Archive | March 2013

Stories from the Archives: Casting Aside?

MCA StoreI would not be the first to suggest that some of the most tantalising and charismatic museum spaces are beyond the public face of the institution. The ‘backstage’ or ‘below stairs’ can speak with a different voice and reveal shifting priorities of collection and display over time. The stores of the Museum of Classical Archaeology are not particularly labyrinthine, nor do they subscribe to the romance of dust, but they still communicate the frisson that exists between loss and discovery. There seems to be a certain amount of pathos in these heads and bodies, some displaying the bright white wounds that are almost inevitable even in the most carefully coddled cast collections, becoming fragments of fragments.


Stories from the Archives I. Discovering Ann Bowler Calton

The Fitzwilliam’s online catalogue provides this information about Ann Calton’s sampler:  the diameters (length, 56 cm/ width, 38.5 cm); the material and what stitches she used (wool ground, and cross and satin stitches in silk), a transcription of the verse (from a sermon by Rev Walter Blake Kirwan (1754-1805)), a rough date of when it was made (after 1800, before 1901), and the date the sampler was bequeathed to the museum (1939, by Lady St John Hope). Currently, there is no photograph of the sampler on the website.

But who was Ann Calton? What was ‘The Royal Free Mason’s School’ and when did she attend it? What did she learn at school? What date did she make the sampler? What does the sampler look like? What happened to her once she left school?

I was able to see and photograph Ann’s sampler, which is below:











After many unsuccessful emails, google searches and phone calls to various places to find information about this school and its records, I came across- quite by accident- the website of the Freemasons’ Hall in London, which has a museum and library. By searching the online catalogues I was able to find several reference numbers for documents relating to the school for girls, including a register of all the girls who were admitted to the school since its foundation in 1788 by Bartholomew Ruspini (c.1728-1813), surgeon-dentist and philanthropist. I had to make a visit to the museum and library and see these records.

I only had an approximate date for Ann, and so I carefully checked through the register, which has 1350 girls listed and finishes in 1891. Unsurprisingly, this book is huge. I eventually found Ann and she is listed as girl number 404. She was born on 26 September 1820, Melcombe Regis, Dorset, and was admitted to the school on 22 April 1830. Her father was a Master Mason in Weymoth from 1805-1808.

The objective of this school was to provide an education, shelter and protection to girls of ‘reduced’ or ‘distressed’ circumstances. This might mean the death or illness of one parent or poverty or both. Girls normally entered between the ages of 8-10 and they left at 15 to find work. Her father had to be initiated into the Brotherhood, and proof of his acceptance into the movement had to be provided when a girl was presented to the school trustees for inspection. At this school the girls would be instructed in needlework, principles of the Christian religion, reading, writing and arithmetic.

In Ann’s case her father, Christopher Calton, was an old man. He was 64 when Ann went to the school, and it is possible that he was too ill or weak to continue working as an Innkeeper in Weymouth to support his wife and child.

But Ann’s story doesn’t stop here. The register notes that she left in 1840, aged 20. But girls didn’t stay on at the school in their late teens until the 20th Century. It would appear that Ann worked as a pupil teacher, assisting the matron and instructing the younger pupils. She was clearly skilled with the needle as she is recorded in the minute book of 1834 for receiving an award for her needlework. Like other schools, needlework featured prominently in the girls’ education. In addition to samplers, they would also make and mend their own school uniform, as well as selling items of clothing, table cloths, napkins at the charity sermons to raise money for the school and the maker. Unfortunately, no records survive informing us exactly how they were taught to sew and knit.

When Ann left in 1840, she went back to Weymouth living with a family friend. According to the census for this year, Ann worked as a governess and lived with several other women in Weymouth. Records do not tell us where she worked, but it is likely that she would have provided instructions in sewing and needlework to young girls. By 1860 she was working as a seamstress in Weymouth a career which she pursued until she died in 1881.  The needlework skills that Ann received at the school set her up for life, giving her a vocation and a purpose.

