Gunnersbury Park and a very unassuming frock

At Sutton House I run a community group called the Recycled Teenagers. They’re a group of over 55s, who started off as a short term project around 20 years ago documenting the experiences of Caribbean women living in Hackney. The remit of the group has since expanded, and anyone over 55 is welcome. The group largely comprises people in their 70s and 80s. We meet three terms a year for and for about 8 weeks each term we meet every Friday afternoon, and take part in activities such as dancing, singing, working with artists, life drawing, creative writing and loads more.

Last week, with the help of one of our volunteers, Sharon, I took the group across London on a trip to Gunnersbury Park, which is jointly owned by Ealing and Hounslow councils. I chose Gunnersbury Park partly because I’ve visited before and thought the Recycled Teenagers would enjoy it, and partly because my very close friend, who I met on the Museums and Galleries in Education MA, Ellie works there. She has a very similar role to me, and very kindly said we could come and spend the day.

We split the group in half, and took part in two activities, one was wandering around the park and hearing about the history and the community projects that they do at Gunnersbury, and the other was an object handling and reminiscence session led by Ellie, and Sarah Gudgeon.

The museum is currently closed for renovation, due to be re-opened in 2018, so the bulk of learning and community stuff happens in the Small Mansion next door at the moment. Gunnersbury House, which sits in the middle of the park was built in the late Georgian period and later bought by the Rothschilds. The house and land was sold in the 1920s on the condition that it was to be open to all as a place of leisure.

In the handling/reminiscence session, we learnt about the roles and life of the domestic staff in the house in Victorian times. We also handled a variety of objects from the collection, and reproduction objects, on the theme of domestic service, including carbolic soap, a bed warming pan, irons, a variety of brushes and polishes, a jelly mould, and a load more. A lot of them were unfamiliar to me (especially the wooden butter shapers!) but were very familiar to the Recycled Teenagers, for whom they weren’t just historic artefacts, but objects from their past. Led by Ellie and Sarah, we discussed the objects and they all reminisced about old jobs they used to have.

The item we spoke about most, both during the workshop, and afterwards, was a beautiful dress that Ellie showed us at the beginning. When I first saw it, I thought it was kind of underwhelming, but hearing the story about it changed my mind, and it really resonated with many of the Recycled Teenagers.

It’s a plain lavender print work dress, it’s hand sewn and would have belonged to a maid. It was donated to the museum in 1954 by a Miss Lilian Bottle, and came with a scrap of paper saying ‘working frock, belonged to aunt, died, 1891’. It’s dated as circa 1890 on the museum catalogue, but we can safely assume it was from earlier than that (thanks to Ellie for providing me more info about the dress!). That is all that is known about the dress. The stitching is so generous and beautiful, this was likely worn by a more high ranking maid who was ‘on show’ more. There are a few light stains on the dress, most probably because such dresses would have been passed down generations. Ellie told us that in spite of its humble and unassuming appearance, this dress is one of the most valuable items in the collection. The reason for this, is because most Victorian maid’s dresses would have been passed down until they fell to pieces, or were beyond repair, at which point they would have been cut into rags and used as cloths for cleaning. That one of these has survived, been looked after by its owner, and then cared for by a museum, is really remarkable.

The next time I saw the Recycled Teenagers, we spoke about the workshop again. Everybody was still talking about the dress. I said that I thought it was exciting that the dress was the most valuable item in the collection because – and Joan, one of the Recycled Teenagers, finished my thought for me – ‘it belonged to a normal woman’. It was such a lovely and rare treat to see an item that belonged to an everyday working woman, and to see it being revered, and spoken about with such tenderness and import. It was a lovely moment to see how this had resonated with a group of working class women from Hackney, who through a reminiscence session, had learned they had much in common with the kind of woman who might have worn this dress. I’m so excited to see how the dress is put to use once the museum transformation is complete, and I can’t wait to revisit it. Thanks to Ellie, Sarah and Sharon for hosting such an inspiring day!

Twilight People: Stories of faith and gender beyond the binary – volunteer opportunity!

Last week, the steering committee for Twilight People: Stories of faith and gender beyond the binary met for the first time. I was delighted to be invited to be part of this amazing project as exhibition co-curator and steering committee member by Surat-Shaan, who is the project leader following the really successful Rainbow Jews project.

This is a groundbreaking new oral history project, recording and showcasing for the first time in the UK the stories and experiences of transgender and gender variant people of faith. Throughout the project there will be loads of volunteering opportunities including archive researchers, transcribers, sound/video editors, video/photographers, admin support, exhibition curators, youth forum members, media/social media volunteers and many other roles.

The first roles we need to fill are the Oral History Interviewers.

Oral history is about recording people’s memories using the medium of sound and video. This can be used as a tool for understanding the recent past, and enables people who have been hidden from history to be heard and the communities they represent.

Interviewer Role Description

To carry out oral history interviews with trans* people of faith, using a topic guide (i.e.. a list of prepared questions) which will be created as part of the course. Each interview will last approximately 1.5 hours. This may also involve travelling to various parts of the UK to interview participants, but all expenses will be covered, and travelling outside of London is completely negotiable.

Person Specification

In order to carry out the oral history interviewer role, you’ll need: an interest in LGBT history; literacy skills; organisational skills; to demonstrate an interest in equality/diversity and religion/spirituality; to be able (with training) to use recording equipment; to be able to travel in order to interview.

Time Commitment

In order to be able to take part in the project, you must be available for training, which will be on 19 April 2015, daytime, (tbc) Central London. Volunteering period: a minimum of 6 months. The amount of hours you wish to volunteer are negotiable, from a minimum of 5 days commitment.

Limited places available

For further information or to apply email project manager Surat-Shaan Knan via s.knan@liberaljudaism.org or call Liberal Judaism main line: 020 7580 1663 (office hours)

The Twilight People website will be launched imminently, and in the meantime, please ‘like’ the project on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @TwilightPeople2

Please share this call for volunteers widely, you can email me at scurran@ioe.ac.uk if you want the PDF of the flyer and the full role details.

LGBTQ oral his- and her-stories essay

‘Collecting the contemporary: a handbook for social history museums’ edited by Owain Rhys and Zelda Baveystock is out now. In it is an essay I contributed called ‘Let’s talk about sexuality: capturing, collecting and disseminating LGBTQ oral his- and her-stories’.

Here’s the blurb about it from the editors’ introduction:
Sean Curran assesses how LGBTQ history has been represented in the past, and how this is changing, especially through the collection of oral histories. He argues that although museums have recently been collecting and exhibiting LGBTQ associated objects, they have relied on stereotypical dimensions, such as “persecution, victimisation, visibility, sex and partying, without any physical record of the more domestic and every-day aspects of LGBTQ life”. Oral histories, therefore, provide an invaluable opportunity for museums to capture the hidden elements of everyday life which objects cannot, and can be used to reinterpret objects already in the collection, or to inform future collecting. It is also, he suggests, an opportunity to experiment with presenting these stories in gallery contexts, through art installations, performance, or participatory interaction.
Request that your library buys the book, there’s a huge range of very current essays and case studies.