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Dangers and Delusions: Promoting women’s voices through an exhibition

HelenBiggs28 June 2018

Written by Jessica Womack and Helen Biggs. A version of this blog post was first presented at the Education, College Women and Suffrage: International Perspectives conference at Royal Holloway on Wednesday, June 13 2018, as part of the panel, Journey in Gender Equality: University College London, Women and Suffrage, 1878-2018

2018 marks 100 years since the franchise was first extended to (some) women in Britain. The anniversary is being celebrated across the UK (as well as here at UCL), and it seemed like the perfect opportunity for UCL Special Collections to showcase some of the women’s suffrage (and anti-suffrage!) items in our collections. It was hoped that this would help to redress one of the noticeable weaknesses in our past exhibitions: a lack of women’s voices.

While many of our collections are hugely historically significant, women are under-represented within them. It’s not just a question of whether historically women were writing, or researching, or creating, and whether those works have been published or recognised. It’s also a question of whether the collectors whose libraries and archives we now hold considered women’s works to be worthy of collection. With the exception of the occasional standout – a Mary Sidney or Wollstonecraft – very often they did not.

It’s also worth noting that most of the collections we have purchased or received over time were collected by men – so we hold material collected by men, written by men, and generally, on subjects which were considered to be of interest to men. Creating ‘Dangers and Delusions’?: Perspectives on the woman’s suffrage movement was an opportunity to elevate the women’s voices that we do have in our collections, but one not without its difficulties.

While Special Collections holds a great many beautiful books, striking magazines, and fantastic photographs, most of our materials are paper, which is difficult to display. It is often unattractive and doesn’t draw the eye – it’s flat, both literally and figuratively. This is a challenge when creating any exhibition from our collections, as what we display has to be relevant to the exhibition’s theme – but not so boring to look at that no one will notice it.

Extract from Alexandra Wright’s letter to Karl Pearson, 1907 [PEARSON 11/1/22/112]

Another challenge that was particularly relevant to Dangers and Delusions is copyright – as information professionals we tend to be risk averse when it comes to displaying material, as we are very aware of issues around intellectual property. The age of many of the items we wanted to display in Dangers and Delusions meant that they were still in copyright, which meant we had to judge what would be the bigger risk: that the copyright holder for these items would find out we were using them in an exhibition and be displeased, or that some of our most interesting works didn’t get the exposure they deserved?

When possible, we want our exhibitions to create connections between our collections, our exhibitions theme, and UCL itself. Sometimes these connections are easy to make. For examples, included in Dangers and Delusions is a letter from Alexandra Wright (who worked or studied in UCL’s Biometric Laboratory) to Karl Pearson (who ran it.) The letter contains Wright’s account of a women’s suffrage meeting that was broken up somewhat violently by male medical students from UCL and other London universities. In this, the connections to both UCL and women’s suffrage are very clear.

On the other hand, the student record card for the Countess Markievicz, née Constance Gore-Booth, requires quite a bit of explanation. Unlike Wright’s letter, which explicitly mentions both suffrage and UCL, the record card doesn’t state that Markievicz attended the Slade, or that she was one of the first women elected to Parliament. This means that without prior knowledge, exhibition visitors can’t make the connections themselves, but need to be given extra information to do so. Creating the “interpretation” – context – for items such as this can be both challenging and time consuming.

Student record card for Constance Markievicz [UCLCA/SA]

Our flagship collections, such as the Orwell Archives, are great draw-cards for exhibitions, especially as they draw audiences from beyond academia. However, most of them are, again, heavily concentrated on men’s writings, men’s views and men’s opinions. For Dangers and Delusions, it was suggested that we included writing by Jeremy Bentham, a supporter of women’s suffrage (and a popular figure in UCL’s own mythology.)

Unfortunately, our copies of the works in which he expresses his more positive views of women’s legal rights were not available to display in the exhibition. Instead, we included An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation, in which Bentham writes that woman is ‘commonly inferior’ to man in strength, knowledge, intellect and ‘firmness of mind.’ These sentiments are very similar to those expressed by anti-suffrage campaigners featured in the exhibition; to present them together erroneously suggests that Bentham was also against women’s suffrage, when his views on women, and women’s legal and political rights, were more complex than wholly accepting or rejecting the idea that men and women were equal.

