Those who enjoyed listening to Sam Alberti’s excellent keynote address at the Connecting with Collections Symposium (posted on this blog last week) may be interested in another presentation from that day.
This is my paper on “King Arthur’s Table: Learning From a Replica Scientific Instrument“. I have added the slides I used to an audio recording from the day. I hope you enjoy watching it – please leave any feedback in the Comments section below. You can find the abstract below the video.
“King Arthur’s Table” is not a table, nor has it anything to do with King Arthur. It is a twentieth-century reconstruction of a fourteenth-century astronomical instrument: a planetary equatorium described in a manuscript attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer. Conceived by historian of science Derek Price as a huge, tangible realisation of Chaucerian astronomy for Cambridge’s then-newly-opened Whipple Museum of the History of Science, it was displayed, discarded, stored, catalogued with that rather whimsical name, and finally rediscovered.
This paper will use the biography of King Arthur’s Table as a route to understanding the early, inchoate years of both a museum and the discipline of history of science. Its construction in the Cavendish Laboratory, under the patronage of Sir Lawrence Bragg, and its first display at the Royal Society allow it to tell us much about the significant scientific institutions and figures of that period. Intended both as a replica instrument and as an homage to the life and work of a great historical figure, its own life story has reflected changing research priorities and curatorial attitudes, especially concerning reconstructions.
New exhibition panels have recently been installed at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, based on my research into the plaster casts produced by D. Brucciani & Co. They include a general introduction, timeline and interpretive labels for six of the objects in the collection. Cumulatively they are intended to add a supplementary narrative that engages with their manufacture, authorship and function in the context of nineteenth-century material culture. In other words, to provide another ‘way in’ to the collection by revealing what the object is rather than (or in addition to) what the object is of. This was a rare opportunity to manage every stage of the process, from research and writing to design and installation. Being essentially a one-room museum with a (broadly) chronological display based on the age of the ‘original’, it was most practical to work with and around the existing arrangement of objects.
Back in June, Mark Elliot and Sarah-Jane Harknett from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Victoria Avery from the Fitzwilliam Museum, led a workshop session for the Connecting with Collections group on writing text for exhibitions, which informed my approach to this set of tasks. Although writing labels was not completely outside my experience, it was illuminating to hear from museum professionals from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives, sharing their experience of the shifting consensus on what is considered ‘good practice’ over time. We were also pointed in the direction of a particularly useful document, ‘Gallery Text at the V&A: A Ten Point Guide’, which helped me to frame and distill what had become a cumbersome amount of primary material.
I would like to thank the curator of the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Susanne Turner and Mick Cafferkey, senior illustrator at PandIS, for printing and mounting the panels with such precision.
The Connecting with Collections Symposium took place last Friday (27th September), and it was a great success.
We were lucky to have Sam Alberti, Director of Museums and Archives at the Royal College of Surgeons and Curator of their fabulous Hunterian Museum, as our keynote speaker. The title of his presentation was Objects of Knowledge: Using Material Culture in Twentieth-Century Museums.
Sam kindly allowed us to record his paper, so that you lovely people can listen to it right here. The abstract of the paper is below.
The way we use objects in collections of science, natural history and medicine has changed significantly over the past hundred years. In the early twentieth century, while natural science museums were are the peak of their prestige and influence as sites for the generation and reproduction of knowledge, other collections (especially of instruments) were deployed to commemorate scientific achievements. This heritage function expanded in the second half of the century as other sites challenged museums’ teaching and research roles.
Using national, university and medical school collections in the UK this paper presents episodes in the history of twentieth-century museums, from the well-documented interwar years to the historiographical terra incognita of the second half of the century. When and why do objects move from active use to reverential display? How did the relationship between museums and (their) universities change over the century? What role did material culture play in science, medicine and their histories in post-war Britain? Such questions help us to understand the use (and disuse) of museum objects in the construction, perpetuation, and professional identity of disciplines.
Last Wednesday I ran a children’s workshop along with two others from the Education Department at the Fitzwilliam. The session was based on my research project on 18th- and 19th-century school samplers. Fifteen girls turned up and they had a morning full of activities and learning. We started off by looking at the samplers on display in the Fan Gallery. I spoke for a few minutes about the collection at the Fitzwilliam and discussed sampler making over the centuries. The girls asked lots of questions including for instance how they were made, materials used, how long a sampler would take to stitch. They then had an opportunity to look more closely at the needlework and to draw motifs as seen on the examples.
Once we arrived back in the education studio, I asked the girls to complete a worksheet related to my project. The school objects were on display in the studio. The aim of the worksheet was to show them the first steps that I took when I started researching them. I required the girls to note down the key information stitched onto the sampler, including the maker’s name, age etc. During this activity questions started to turn to the makers and the schools, enabling me to inform the girls about schooling at this time, the reasons for including needlework in the curriculum and to tell them particular stories about the makers. I asked them questions about their school life and needlework experiences, if any. I wanted to get across the similarities in age between them and the makers, as well as highlighting the fact that needlework skills were a means of survival back then rather than a leisure pursuit today. Several girls commented that they were glad to go to their school rather than a charity school or orphanage.
