The Collection

Small books from the Mary Greg collection

The Mary Greg collection has never been formally photographically documented and one of the aims of this project is to look at ways in which we might address this.

Informally however, during visits to the Mary Greg Archive and during workshops, a large number of photographs have been taken. Some document the store visits, the opening of the archive to excited artists and students, whilst others are high quality records of the objects themselves.

At the moment these photographs appear altogether without any attempt to catalogue or organise them into meaningful categories. We will address this in due course, meanwhile, please browse the images below to find out more about this unique collection.

Use of images

All the photographs here and on our flickr collection are by Manchester Art Gallery and are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. All the high resolution photographs of individual objects appearing here and in our flickr collection are © Ben Blackall.

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Objects from the collection

Home » Hidden Stories »The Collection »Uncategorized

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.

Liz

 

Mary's dress 27

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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.

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Xmas 2012, visit to Platt Hall

Just before Xmas Liz, Sharon and I met up to spend a lovely morning looking at the OPUA (Objects of Personal Use and Adornment) Collection. We ,as always, were focused on the Mary Greg objects. But these wonderful “Veil adjusters” caught my eye. The joy of being allowed to “rummage” in the collection has allowed us to find things we could never plan or expect, and this packet links in well with a Mail Art project I am launching this year on “How to Market Bent Wire”.

http://howtomarketbentwire.blogspot.co.uk/

Hazel

Instructions on how to use Veil adjuster.

Veil Adjusters from Platt Hall OPUA Collection.

 

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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'

Liz

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Thimbles…who’d have thought?

Box of various thimbles, mostly donated by Mary Greg.

After a long time away from the blog, but no time at all away from being inspired by objects from the Mary Greg collection, I am back on the blog. Liz kindly invited me to join her on her research day in the store rooms of Platt Hall yesterday. I had a lovely day re -aquainting myself with some of the wonderful objects in this collection. It was a very calm and reflective few hours that passed far too quickly. We started off opening a few random drawers with the help of Katie who was on a weeks work experience. The one drawer had this box of thimbles, which I had seen a few times before, but we started to explore the box one thimble at a time and discovered we had missed so much at previous viewings.

There were thimbles with simple adaptations, such as thread cutters and needle threaders attached, as well as “sewing kits” which used the thimble as the lid and one thimble which contained a tiny spool of thread, as well as the commerative thimbles and tiny childrens thimbles, and home made thimbles and tough utilitarian thimbles, ring thimbles, glass thimbles, one with a glass file in it that we were baffled by, …how did I miss all that before? It also made me realise how much more there must be to explore in that collection.

I also re-discovered a large set of skirt “grapplers” or grips for holding up ladies long dresses out of the mud, or out of the way whilst playing sports or dancing…these, Liz discovered, were donated by another lady called Mrs H. Carr, MORE on her later…I really wanted them to be donated by Mary, but I am intrigued to know more about Mrs H. Carr too.

Hazel

Thimble with built in thread cutter

Thimble with bobbin inside

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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.

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Des Hughes at MAG May 2012

Quick sketch of selection of objects made and chosen by the artist Des Hughes.

I went to see a lovely exhibition in MAG of work selected from the collection by Des Hughes. There is no text in the gallery referring to the chosen objects,but I could easily pick out the ones which Mary Greg had contributed. It was refreshing to see them amongst other objects, both old and hand made, they looked at home and even more intrigueing and beautiful.

 

Key

Europe

Iron

Gift of Mrs Mary Greg  1922.68

 

Keys

England

Steel

Gift of Mrs Mary Greg  1922.728

 

Latch lifter

Europe

Iron

Gift of Mrs Mary Greg  1922.754

 

Key

Europe

Iron

Gift of Mrs Mary Greg  1922.763

 

Crusie Lamp

Scotland

Iron

Gift of Mrs Mary Greg  1922.799

 

 

 

Spoon 1800s

India

Bronze

Gift of Mrs Mary Greg  1922.841

 

Comb 5th or 6th century

England

Copper

Gift of Mrs Mary Greg  1922.1074

 

Whip before 1900

England

Iron and leather

Gift of Mrs Mary Greg  1922.1198

 

Thumbscrew c.1720

England

Iron

Gift of Mrs Mary Greg  1922.1234

 

Dice

Greece

Steatite

Gift of Mrs Mary Greg  1922.1283

Hazel

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Repairs and the Well Worn

Very delicate repair of a fine cotton dress.

another part of the dress which was delicately darned.

One thing we often seem to be saying to each other as we  look through the Mary Greg collection is how she saved objects  that you can see have been well used and sometimes have evidence of repair. This wear and tear makes the objects seem far more alive and exciting than seeing a brand new item still in its box. We can feel the item has been well loved and used  ,and hopefully without sounding too fanciful, it feels like you can almost sense the person who used it. Mary comes from a time when mending was part of the everyday. A stitch in time saves nine. Bodkin cases hung from the chatelaine, ready to repair.

Hazel

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Time to Think

Ready to use ,threaded needles from Woolworths

Needle cases from Platt Hall

I feel very sad that I have neglected this blog for so long. The students did a wonderful show for the Platt Hall project before Xmas and due to circumstances beyond our control the project has lain dormant since. I have been thinking a lot about ways to try and keep this project going, and I finally have a little time in my workshop to look at my own response to Mary’s collection One thing I have been doing as often as I can are watercolour paintings of my collection (will add photos later), It feels right to sit and quietly paint in watercolours, I was very inspired by Mary Greg’s Nature Diaries. I am also looking a “mending kits” and  needle cases..or damage repair kits. Will add some tests to the blog at the end of the week.

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Platt Hall Visit October 2010

Discovered patchwork pieces October 2010

Patchwork Pieces from Mary Greg's collection

I visited Platt Hall last Tuesday and Wednesday with 23 Interactive Arts students, split into 4 groups. They all has “Access all areas” for half a day and we saw the East and West wing storage areas, the amazing attic and the OPUA (objects of personal use and adornement) room. Everytime I visit Platt Hall I discover something else that amazes me, and I wasn’t disappointed this time. Checking the list of what is in the collection it can be hard to know what you might get from the brief description….”patchwork pieces” sounded intrigueing, so Rosie kindly found them out. They are wonderful, each one has a little snippet of a letter. pieces of envelopes with dates  and addresses. Is this a project started by Mary Greg herself? Some of the writing looks similar to hers.  I also found some other objects that I hadn’t seen before, some needle cases and a straw spiltter.

I am meeting the students next Thursday, when they will present their initial ideas.

Hazel