In retrospect, as we were unable to fairly represent Bentham’s views, a better decision may have been to not include any of his writings, even if this meant that the exhibition drew a smaller audience overall. Besides the misrepresentation of Bentham, including his work did privilege anything he had to say about women over what women have to say about themselves.

The importance of creating a clear narrative for the exhibition meant that some of our collections which do have a strong focus on women could not be included. Early on in discussions around the exhibition, the idea of looking at how the fight for equality developed into second wave feminism, and radical Women’s Lib movements, was floated. This would have allowed us to represent women who often don’t make it into the university archives (as those who did in the early 20th Century were often white women of a middle-upper class social status, many of whom were related in some way to male academics at UCL.) But ultimately the exhibition focused more narrowly on reactions to women’s suffrage, and other women’s movements weren’t relevant to the theme.

So how successful were we in elevating women’s voices in our exhibition? Over half of the items in Dangers and Delusions are created or co-created by women or women’s groups; not as high as one may hope and yet a marked improvement on last year’s exhibition, where only two displayed items could definitely be attributed to women.

Ideally, future exhibitions would aim for similar numbers, or work towards promoting other under-represented and marginalised groups. However, we will always be restrained by the collections we hold – we can’t show material that we don’t have. What we can do is continue to look for the people in our collections who have always been ‘hidden’ – the unnamed, the ignored, the notes scribbled in the margins – and work towards making them more visible.

‘Dangers and Delusions’?: Perspectives on the women’s suffrage movement is open in UCL’s Main Library until December 14. More events exploring women’s suffrage and the women of UCL can be found at UCL Vote 100. Finally, in the newest edition of The World of UCL, published this month and freely available online, Dr Georgina Brewis has added much new material on the role of women at UCL – a long overdue revision.

UCL Special Collections Presents…

HelenBiggs21 May 2018

We’re excited to announce UCL Special Collections Presents… – a day of talks and displays in UCL’s South Junction Reading Room on Tuesday, June 5th.

Join our team of friendly archivists and librarians at the South Junction Reading Room to hear about some of their favourite Special Collections items in an informal setting. Come face to face with exquisite treasures, learn about the work of our conservators, and discover which curious tomes our volunteers have been studying.

We are running a range of sessions throughout the day, including:

11am-11:30 and 11:30am-12pm:
Protest songs for equal pay
A balloon’s eye view: historical maps of London
Maps from the Jewish Pamphlets collection

12-12:30pm and 12:30-1pm:
A history of the book
“Confessions of a Down and Out in London and Paris”: gems from George Orwell’s archive

1-1:30pm and 1:30pm-2pm:
UCL’s student disruptors
Small Press magazines on vinyl

2-2:30pm and 2:30-3pm:
Jeremy Bentham and Lord Brougham, social reformers
Enid Blyton’s Teacher’s Treasury

3-3:30pm and 3:30-4pm:
Medical and Scientific Manuscripts and Rare Books
A 14th Century Haggadah, and other Jewish and Hebrew treasures

When: Tuesday, 5th June, 11am-4pm

Where: South Junction Reading Room, Wilkins Building, University College London, WC1E 6HJ

Book your free tickets now!

‘The Lover’s Confession’: students research Confessio Amantis fragment

HelenBiggs23 April 2018

This post contributed by Calum Cockburn and Lauren Rozenberg.

On the 8th and 9th December 2017, UCL Special Collections hosted the third workshop in the Digital Editing and the Medieval Manuscript Fragment series (DEMMF), organised and taught jointly by UCL and Yale postgraduates students to twelve graduate students (the majority of whom are UCL-based).

The workshop began with a lecture on UCL’s manuscript fragment collection and a handling session held at the Institute of Education library led by Katy Makin (UCL Library Services). A huge variety of materials was on on display, including a leaf from a music manuscript, once thought to have been used as a binding for an Early Modern book; a thirteenth-century breviary with a charming inhabited initial; a Hebrew papyrus from the Book of Genesis; and a tiny piece of parchment with lines from Euripides’ Medea. Examining these materials, the participants were introduced to the unique and complex challenges literary scholars and digital editors face in creating literary editions from medieval manuscript fragments, fragments that often vary considerably in size and shape, in the legibility of their scripts and hands, in the nature of their decoration and layout, and the amount of damage they have sustained during their different lifetimes.

