are asking of our contributors and correspondents is any of the following:

  • Researching the life stories of women who have lived, worked or come from Cornwall or Scilly
  • Photographing and scanning historical documents and artefacts
  • Producing transcripts of documentary sources
  • Creating art, music, poems or literature inspired by Cornish and Scillonian women
  • Conducting oral history interviews
  • Work on our social media channels and blog (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube)
  • Writing copy for short Wikipedia-style biographies
  • Entering information into the Cornish Women’s Index (a free online database of words and images)
  • Organising, leading or participating in informal and fun workshops scheduled for venues across Cornwall in 2013.

What the History 51 army can expect in return

Books of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection of the Hypatia Trust

Books of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection of the Hypatia Trust

… it is very easy to feel used and to feel absorbed into the corporatising identity of a heritage organisation or project.

I know from my own previous experience of working on ‘other people’s projects’ that it is very easy to feel used and to feel absorbed into the corporatising identity of a heritage organisation or project. I do not want this to happen to all those who have so warmly and enthusiastically already given of their time to History 51.

We stated in the application that we want History 51 contributors and correspondents to become ambassadors for women’s heritage in Cornwall and Scilly and so we, as the Hypatia Trust, have to provide the support they need in return. So this is what we have promised them:

  • Free training and ongoing support, including by email and online
  • Free access to the Elizabeth Treffry Collection and other resources at the Hypatia Trust
  • Access to equipment such as cameras, scanners, photocopier and laptop
  • Your name next to contributions on the Cornish Women’s Index and Elizabeth Treffry Collection website
  • Limited travel expenses for those who lead or help organise a History 51 workshop
  • VIP guest entry at the History 51 party in November 2013
  • A certificate of participation for those taking part as part of a qualification or undertaking CPD, which will outline the skills they have gained.

Promoting the project and recruiting interest

… we hope that the workshops, which are aimed at highlighting local women in their communities, will rebalance this and indeed we will be using all the methods we can to reach those who do not explore their past through digital heritage.

History 51 was officially announced at the end of November 2012. We started recruiting volunteers in December 2012, mainly via our website, where interested contributors could submit an expression of interest, and will be able to for the duration of the project.

The Cornishman newspaper, read by an estimated 75% of the west Penwith population, covered the project in a feature on 6 December. The story was also syndicated online which reaches a much wider audience. This considerably boosted our visibility and we received a number of requests for more information on the back of this.

The project was covered again on 31 January with the launch of a campaign to get Alice De Lisle officially recognised in Penzance. I have posted more about the Alice De Lisle Campaign on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection blog.

A steady stream of news and posts circulated on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection blog and its social media channels on Twitter and Facebook have seen a steady increase in interest, judged by the numbers of Likes and Shares we have been receiving. Nothing dramatic but visibility is certainly higher than it was when we launched the Elizabeth Treffry Collection website early last year.

To date we have approximately 20 people willing to be active contributors or correspondents. We are unashamedly embracing digital media and communication for this project so that we are not limiting ourselves to those who can physically get to Penzance to use the collection. So inevitably we are excluding people who are not online regularly. However, we hope that the workshops, which are aimed at highlighting local women in their communities, will rebalance this and indeed we will be using all the methods we can to reach those who do not explore their past through digital heritage.

Inaugurating History 51

I don’t think I have been in a room full of more articulate people in my life! And that includes the very many academic conferences I have attended and at which I have presented.

On 9 February we invited all those who had expressed an interest in the project to attend an open afternoon at the Hypatia Trust in Penzance. Several were not able to make it but we still had a room of about 18 people (all women) eager to share their passion, thoughts and ideas about how their own experiences could be brought to bear on this seminal project. I think everyone would agree that the local rug hookers really made our meeting, they turned up in force!

I don’t think I have been in a room full of more articulate people in my life! And that includes the very many academic conferences I have attended and at which I have presented. I will post about this on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection blog very soon.

Each person was given a folder with an information pack aimed at familiarising contributors and correspondents with History 51 and answering questions I predicted they may have. This pack will be emailed to all those who were not able to attend.

