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An ordinary day dress

May 28, 2014 Hidden Stories, The Collection, Uncategorized Comments Off on An ordinary day dress

Mary's dress 1

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a paper at the conference How Do We Study Objects? organised by Artefacta, the Finnish Network for Artefact Analysis, in Helsinki. It was lovely to be talking about Mary to an interested audience of international academics including historians, curators, archaeologists, anthropologists, artists and designers, all of them investigating the myriad ways and means by which human beings relate to the material world. There is a real groundswell of interest in Mary that continues to grow, evidenced by several new projects emerging from the individual interests of the original MMQC team and some exciting conversations that have recently taken place. But more of that to come (hopefully).

Mary's dress 2My Helsinki paper focused on a dress in the stores at Platt Hall, which I first looked at a few months ago as part of my attempt to audit the entire collection, a rather overwhelming task, spread out as it is across three sites. The dress in question is an ordinary late 19th century day dress; bodice and skirt in mushroom-coloured shot silk, with lace collar and cuffs. The typically brief entry on the catalogue card identifies it as a wedding dress c.1896, although Miles (Curator of Costume at Platt) tells me there is nothing intrinsic to the dress to identify it as such.

The day I first looked at it was typical of those spent with the collection, on my own in the quiet of the museum store. I love these days, they are almost meditative – the humdrum everyday world falls away as I slip into the reverie of close encounter with the tiny detail of material things.  As I am not so well versed in historic clothing (ceramics being my curatorial thing) I don’t find the dress ordinary at all, but am captivated by things both familiar and alien about it – the narrowness of the waist, the heavy fall of the pleated skirt, the hidden secret of a pocket deep within one of the pleats. The sheer number of hooks and eyes everywhere, there are seventeen down the front of the bodice alone, to hold, shape and contain the female body. It is so ‘done up’.

Mary's dress 3This is the nature of looking at the collection in store, the sense of wonder that it engenders. I was having a nice day. Then I happened to look inside the neck, where the lace collar is sewn into place on a white cotton tape. I got such a shock I nearly dropped the whole thing. A name was written in the bottom corner of the tape. Throughout my investigation I had been idly speculating on things I knew – the dress was given by Mary Greg, the catalogue card was probably transcribed from one of the many lists supplied at the point of acquisition, the attribution (as with many other objects in the collection) probably supplied by her. Mary and Thomas Greg married in 1895. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if…

Written on the tape inside the neck was the name M.Hope.

For a fraction of a moment the dress in the museum store-room was transformed into a real, living, breathing person in my arms. It really felt as though I was holding Mary, not a museum specimen. It was slightly scary actually, I had to put it down and take a step back. And have a think about it. Could this really be Mary’s wedding dress? Or is this wishful thinking, the over-enthusiastic imaginative leap? Does it matter? In the moment when a name inside an old dress came together with a particular set of interests and historical knowledge, it became Mary’s wedding dress. Once I’d calmed down a bit, I began to think this through. If it was indeed, Mary’s dress, how was this not known? But then, little was known (or remembered, at least) about Mary before we embarked on this project. Few beyond the MMQC team would know enough to connect the names Hope and Greg, and although there are other objects in the collection that were made by or used by Mary, she didn’t make any attempt to claim authorship or ownership of them in the historical record. According to Miles, it could well be the kind of thing an older woman (she was 45 when she married), especially one of Liberal non-conformist views, might wear on her wedding day. It is thus not unreasonable to suggest that this could be Mary Greg’s wedding dress. Until we find a picture of her wearing it, it’s not possible to say anything more certain than this. It is her dress… but it might not be. As has been observed previously by others on this blog, there’s something quite thrilling about this ‘is it or isn’t it’ status. Objects are funny like this, they resist being pinned down entirely, that’s what’s so compelling about them.

So that’s what my paper was about. Not in itself a find of international significance, but one of great poignancy and personal meaning for those of us who have come to know Mary through her letters and collections. It was as Mrs Greg that Mary Hope built up her collections and provided so many museums with a founding legacy on which they continued to build. For me, it was a powerful instance of the capacity of material things to pack an unexpected punch; to transform themselves in a moment, from one thing to something utterly other; to give up, in the smallest of details, insights that can leave you reeling. A reminder that history is not only to be found in the written pages of archives and books, but is inscribed in the very stuff itself. And that museums are full of the echoes of real lives, once lived.