The students examining the the Confessio Amantis fragment.

The ultimate aim of this workshop was the collaborative transcription, encoding and publishing of a digital edition of a four-leaf fragment of the Confessio Amantis ‘the Lover’s Confession’ (MS FRAG / ANGL / 1), dated from the fifteenth-century and now housed in UCL Special Collections. This poem is a 33,000-line Middle English work by John Gower (d. 1408), a contemporary of Chaucer (d. 1400), whose compositions were particularly popular during the late medieval period. This text alone survives in 59 copies, one of the most copied manuscripts that survives to us, alongside the Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman, written by William Langland (d. 1386). The Confessio uses the confession by an ageing love to the chaplain of Venus as the framework for a long series of shorter narrative poems, linked thematically by each of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’. UCL’s fragment is unique in the collection in that its four leaves were given their own brand new binding at the turn of the twentieth century. It originates from Book V of the poem, concerning Avarice.

 

Two details from MS FRAG / ANGL / 1

To aid them in the creation of their edition of this text, the graduate students took part in a series of discussions and exercises concerning the palaeography and codicology of fragments, digital editing and TEI markup, the use of XML editing tools, most notably oXygen software, and project-based collaboration in the digital arena. Subsequent sessions across the two-day event focused on the teaching of common markup languages and the Text Encoding Initiative.
Subsequently, this expertise was used to mark-up and encode UCL Special Collections’ Confessio Amantis. The fragment itself reflects issues frequently encountered by digital editors of manuscripts and fragments. Most significantly, the fragment’s leaves are actually bound in the wrong order, an observation unrecorded in the manuscript catalogue itself.

Students and instructors examining the Confessio Amantis fragment and discussing its features.

The first folio ranges from lines 775 to 966 of Bk. V while the second one jumps to line 1735 continuing to 1926, before returning to lines 1159 to 1541 over the last two folios. Additionally, the fragment includes numerous small illuminated initials and marginal Latin glosses, separate from the main body of the text, and this raised questions across the weekend as to what the workshop participants should mark up and thus include in their edition itself. Such issues prompted the students to think about the nature of the text and the materiality of medieval manuscripts, and to consider fragments as objects rather than simply illustrated books.

Special Collections provided invaluable high definition images of the fragments. This helped students to prepare their own transcriptions of each manuscript page, and in addition better grasp the necessity for scholars of medieval manuscripts in the digital age. Digital reproductions can indeed alter our experience of the text in different and unforeseen ways. The finished digital edition of our own fragment will be published online at the end of this year, accompanying an edition of another item in Special Collections, a medical manuscript (MS / Lat / 7), transcribed and encoded during a similar workshop that took place during the summer.

The December workshop was made possible thanks to the support of UCL Doctoral School, the Octagon Small Grant Fund, the UCL English Department and Yale Beinecke Rare Book & Music Library. We’re especially grateful to Katy Makin (UCL Special Collections Archivist), for allowing us access to the fragment collection and assembling these materials on the day, and to Dr. Alex Lee (UCL SELCS), for all her palaeographic expertise and help in the transcription of the document itself.

The DEMMF workshop was coordinated by Dana Kovarik (UCL PGR English). The team of instructors included Ph.D. students from a number of different departments and institutions. From UCL’s Arts & Humanities and Social & Historical Sciences faculties: Calum Cockburn (UCL PGR English), Lauren Rozenberg (UCL PGR History of Art), Agata Zielinska (UCL PGR History). From Yale University: Gina Marie Hurley (Yale PGR Medieval Studies) and Mireille Pardon (Yale PGR) as well as Stephanie Azzarello from Cambridge University (Pembroke College, History of Art).

The Tiny Furniture Project

KathrynHannan3 January 2018

This is a guest blog post by one of our archive volunteers, Sara Abou El Ella, who was working in the IOE UCL Archive department with items from the collection of David and Mary Medd.

