A Tale of Two Displays

museum Jul 10, 2015

On Thursday our class went over two readings on the nature of London and the Londoner within it, both written by Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and Street Haunting: A London Adventure (1930), in the stream-of-conscious style, the former from the mind of Mrs. Dalloway, the second from Ms. Woolf herself.

Our discussions focused on the accuracy of such narratives, and what they inform the reader - both casual and historian - about the nature of the city, its people, and the author. The overall idea was this (my own interjections in italics): That it is useful as a first person narrative (and much more interesting stylistically then a straight-forward rendition: "With no thought of buying, the eye is sportive and generous; it creates; it adorns; it enhances . . . . [L]et us indulge ourselves at the antique jewellers, among the trays of rings and the hanging necklaces. Let us choose those pearls, for example, and then imagine how, if we put them on, life would be changed. It becomes instantly between two and three in the morning; the lamps are burning very white in the deserted streets of Mayfair . . . ."(from Street Haunting), over "There was an antique shop on --- and --- intersection named --- and it sold pearls."), and it offers insights into the way the city was and the way the people were, but it must also be taken with a grain of salt, for it is not impartial and is filtered through a specific person's specific view (but then again, isn't everything? "Read me anything but history, for history must be false." So quoth Sir Robert Walpole, and quite accurately, too. Actions are clear enough, but motives? Motives are unknowable to all but the one motivated.)

We then briefly went over the importance of objects vs. narratives, and which, if either, is of the greatest historical significance? Objects, because they provide a concrete, physical link to the past, or narratives, because they provide an intimate look into the minds and lives of the people living at the time? It should come as no surprise that the answer was "It's best if both are together." An object says a thousand words, (a million words could lead to a million different people forming a million different interpretations of one object), but several words can lead to a deeper understanding of how said object was viewed and held in great esteem (or none at all) by its original owners.

An excellent example is the engagement ring given by John Keats to Fanny Brawne, held at Keats House in Hampstead, North London.

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It's a beautiful piece, and would capture many a person's interest sitting in a case, with a little card next to it reading "Engagement ring given to Fanny Brawne by John Keats in early 1820." But what if we were also able to see a progression of love letters written by Keats to Fanny leading up to the event? What if we were able to read in the poet's own words his love for this woman, to whom he was ready to make the ultimate commitment?

Postmark: Newport, July 3, 1819

Shanklin, Isle of Wight, Thursday

My dearest Lady - . . . . The morning is the only proper time for me to write to a beautiful Girl whom I love so much: for at night, when the lonely day has closed, and the lonely, silent, unmusical Chamber is waiting to receive me as into a Sepulchre [a small room or monument where a dead person is laid or buried], then believe me my passion gets entirely the sway, then I would not have you see those Rhapsodies which I once thought it impossible I should ever give way to, and which I have often laughed at in another, for fear you should [think me] either too unhappy or perhaps a little mad. . . ." (Taken from http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/selected-love-letters-fanny-brawne)

It's a beautiful piece, and would capture many a person's interest sitting in a case, with a little card next to it reading "Engagement ring given to Fanny Brawne by John Keats in early 1820." But what if we were also able to see a progression of love letters written by Keats to Fanny leading up to the event? What if we were able to read in the poet's own words his love for this woman, to whom he was ready to make the ultimate commitment?

Postmark: Newport, July 3, 1819

Shanklin, Isle of Wight, Thursday

My dearest Lady - . . . . The morning is the only proper time for me to write to a beautiful Girl whom I love so much: for at night, when the lonely day has closed, and the lonely, silent, unmusical Chamber is waiting to receive me as into a Sepulchre [a small room or monument where a dead person is laid or buried], then believe me my passion gets entirely the sway, then I would not have you see those Rhapsodies which I once thought it impossible I should ever give way to, and which I have often laughed at in another, for fear you should [think me] either too unhappy or perhaps a little mad. . . ." (Taken from http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/selected-love-letters-fanny-brawne)

The force of those words is now behind the ring, and we are afforded a tiny peak into the heart and mind of a man who loved a woman back in 1819, and just so happened to have the ability to write a very lovely letter to her on the subject.

