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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.

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

In search of Mary

March 28, 2014 Uncategorized Comments Off on In search of Mary

A snippet for the blog from my ongoing PhD research into Mary and her collection. The more I find, the more fascinating she becomes.

A particular highlight last summer was my trip to Westmill, in Hertfordshire, where Thomas and Mary lived for most of their married life. A beautiful village, much of which is owned and managed by the T&M Greg Trust, on behalf of the Guild of St George.

When Thomas died in 1920, most of the family estate of Coles was sold. The house, sadly, was demolished in the early 1950s and little remains now but the outbuildings. However, he also bequeathed a sizeable amount of land and property to Mary, which she subsequently left to the Guild of St George, to support the promotion of its Ruskin-inspired philanthropic and educational work. Visiting Westmill last August, I was amazed at how visible their presence remains in the village, in the properties they had built or renovated, in the church and in the village hall, converted from an old barn.

St Mary’s Church, Westmill:

Dial Cottage, where Thomas and Mary Greg lived (when they weren’t in London), from 1895 to 1906 when Thomas Greg inherited the Coles estate. I’m not sure why the plaque is dated 1915:

Hope Cottages, built by Thomas Greg in 1911. Hope was Mary’s maiden name.

Other plaques spotted about the village:

And spotted from the car, almost hidden by ivy, as we drove out of the village:

The catalogue card

May 16, 2013 The Collection, Uncategorized Comments Off on The catalogue card

Two days ago I went to the Gallery for a bit of archive research. But instead of Mary’s letters I thought I’d look at some institutional stuff. Down in the basement office, tucked around a corner, there is an old index card filing cabinet. I don’t suppose anyone ever notices it, it is so redundant. Nearby there is a gathering of desks and other office furniture marked for disposal. One day I shall walk into the office and find the cabinet gone. I do hope not. Despite the fact that typed index cards have been replaced by the all-encompassing micromanagement of the relational database, there is material here that resists the omnipotence of the digital.

I know these cards well, they were my bread and butter when I first got involved in the Herculean task of digitizing the collections, twenty years ago. And I had a half-remembered notion in my head that there was unique information here, the trace of past approaches to the categorising of things, something I had not noticed elsewhere in the record. So I started to go through the cards. It may be corny, but it really did feel like seeing old friends, a little glimpse back to old times and my first excitement at working in a real, live, proper art gallery. I even said a quiet hello as I opened the drawer.

Each item in the collection has two index cards. The first, a dirty soot-grey with dense black type; the second more pristine, with bold handwritten numbers in red permanent marker and sharper type, possibly made by an electric typewriter? When do these two cards date from? Why was a second card written up, incorporating information from the first, but the first not discarded? Both are now rendered obsolete by the digital record, but still they remain. For now at least. Sometimes it’s better to go unnoticed.


typed museum catalogue card

typed museum catalogue card


What interested me was how much could be deduced and speculated upon by considering these two different records. Incidentally, I didn’t set out knowing I was interested in this, it just occurred to me as I was looking through and re-acquainting myself with familiar things, examined with the benefit of time and distance from my first encounter with them. I found myself considering them as artefacts in themselves, rather than simply as holders of information to be transcribed.

Immediate impressions:

  • How dirty the earlier cards are (from the days of smoky fires and air pollution?) and how they have a hole punched at the bottom in the centre, so they could be threaded onto a rod within the drawer, thus preventing removal and loss. I remember the index cards at the Central Reference Library used to be held by a device like this, again before the days of digital catalogues.
  • How curious it is that both remain. The second card deals with and builds on the information in the first (or on occasion discredits it) but still the first was considered significant enough to be stapled to the back of the second, for reference. This takes up twice as much space in the drawer.
  • The difference in type from one card to the other, from soft, dense, slightly fuzzy black, to crisp, efficient, delineated black.
  • Other markings – in pencil on the earlier card (temporary, subject to change) and heavy red marker pen (dominant, permanent) on the later one. Both in the top right corner.
  • The different prioritisation and layout of information on each card, what is left out and what is included, how it is written, the changes to headings, sentence structure and language.
  • The way typewriters don’t obey printed lines. Sentences float in the air, intersected by lines in the wrong places. There is a tension between the instruction of the printed card (write here please) and the self-determination of the machine (no, I will set my own line spacing, thankyou). Both cards exhibit this.