Next steps are to start recording who is interested in what and sharing this information amongst our group. The great thing about History 51 is that even those running the project are getting stuck into some new research and exploration.

The online database for the Cornish Women’s Index is being developed and will be due for testing early next month and then it will be time to organise some training. I am also contemplating using screencasts and Google Hangouts for live online training.

Our events co-ordinator, Jo Schofield, is currently scouting venues for our workshops. We already have one in Liskeard Museum confirmed and another almost confirmed in Fowey.

So for now I am occupied with buying the equipment we need, making sure that History 51 is regularly promoted online and in the press, and commissioning some quirky bookmarks or postcards to be widely distributed across Cornwall and Scilly, and beyond.

Switching between this project and my more usual exploits in industrial heritage is constantly challenging. Sometimes it is a downright pain to have to change modes so frequently. But it is all the more worthwhile because of that broad perspective you get when you don’t just plough one furrow but take a step back and contemplate the field, and the moors beyond.

 

Old pilchards and Cornish industrial fishing heritage

Pressed and salted pilchards, Newlyn Pilchard Works

Pressed and salted pilchards, Newlyn Pilchard Works

Industrial heritage in Cornwall is completely dominated by mining, and most of that is heavily focused on tin mining and china clay extraction as opposed to that of other metals and minerals such as copper, arsenic and so on. Even more neglected is Cornwall’s fishing and fish processing heritage.

The Cornish Quaysude gallery in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, in Falmouth, provides a tantalising glimpse of fish processing and export, specifically that of pilchards (salted and pressed) which took place in St Ives, Mevagissey and Newlyn amongst other fishing centres. Other interesting exhibits can be found in a number of the smaller museums of Cornwall, such as St Ives Museum, Padstow Museum and Fowey Museum.

Penzance no longer has its maritime museum and Newlyn, today home to the largest fishing fleet (in terms of numbers of boats) in the UK, has no centre for its fishing heritage. However this was not the case until relatively recently, and may change in the near future. Villagers in Mousehole, west Cornwall’s most ancient port, is currently looking at integrating some of the region’s fishing and maritime heritage into displays in the project to establish a new community centre (in the derelict sail/net loft which also housed pilchard processing pits on Duck Street). Talk of old pilchards reminded me of the now defunct Old Pilchard Works Museum in Newlyn.

I had occasion to revisit some photographs I took back in Summer 2003 of the Old Pilchard Works in Newlyn when it was open to the public as a working museum. It remains one of the most memorable museum experiences I have had. The working part of the museum allowed visitors to get a feel for an ancient delicacy which the vast majority of Brits and Cornish would probably turn their nose up at. Salted and pressed pilchards, or Cornish sardines. Caught in abundance off the Penwith coast, pilchards landed in Newlyn would be salted and then pressed, then arranged in barrels ready for export to Italy (and sometimes Spain). Think anchovies and their growing status as a trend ingredient in British gastronomy, then think of a more rounded, almost sweeter flavour and you will have an idea of the wonder that is a salted pilchard.

Press play to view a slide show of my photographs or view on Flickr.

The pilchard presses resemble book presses and there is something timeless about seeing military rows of fish lined up and piled up ready to have their life extended to at least a year through this processing. Barrels were marked with various marks according to the importer, one of them being ‘Cigno Bianco’ or White Swan as you can see in one of the photographs of a box of ‘salacche inglese’ –in future that would probably read ‘salacche cornovagliese’. Part of the museum experience was having the chance to do ‘brass rubbings’ of the copper stencils that marked the boxes and barrels. To my sadness, I can no longer find the one I did but I do remember it was of the Cigno Bianco mark. The museum also introduced visitors to traditional fish processing and the particular relationship between the Cornish and Breton fishing industries, especially those of West Penwith and the region of Concarneau.

