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Women, museums and everyday things

I was recently contacted by a PhD researcher at Cambridge, who came across Mary Greg through this very blog. Laura Carter’s research demonstrates that Mary was not alone in her interests and commitment to both the material culture of everyday life and the development of British museums during the interwar period. In fact, since starting my PhD, I have come to realise that there is a groundswell of academic interest in the active role of women in this area during the late 19th and 20th centuries, much of which has gone unrecorded for many years.

Laura’s email also contained the exciting news that Mary donated material to the Geffrye Museum in 1936. That makes a total of 30 institutions so far recorded as recipients of her generosity! Laura also offered to write something for the blog about her own research, which makes fascinating reading, especially in relation to the fuzzy boundaries between amateur and professional practice during this period. If there are other researchers out there, looking at similar material, please do get in touch.


Laura Carter

Cover of A History of Everyday Things in England by Marjorie and CHB QuennellMy PhD thesis is entitled ‘Everyday life’ and ‘everyday things’ in British popular culture, c.1910-1969. It examines how people published, preserved, and sometimes sought to re-make, the ‘everyday’ past in British popular culture. One chapter focuses on the life and work of Charles (1872-1935) and Marjorie Quennell (1883-1972), in particular their series A history of everyday things in England (1918-1934), and its reception. As ‘amateur’ historians in an age of professionalization, the Quennells enjoyed much commercial success with these books. They showcased social and aesthetic history instead of the more familiar political epochs. When Charles died in 1935, Marjorie became the first female curator of the London County Council’s newly overhauled Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch.

Marjorie Quennell had an impact on the consumption of popular history in Britain in the mid-twentieth century, despite being an ‘amateur’ in all of the fields she entered. Her trajectory is worth tracing and situating. It can tell us a lot about how the notion of the ‘everyday’ found its way into British popular cultures. Marjorie’s story also highlights the centrality of women to this social turn in popular history, a point that has been understated in favour of studies of male academic popularisers.

As a young housewife in the years before the First World War, Marjorie Quennell was exposed to Arts and Crafts influences through her husband’s involvement in the Junior Art Workers Guild. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Marjorie assisted her husband in creating their famous books, which successfully repackaged Ruskinian and Morrisite ideas of the ‘everyday’ into a more demotic format. By the late 1930s, she carried these intellectual influences into the centre of a burgeoning museums movement.

At the Geffrye, Marjorie was able to realize narratives of the ‘everyday’ in practical forms – through enlarging the museums collection of bygones and furniture (including around 100 objects donated by Mary Greg 1936-7), arranging the exhibits into domestic interiors, and by initiating a highly progressive museum education programme that involved the impoverished children of Shoreditch in their labour heritage. In this context, ‘everyday life’ came to be physically and experientially reconstructed for wholly democratic purposes. Marjorie remained at the Geffrye until late 1939, when ill health forced her to retire. In 1940 she boarded the last passenger boat to America, as her doctor had advised her that her delicate health would not withstand the bombing.

The Geffrye Museum has a forthcoming small display celebrating the museum’s centenary, opening on 1 July 2014, which will recognise Marjorie’s transformation of and contribution to the museum, and display some of the objects Mary donated to the museum during Marjorie’s tenure.

Nice picture of a list

November 8, 2012 People and places, The Letters, Uncategorized Comments Off on Nice picture of a list

To go with all the words, one I found on Tuesday. A list of the people Mary wanted to be sent catalogues of her exhibition of Bygones at Heaton Hall in 1922. Note the addresses in Siam and New Zealand. I like to think of her writing this down, whilst at her club.

Handwritten list of people

And counting…

October 11, 2012 Mary Greg, People and places Comments Off on And counting…

Heard yesterday from Bridget Yates, a researcher who has done a lot of work on inter-war village museums including Mary’s Westmill Museum. Am looking forward to reading her work. Her research suggests that there may be material given by Mary in the following museums and other institutions:

The V&A, British Museum, London Museum, Canterbury, Liverpool, Carisbrooke Castle, Brighton, Cambridge, Ipswich, Exeter, Brentford, Aylesbury, Manchester (obviously), Edinburgh, Dorchester, Norwich, Buxton, Winchester, Worcester, Letchworth, the West Highland Museum, Fort William and the Hertfordshire Institute of Agriculture.