Continuing on, our group was in the enviable situation of having TWO museum lessons in one day. The first was a visit down into the bowels of the Museum (aka the staff-only basement) and from thence to the Costume Shop. Needless to say I was completely in raptures, even though most of the collection very naturally spends most of its time in special preservative boxes. It was apparent from the get-go that Timothy Long, Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts, was as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his work as anyone could ever hope to be (and this isn't just me gushing, several of my friends/classmates commented as much after the fact).

Mr. Long gave us his brief history, then launched into his true passion: Menswear. Unfortunately, in the world of fashion and costuming men's wear often gets the short end of the stick.

This:

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Is never going to be as interesting to the general viewing public as this:

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Sorry, fellas. There is also the general issue of there being far fewer men's clothing floating about than women's, there are several guesses for this, some scholarly, some mine (those are the common sense ones), being, in no particular order: Men's clothes experienced more wear and tear, men's clothes didn't change in fashion as quickly as women's and therefore were worn more often and for a longer period of time (see above), men don't take as good of care of their clothes as women do (hence the above), men didn't buy as many clothes, men didn't bother storing their clothes or if they did, they didn't do it nearly as well as the lady-folk. Etc. etc., insert your own theory here.

All this to say, that Mr. Long was given a chance to work on the Museum of London's now-ended Sherlock Holmes exhibit: http://www.visitlondon.com/things-to-do/event/35655157-sherlock-holmes-at-the-museum-of-london. He was in charge of the clothing, which at first seemed fairly straightforward: deerstalker (the hat), "costumes" (Holmes was the master of disguise) . . . but then he started digging deeper, and that's when thing really got . . . elementary. (Forgive me, dear reader, I could not resist.)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about what was true, that is, he didn't make the character of Holmes some sort of super-human, with super-human powers and gadgets to aid him in his work. Holmes worked with what was available at the time of the novels, in the late Victorian and very early Edwardian eras. As Mr. Long began reading the original books and digging into the characters and scenarios, he began seeing clues, clues that would have been quickly picked up on by the readers of his day, but maybe not so obvious to the modern viewers of the Sherlock Holmes exhibit.

For example, the famous deerstalker. You have all seen this before:

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This hat was worn when hunting, or stalking deer. Fun Fact: Sherlock Holmes never hunted. Why, then, was he wearing a hat specifically intended for hunting? Ah, but he is! Holmes dons the hat because he is about to begin the hunt . . . for the criminal! impressed nodding all around

Clothing was used to describe people, and when found alone could be used to provide clues as to who to look for, and what that person had been up to.

Mr. Long showed us two specimens, each like one of the hats below (albeit much older):

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This, ladies and gentlemen, is a top hat. A collapsible top-hat. Holmes, and those reading his story, would have known instantly what this is for, and why it's significant. There was only one place in which a collapsible top-hat was worn, only one in which it was necessary. Any one want to guess?

The opera. Top-hats were forbidden at the opera, (too much stress for the coat-check guy - hundreds of men, hundreds of identical black top-hats . . . you see the problem), but the top-hat was an indispensable piece of the properly-dressed gentleman's wardrobe. You simply could not be seen in public - at the opera, no less - without a top-hat. So the collapsible top-hat was invented, so a gentleman could arrive in style, collapse his hat, and store it under his seat. Then, when the opera ended, simply pop it back open, and exit in style once more.

Footprints also feature prominently in Sherlock lore, and Mr. Long showed us an interesting example of a sturdy ladies' boot. There was nothing particularly special about the boot, save one detail: a removable screw in the heel. When we failed to guess at the correct answer (or Mr. Long was done amusing himself, one or the other), he revealed it was for attaching ice-skates. The blade would be screwed into place, then strapped down with ties over the foot portion of the boot.

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A footprint with a screw in the heel would have been just the sort of clue Holmes would've loved to find. The Museum began capitalizing on these interesting details to flesh out the exhibit, including making prints of shoes in the collection like the skating-shoe:

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The Museum was also able to capitalize on its excellent collection of clothes belonging to the "common people." This was useful in displaying Holmes as the "Master of Disguise," an expert at blending into every situation and scenario, while using what would have been available to him at the time. A collection of theatrical wigs, from a "bald" wig dating from 1875 - 1880 made of human hair, to a ginger mustache, could have been used by Holmes to disappear into society as he methodically searched for clues or traced suspects.