I have just been reading the introduction to Museum Materialities by Sandra Dudley. Susan Pearce, who has written so much on museums and collecting, likens the evolving study of materiality and museums to stages in a human lifetime, and this seems particularly pertinent to the evidence given by these two cards. She contrasts its ‘long, peaceful childhood with clear boundaries, rules and mealtimes, which allowed for the steady accumulation of understanding that was simple as it arrived’ with ‘a turbulent adolescence with dramas and departures in which complexities emerged and innocence was abandoned’.

The first of these cards is simple, to the point: ‘Key; square hole in centre; of Oxford Gaol.‘ Object; main identifying feature; source. No uncertainties, no questioning, it is what it is, for the purpose of the record. It is neatly fitted into the category ‘home fittings’, which comes first in the hierarchy of information, in capital letters and underlined. A place for everything and everything in its place.

The second card is rather different. There is no category heading and the dominant, shouty even, information here is the accession number, big and red. This object is predominantly its number. The description is scientific in tone, ‘Iron, oval bow with square-drilled hole. Three collars around top of solid shank, two collars around throating’. I recognise this approach, the way we are taught to describe things for the catalogue. The language is mildly technical (bow, shank) although part of me is brought up sharp by the way it ends with the word throating. Two collars around throating. In years gone by I would barely have noticed this, but today it strikes me as such a bodily thing, suggesting imprisonment or enslavement, a choking restriction. How appropriate for a key.

There is a loose and tentative attempt at attribution: ‘ENGLISH prob. early 19 th C‘, a new addition to the sum of knowledge, which was not given on the earlier card. And right at the bottom, at the lowest point in the information hierarchy, previous attribution is rubbished. What was previously given not only as fact, but arguably as the defining characteristic of this object, its story, has now been relegated to unreliable anecdote: ‘said by Mrs. Greg to be ‘the key to Oxford Gaol’. This is done not only by the implicit question mark within the phrase ‘said by’, but also by the use of inverted commas. In its defence, I can imagine past curators explaining the use of inverted commas as an objective approach, ensuring the preservation of Mrs Greg’s exact words. Although actually, these are not the exact words on the earlier card. Perhaps, though, I am influenced in my reading of this punctuation by the contemporary conversational habit of ironic speechmarks, two pairs of fingers wagging in the air to suggest a distancing of the speaker from what they are saying.

There is also, of course, the change from imperial to metric measurement. ‘Length 9 1/2 inches’ has become ‘L 24.0 cm.’ How exact! I could overindulge myself here, getting really stuck into the tiny detail and possibly romanticising it. 9 1/2 inches has a fuzzy quality that reflects the softness of the ink on the card; the use of full words, length, inches, and the approximate nature of the measurement itself. L 24.0 cm, on the other hand, is clipped, accurate, abbreviated.

The later card also includes a brief condition check of the object, missing on the earlier. This makes me smile briefly, as there is a mistake on the card! Whoever typed this up accidentally typed ‘o’ rather than ‘l’ in the word ‘slightly’ and had to go back over it.  O is immediately above L on the QWERTY keyboard, an easy mistake to make as a touch-typist would use the same finger for both keys, but one which must have caused a cross moment. Wouldn’t happen now, all mistakes are cleaned up by the magic of the word processor. But I digress. Is there anything to be deduced from the addition of ‘bow slightly bent’ on the later card? Again, I’m slightly anxious of the potential to over-interpret. But what the hell, here goes.

I notice that the earlier card includes information of a temporary, extrinsic nature to the object, information which pertains more to the institution than the thing: the category into which this thing has been put (home fittings) and its current location written in pencil in the top right, not all of which I can decipher (Now at: ? on show). Looking closely at the pencil marks, I can see the traces of an earlier location, rubbed out and replaced with this. On the back of the card, there is the typewritten inscription ‘Transferred to Fletcher Moss Museum 24th February 1939′. Does this contradict the ‘on show’ location given on the front? I suspect it does, but I will have to check. Did the system of location management via catalogue cards fall down at some point, leaving this final location frozen in time?