As you will hear in this video, from Terry Tonkin who worked here, they were a particular delicacy of the Italian dish, spaghetti alla puttanesca. So prized were the Cornish salted pilchard that they were considered superior to the usual Italian acciughe or anchovy. This dish is a classic of southern Italy, particularly the south-eastern region of Puglia (Apulia) and parts of Sicily. It’s a brazen dish (possibly accounting for its unashamed name, ‘whore-like spaghetti’) made with fresh tart tomatoes, salty black olives, anchovies or other salted fish and capers. It’s time of year is from harvest time at the end of summer to Christmas when these preserved delights are made and put in store for the winter.

Some time in 2005-6 the museum closed, for various reasons, mainly financial, but also because the demand for salted pilchards began to decline. As the Managing Director Nick Howell said in a statement regarding the circumstances of the closure, no amount of good publicity from TV chefs such as Keith Floyd and Rick Stein could persuade the British public to embrace this delicacy. The privately run museum was subsidised by the business which had also just begun to use traditional Breton canning methods to preserve Cornish pilchards and mackerel (in olive oil). You’ll be hard pushed to find a salted pilchard in Cornwall at the moment but thankfully you can still buy Pilchard Works canned fish all over the country. I hope we see salted pilchards in British and Cornish cuisine in the future.

Hidden Treasures of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection

Books of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust

Books of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust

This week I am leading tours of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection on Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly at Hypatia Trust HQ at Trevelyan House, Penzance. Hidden Treasures is a national campaign organised by the Collections Trust in association with the Independent newspaper who featured the campaign in the 2 June edition. About 54 organisations are taking part, mainly museums. Hidden Treasures aims to help give special access to collections that are usually not available to the public. The Hypatia Trust is the only Cornish organisation to open up its collections for Hidden Treasures!

Hidden Treasures of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection tours take place throughout the week at 2.30pm on each listed day:

Monday 4 June, Tuesday 5 June, Wednesday 6 June, Thursday 7 June and Saturday 9 June (no tours Friday 8 June).

Tours are free. All welcome. Visitors to Trevelyan House can also view the Redwing Gallery and browse the bookshop. Cornish books available at sale prices! All profits in aid of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection fund.

Find out more on the Hidden Treasures tours in Penzance.

What can you expect?

The Elizabeth Treffry Collection is comprised of books and archives and therefore are not always visually appealing exhibits in the same way as a rare vase or exquisite painting. During the tours I try and get people interested in the subject, explain why collecting on women is important to Cornwall and Scillonian heritage and what’s in store for the collection in the future.

The Hypatia Trust has just started a campaign to fund a new permanent home for the collection in Cornwall and contribute towards creating a free online Index of Women in Cornwall and Scilly that will make a major impact on the way Cornish and Scillonian history, culture, art and literature is perceived, researched and used. We need funds to conserve rare items, especially archives, apply a better standard of curatorial care, furnish a new home and promote the collection to everyone with an interest in women’s and Cornish-Scillonian heritage.

Remember: we are talking about better representation for 51% of the population, past and present!

How’s it going?

The tours were featured in the local press, the Independent, promoted online through our very recent entry into the worlds of Twitter and Facebook and circulated via flyers, emails and word of mouth. Guess what? Word of mouth has won out so far. Today was the first day and we had 14 people turn up, albeit at various times of the day. We are treating the event quite informally and are happy to accomodate and chat to people at any time I or another Hypatia volunteer is available. We want to use this opportunity to get the word out there that the collection exists and what we wish to achieve with it. I’ll look forward to seeing what the rest of the week holds in store.

Curating the Elizabeth Treffry Collection on Women in Cornwall and Scilly

La Demoiselle Sauvage From King Arthur's Wood by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes

La Demoiselle Sauvage From King Arthur's Wood by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (credit: Hypatia Trust)

My first commission since relocating to Penzance, Cornwall was an audit of the little-known Elizabeth Treffry collection held by the Hypatia Trust that serves to document the lives and works of women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

Meeting Hypatia

Having heard much about the Hypatia Trust and its founder, Dr. Melissa Hardie, publisher, author and collector, I wandered into Trevelyan House on historic Chapel Street on a cold January morning to find out more. A warm welcome and two hours of chat resulted in the start of a working relationship and friendship that I hope will last for many years.