Mary's dress 27

Snippets from 1922 letters

August 11, 2010 Hidden Stories, The Letters Comments Off on Snippets from 1922 letters

Brief notes from 1922 letters

I have spent some of my summer re reading the letters..plenty of little stories happening. One which really shows Mary Greg’s caring attitude is illustrated by this quote from a letter to Mr Batho from Mary , June 30th 1922.

“I also want to ask you for the name of the good attendant at the umbrella place – the one who had been so ill – slightly deaf – I want to send her a little thing to keep her warm.”

Mr Batho informs her that the lady at the Umbrella stand is called Miss Ellen Lucas. I wonder what Mary Greg sent her? I also think we should bring back staffed umbrella stands.


The mystery of the missing letters

1922.534 Alphabet counters

ABC counters

Our resident photographer, Alan Seabright, has just spent the morning taking lovely photographs of the ABC counters (1922.534) currently on display (or at least they will be once I have put them back) in the Gallery of Craft & Design.  These are going to be used by Jonathan Hitchen, who is the Programme Leader for Graphic Design at MMU in some sort of  Mary Greg typeface creation that we’re getting very excited about.  The process of taking photos revealed something mysterious upon which I would like to muse for a while…

Which letters are missing from the series?  6 of them, no less.

A, D, E, N, S, Y

As a crossword fiend, I noticed that this is an anagram for “And yes!” or, “Yes, and?” which made me chuckle.  I then typed the letters into a special anagram site online and came up with the following  – totally senseless – but there’s something a bit ‘Da Vinci’ code and eccentric about it all which makes me think of Mary.  What can it mean?

Ad Yens
And Yes
Sand Ye
Sad Yen
Ads Yen
Days En
Day Ens
An Dyes
Nays Ed
Any Eds
Nay Eds
As Deny
Say End
Say Den
Ay Send
Ay Ends
Ay Dens
Ya Send
Ya Ends
Ya Dens

The letters also nearly spell ‘Denys’ – who was both my supervisor at university and a few centuries before that, a mystical theologian who wrote all sorts of things which perhaps are or perhaps are not relevant to Mary.  But that’s another story…



July 22, 2010 Hidden Stories 2 Comments

Chad Valley Savings Tin, 1960s

Maybe there’s something in the air, maybe it’s just serendipity. This morning, enjoying the freedom of the first day of a holiday break, I finally found time to follow a link to the blog 0101. Written by Principal Manager of Collection Management at Manchester Art Gallery, Vincent Kelly, the blog documents aspects of his practice as an artist. Vince’s most recent post, A Cabinet Of Curiosities, includes a beautifully photographed assortment of objects that he has collected over his lifetime.

We spend time with people and get to know them through their actions and behaviours, their dress, their voice, the stories they tell, and we carry this loosely forged sense of them with us as an incomplete but passable cipher for their identity. And then, often without warning, we catch sight of a new, previously unknown to us, aspect of their character that enriches our loosely sketched portraits. So it is with Vince’s collection. What connection is there between the 1950s Swedish carpet needle and the 1960s Sindy & Paul go to the Discotheque knitting pattern? I wonder did Vince go to the Electric Chair to hear Maurice Fulton in 1997, and if he did, what memories does he have of it now? I wonder too if the 1953/54 Northumbria District Junior League Winners Medal belonged to a relative or did Vince find it whilst puddling about in his garden as a child.

This collection of wonderful but disparate objects, like Mary’s, forms a gateway into story making, the stories we make in response to them and the stories the collector, openly, or in ignorance, weaves about themselves. Who of us, as Chris notes in his wonderful post The Wicker Basket, knows why we collect what we collect. But one thing is clear, it is the very materiality of stuff, stuff which accrues the marks and dirt of time, the grease and snuff of human touch, that connects us with our existence and the existence of others in a palpable and grounded way. Will we be able to feel the same way about our mp3s and digital videos and photographs when, in some distant future we revisit what we have collected around us, as we do about the Super Eight cine film or the Pinky and Perky 7″ Record? We’ll surely find value in the technological carriers of the information, the PCs, the iPhones, the external hard drives and digital cameras, but what of the immaterial zeros and ones, the bits, the bytes, what will feel about them, what stories will they weave?

