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)

Approaching a collection

A curator approaches a collection from the point of view of its constituents, the objects and works backwards to document the people or phenomena that they represent. They impose a taxonomic order on the collection, categorising it according to object type, material and chronology.

An archivist’s view of listing or cataloguing a collection is similar but the preservation of the original order or arrangement of a deposit or fond is considered paramount to preserving the will of the person, family or organisation that compiled it.

A librarian’s main interest is in the information contained within the object (largely books) and will arrange the collection according to rigid standards of classification according to subject or topic. You may be familiar with the Dewey Decimal System. Librarians have always struggled with using classification such as Dewey on subject-specific collections. If you have ever browsed a local studies collection at your library your patience will have undoubtedly been tested by the racks and racks of 942.2 variants used to arrange local collections by subject.

If any of these professionals are faced with a collection of mixed items, they will treat them very differently and the resulting use of that collection will vary accordingly. My experience of wearing all these hats when dealing with collections has given me a perspective that is different still. As a collection that now needed to enact its purpose, i.e. to bear witness to the lives and works of women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (past and present) its curation had to be active and constantly evolving. It would not work to just catalogue what was there, shove it in a room and hope that a few people might pop by to have a browse. Inactive curation bears the real threat of the collection being vulnerable to being broken up, absorbed into an ocean an institution of non-specific purpose or valuable items being sold off to fund some pension gap or other.

In a sense I opted for the librarian’s approach. It was the information held within the objects, mainly books and archives, but a few artefacts too, that must be paramount. This approach also helped me make a very early decision to recommend that any work to create a database management system allowed for the indexing and documentation of people that did not have a related item in the collection. Also, a large portion of the information on women is ‘hidden’ in books about entirely other subjects and need teasing out by earnest and systematic indexing.

And it is in this area that I will shortly be conducting future work with the collection, in collaboration with Nick Harpley, Drupal Programmer, of the Digital Peninsula Network. One of my key recommendations for the future of the collection is to channel efforts to create a unified Index of Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly as the pre-eminent resource on the subject. This database, published and accessed freely online would enable students, researchers, family historians, teachers and others to interrogate the collection from the point of view of the women it represents, thereby fulfilling both Hypatia and the collection’s ethos to provide documents for the study of women and their achievements.

The value of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection to Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and the world

In the conclusion to the audit I wrote:

The Elizabeth Treffry Collection is of national importance. It fulfils a function that no other collection is able to provide because of its unique combination of women’s heritage and the regional heritage of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.


This collection, like many others, has a political, social and cultural agenda. Melissa Hardie and the Hypatia Trust spent years compiling it to make a direct impact on the lack of representation of women in the history and heritage of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. The curation of the collection could not be treated separately from this agenda and treated impartially or without context.

Secondly, at a time when Cornish identity in particular is being hotly debated both in political and historical spheres, what better moment to raise the hand of woman and challenge the precociously male-dominated narratives of the impact of women on the region/country/county/duchy. What better way too to re-examine the historical relationship between the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall. The collection embraces Scilly to better understand and compare the experience of women in both places.

Finally, the potential of this collection and the information it holds to be a positive force in education and learning cannot be under-estimated provided that its new host institution (whichever it may be) commits to upholding Hypatia’s values. This collection on women is not just about educating women and providing role models, but men and boys too. Everyone has a mother and many have a sister or daughter, not to mention the networks of other female relationships we form from the time we are infants to death.

I look forward to continued work with Hypatia and the Elizabeth Treffry Collection as both curatorial friend and ambassador.