…to collect, and make available, published and personal documentation about the achievements of women in every aspect of their lives.

(Ethos of the Hypatia Trust)

The situation I was greeted with goes something like this. The Hypatia Trust exists to further the knowledge of and about women and her achievements. It has a strong basis in understanding women in their regional or geo-historical contexts and so Hypatia exists in several locales, including Hypatia in the Woods in Shelton, Washington in the USA. Its ethos is strongly based in academic and intellectual pursuits and so collecting, especially books, is central to its activities.

Melissa Hardie, in the name of the Hypatia Trust, has already donated significant collections to libraries across the world from Exeter to Bonn, with the sole motive to improve the knowledge and visibility of women in social and historical studies. Other landmark achievements are the creation of the West Cornwall Art Archive with Newlyn Art Gallery and the innovative Cornish Artists Index, a freely accessible online database of artists in Cornwall and their works, past and present.

Elizabeth Treffry Collection

Elizabeth Treffry Collection at Trevelyan House

Finding a room of one’s own

And so the Elizabeth Treffry Collection is one of Hypatia’s several efforts to turn the tide of male-dominated narratives of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly by actively gathering knowledge about women’s lives and works in Cornwall and Scilly (not just those of Cornish and Scillonian women but all those who have made their lives and home there) and communicating it to a much wider audience through publication, education and participation. The collection’s strengths are in art and literature of the 19th and 20th centuries but its stretches far beyond Daphne Du Maurier and Dolly Pentreath, embracing the Cornish Land Army, women scientists, religion and more besides. And this was part of the attraction of wanting to get involved, to learn more about the relatively silent women’s stories in these enigmatic regions.

The collection comprises books, journals and archives (and a few artefacts) and mainly resides at Hypatia HQ at Trevelyan House with more stuff kept at the Jamieson Library of Women’s History, based in rural Newmill just outside Penzance. Melissa Hardie and the Hypatia Trust wish to tackle the urgent need to find it a new, permanent home where the collection can be publicly accessed, intoning Virginia Woolf’s essay on ‘A Room of One’s Own‘.

But before this search could begin in earnest, and an associated fundraising campaign could commence, a better idea of what the collection comprised and what its future might look like was required. And so I was invited to help Hypatia establish a professional basis for the curation of the collection by conducting a basic audit to quantify it, describe it and make recommendations for its future care and uses.

You can download and read the report to understand more about the collection and what I think its future could look like but I wanted here to write down some of my thoughts about auditing collections and the value of collections in our cultural lives.

Download Curating Elizabeth Treffry Collection report (PDF, 976KB)

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Where is Asturias, food and promoting living heritage

Cornish Fabada

Cornish Fabada

Within ‘the heritage sector’ we compartmentalise its different aspects. Museums, libraries, archives as guardians and interpreters of collections. The historic environment sector as recorders of the built environment and historic landscapes. Archaeologists who excavate, record and analyse material remains. Then there’s natural heritage, everything about our world that isn’t human made. The subject divisions proliferate the idea of heritage further, science heritage, art heritage, industrial heritage etc; as does scale: family, house, community, society, region, country, and the ever increasing interest in global heritage.

This bowl of stew was just as powerful as some exhibitions are in evoking a sense of place and its culture.

So what has all this to do with a bowl of stew? Cornish Fabada is a gastronomic pun or perhaps homage to the better known Fabada Asturiana, a simple but delicious stew made in the Asturias, the most westerly region in Spain, indeed Spain’s Cornwall perhaps. Yet another ‘Celtic fringe’. I was emailed a couple of weeks ago about a video project that seeks to showcase the best of Asturian culture and heritage called Where is Asturias. So far seven videos on Vimeo immerse you in carnivals, dramatic landscapes and food.