Ghosts in the attic: Platt Hall

Ghosts in the attic: Platt Hall
Shoes including two pairs from Mary's collection

Box of shoes at Platt Hall

Today I saw some of Mary’s collection of costume, textiles and shoes for the first time.  It felt so ghostly: up in the attic at Platt Hall surrounded with boxes and boxes of clothes which were once full of life, real people, playing children, sleeping babies.  But now they are laid to rest in boxes, no more life, just memories that we can only guess at.  Dead.  But it was one of the most evocative days I’ve spent rummaging about.  Was the bonnet one that Mary herself had worn?  Did she really wear the beautiful dresses, the ivy leaf embroidered wedding dress?  Perhaps not, but it really felt like she was in that collection.  A fabulous collection of shoes, both highly decorative (not Mary Greg 1922) but also the humble plain leather children’s shoes (very definitely Mary), with cracks and crevices where someone’s tiny feet moved as they walked, danced, played.
Wedding dress with embroidered ivy leaves

Wedding dress with embroidered ivy leaves

And so many ideas about how we might exhibit some of these things in this amazing space (especially following our visit to Enchanted Palace at Kensington Palace, and the Concise Dictionary of Dress at Blythe House).  A giant dolls’ house in itself…  Where will these thoughts take us?  We shared some interesting comments with Miles too about whether Mary’s collection only came into the gallery because of a desire to have the ‘grander, more important’ ceramics collection of her husband.  Miles always refers to Mary as ‘Mrs Greg’.  I like that.  I wonder if there is a difference in the generalised contrast between the ‘scientific’ collecting of men (e.g. the costumes of Mr Cunnington who apparently could have been a ceramics collector had ceramics been more affordable – instead he looked to something affordable and other – e.g. costume – that he could catalogue, collect specimens and almost finalise) and that of women – Mary who collected what she loved because it was beautifully crafted, domestic, just a lovely thing that she wanted to share with others, particularly children.

So many ideas.  So much that we still haven’t seen.

In the meantime, look here on Flickr for further pictures I took today…


Mary The Second

I was wondering why there has been some confusion over Mary’s birth date.  I know in my own research I have come across reference to her birth date being in both 1849 and in 1850.  This has puzzled me, so I revisited and cross referenced the various versions we have of her family tree.  I noticed on one that there are two Mary’s marked, one born in 1849 and another born in 1850.  There were two Mary Hope Greg’s!  The first Mary Hope Greg died before the age of one, our Mary Hope Greg being born the following year. I have added my working document of Mary’s family tree so you can see my notes so far on her genealogy (I’ll draw up a better version and repost when I can).

Hope Family Tree (draft)

How tragic for her parents. Even though infant mortality rates were much higher then and the loss of a child more commonplace, it must still have been a terrible event for the family (you’ll see from the family tree that there are other infant deaths in both the preceding and following generations). How curious that they should give their next daughter the same name.  Was this a common occurrence in those days?  And, I wonder if our Mary knew about her namesake.  How did it feel for her to be named after a deceased sibling? Was this naming in remembrance and commemoration or mourning and loss?  Any genealogists out there with any knowledge of these matters?  Sharon

Missing Objects

April 15, 2010 Artist Responses, Hidden Stories, The Letters Comments Off on Missing Objects

Whilst reading the letters I came across an interesting discourse between Mary and Batho about some objects that she sent to Manchester that went astray (17th August 1925)

“Dear Mrs Greg….There are a few objects missing, as follows:- Two ivory figures: Cat and Dog, Two wooden figures: Dog and Donkey, Two ivory Ducks, Two Valentines…..I have gone carefully through the packing and fail to find them….I will have another search made of the packing material.”

There is no further mention of them ever being found.  I feel compelled to return these objects to their rightful place in the collection and have been working on a few ideas.  I thought I might take the trays of Noah’s Ark animals as a starting point and have used these as the basis for interpretation through drawing and clay.

Noah's Ark tray. Loved the spotty dog the blue boar and the zebra with the missing head!

Spotty dog

Sketchbook pages

Early clay test - Cat and Dog

Two ducks

A cat and a dog?