By contrast, the later card deals exclusively in information intrinsic to the object and its known history. No location or movement history, no interpretive headings or categories, the reluctant inclusion of Mrs Greg’s previous attribution presumably legitimised as pertaining to its collecting rather than use history. All the information on this card seems to me to be about fixing the object, pinning it down. In this context, the inclusion of its condition, ‘bow slightly bent’ would seem to be an attempt to freeze its physical state. It is not a perfect, mint-condition object, but we can differentiate between historic damage (intrinsic to the history of the object and therefore legitimate) and the potential for further deterioration which must be prevented.

Having just read this through and then glancing back at the pictures of the cards, something else occurs to me, which I do not think I would have noticed if I hadn’t already written this. The difference in how the acquisition of this object is described on each card.

Earlier card: ‘Presented by Mrs. T. T. Greg.’
Later card: ‘Gift of Mrs T. Greg (1922.720)’

Verb versus noun. The earlier card describes an act of donation by an individual. The later card reframes this as part of the nature of the object. The act is gone, the object remains. And is reinforced by the bracketed repetition of the accession number. As if we needed reminding! Does this card suggest a subconscious anxiety about the nature of this object? The earlier card certainly seems more relaxed!

So much to be considered, from two apparently straightforward documents. And I haven’t gone into other things I notice. The later card is flimsier than the earlier one and is correspondingly dog-eared along one edge. The later card is inconsistent in its approach to punctuation and grammar; descriptive sentences with capital letters and full stops (but no verbs) at the start, capitalisation of ‘Gift’ further down but no full stop, then just free-floating phrases, no punctuation at all (apart from the MG quote) at the bottom.Tippex! I’ve just noticed it, on the later card. The ‘i’ of ‘drilled’ in the first sentence has been retyped over Tippex. And yet, the typo below has been left. Oh dear, this way madness lies.

Some questions that arise from all of this. Firstly, how can I work out when the second card was produced? I notice that other cards have book references on them, the latest of which (so far) seems to be a publication from 1974, so they must have been produced sometime between 1974 and 1993 when I first started work. I can probably narrow this down. Secondly, why were new cards written at all? It must have been a considerable, time-consuming task. Contrary to my received knowledge (that the MG collection was pretty much forgotten after 1949) it suggests an attempt to re-value the collection, to bring it into the modern museum world. The cards reveal quite a bit of research – new descriptions, condition assessments, attempts at a more scientific attribution and bibliographic referencing. Was this project specific to the MG collection or did it take place across the entire Gallery? My memory suggests it did actually; I think there are new cards across other areas as well, but I need to check. If so, what prompted such an ambitious exercise?

And the big one, of course, is what does this contribute to our understanding: of the collection, of the institution, of the wider world and our relationship with stuff? Honestly, I don’t yet know. But what it does do is add colour and texture to the picture that is forming in my mind, suggest avenues of research I might follow up, chime with some of the things I am reading (be wary here though, not to just pick and choose what fits nicely) and provide me with the opportunity to practice looking, thinking, writing, thinking, looking some more, etc. etc.

Back to the Gallery tomorrow, to continue my original task, which was the collecting of categories – the Home Fittings and other typologies given by the earlier cards, which don’t seem to appear elsewhere. But whilst doing this, I shall also be thinking about my  observations to date and where they might take me.

Turning the tables

January 21, 2013 Uncategorized Comments Off on Turning the tables

At today’s Talent Incubation Network meeting, staff from Manchester Art Gallery gave a series of presentations about the Gallery’s collections, exhibitions and learning programmes, to an audience of early career researchers (including me) from universities across the region. I quote (more or less)…

‘In the 1920s the Gallery received a collection of English pottery from Thomas Greg, husband of Mary’.

The first time I have ever heard him described thus. Redressing the balance!

