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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Justice for Magdalens

By Gemma Angel, on 12 November 2012

Lisa Plotkin by Lisa Plotkin






Many visitors to the Grant Museum of Zoology reacted very strongly to the recent exhibit Buried on Campus, which ran from April 23rd until July 13th. In fact, almost every single conversation I struck up with visitors during my time on the museum floor had something to do with the story the exhibit was telling – namely, the discovery of the remains of 180 individuals were discovered buried underneath the main quad at UCL in 2010. Visitors were surprised, inquisitive, and incredulous. Where did the bones come from? they wanted to know. When were they buried? Was UCL aware of this all along? Conspiracy theories abounded.

And it was not just the visitors who were asking questions. My fellow engagers did as well, with both Katie and Sarah writing blog posts on the topic. It seemed everyone was interested in reclaiming these human remains and reinserting them into an historical narrative. Buried on Campus also touched on a topic that is prominent in my own doctoral research, recalling the same questions that Sarah, Katie, and visitors alike asked: mainly, where in history do these bones belong and what are we going to do with them now?

From the main quad of UCL I will detour to Dublin, where in 1993 an order of nuns put up a portion of their estate for sale to a real estate developer. Subsequently, the remains of 155 women were found buried in unmarked graves on the grounds. Their discovery was a catalyst for which revealed the hidden history of the Magdalen Asylums – or the Magdalen Laundries, as they were also known. If you haven’t already heard of Magdalen Asylums then perhaps you can guess their purpose from their namesake. These asylums were built to serve as penitentiaries for the housing and redemption of ‘fallen’ women. Their target demographic was prostitutes, but other so-called ‘deviant’ women were also admitted, for crimes ranging from unmarried motherhood to mental instability. While Magdalen Asylums were first created in the late 18th century, it wasn’t until post-famine Ireland that they were transformed from voluntary refuges for cast-out women to punitive institutions, which sometimes detained their inmates unwillingly for life.

Magdalen Asylums were supposed to offer a new vision for post-famine Irish society. They would solve the problems of poverty, family breakdown, and moral decline. As the Reverend Father Kerr explained:

The appalling demoralization of our times is evidenced mostly in the decline of that virtue amongst woman-kind which is her chief glory and title to our esteem. To-day in ever increasing numbers “Magdalen” has imitators in her sin. But few will share her penance.[1]

But that was no longer true due to these Asylums; now fallen women could share her penance. And repent they did. The women penitents were required to work long hours in laundries for no pay. They were to live under a regime of prayer, silence, and complete obedience and they were separated from their children. They could no longer leave voluntarily, as the late 19th century ushered in a preference for permanent inmates.

Magdalen Asylum.


This 1897 account sums up the situation succinctly:

At five o’clock I was at the Magdalen Home and was introduced by the Mother Superior of the Convent of Mercy to the Sister-in-Charge and six nuns who managed the laundry. We were all seated in the Sisters’ parlour where I put my questions. Most were answered by the Sister-in-charge.

         “How many girls have you?”


         “How many are unmarried mothers?”

         “About 70 percent”

         “And the others?”

         “Some are sent here when they leave the Industrial School because they need special


         “Are they mental defects”?




         “Are the girls paid?”

         “No, they earn their keep.”


         “Are the girls free?”


         “Can a girl leave whenever she chooses?”

         MOTHER SUPERIOR: “No, we’re not as lenient as all that. The girl must have a suitable

         place to go…”

         “How long do they stay”?

         “Some stay for life” [2]

These asylums continued to operate up until the 1980s. In 1997 the documentary Sex in a Cold Climate premiered, featuring the testimonials of four former penitents. The women spoke of having to endure physical and sexual abuse while incarcerated against their will and one woman spoke of being forcibly separated from her child. Since then there have been numerous documentaries chronicling the physical and psychological abuse that the estimated 30,000 Magdalens suffered. Calls for justice for these forgotten women resound in Ireland today, and on June 6th, 2011 the United Nations Committee Against Torture put out a statement urging the Irish government to investigate the claim that thousands of girls and women were tortured in Catholic laundries.

