Thursday 18 October 2018

"Context of Display: Suffragette posters and thinking beyond a 'museum model' for library exhibitions."

Post contributed by - Kevin Symonds CLG Secretary

The first CLG event of 2018/2019 was a very interesting talk by Dr Chris Burgess, Head of Exhibitions and Public Programmes with the title of "Context of Display: Suffragette posters and thinking beyond a 'museum model' for library exhibitions."

This brought out ideas that many of us had not contemplated or realised were issues which is exactly why we have these events.

In CLG talks and tours we find out about peoples past careers and how they can sometimes be very different from the position they are in now and Chris was no exeception when we found out that shockingly he is not a Librarian but a museum professional having previously been Head of Collections and Engagement at the People's History Museum in Manchester.

We would like to thank Chris for starting off our 2018-19 programme of events with such a fascinating and enjoyable talk and invite you to find out more below.

Virtually all of the UL's collection of 8 million items (excluding a few delicate masterpieces such as Newtons Principia or the Gutenberg Bible) can be requested by anyone with a readers ticket who will then get access to it within 15 minutes. This is not something you can do in a Museum, the collections in the physical building are normally a tiny percentage of the overall collection and so to gain access to materials you have to wait, and that is even if they are available to people at all. But in an exhibtion you don't get to choose from the whole collection. Someone has already decided what the general subject matter is, and has decided what is going to be available to the people who visit. It is a matter of making the best use of what does exist in the collection and to allow people to gain the most from what has been chosen; to allow those people the bredth of what is available but also show them in a form that gives them the biggest benefits from their short time in the Library.

It is these differing elements of exhibitions in museums and libraries that Chris explained to us in terms of the reasoning behind what they both do.

To educate and inspire. 

What intent is there behind the project as a whole but also in the ways in which it is curated. 

What are the social and interpretive concepts you want to put into an exhibition. 

Who is it aimed at?

Do you say where the material came from and how it entered the collection? Something that is of great importance in many museums where post-colonial feelings have led to demands for restitution of materials.  But also in terms of it filling out the history of an item beyond it's physical look and a little description card. That was something which was very doable in terms of the Suffragette Posters as the UL has the original letter from the then University Librarian Francis Jenkinson asking the National Union of Women's Sufferage Societies for copies after the first election of 1910.

It was Francis's desire to keep ephemera for the future that means we can now see these posters, whereas in many places these posters have just melted away into history. Or, in the case of the Imperial War Museum being used to wrap up objects THEY considered important for the future instead of keeping things for future generations to make that decision themselves.

Even the way that the actual physical dimensions of the Suffragette posters had to be represented had an impact. The posters are too big to be on the walls of the normal exhibtion space so they were in the entrance hall. This added an unusual and different element to the exhibition,  that of natural light. Not something that is normally available in an exhibition but one that is important, as seeing them in this context is how people would have originally seen them, and not in an artificially lighted space. 

Although the last picture he showed proved that this is only part of the story. These posters would not have been a poster on it's own, in a dowdy staid manner, it would have been one poster amongst many others, maybe whole walls of posters, taking in the latest show at the local theatre alongside opposing political views and bordered by adverts for Bisto or various sauces. 

Fortunately we do have an idea of the context they lived in back in 1910, avoiding their impact being a plain piece of what is often seen as just artwork. However without more information having been saved at the time, in the form of photos of these walls to give this context, would we really understand the poster's place  back in 1910?