No disrespect intended to the venerable Thomas, but it’s nice to hear it the other way round for once.


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

the fossilised eye of a fish

In response to Hazel’s beautiful to do lists.

Lists are everywhere. I have found myself increasingly fascinated by the list, partly because of Mary’s rather peculiar inclusions on her lists (hence the title of this post) and because in order to keep myself on the straight and narrow in my brave new world of PhD-dom, I am constantly writing them. Now I see lists everywhere, it is a form that is universally used. There are different kinds of lists, each with its own narrative quality; the mundane and everyday – shopping list, packing list, ‘to do’ list; the exclusive/inclusive – A-list, guestlist, blacklist, hitlist; the structuring and creating of order – playlist, tracklist; the competitive – longlist, shortlist. And Hazel’s ‘to do’ lists just show that even the apparently ordinary can be precious. There is the roll call, from the school register to the list of names on a cenotaph. How can such a raw and bald form of words have such poignancy?

At the core of every museum in the world is a ‘superlist’ – the accessions register. Kept under lock and key down in the depths of the basement, it is the heart of the institution, holding within itself the museum’s past, present and future, not just in the items it describes, but in the descriptive language used for each new acquisition; in the changing conventions of date, name, title (who uses ‘Esq’ any more); in the handwriting, from the inked copperplate of the earliest pages to the more idiosyncratic black biro entries of more recent times. And it is never complete. More on this shortly.

People understand the concept of a list, it is deceptively transparent, even objective; the reduction of thought/information/knowledge to its barest bones. Guidelines for writing for the web often advocate the use of bullet points rather than paragraphs – easier to read and a more efficient way of transmitting information quickly. A comment from Tom; lists are a product of fear – fear of loss, fear of forgetting, fear of distraction and disorder, fear of incompletion. To list is to control the material you are listing, to set parameters around it and to put it in order. It is a very explicit statement of control, there’s nowhere to hide in a list. Another comment from Tom; this is why politicians don’t like them. It’s much easier to obfuscate and hide woolly language and empty promises in a conversational format of words. Back to the writing for the web guidelines.

And yet. If a list is made of explicitly constituent parts, there is a clear path to dismantling it. It’s like lego, just take it all apart and rebuild it into something else. And when you do that, your list says something rather different, which suggests it’s not such a transparent format after all. There is fun and subversion to be had from taking a list apart and rebuilding it differently – Tom Lehrer reworked the order of the Periodic Table to form his brilliant song The Elements, set to Gilbert and Sullivan. My son’s Year 5 primary school teacher used to mix up the alphabetical order of the class register from time to time, as he had noticed that the children often answered before their names had actually been called and he wanted to wake them up a bit. Disrupting a list is provocative. This relates to a thought I keep coming back to about value and meaning in the collection and my current pre-occupation with inscribed objects. What if I were to re-catalogue the collection according to all the names that have been written on it?  What kind of a collection would it be then? More like the cenotaph perhaps. The list could be read as the ingredients (ooh, there we go, that’s another one – the instructive list), setting up the reader to imagine the story in the spaces between the entries.

This came up in conversation with my Mum yesterday. She writes, but was rather sceptical of my new-found fascination. And yet, soon found herself telling me about the day she sat in a cafe and decided to write 500 words about the menu, without actually mentioning anything on the menu. She wrote the story of the list, hidden in between the sequenced elements, flipping the whole thing round so the story emerged as the list disappeared.

So, although the concept of the list suggests containment, control and completion, it actually has infinite possibility. I discovered the other day that there is a book by Umberto Eco, called The Infinity of Lists (haven’t got hold of it yet, but it’s on my Christmas list). Found myself thinking of the list more as a runaway train, accelerating and decelerating under its own momentum until it finally runs out of steam. The empty pages of the accessions register will go on forever, as long as the museum lives. There is something of this quality in Mary’s collection and the lists that go with it; a sense of uncontrolled proliferation. This I think has something to do with the sheer size of it – in marked contrast to the smallness of the individual things themselves; the simple heartbeat of repetition – page after page of ‘key, 19th century’, ‘key, 19th century’; and the unexpected juxtaposition of the supposedly ordinary and the bizarre – ‘the fossilised eye of a fish’.


