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Stress: Remembering Men

By Kevin Guyan, on 16 November 2015

By Kevin Guyan

 

In the latest blog post to accompany Stress: Approaches to the First World War, Kevin Guyan explains what James Andrew Wykeham Simons’ 1948 painting The Seven Ages of Man tells us about remembering masculinities in twentieth century Britain. 

 

The Seven Ages of Man

The Seven Ages of Man © the artist’s estate, photo credit: UCL Art Museum

A reproduction of James Andrew Wykeham Simons’ 1948 painting, The Seven Ages of Man is currently on display as part of the Stress: Approaches to the First World War exhibition.  I selected the work for inclusion as it tells us a lot about masculine identities of the past and raises particular questions about how we commemorate men lost in war, themes addressed in my PhD research.

Simons’ painting takes its name from a monologue in the William Shakespeare play As You Like It.  The painting’s title invites viewers to look for Shakespeare’s seven ages of man and rethink your view towards masculinity – not as something fixed but as something continually in flux.

The youngest man found in the painting is the infant, held in the arms of his nurse.  The men are looking out to a body of water where the next age of man is located, the emotional lover, whom Shakespeare describes as ‘sighing like a furnace, with a wofeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow’.  The turbulent years of being young and in love catches the attention of the other men in the painting.

The next stage to follow in a man’s life is the devoted soldier.  Shakespeare describes this man as ‘full of strange oaths, and bearded like a pard’, which was the Old English word for leopard and highlights young men’s tendency to grow patchy beards.

On his return from war, man enters the next stage of life in which they no longer feel the need to prove themselves and can instead sit back and enjoy commenting on the world around them.  We would today describe this phase as middle aged, and two characters in Simons’ painting fit this description.  At this point in Shakespeare’s journey through the seven ages of man the chronology becomes less clear, as it’s of course possible to be an older soldier or a younger man who is also self-assured.

Reaching the end of one’s life, and one becomes an old man who cares little about his dress sense, wearing ‘lean and slippered pantaloon’ to cover his ‘shrunk shank’ – his thin legs.  Finally, man’s life ends with ‘mere oblivion’ and is left ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’.  Death.

I am unable to tell why Simons made one slight change in his painting from the Shakespeare monologue – he does not depict the age of the schoolboy and instead adds two, rather than one, middle aged men – the youngest in blue and the oldest in grey.  My hesitant guess is that this change reflected the huge increase in life expectancy in the mid-twentieth century, with the middle decades of one’s life expanding and therefore justifying an additional character.


“Rethink your view towards masculinity – not as something fixed but as something continually in flux.”


My own research explores the relationship between masculinities, planning knowledge and domestic space in Britain between the 1941 Blitz and the early 1960s.  One of the biggest changes during this period was men’s movement from old homes into new homes after the Second World War and the new opportunities men found in terms of privacy, more space, use of a garden and private bedrooms.  The move into new homes made it easier for men to perform family-orientated masculinities and change what they did in the home as fathers and husbands.

In my study of postwar housing, men’s gender identity is not fixed but something that can change according to time and place.  Similarly, in Simons’ painting, men’s masculine identities do not change according to space but change according to time.

The Seven Ages of Man, when viewed within the context of the First World War, raises questions about how and who we commemorate.  When commemorating men who served in the First World War we need to think about their masculine identities as something unfixed that could be achieved, lost and rediscovered – there was and is no option for lifetime membership. And for millions of men in the early twentieth century, the opportunity to progress through the painting’s seven ages was viciously cut short.

It is always sad to hear when the linear path of a man’s life does not proceed through the generations as predicted – painted against the backdrop of the mid-1940s, I therefore read Simons’ painting as an anti-war statement that reminds us of the many male lives that were unnaturally disrupted by conflict.  Approaching the subject of commemoration through a gender history lens raises new ways to think about men’s lives in the past and reminds us of the need to stop history from repeating itself.

 

Stress: Using Oral History Interviews

By Felicity M B Winkley, on 11 November 2015

Profileby Felicity Winkley 

This post is associated with our exhibit Stress: Approaches to the First World War, open October 12-November 20.

 

 

A visitor to Stress last week commented that the objects on display weren’t what she expected, that she had anticipated they would show much more directly the obvious effects, or stresses, of the First World War on men, women and children.

I wasn’t surprised by this response. We knew when we curated Stress that the interpretation of the objects was more convoluted than most traditional museum displays – the object labels are longer than best practice advises, the visual links between the cases difficult for the visitor to immediately grasp.

Part of this is owed to the fact that the objects have been chosen from the UCL collections – geology, pathology and science specimens among others – rather than from a military history assemblage. In equal measure, it is also because the objects have been chosen not only because of their relevance to the exhibition, but also according to the individual research interests of the curators.

