The visibility of the resurgence of women’s voices has launched into the stratosphere these last two weeks, from the triumph of the campaign to get a woman back on a UK banknote, to the rather seedy and distasteful rape and bombing threats aimed at women by anonymous so-called trolls.
But what is worse than all that is the society-sanctioned, media-fuelled defence of such revolting behaviour because ‘you can just ignore it’. I am assuming the same people who ignore such things probably in a past life also ignored the inhumanity of slavery – if you don’t want a slave just don’t have one! For there is no virtual world and real world. Twitter, Facebook and anything else online is the real world.
She’s rubbish because I don’t like her
So amongst the flurry of comment and opinion about all this I read the latest post on Prof. Mary Beard’s blog A Don’s Life reflecting on her latest TV programme about Caligula, the First Century Roman emperor. I must admit that I have not seen any of Mary Beard’s programmes but I have heard a lot of good things about them, and about her, and I have read some of her published work. I don’t have a TV but I do sneak the occasional fix well after the event on iPlayer etc. so maybe I will watch them some time.
In her post Mary was rather putting her own experience of being a woman on TV, and that too a woman presenting much of her own research, in a serious history programme, in the context of the overt and aggressive sexism experienced by so many women in their everyday lives both online and offline.
Distaste for her TV history manifested in a dislike of her and how she looks. But what really got her goat was the flippant accusation by someone who called her history like that of Wikipedia.
Now, there are two problems here. The first is that Wikipedia is not a source of original information, that is, first time published thought, argument or opinion. It is, if you remember them, meant to be like a set of encyclopaedias (-paediae??), and is entirely reliant on the sources the writer references as to how decent an encyclopaedic entry it is. So some are good and some are bad.
Mary Beard’s chagrin came from the fact that, albeit she is a Cambridge Don with over 40 years of experience in Caligulan history, she is still not taken seriously by those moved to damn her and her work by calling her ‘Wiki-lite’. The second is that if you find yourself not understanding what a historian means then they are not explaining it properly. This is not uncommon and many historians make a career out of being obtuse to dazzle their audience and get promoted in the process. On the opposite end of the spectrum if you find a ‘historian’ enthusiastically saying a lot but not saying very much then they probably don’t know their stuff.
So this post was shared on the Women For Cornwall group on Facebook and there has been a bit of debate about it and the problem women have in being, for want of a better term, taken seriously simply because they are female.
Part of the debate was also about how history is taught in schools. I’m going to blog again about this and the Govian view of school history so won’t dwell on it here. Someone brought up the old S-Level – remember them? I came at the tail end when they had just scrapped the examination but we went through the motions of it anyway. The idea was that those most able to grasp key concepts could spread their wings by inserting some original thought into debates and learn to construct their own arguments rather than clutching a knotted string of others’ opinions. Until this time, apparently, A-Level students were just taught ‘facts’ [those who have taught history undergrads in recent years may feel this comment still stands].
Why don’t you prove it?
I reflected on my own experience. Until GCSE I really did not get school history very much. I enjoyed it but it was not on top of my list. I was after all going to be a scientist of some sort. But I had a cracking GCSE and A-level teacher who did teach us to critique, challenge established facts, learn to understand historical opinion and find bias according to authorial origins. Even my fourth-year primary school (inner London comp) teacher (today’s Year 6) stopped a lesson one day and said, “why don’t you ask me to prove it?” I think we were talking about the troubles in Northern Ireland, no less. God bless you, Mr Hadfield.
That was a turning point in my understanding of the world. The interesting predicament Mary Beard finds herself in is that people’s dislike originates in the fact that she is damn good at both argument and backing it up with evidence – such as being a good historian entails unlike the Starkeys of this world. But saying they don’t agree would be putting the critics on the same level as her, whereas dismissing her as opposed to her arguments is much easier, it’s lazier but hey, it’s online and you can say anything and a few people will Like you for it.
So you think you’re a historian?
And I would like to have a continued go at people who think they are historians because they watch it on TV or cherry-pick information on the web or indeed osmotically absorb other people’s ideas and frankenregurgitate them as their own.
On two recent occasions I have had my own thoughts and ideas quoted back at me, and even ascribed to another speaker, following my giving a paper!
Good historians do argument and evidence very well. They compare. Then then explain by creating a narrative which can be followed. I have said in other fora that one of the main problems with the way that Cornish history is done is that it lacks comparison and lacks an audience in journals and books outside Cornwall, but that’s for yet another post. It is also unsurprising that the arch-narratives of Cornish history, the good and the bad (and there is an awful lot of bad), are all written by men. This has to change.
Would you have a hernia operation by someone who dabbled in a bit of Holby City and YouTube or someone who had studied abdominal surgery for many years? Sorry, in defence of my profession a bit. Especially those women who are in it.
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?
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
… 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.