Two Valentines

Not sure yet whether the idea will develop into a dish or tray to reference the box, or something else entirely.  I’m still playing!  Sharon

The curious case of the note in the sewing box

February 21, 2010 Hidden Stories 2 Comments

As ever with this project, each visit to the stores reveals a new conundrum!  This time it is to do with the sewing box.

sewing box

I have looked at this box before and in some detail but never noticed the small slip of paper concealed in one of the trays.

tray with note

Alex picked it out on this occasion, unfurled it and read

January 21st, 1948

the curious note

Nothing unusual at first glance but increasingly curious when you remember that the box was accessioned in 1922 when it came into the collection.  The note couldn’t have been there prior to this date.  So presumably the note was put there once the box was in the collection .  But who put it there?  A curator (is this normal curatorial practice)?  There are some initials written after the date, but it’s impossible to make them out.  And even more curious, why?  What prompted the placing of a note in the box on this particular day?  And why has it been left there all these years?  Is this another example of curatorial angst, in that once placed in the box the note cannot now be removed because of some unknown, potential narrative?  Oh, somebody has to make up a story for the note – it’s a gift!!

To start you off, January 21st, 1948 was a Wednesday, Dinah Shore’s “Buttons and Bows” might have been playing on the radio and George Foreman’s mother was probably in labour!        Sharon  .

The Lead Cross and Other Stories

November 12, 2009 Hidden Stories Comments Off on The Lead Cross and Other Stories
Lead Cross made during the time of the plague

Lead Cross made during the time of the plague

This object has stayed with me from the very first visit we made to the collection.  It is a lead cross with a handwritten label which says

‘Rough lead cross. Made during the time of the Black Death, 1349, when owing to the rapid deaths there was not time to make crucifixes’

In the dingy light of the stores the cross itself appeared much darker, almost black, and I was struck by its soft, graphic quality set against the flat regularity of the card. A black cross acting not only as a symbol of belief but also death. I think I want to explore this further.

Interestingly, when I was reading the letters I came across a reference to this very object.

Written by Mary to Batho and dated 1st August 1922, she writes

….the lead cross, which I believe was of the time of the Black Death – 1349, not the plague in 1667.  I find a number of enthusiasts came to England from Hungary during the progress of the Black Death and passed through the country lashing themselves till the blood ran down their shoulders in order that the plague might be stayed – these people were called flagellants….

archive letter detailing the story of the lead cross

archive letter detailing the story of the lead cross

She goes on to talk about displaying the lead cross next to a flagellette also in the collection and placing a label alongside both to convey the story.  Mary very much liked the stories attached to objects and in some cases it may have been the story that led to her acquiring the object.  Such as Henry the Eighths spur!

In itself this is a curious addition to her collection (more often that not Mary collected a number of the same thing and there is only the one spur) and it stands out as an oddity.  I think she was seduced by the romance of the story of the spur , it’s royal connection and historical significance, rather than by the object itself.  Perhaps there is a hidden thread through the Bygones where the story is the reason for the objects acquisition.

Of course nobody really knows if the stories are true.  Was that really why the lead cross was made?  Is the spur authentic?  What evidence is there?  Has either object ever been carbon dated to ascertain the true dates?  Does it really matter?  Is an object’s value only intrinsic, academic, artistic?  Are meaning and narrative not just as important?  Who decides where value is placed?  If value is the result of context and knowledge, as time shifts does also the value of the object?

Henry the Eighth's spur

the spur

Are museums holding on to things that are no longer of any value?  How do we judge?  And what if we dispose of things today because of  a perceived lack of value and tomorrow reveals new found knowledge or cultural shifts that mean we have gotten rid of irreplaceable treasures?  The modern curator carries a significant responsibility.  But that’s another story! Sharon

William Ruskin Butterfield

October 28, 2009 Hidden Stories 3 Comments

You might remember Mr. W. R. Butterfield, a curator from Hastings museum who writes to thank Mr. Batho for recommending that Mrs. Greg send her staff of office with the arms of Hastings to them. It seems that he too like many of the other museum professionals of the time was an interesting character.

Piltdown Man

Piltdown Man

He was involved in the Piltdown Man Forgery Case, which was perhaps the most famous paleontological hoax in history. The find consisted of fragments of skull and jawbone in the village of Piltdown in Sussex in 1912. It was the ‘discovery’ of Charles Dawson a collector, archaeologist and co-founder of the Hastings and St Leonards Museum Association. The fragments were considered to be remnants of early man and a vital missing link between humans and apes. However, in 1953 the remains were deemed to be a forgery as they discovered it was the jaw bone of an orangutang combined with the skull of a modern human.

Paleontologists had doubts from the beginning and tests concluded it to be a forgery yet most of the scientific community did not acknowledge it for over 30 years. The forger has never been revealed however, Wiliam Ruskin Butterfield is one of the suspects!