Stories from the Archives: Why?

In a previous post I introduced one of the main subjects of my research: the historian of science Derek de Solla Price.  Price, you’ll recall, was studying for his second PhD here in Cambridge when he discovered the Equatorie of the Planetis manuscript in the library of Peterhouse.  As part of his research, he had what we’re calling King Arthur’s Table built at the Cavendish Laboratory.

Price c. 1948, shortly before coming to Cambridge; courtesy of the Price family.

Price c. 1948, shortly before coming to Cambridge; courtesy of the Price family.

My research has raised lots of questions about Price.  These are interesting not only from a biographical point of view, but also for anyone curious about the atmosphere in which the history of science was launched as a separate discipline in Cambridge in the 1940s and 1950s.  The most obvious of these questions is: why did Price, at the age of 28, suddenly decide to become a historian of science?

This was a big decision.  In 1950 he already had a PhD in metal physics, and was teaching applied mathematics at the then University of Malaya, in Singapore.  He was aged 28, with a wife and baby daughter.  His work was going well: his boss at the University described him as “a very stimulating and helpful teacher.”  But something made him give up his job and move halfway across the world.  He came to Cambridge with no prospect of a job and no real idea of what he was going to do.  Why?

With the help of the archives of Cambridge University and the Royal Institution, I have been able to go some way towards answering this question.  Fortunately, Cambridge’s Board of Research Studies kept a file for Price, which still exists in the University archives.  In addition, Sir Lawrence Bragg, who was a mentor to Price (and about whom I’ve blogged previously), kept a good deal of correspondence relating to him; this is now at the Royal Institution.

When Price was considering coming to Cambridge, the historian C. Northcote Parkinson, who was a colleague of his at the University of Malaya but had previously been a fellow of Emmanuel College, wrote to the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield.  (Parkinson is now best remembered as the inventor of Parkinson’s Law, familiar to all students: work expands to fill the time available.)  Parkinson wrote:

A younger colleague of mine here, an applied mathematician with knowledge of physics, has been taking a great interest of late in the history of science…  I think his career may have suffered a little from the breadth of his interests…  His work latterly has been historical and he has been fortunate in having here a complete set of the Transactions of the Royal Society…

He tells me that he means to return to England in December on the general principle that if he does not return soon he will not return at all.  And he wants, if possible, to find a post as a lecturer in the history of science…  So I have taken the liberty of writing to you… to ask whether there is any opportunity going for Dr Price.

Sure enough, Price did return to England in December 1950.  He found a small house in Cambridge and from there wrote to A.R. (Rupert) Hall, who was the University’s only lecturer in history of science, as well as part-time curator of the Whipple collection (which did not yet have a home).  Hall told Bragg about Price’s letter:

I am not quite clear what he wants, but I shall be getting in touch with him immediately.  I know that he would like either a Research Fellowship or University post, but it seems to me that there is no chance of either for him at the moment here…

He would also like to work in Cambridge on a research grant, and I should be very pleased to see him here, and give him all the help I can…  But it does seem to depend rather on money from elsewhere.

Bragg suspected that there might be some pressing problem that made Price want to leave Singapore, and urged Hall to investigate.  Both Hall and Butterfield met with Price, who decided to submit an application to study for a PhD in early 1951.  Butterfield wrote to W. J. Sartain, the Secretary of the Board of Research Studies:

He definitely gave me the impression of a person moving to the History of Science as a result of a long-standing interest in the subject and a real internal urge.  I have had many applications from people wanting to try something on in the History of Science, but on the whole I am quite prepared to believe that Mr. Price is a person we ought to observe and take care of.

Finally, it’s worth quoting Price’s own words, in his application statement:

The subject of the research that I desire to pursue is “The History of Scientific Instrument Making“… Recent developments in the History of Science have clearly indicated the important role of changes in accuracy and design of instruments in the advancement of scientific knowledge…

My professional work as a physicist and my teaching experience have given me a rather wide acquaintance with the use and construction of scientific instruments, and it is this knowledge that I propose to use in the assessment of accuracy and design of early instruments.

