Our Link to the Past

museum Jul 13, 2015

History from things: or objects used to gather information about history, and used to tell a story.

Such was our lesson today in class, in the telling of the history of World War I - the Great War - and its impact on London.

I don't know much about the first World War, and neither did most of my classmates, especially not through the eyes of Europe in general and England and London in particular. To help with this, Susie read us some excerpts from books about the time and from the time, we looked at pictures of zeppelins (some people didn't know what they were), and listened to excerpts from original songs sung at music halls in the City.

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One of the songs, "What did you do during the Great War, Daddy?" was a call to men to go out and enlist so they'd have something to tell their children, another "I've got a bit of a blighty one," is about a soldier (sung by a woman) who is delighted to be wounded just seriously enough to be sent home, and perhaps what is the most popular song from the time, "Oh! It's a lovely war."

Armed with our brief history lesson, we broke into groups and set about deciding what we would use to tell of WWI and its impact on London.

The group I was in added one idea each: photographs of bombed city buildings and houses; examples of clothing worn, illustrating economical and refurbished choices influenced by rationing, posters and propaganda (and throwing those things in as well); and music, which had a purpose, whether as propaganda, entertainment, or both, and also brought people together. We liked our idea because it illustrates the city proper and the city as people, with the music tying the two threads together.

Other ideas were the poster and song "Daddy, what did YOU do during the Great War?":

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Uniforms belonging to women factory workers and something pertaining to the sense of humor the Brits kept up during the crises; images of what once was in a location in the City versus what is there now; journals and diaries from the people who lived during the time, including oral histories; and ceramic poppies, like what was at the Tower of London (the poppy being the symbol of remembering World War I).

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In the end, the general consensus reached was that sensory experience deepened the level of knowledge provided by museum displays.

We were afforded an opportunity to test our theory by a visit to the Museum of London: Docklands, located a brisk hop, skip, and a jump east of the main Museum in the City, and located on the Isle of Dogs.

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It was there we went through an exhibit titled "Soldiers and Suffragettes: the photography of Christina Broom," led by Anna Sparham, Curator of Photographs.

No photography was permitted, but the Museum's webpage on the display has some of her work:
http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/docklands/whats-on/exhibitions-displays/christina-broom/

Ms. Sparham permitted us thirty minutes to view the exhibit, then took us down into the basement to discuss what we thought, go over the work that went into making the display, and a few hands-on activities.

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When we returned to our space from the exhibit, we went over a few of the things that stood out to us, including a short video illustrating how prints were made using the original glass plates, the glass plates themselves, the photographs of soldiers with friends looking relaxed, and the homemaker's banner next to the photograph of the Suffragettes carrying said banner.

Ms. Sparham gave us an overview of what went into the exhibit, noting it was in planning for eighteen months. Originally, the display was going to be about women photographers, and Broom's work was to be a small part of it. Not a lot was known about Broom at the time, even now her work is not widespread.

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In part this was due to her work being a bit all over the place, with no one dedicated "Christina Broom" resource. Another reason is that her work is strictly commercial: the photographs she took were intended for use on postcards instead of the art gallery.

The glass plates of the Suffragettes and street views were donated to the Museum of London in the 1950's by Broom's only child, Winifred. The Imperial War Museum held the glass plates of the soldiers, and the National Portrait Gallery those of the Royal Family.

It was a string of events that lead to Broom earning an exhibit of her own, starting with thoughts in 2013 of the upcoming Centennial of World War I. The curators knew they wanted to do something on the topic, and so they started working out what was available to them in their collections, including photographs.

There was a large amount of Broom's work that was in private hands. In 2009, they had been up for auction at Sotheby's, with a base price of 27,000 pounds. The bid only reached 26, and the auction failed. Ms. Sparham was able to track the work this way, asking Sotheby's to forward a request for purchase by the Museum to the owner. After a year of negotiations, the Museum purchased the collection for the 27,000 pounds, and they were brought to the Museum at the end of 2013.

2,500 objects came with the collection, mostly unorganized and in cardboard boxes. A total of six volunteers were brought in, working one day a week cataloging the photographs and placing them into appropriate conservation boxes.

Based on her work with the Suffragettes, the assumption was made that Broom herself was, if not a Suffragette herself, than at least sympathetic to their cause. The collection was carefully looked over, in the hopes of finding evidence proving the point.

There was none.

Upon further reflection, it became clear that Broom was there commercially, in the same manner as many others of the time. As further proof of her disengagement from the Cause, a lot of her work was for the Establishment, mainly Royalty and the Army, making it unlikely that she would have risked her reputation with them via any political or ideological associations with the Suffragettes.

Nonetheless, there was a story to be told about Christina Broom and her interactions with the city of London and its people, so the next question to be answered was how to do so in the allotted space.

