In July 2013 I was contracted by the National Maritime Museum Cornwall to provide maternity cover for their exhibitions development role, and in particular to develop new shows for their small but multi-layered Quarterdeck gallery.
The first exhibition I was charged with installing From the Loft Floor (Sep 2013-Jan 2014). This show of reportage drawings by Anna Cattermole revealed the build of a traditional Scillonian pilot cutter by Luke Powell at his boatyard, Working Sail.
The thirteen drawings were interpreted in the artist’s words in accompanying captions. We complemented the artwork with a film by Steve Morris of Ideaplus, a display of authentic boatbuilding tools from the NMMC collection, a half model of a Falmouth pilot cutter, and a tactile display of tools on a workbench (sensitively secured to prevent over-excitement and caulking mallets getting the better of each other).
It was a joy to install–much credit to the previous work on the project by Anna Cattermole and the person whose role I am covering. An ideal show for the Autumn with its muted colours easy browsing layout. The artist also provided visitors with a free newspaper-style guide to her project. Anna’s drawings were started and completed on site, live. She did not use sketches or photographs to revisit them.
The opportunity to display objects from the museum’s collection was a particular highlight for someone like me who finds the act of object interpretation and display deeply satisfying. The half model of the Falmouth pilot cutter was a challenge to install owing to its age and size but it created beautiful lines and gave much needed height to the exhibition space.
The next show is a big one that is currently only partly developed in style and concept on smuggling during its heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Time to get my historian’s hat on and also get inventive about how to make tax evasion an interesting subject.
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.
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.