Believe me, I remain

Three inscribed wooden knitting needle holders

This Tuesday’s finds. A lovely day with Hazel and Katie (on work experience), rummaging in the OPUA room. See Hazel’s thimble selection below. My selections continue an aspect of last week’s thoughts; I am currently a bit fixated on writing and the preponderance of objects which bear some kind of written text on them. Chatting about this with Hazel, she mentioned her observation that there are markings of one kind or another on so many things – instructions, maker’s names, tally marks, reference numbers, they really are everywhere once you start noticing.

And the Mary Greg collection is particularly rich in things with people’s names on. No longer simply examples of type, but a unique point of reference to a life lived. This belonged to me. Believe me, I remain.


Inscribed wooden knitting needle holder, 'Margaret Baley 1845'


Fragments and snippets

October 18, 2012 Developments, Have a rummage, The Collection, The Letters, Uncategorized Comments Off on Fragments and snippets

From now on, I intend to spend every Tuesday at Platt Hall, exploring different aspects of the collection. This is what I looked at this week.

Patterned cloth bag

Patterned cloth bag with patchwork pieces

Patchwork piece with handwritten paper template


Patchwork piece with transcribed text from template


Patchwork piece with transcribed text from paper template

I am fascinated by these patchwork pieces, by the snippets of letters and notes that are tucked away under the fabric. Am currently thinking about the relationship between the Mary Greg Collection of objects and, what is really the Mary Greg Collection of letters that sits alongside. Is it too sweeping to say that in museums and galleries, the objects are what counts and the archive material that documents their acquisition is secondary, often ignored?

But Mary’s letters give the collection a whole new dimension, lifting it from being bits of stuff in the museum, to something that is only here because someone once thought about it, discussed it, shaped and imagined it and valued it sufficiently to want to share it. And recorded her thinking through the letters. Mary’s voice, her motivation, reasoning, opinion and emotion, come through so strongly, because of the extraordinary correspondence she maintained with curators. It’s a hugely evocative reminder that stuff is only here because individual people once put it here.

These humble little patchwork pieces are somehow both object and text, hinting at other aspects of life (I do hope Humphrey made a quick recovery).  Random bits of writing that preserve moments of life otherwise lost (oh dear, in danger of getting a bit purple). It also hints at a time before email when people wrote and received letters, presumably accruing vast amounts of paper, not all of which needed to be kept, and was therefore put to other useful purposes. Many more thoughts on this, but have to go to a lecture now, so will think on.

It’s been rather quiet lately

Looking at the collection at Platt Hall Gallery of Costume

On this blog at least. But the Mary Greg project continues to send ripples out across the pond.

At MAG, the Learning Team have been working with the Mary Greg Collection ‘on tour’, thanks to a travelling case made by Karl and Kimberley Foster of Hedsor, and the work of educators Joanne Davies and Amanda McCrann. I hope Joanne’s going to put something up about this project soon.

The collection is also out there in Mouseion, an exhibition in the School of Museum Studies at Leicester University, curated by Alex Woodall and including work by Hazel Jones, both contributors to this blog. Alex was one of the team at MAG who worked on the original Mary Mary project and is now a PhD researcher at Leicester, investigating material approaches to art museum interpretation. The exhibition looks at artists responding to museum collections.

Back in May, Sharon Blakey showed collaborative work made with weaver Ismini Samanidou in response to the collection, in Pairings II at Stroud International Textiles. Last year, Sharon and I presented a paper about the project at the international conference Pairings: Conversations, Collaborations, Materials at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Research continues in partnership with MMU, through Hazel and Sharon’s ongoing investigations and my own. I have just embarked on a PhD which will focus exclusively on Mary’s collection, looking at material across different museums as well as Manchester and exploring different notions of value within the institution of the museum. Hugely exciting, very daunting, and two weeks in, not entirely sure where to start. But looking forward to sharing research over the coming months and contributing to the revitalisation of this space. More to come…


Looking at objects from the collection