So, contrary to Bragg’s suspicions about professional problems, or fear about political upheavals in Malaya, it was a simple case of an unfulfilled passion.  (Of course there’s certainly more to say about Price’s implicit assumption that scientific knowledge and experience were the most important attributes in charting the apparent linear progress of the sciences.)  Price certainly showed his passion when he started his studies in Cambridge, wasting no time in making a name for himself.  He was, of course, to go on to become a successful academic and celebrated analyst of the growth of science.

King Arthur’s Table goes on display

Last Friday was a proud day, as the object I re-discovered and am now researching went on display at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science.  Here it is in its new home:


The smaller model is the one I built (see my blog for the full story).  We’re displaying both models as an example of research in the Museum, and the work of the Connecting with Collections project.  The glass panel will soon be replaced by a larger one, to allow room for updates on the progress of my research.

This is the second week of the Cambridge Science Festival.  Last Saturday the Whipple Museum had a special opening for Science Saturday, and I gave three short talks about my research, and about medieval astronomy more generally.  The visitors seemed to enjoy getting to grips with the astrolabes!

Why not go and check out King Arthur’s Table?  You can even come back here and leave a comment!  The Museum is open Monday to Friday, 12.30-4.30 p.m, and it’s completely free.  There are special tours and object handling sessions this afternoon, and on Friday afternoon – just drop in.

Why? Casting Knowledge

MCA Lecture Theatre

In my usual line of research I am used to thinking about why plaster casts of antique statuary were used to teach art and design in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The collection that was put together for the Museum of Classical Archaeology in the late nineteenth century poses different questions about the transmission of knowledge through objects. The photograph above represents the casts in the context of the lecture theatre (many still have the wheels underneath the pedestals that allowed this mobility). Although the casts are no longer quite so mobile (you’ll spot them in various locations around the Faculty of Classics) they are still mobilised for teaching, though not as the didactic instruments of the nineteenth century. It has been interesting witnessing the supervisions that take place in the Museum, which seem to use the plaster casts as discursive or dialogistic objects rather than unmediated archaeological ‘evidence’.

Why? Garden motivations and influences


Laying out winding gardenesque-style pathways in the new eastern section of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden in the 1950s. Image: CUBG.

The Cambridge University Botanic Garden is unusual in that only half its area – the western section – was developed by Andrew Murray and his team in the nineteenth century.  The eastern half of the 38-acre plot was rented out for allotments and experimental beds until the 1950s. Understanding some of the motivations behind why and how the eastern section developed alongside the existing nineteenth century garden are key areas of interest for this history project. What ideas helped to shape the various plantings and developments into the twenty-first century at the Botanic Garden? What was the vision of those who planned and managed the new garden section?  Was the idea to integrate the new twentieth century section into the existing nineteenth century gardenscape, or was the plan to develop a new era in garden development?

Early research suggests a mixture of the two approaches was adopted. Director, John Gilmour (1951 -1973) and his superintendent, Bob Younger, wished to preserve the gardenesque feel of the historic garden, so winding pathways were designed to echo those of the original garden.  At the same time, the team planned new and innovative areas in the recently requisitioned eastern half.  It was a heady, if muddy, time for the garden team. One that required an abundance of vision and foresight to imagine the future potential for the overgrown allotments.

According to Norman Villis, garden supervisor in the 1990s, who joined the Botanic Garden as a young man in the 1950s, one of the philosophies for the eastern garden was that space would consciously be kept for those who came in the future.  Any garden is by definition a work-in-progress, with a constant element of experimentation and trial and error, which makes a Botanic Garden a stimulating ongoing physical and intellectual challenge.

It is fascinating to discover the various narratives about the eastern garden as we begin to excavate some of the motivations behind the various decisions and choices taken; and to follow how these unfold during the course of this research project.   Next instalment coming soon…

Pippa Lacey

University of Cambridge Museums

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