Ms. Sparham had assumptions going into the project, such as wanting the introduction to include the original tripod and camera (sadly the latter was not to be had), with the continuous questions to be answered of what approaches might appeal the most and what does each space do or say? The idea was even kicked around to feature Broom in context of what other photographers, both male and female, were doing at the time, but the lack of space nipped that in the bud.

Loaned objects were also taken into account, this exhibit has four loaners: the University of Texas, the National Portrait Gallery, a private donor, and (I believe, though I may be mistaken) the Royal Army.

There was the issue of the primarily 2-D photographs being interspersed with some 3-D objects, such as the tripod. Ms. Sparham chose to use one of two banners that were in the Museum's collection that also feature prominently in Broom's photographs. Said Ms. Sparham with a laugh, "[I can insist all I like that] I must have a banner!" but in the end, logistics can prove an inscrutable barrier, and the conservation work that was done to provide the one banner only was enormous.

She also used smaller pieces, like the glass plates, to illustrate just what an undertaking Broom went through to produce these pictures. Broom was a small women, under 5 feet tall and petite, and she would have to carry her tripod, camera, and stacks of glass plates through crowds and across long distances, always at the ready to set up and begin exposing said plates.

The Museum had the good fortune of being able to print the Suffragette photographs directly from the original glass plates. Their dark room hadn't been used for fifteen years, but the photography department had steadily resisted its conversion into offices or storage space.

In designing the space, there are two options: use in-house designers, or pick up a freelancer. The Museum of London in this case used the latter. In both instances, the curator(s) explain what they want, and then it's up to the designer to translate that into a working concept. Ms. Sparham had three designers submit ideas, and the one that was chosen got Broom and the concept immediately, even featuring a picture of Broom in the very beginning (in the first circular area reached upon entry, displayed on a large plate of glass freestanding in the middle of the space), and even using the same picture Ms. Sparham had in mind.

It is estimated that Christina Broom made over 40,000 prints, the Museum has about 2,000. These are the size of postcards, because that's what they are. This brings up the issue of size, postcards are not very large and it can make viewing them difficult. The curators got around this by projecting the images on a wall next to the original postcard prints, which were all hand printed by Broom's daughter Winnie in her little darkroom at home (by her own estimates, she could and did print 1000 a night).

The increased size of the photographs allow viewers to focus on the faces of the people shown. Broom, like the Museum of London itself, was more interested in the people she photographed rather than the event she found them in.

Although the Museum's collection does not come close to holding all of Broom's work, it still has quite a lot of it. There are nine boxes currently filled with her work, plus what is out on display. The boxes consist of a four-ring binder placed inside of the decent-sized box, there are sleeves attached to the rings and items in each sleeve. Overall it looks like a scrapbook in a box.

We were permitted to leaf through one box per table (three tables in all), to try and get a sense of what information could be gleaned from a brief browsing.

Then we were given a group of photographs pertaining to one of the categories Broom photographed, and asked to come up with a way to group them in a pleasing manner.

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For our final activity, we were provided with copies of paperwork pertaining to a specific soldier who fought in WWI. We received Charles Rimmer, who enlisted 25 September 1914. He was nineteen at the time and a student, with brown hair, blue eyes, and stood at 5' 11.5". All throughout his file are papers pertaining to his intelligence, his admirable character, his love of learning, and his worth and desirability for promotions. His disciplinary history is blank.

He had a rough August in 1915, his casualty listing has four entries in it, all ending with him being re-admitted to his regiment.

The fifth entry, dated 28/1/16, reads simply "Killed in action."

His possessions and medals were sent to Jane Rimmer, who we believe to be his mother, as the address given for her is in the same parish in which he was born.

It's amazing how three little words, "Killed in action," used to describe someone who died nearly one hundred years ago, and who one didn't know existed until literally minutes before reading those words, can create such sadness and melancholy. There is something dangerously intimate, something visceral and painful, to be gleaned from original sources. On that faded, browning paper, in neat cursive in blue ink. "Killed in action." It is not a fiction. It is not a movie, it is not a novel. It was real. It is real. Charles Rimmer lived, and he died fighting in World War I at the age of twenty-one.

One of the hardest things about being a historian is when the distressing remembrances of the past come bleeding into the present. When things that happened long ago and have long since lapsed from memory suddenly reappear, to be dealt with in all their terrible reality, when the sufferer is long gone and beyond help, and the cause of the sufferings have ceased to be and may even be forgotten.

It is these moments in which our common humanity, our very humanness itself, connects us with those who have lived and died before. In which the academic varnish of the scholar gives way, and the person of today steps forth and encounters a living, breathing person of the past. It can be painful. It can be exhilarating. But it is natural, and it is good. It is our link to the past. And that is what we strive for.

Rachel Polaniec

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