For the last half an hour of the workshop the girls had an opportunity to stitch a motif onto a piece of fabric, either one from the school samplers, or one found on the samplers in the fan gallery. Here are a few photos:
Overall they seemed to really enjoy the workshop, particularly the practical aspect, and I enjoyed running it too!
In the 18th and 19th centuries, samplers not only demonstrated an ability to do simple embroidery techniques, but they could also teach the stitchers literacy and numeracy, as girls almost invariably stitched alphabets and numerals on their sampler.
Elder Girls Learning to Sew in the Bristol Orphan House, c.1905. Image taken from Centenary Memorial 1805-1905 (Bristol: J. Wright and Co., 1905). Copyright, and reproduced by permission, of the Bristol Central Library.
Furthermore, the moral texts they worked allowed the girls to reflect and ponder on religious and ethical sentiments. The extracts were usually taken from the Bible, hymns or poems, with the most popular verses being by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), Charles Wesley (1707-1788) and William Cowper (1731-1800).
Contemporaries believed that teaching needlework greatly benefitted girls from impoverished backgrounds as it prevented idleness and gave them employable skills. Girls could start sewing as young as 5 or 6, as long as they could hold a needle and a piece of fabric. They might make their first sampler as young as 8, possibly continuing with further ones into their later teenage years.
But samplers can be used as an educational tool today, as a way to inform young children about schooling in the past. I intend to run an activity workshop next month, providing an interesting and engaging session on sampler making in 18th- and 19th-century schools. I also plan on telling them some of the life stories of the makers, explaining to the children that needlework skills could provide young embroiderers from the past with an occupation.
The Victoria and Albert Museum Archive has been a crucial source of information on the plaster casts in the collection of the Museum of Classical Archaeology, particularly those produced by D. Brucciani & Co. in the second half of the nineteenth century. With the invaluable help of the archivists, another intriguing connection between these two museums has emerged. The Boards of Survey files for the Departments of Architecture and Sculpture document the process of deaccession, dispersal and as a last resort, the destruction of objects in the collections.
In November 1956 Hugh Plommer of the Museum of Classical Archaeology wrote to John Pope-Hennessy, acting on information from the British Museum that the V&A were about to sell their casts of Greek and Roman architectural ornament. Plommer asked to see the objects with a view to accommodating them in Cambridge and a meeting was arranged in December 1956. Plommer ‘expressed [his] willingness to house a large part of the collection’, which numbered approximately 180 individual casts and it was felt to be important that they ‘should be preserved as a unity’. There was already a precedent for the transfer of classical casts from the V&A, with ‘a number […] presented to the University of Melbourne, the University of Western Australia and other similar bodies’. The casts in question were reported to be in poor condition, stored in the tower crypt in the basement of the museum. They had not been displayed ‘in living memory’ and their relevance to the rest of the collection was under question.
A year passed without movement, despite the principle of transfer having been agreed. The V&A had installed a new heating system in the basement which resulted in the dispersal of the casts into different storage areas, making it difficult to complete the necessary paperwork. Plommer was asked to wait ‘a few months’. This short delay turned into a very much longer one, a note in the file simply stating ‘suspend till June 1, 1969’, with no reason recorded. In September 1969 Pope-Hennessy’s successor, Terence Hodgkinson, wrote to Plommer again inviting him to visit the V&A and set the transfer back in motion. Plommer replied, ‘All this is a very long time ago. Much has happened since, & we are now rather uncertain of our own future’. Despite his understandably cool response to a process that should have been completed some 13 years previously, Plommer arranged to visit the following week.
The Museum of Classical Archaeology could no longer accept the majority of the casts, even though the V&A exerted gentle pressure: ‘it is possible that they might have to be destroyed, if we cannot find a good home for them’. To complete the transfer, a Board of Survey consisting of Hodgkinson, Charles Avery and Claus Michael Kauffmann inspected the casts on 2 January 1970. In total 28 casts were offered as a gift (no single object was thought to be worth more than £5, with the whole collection valued at £100), having been judged ‘not required for exhibition’. The casts were delivered to the Museum of Classical Archaeology on 26 February 1970.
Returning to Cambridge, the task of locating these 28 objects has begun. Minutes of MCA committee meetings revealed that in 2006 three examples of architectural ornament were deaccessioned from the collection and transferred to the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford. They were recorded as the following:
Capital from Portico of Pantheon, Rome [corresponds to Ant. 157 or Ant. 207]
Capital from Temple of Mars Ultor, Rome [corresponds to Ant. 235]
Capital from Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome
So we can be reasonably certain that at least two of the three objects transferred to the Ashmolean had been part of the collection transferred from the V&A. As for the other 25, watch this space!