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Special Collections welcome first Summer School at UCL

Vicky APrice27 July 2018

We are excited to announce UCL Special Collections’ newest addition to the outreach and education programme – our first Summer School programme, in August 2018!

We will be offering 14 Year 12 students a chance to learn about all things special collections – from what we keep, why we keep it, how we keep it and how our collections can be significant to an array of audiences.

Funded by Widening Participation, the four day programme will make good use of our wonderful host city; we will explore how special collections items are interpreted and displayed at The National Archives (at their exciting current exhibition Suffragettes vs.The City) and The British Library.

Our team of specialists will offer guidance and advice as participants explore the notion of authenticity in interpretation, and participants will experiment with applying what they have learnt to some chosen manuscripts, rare books and archival items at UCL.

The final result will be an exhibition that presents students’ own responses, in a variety of formats and genres, alongside the items themselves. The exhibition will take place in UCL’s South Junction Reading Room on August 9th from 2pm to 4pm – it will be free and open to the public, so please come along!*

*Visitors are invited to pop in at any time between 2pm and 4pm.  Should the room become full we might ask you to wait a short while before entry, due to space restrictions.

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.

Advent Definitions: Domestic angels?

HelenBiggs4 December 2017

‘Angel’, in: R 221 DICTIONARIES WEBSTER 1869 : Webster, The people’s dictionary of the English language (London, [1869?])

It’s fascinating to see that in Webster angels are defined as both godly and evil spirits, but what really piqued my interest is the idea of being angelic – “partaking of their nature or dignity”. It immediately brought to mind one of the other items in our collections:

A is the Angel woman should be

Waiting to pour out her husband’s tea:

“Better than man” the Antis say-

But the better half has got to obey

These words may sound like they’re promoting woman as a domestic figure, but in fact they’re from the satirical Anti-Suffrage Alphabet, which playfully imitates a rhyming children’s alphabet book to ridicule the arguments used by anti-suffrage campaigners. One such argument was that a wife and mother was the moral centre of a household, and that this role would be diminished or corrupted if she took a more active role in public life. The Alphabet’s creators contend that this supposed moral purity was already compromised, as a husband was meant to be the final decision-maker in all non-domestic matters, whatever a woman’s own beliefs and values were.

The Alphabet is held as part of the Laurence Housman Collection, which will feature heavily in next year’s Main Library exhibition “Dangers and delusions”? Perspectives on the woman’s suffrage movement, set to open February 2018.

For more daily Advent-inspired definitions from our Rare English Dictionaries collection, follow @UCLSpecColl on Twitter.

Reading London

HelenBiggs31 March 2017

This post originally appeared at Newsam News, and is reproduced here courtesy of Sally Perry.

What: A London-themed celebration of reading aloud, and being read to, for World Book Night

Where: UCL IOE Library

When: Monday 24 April 2017 5.30-7.00pm

To celebrate World Book Night 2017 and to coincide with UCL Libraries’ East Side Stories: Londoners in Transition exhibition we are holding our third read aloud event on Monday 24 April. Come and listen to fellow audience members read poems, stories or passages from their favourite books. Readings will include extracts from George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London which is included in the exhibition. If you would like to read aloud yourself in any language (for approximately 5 mins) you would be very welcome. A London theme for your reading is optional!

Sam Duncan (IOE Dept of Education, Practice and Society) and Rebecca Webster (Head of Archives, UCL Library Services) will introduce the session.

If you would like to come along (to read or to be read to) please use the link below to book a place. If you would like to read please email Sam Duncan (sam.duncan@ucl.ac.uk)

To book please click here.