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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


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.


The Power of the Image – Museum Engaging and Visual Sources

By Kevin Guyan, on 1 September 2014

Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

In the first of two blog posts exploring Student Engagers’ experiences of using images when sharing research in museums, Kevin Guyan discusses the enthusiasm he has experienced and the two-way conversations created from photographs of homes in the 1940s and 1950s.

I was conscious of the importance of visual material in the sharing of my research since commencing the PhD process, with photographs possessing the power to transform dense moments of a presentation into something more accessible and engaging. However, a recent change in direction in my approach to engaging across UCL Museums has illustrated the power of the image even more than I had first imagined.

I am a PhD student in History and my research explores the ideas of experts planning the design of social housing in London in the decades following the Second World War.  I specifically question how planners understood men’s actions and behaviours within the home and attempted to reconfigure these performances through design and planning.  To summarise these ideas in a visual form I brought with me to the museum eight photographs: architects, planners and Royal attendees at the 1943 County of London Plan exhibit (below); images from the Live Architecture exhibition at the 1951 Festival of Britain; designs from the 1940s for how living spaces should be arranged and photographs of ‘model homes’ from the 1950s.


King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and an assortment of postwar planners at the County of London Plan exhibit. University of Liverpool archive [D113/3/3/40].

King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and an assortment of postwar planners at the 1943 County of London Plan exhibit. University of Liverpool archive [D113/3/3/40].

Upon display of the images, the heightened level of response from museum visitors surprised me.  Without the need for me to even look particularly inviting – visitors assembled at my table and questioned, ‘Well, what do we have here?’  This expression of interest enabled me to explain the Researchers in Museums project, give a brief outline of my research and explain why I am based in the museum for the afternoon.

The images offered a starting-point for conversation, with several of the visitors quick to draw links between the photographs and experiences from their own lives.  One visitor asked questions on racial differences in postwar domestic practices, citing a BBC documentary on the historical significance of the Front Room for black families in the latter half of the 20th century.  Another visitor examined the current arrangement of their own home – questioning where Dad relaxes after a day at work, in which room children do their homework and the location of where meals are eaten.  Memories of previous homes also featured in our conversations, with one visitor proudly sharing the forward-looking mindset of her Father who would always assist with the household chores or assist the children with their homework in the living room.  People were thinking about their own homes, both past and present, in a new way, while also educating me on their experiences and opinions towards my research.

This deeper engagement is exactly what I was hoping to achieve with my afternoon and made clear the value of public engagement when it operates as a two-way discussion, in which both the museum visitor and myself left feeling better informed about the subject.  This approach to museum engaging also enabled me to avoid disturbing visitors keen to explore the collections on their own, with no wish to engage in conversation.  This approach therefore circumnavigated this problem, with my assortment of images acting as a magnet for those in the museum that wish to engage in a personal conversation and learn more from their visit.

The use of images has made me think further about how those working in museums could expand upon this approach.  How can researchers discuss their work in ways that go beyond talking?  I am aware of other Student Engagers that have used sounds to spark conversations – I feel encouraged to explore ways to bring the smells of early 20th century housing into the museums, or evoke conversation through the tasting of certain foods and drinks.  History is a sensory journey into the past and there is a need for myself and others sharing their research with the public to look across the senses to make their research as accessible and engaging as possible.

Question of the Week: Do boys and girls enjoy different museum exhibits/items?

By Stacy Hackner, on 26 March 2014

Stacy Hackner_Thumbnail

By Stacy Hackner

This is actually a more complicated question than one would think, especially considering the recent controversies regarding “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” toys, the Independent’s refusal to review children’s books aimed at a particular gender, and Waterstones‘ refusal to sell such books. It’s also an interesting question to ask as most of us would consider museums fairly gender-neutral spaces. According to research, museum visitors are more likely to be female, educated, older, and white — but that’s a fairly narrow demographic. Clearly there are many visitors who are male or other genders, not in (or after) higher education, young, and of varying ethnicities. There are also two competing (but false) ideologies: that girls would prefer museums because they like quiet learning and being indoors, and that boys will prefer museums because they can interact with objects and tend to like “the gross stuff”. Studies from the 1990s showed that while boys and girls both visited all exhibits at a science museum, they interacted with the exhibits in different ways and for different amounts of time – i.e. boys preferred the water jets and girls preferred face paint. (What these activities have to do with science is unclear.) The researchers showed that children display “typical gender roles” when playing and advise museums to design displays accordingly. Another article encourages girls to visit science museums because they’re an informal and thus less intimidating environment than the classroom. However, it’s important to consider these articles in the context of the views of gender held at the time – I’d hope we’re less stereotypical these days.

In my experience in the Petrie and the Grant, I’ve found both of these stereotypes completely untrue. All kids who come to the Grant like “the gross stuff”, or as they’re properly termed, the wet specimens. I’ve had both boys and girls come up to ask me questions about dinosaurs and bones and worms and mummies and jewelry and the jar of moles. Both boys and girls want to dress up in the Petrie’s reproduction Egyptian clothing, especially the loincloth. Teenage boys, including a Scouts troop I engaged with, are particularly fascinated by the baculum — but then, so were a duo of thirty-year-old women. Above all, kids of all genders are natural scientists: curious, inquisitive, and unafraid to ask crazy questions. Children who visit museums are happier and, in a country where most museums are free, it’s always worthwhile for them to come and explore.



Falk, JH. 2009. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Kremer, KB and GW Mullins. 1992. Children’s Gender Behavior at Science Museum Exhibits. Curator: The Museum Journal Volume 35, Issue 1, pages 39–48.

Ramey-Gassert, L, HJ Walberg III, and HJ Walberg. 1994. Reexamining connections: Museums as science learning environments. Science Education, Volume 78, Issue 4, pages 345–363.