As I reflect on the impact that Buried on Campus had on the UCL community, I can only imagine the impact that the 1993 discovery must have had in Ireland. Visitors to the Grant wondered at our complicity in the deaths of those 180 people buried underneath our lecture halls, and many were adamant that the narratives of these unknown people should be reasserted into UCL’s history. I am happy to say that over the past two decades Irish historians, and the Irish public, have given us a great model to follow in doing just that. And whilst justice was not granted to the unknown 155 buried in a mass grave within a convent’s walls, their story is being told and their memory is not forgotten.


[1] Rev. Father Kerr, Galway. ‘The Good Shepherd Nuns at Home’, in The Fold of the Good Shepherd  (1931), p. 10.

[2] Halliday Sutherland: Irish Journey (1958), pp.81-83.

Art Not Words: Female Figure Standing, 1913

By Gemma Angel, on 13 August 2012

Lisa Plotkinby Lisa Plotkin






1913 was an interesting year for British women. Militant suffragette violence had reached an all-time high, with dozens of women sent to prison each week in the name of female suffrage. The deeds of the suffragettes became more and more outrageous as time went on, with many smashing windows, setting fires, attacking members of parliament, and just generally causing havoc by doing things that women simply were not supposed to do. Under their militant slogan “deeds not words!” thousands of women joined the cause.

By 1913 women were doing and not just saying. They may not have had political representation, but they were making political news. They were heavily involved in local politics; they were nurses in larger numbers and doctors in fewer; they were teachers and factory workers; reformers at home and missionaries abroad. In short, they were as diverse in occupation then as women are now. And they were also artists.

Thia was a fact that UCL’s Art Museum left me no doubt of during their most recent exhibition, in which work from the affiliated Slade School of Art was showcased. Founded in 1871, the Slade School followed UCL’s proud tradition of gender equality and admitted men and women on equal footing, seven years before the University of London allowed women to take examinations.

In 1913 women’s output was limited, constrained by legislative factors and social mores. But in 1913 their artistic output from the Slade was nothing short of astonishing, both in quantity and quality. The featured artists in the recent UCL Art Museum exhibition were tasked with taking historical pieces from the UCL collections, and producing works that somehow comments or speaks to the earlier works.

The two easels grabbed my eye immediately – in fact for me they were really central to the whole exhibition. As you can see from the image below – the piece (by current Slade student Laura Kuch) features two almost completely identical paintings of the backs of nude women. Kuch positioned them as though they were facing back-to-back – their double always invisible – but standing just behind them.

Laura Kuch, Dopplegängers, 2012. Two wooden easels, Dora Carrington, Female Figure Standing, 1913 (framed), Fanny J Fletcher, Female Figure Standing, 1913. © Laura Kuch. Installation shot photographed by Mary Hinkley, UCL Media Services.

But Kuch herself was not the painter of these two works; she discovered them tucked away in UCL storage. This surprised Kuch. Why were there two identical paintings, both labeled “Female Figure Standing, 1913” and why were they attributed to two different artists?

It was later discovered that the two artists, both women students at the Slade in 1913, painted this female figure standing as part of a competition. These two paintings were the first and second place winners. As an historian of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, these two female nudes speak to me. Women artists painted this woman 99 years ago. They competed in a university competition 99 years ago. A woman took off her clothes for a group of artists 99 years ago. Those are all statements about the status of women 99 years ago. It might seem divorced from the larger Woman Question of the time, but it wasn’t.

The great, late poet author Adrienne Rich once wrote: “We are not the Woman Question asked by somebody else; we are the women who ask the questions.”[1] The women artists of the Slade from the 1870s until today posed their questions and stated their answers, through art. Not deeds, not words, but art. And now almost one hundred years later we still get to enjoy it.


[1] Adrienne Rich, “Notes Towards a Politics of Location” in in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986).