An exhibit like that of Holmes took a lot of careful planning, with months being devoted to each phase.

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The issue of planning and logistics is one woven throughout the Museum, as our second lesson soon proved, in perusing a portion of a permanent display that took four YEARS. Beverley Cook, Curator of Social & Working History, took us up to the main museum floor and through the Galleries of Modern London, into the People's Gallery: 1850's - 1940's, specifically, the display of the Suffragettes.

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Unlike the Sherlock exhibit, which is temporary, the Suffragette display was to be incorporated into the permanent gallery, which has a shelf-life of about 10 - 15 years. The decision was made to not separate the story of London's women from the others, for after all, women and men live side-by-side, and their stories are interwoven. However, the Edwardian era was important for the women of London specifically, for the people of London generally. It was about this time that Londoners became truly key to London's story, a time when the people became the force of change in the city.

As the gallery will be around for quite some time and with a limited amount of space, tough decisions had to be made as to what stories specifically to tell. In such cases, it's often easiest to focus on the stories and things that the Museum could display well. The reasoning behind this is two-fold: first, permanent displays are expensive, both monetarily and in staff resources. Second, the display must be able to cater to a wide-range of people, and for a long amount of time. It must appeal to Londoners and non-Londoners alike, the latter of whom are among the majority of visitors to the Museum and who probably won't be very familiar with the history of the city. It must also appeal to a variety of age groups, including school children, who are often required to visit museums as part of their schooling. The Museum must have material that covers what they are learning in school, again, anticipating the needs of students a decade in advance.

Space is always at a premium, and sometimes results in the old objects vs. text battle we first engaged in way back when I talked about our earlier class lesson. The object catches the eye, but it's the text that provides the story. Ms. Cook confided that in this instance she chose having more objects over increased depth in the text, but all must conform to the need to fit in with the overarching story of people coming together.

Large items have a role to play as well, but as Ms. Cook explains, they must "earn their keep," justifying the amount of space they take up. The Selfridge's lift not too far away from the Suffragette display works on every level: It is eye-catching and beautiful:

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It also fits perfectly in with the narrative, speaking to the modernization and democratization of London society at the time (anyone was allowed in Selfridges, regardless of class) and to the increasing liberation of women, providing employment in the store as lift operators (yet another interaction between social classes, a working girl from the East End interacting with an upper-middle class woman from the West End), and drawing women out into public as shoppers.

Original photographs are just as important as objects (and a lot smaller), and can be even more useful than vast swathes of text. Ms. Cook calls them "snapshots of a moment in time." All the items, whether photograph or object, are linked together so the visitor can easily move through the displays and see the connections. The Suffragette display itself was divided into two parts, the public side of the campaign and the private side, and a large banner serves to join the two.

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The information on the Museum's website perfectly sums up the importance of this piece, bringing together the public marches and rallies, with the intimate struggles of each individual woman represented here, given physical representation through the highly feminine art of embroidery:

"[A] suffragette banner composed of 80 rectangular pieces of linen sewn together and bordered by green and purple panels. The 80 pieces of linen are embroidered in purple cotton with the signatures of eighty Suffragette hunger-strikers who, by 1910, had 'faced death without flinching'. Along the top is embroidered 'Women's Social and Political Union' in Scottish art nouveau style along with the names of the suffragette leaders Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney. The banner was first carried in the 'From Prison to Citizenship' procession in June 1910 to symbolise the spirit of comradeship that gave suffragette prisoners the strength and courage to endure hunger strike and force feeding."

As should be painfully obvious by now, the pieces were carefully chosen, using what the Museum had, what was important, and what people would like to see, the latter of which can sometimes cause problems. Ms. Cook told us that audiences today usually expect some sort of digital interpretations, but, they should "never distract from the objects."

Three video screens are present, two displaying actual footage of marches and speeches, the other displaying rolling images of surveillance photographs taken of the women imprisoned for militant vandalism to forward their cause.

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We witnessed a tale of two engaging displays, one built to unravel its traditional sordid tale, and the other built to weave its story deep into the existing fibers. Both remain true to the overarching mission of the Museum, together adding to the continuing narrative that is London.

Rachel Polaniec

I enjoy researching, visiting, and writing about local historic and cultural sites.