 

The Tiny Furniture Project

blog post by Sara Abou El Ella.

For a few weeks now, I have been busy cataloguing and sorting scale models of school furniture used by David and Mary Medd in 1976. They were at the forefront of public architecture and design and created an inextricable bond between architecture and social progress.

This archive project required particular attention and care since many of the furniture pieces were detaching from their main bodies. Despite this, I enjoyed unpacking all the objects and grouping them together, since many of them were spread in different boxes and they had never all been itemised. I would say that a particular challenge involving this project was comparing all objects to the furniture handbook. Some of them presented very similar characteristics and appearance making them hard to locate in the handbook and some of the objects were not listed therefore I had to catalogue them separately.

After this very rough introduction, I would like to give the readers a taste of a typical day volunteering at the UCL Archives. I arrive around 1.30pm and stay until 3.30pm or 4pm. This project required more attention and time to be dedicated to it. The first task is to gather the special conservation paper sheets to protect the objects. On my first day, I read a book written by Catherine Burke to become more acquainted with the project and with the architects. Secondly, I carefully read the index and catalogue in the handbook to compare the numbers, characteristics and type of every object which should be contained in the collection. The third task, the most crucial and important of the project, is to open all paper wrappings in the different boxes, group together all items of the same nature and write their number, short description and wrap them all individually for better conservation purposes. One of my favourite objects was the reproduction of a small piano and wardrobes which had little hangers attached to them. For this blog I tried to recreate a small classroom and include some of the most iconic pieces of furniture present in the collection.

Model school furniture

Because of the small damage and the rust which accumulated on the objects I hope to volunteer with the UCL Special Collections Senior Conservator to clean and conserve this collection. This is a very exciting opportunity to improve the access to this archival material and be able to present it to different researchers and for object handling sessions in schools.

Outreach Touring Exhibition Makes its Way to Stratford

Vicky APrice19 October 2017

First Stop; Stratford Library

UCL Special Collections have been busy putting together an exhibition that combines items from the Main Library exhibition East Side Stories and Newham Borough’s own archival items.

The exhibition in Stratford Library

The exhibition in Stratford Library

This ‘pop-up’ exhibition features historic photographs, archival documents, maps and rare publications that tell of East London’s rich and fascinating past.  As the banners tour all of Newham’s 10 public libraries, we’ll be running a range of different workshops to deepen engagement and to create opportunities to record local people’s oral histories.  Many of these activities will take place in Newham Heritage Week.

Posters for the exhibition in pride of place at Stratford Library

Posters for the exhibition in pride of place at Stratford Library

Poetry from the Archive
We’ve kicked things off with three poetry workshops in Stratford and East Ham libraries.  These groups are already well established and participants enjoy writing poetry in an inclusive and positive environment. They were keen to engage with the forthcoming exhibition and the archival items we brought to them.  Poems ranged from sombre, thoughtful pieces about racial tensions and migration, to playful tales of the quintessential cup of tea at a Newham street party in the 1920s.

The Saturday morning group in full swing

The Saturday morning group in full swing

London Memory Archive and UCL East

The oral histories we record will be the beginning of a new initiative, the London Memory Archive, which will be part of UCL East’s Culture Lab.  It’s a timely opportunity to start developing a collection that reflects the memories and perspectives of a local community that UCL will soon be neighbour to.

Successful Funding Bids

To support the project, and to help lay the foundations for a longer term relationship with Newham and its library and archive services, we’ve sought external funding.  We are pleased to announce that we have been successful in a UCL Culture Beacon Bursary grant and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant.  This means that we are able to buy the equipment needed to make archival quality recordings, receive specialist oral history training, pay for the printing of the exhibition and promotional material and all workshop resources, as well as support volunteers’ involvement throughout.

We hope that we will be able to collaborate with Newham in further touring exhibitions that make use of the research and digitisation that takes place for the Main Library exhibition and also gives us a chance to bring a different edge to the narrative told.  Newham has an incredible collection of historic photographs, for example, which often bring the content of an item from UCL’s collection to life.

Be sure to check back for further updates and photographs of Special Collection’s outreach work!

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