The two food videos about Tapas and Pinchos and Fabada Asturiana (white beans, pimentón or paprika, olive oil, mineral water, morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo and belly pork slow cooked to a rich heavenly stew–with variations depending on recipe) immediately stood out. Their stories immediately drew me into Asturian culture and heritage. Regional food traditions are a living heritage. They encapsulate and nurture a region or nation’s distinctiveness just as much as their material culture, language, rituals and festivals. But food is not often thought of as heritage, nor is it used as a gateway to interpreting a region’s character, at least not in Britain. Many of the values of good local produce and good cooking are shared by those engaged in promoting and safeguarding other aspects of the heritage of place: sustaining tradition, sharing it, communicating distinctiveness, making comparisons. But we don’t really use food as a vehicle for communication.

Restaurants, cafes and chefs often promote the historic setting of the diner, not least here in Cornwall, but this is all about the building, not about the food, which often comprises ingredients and techniques that have grown up in a region over time and are as much part of the fabric of the place as the old abbey or bakehouse or flour mill or whichever beautifully restored dramatic old building you find yourself in. I’d quite like a line or two on my menu about my John Dory or Skate and how long people have been fishing them and how they do it (and why)–not just that it was sustainably and locally caught.

It seems to me that the instinct of the Where is Asturias team to use food in videos promoting their region was right. This isn’t just about promoting travel and tourism to the area (where good food and ingredients are often used to lure in the lustful traveller) but about appreciating food as an integral part of a living heritage of a region, both tangible and intangible–two concepts that have aroused a lot of debate since UNESCO began to record non-material or intangible heritage on the World Heritage list.

So well done to Where is Asturias. These videos inspired me to cook up my own version with ingredients I could get hold of. Okay, hardly authentic but I remained true to the cooking method which was something I hadn’t tried before, like a slow confit in olive oil, water and spicy smoked pimentón). I speciously called it Cornish Fabada but the point is that by cooking this up I gained an understanding of ingredients and cooking methods that are enshrined in the cultural DNA of the Asturias and so I feel as though I have gained a feeling for this region’s heritage, and more importantly it has persuaded me to want to know more. This bowl of stew was just as powerful as some exhibitions are in evoking a sense of place and its culture, in some ways perhaps more so.

Reconstructing the historic global copper industry from business archives

Upper Thames Street, site of 27

Upper Thames Street, site of 27, at Paul's Walk, previously Paul's Wharf, headquarters of major copper firms in the 19th century (Tehmina Goskar)

On 9 November I will be participating in the Historical Metallurgy Society‘s Research in Progress meeting in Sheffield. The day promises to be extremely varied where experimental archaeologists, historians, scientists and others will be getting together to share various aspects of their work. Subjects will range from the excavation of a medieval smithy in Oxfordshire to the lead and copper ‘isotope signatures’ of North American native copper.

Read the draft programme for information on all the contributors (opens or downloads PDF).

My contribution to the day will focus on recent work I have been conducting on the business archives relating to major copper concerns that operated smelting and refining works in Swansea. These copper archives add essential information and colour to a broad picture historians have been building up of the global copper industry, predominantly in the 18th and 19th centuries, since the 1950s. However many of these histories have been reliant on runs of statistics from mining and geological journals, import and export information from mercantile shipping records and occasionally, official records government records and occasionally, correspondence and letter collections of prominent figures such as Thomas Williams of Anglesey and the Vivians.

Business archives are found in many county and special collections all over the country. Their content often relates to more than one firm and more than just local activity. For example, the Grenfell Collection held by the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University, comprises records relating to their head quarters at 27 Upper Thames Street, London and many of their dealings abroad, including with Spain, in addition to important detail about their major smelting works at Upper and Middle Bank in Swansea.

My Research in Progress paper aims to give an outline and a few examples of the way in which these archives can be used and linked together to reconstruct the elements of the historic global copper industry that remain obscured in mainstream histories that have not delved into these records in any great detail.

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New horizons in Welsh copper

Looking out from the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea

Looking out from the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea

In a little under two weeks I shall be starting a new job in the department of History & Classics at the University of Swansea. I will be Research Assistant on an ESRC-funded project entitled, History, heritage, and urban regeneration: the global and local worlds of Welsh copper. Project Leader, Prof Huw Bowen, won the £95,000 funding for this project which will be conducted in partnership with the University of Glamorgan, the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, and the City and County of Swansea.
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