One element of the exhibition breaks this mould however – the audio installation which plays two oral history interviews from the archives of the National Army Museum, recollections of two individuals who served in the First World War. For me, this part of the exhibition provides the visitor with the most direct link to the conflict – an immediate and very powerful ‘place-setting’ via the experiences being narrated, quite apart from the objects on display.

Although the audio is on a permanent loop, no matter at what stage you join in the story you are transported: with Adelaide Marian Davies, who served with the Women’s Army Aux Corps in France, you can picture the scene as she describes the dances held for troops at the Front, where it was forbidden for her rank to dance with the officers; with L/Cpl Billy Meade, you might join him at the Dardanelles, Ypres or later at the prisoner of war camp where he tasted Schnapps for the first time.

The Oral History Listening Post at Stress

The Oral History Listening Post at Stress

The resonance of these anecdotes illustrates just why oral history interviews are important, and why they are such a useful element to incorporate in exhibitions, or indeed many kinds of research. As opposed to much of the written historical record, oral histories are collected directly from the source and feel so much more authentic for it. For the purposes of my PhD, I used a ‘go-along’ interview technique, which involved talking to respondents whilst walking, in order to glean accurate insight to their experience of being in that environment. More recently, I volunteered as an oral history interviewer for the London Bubble’s After Hiroshima project which explores the responses of Londoners to the dropping of the first atomic bomb on 6 August 1945, both in the immediate aftermath and throughout the peace movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Oral histories lend themselves to many situations, not only to provide a means for gathering unique, illuminating and personal records and reflections, but also – in the process of their collection – to involve a wider community in research and offer an opportunity for participation in history and heritage in practice. We were thrilled to be joined on the Stress opening night by the family of Billy Meade, including his daughter (now 84), who had never before heard his recording.

Stress: Building an Exhibition

By Kevin Guyan, on 20 July 2015


Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

 

With the announcement of the Student Engagers’ autumn exhibition, here is the first in a series of blog posts that share personal insights into the curatorial process.

 

Stress offers the student engagement team an opportunity to curate an exhibition that counters the traditional view of museums and galleries as fixed spaces that display objects that convey a message. Instead – I see this as a chance for us to experiment with bold and exciting ways to share knowledge and create a space on campus for three-way conversations between curators, objects and the public.

The inception of our exhibition first found life in the summer of 2014 during a conversation between the student engagement team and the UCL Art Museum. Over one year later and, as design ideas and draft event listings are shared via email, the exhibition at last feels like it is coming together.

As our more experienced colleagues in UCL Museums and Public and Cultural Engagement warned, ‘exhibition time’ runs significantly slower than ‘normal time’ and we now appreciate starting this project with 16 months to spare. I remember looking at action plans with distant dates and the feeling that our plans were a lifetime away. Those dates have now come and gone as we hurtle through 2015 and towards our opening night on Friday 9 October.

The meat and bones of the student engagement project is the presence of researchers in UCL’s three public museums. Therefore, one of the key hopes for Stress was to import this practice and create an exhibition where a researcher was always present, waiting and ready for conversation.

The researcher’s presence will also create a way to feed-back information from visitors into the planning of events, pre-empting many questions and queries fielded and offering a more tailored visitor experience. It further gives us opportunities to adapt the exhibition during its run. For example, conversations between engagers and visitors will inform the writing of blog articles that will then shape how future visitors perceive the objects on display.

Like our previous events and exhibitions, Movement, LandSCAPE and Foreign Bodies, the theme of Stress brings together the research interests of a diverse group of PhD students under one overarching theme. This means that the visitor experience will differ according to the researcher in the exhibition space and their interpretation of the objects on display.

North Lodge

UCL’s North Lodge will house a team of postgraduate researchers throughout the exhibition.

I am excited to see how this works in reality – the continual presence of a researcher in the North Lodge exhibition space may prove overbearing and turn-off visitors looking for a space of solitude in busy Bloomsbury. More optimistically, the space will become a talking shop at the entrance to UCL’s campus and create a different, yet equally enriching, experience for visitors.

For me, public engagement is about more than sharing research ideas with other people. The benefits should reach far further than dissemination alone and empower researchers to enter into dialogues with people from different backgrounds. The process of sharing ideas with people unfamiliar with our own field will foster new and unexpected connections and force us to change the way we share our work, ultimately resulting in a deeper understanding for everyone involved.

We are attempting to build an exhibition with public engagement as a foundational building block and create a space that gives researchers and visitors opportunities to follow pathways unaware where they might lead. This is very much the ethos of the student engagement project – let’s see how our ideas work in reality.