Gosh. Some work to do.



December 15, 2010 People and places 1 Comment

Pigu Chippy Take Away menu

Yet again I’ve been struck by how, in our working lives, we share space with people about whom we know very little beyond the job they do. Each one of us has a hinterland about which others know so little, nowhere more so perhaps than here at the gallery where almost everybody is involved in some kind of creative practice beyond their day job.

A recent conversation with Mark Page, who works in the Visitor Services team at Manchester Art Gallery, in which we discussed a shared interest in photographing the hidden urban landscapes of the city, revealed Mark as a long-time photographer of the urban environment in all it’s hues and manifestations. His inclusive and non-judgemental vision takes in the less polished, less marketed, often hidden, often scoured, marked or damaged faces of this city full of inequalities.

Of particular relevance here though, is Mark’s ongoing project to document the relentless flow of take away menus that ‘build up behind the door like a techno-coloured snowdrift.’ As an unofficial archive of the unremarked everyday ephemera that we daily ignore, it’s a real treat.



Quarry Bank Mill, Styal

August 27, 2010 People and places Comments Off on Quarry Bank Mill, Styal

Alex and I went on a little jaunt to Quarry Bank Mill in Styal last week (19th Aug.), it being the place where the Gregs made their fortune in producing and trading cotton. We entered the mill with the main aim of seeing the ‘Greg Room’ (of course, we got distracted by all the other exhibits and it took us an age to even reach that room!), and who should be our guides but Thomas and Mary!

our guides, Thomas & Mary

Ok, so it wasn’t our Thomas and Mary, but still a nice coincidence!

It was a really educational trip and we found out loads about the Greg family (and about cotton!) From what the costumed interpreter told us it seems Samuel Greg was quite a nice master and treated his workers well (i.e. he never beat them), but while that’s good to know, how much of it is actually true we will never know!

We also discovered some living family members. At least, we assume they are living, since they loaned some portraits for display in the Greg Room. Are we going to track them down? Yes, I think so!


Caroline’s Dance Card

Sharon asked me to find out more about Mary’s sister’s dance card, which was from a place called Greenbanks and dated September 19th 1847. There were a few names on the card including Mr. P. Rathbone and Mr. Shelley.Dance carddance card open

With the Rathbone link I found out that Greenbank’s is a house in Liverpool that was owned by another notorious  family the Rathbones, who are still known today for their philanthropist ideas.  Originally Greenbanks was their summer home but eventually it became their permanent address and was prominent for parties and functions and people would attend to ‘be seen’ and promote some philanthopic opinion or scheme.

The family home of the Rathbone's

Greenbank House

The first son always seemed to be called William (of course!) and it would have been William Rathbone V’s residence when Caroline attended a dance there. Interestingly William was married to Elizabeth Greg of Styal (daughter of Samuel and Hannah Lightbody) in 1812 so perhaps the Hope family had close links with the Greg’s for a long time. It is said that ‘He and his wife entertained lavishly at Greenbanks’.

William V’s son is Philip Henry Rathbone (1828-1895) who could well be the ‘Mr. P. Rathbone’ mentioned on the card. As for the occasion it seems like the Rathbones enjoyed entertaining and didn’t really need one! However Philip Henry’s brother William VI married Lucretia Gair in 1847 although I can’t find an exact date. Caroline might have been invited. I expect this is why Mary kept it, it must have been an exciting event in the family to attend such a renowned family’s party.

Today Greenbanks is part of the University of Liverpool, I think it might even be used as halls of residence! I’m going to email the university to see if they can tell me any more and if I can track down Mr. Shelley.