Who Should Write our Object Labels?

With over 1.3 million objects, we’ve been exploring the different ways that our audiences interpret them. Four academics have been working with our Social History Curator, and have selected 12 ‘overlooked objects’ from our collection  that would have been familiar to 19th century women, but whose significance may have been lost to modern audiences.

All four have written their own interpretations of one of these objects: a Daguerreotype – the earliest form of photography – showing the image of a woman.

A dark wooden frame with a very faint, blue tinted image of a Victorian woman in the centre. You can see that her hair is in ringlets.
Daguerroeotype photograph of a woman (c.1848) with her hair in ringlets in a wooden frame, which is later than the photograph.

Amanda Tinker
Senior Lecturer / Academic Skills tutor, University of Huddersfield

Viewing this enigmatic, ghostly woman with ‘no name’, seemingly trapped in her box-like frame, I am instantly hunting for clues to her identity.  Having a background in librarianship, I find myself immediately drawn beyond the image to the accompanying catalogue record: the metadata.  Are there any clues here?  Such catalogue records for objects and artefacts in museum archives are often only privy to the museum curator, although selected glimpses of their content may be revealed to the public as part of exhibition displays.

Looking at the ‘daguerreotype’ catalogue record then, I find interesting detailed and descriptive information about the object according to a set of predetermined categories: the date (1848-1849), medium (metal, copper and glass and wood), dimensions (surprisingly much smaller than the image here at 154mm by 139mm) and ‘curatorial remarks’ as to its condition (needs cleaning or replacing, and resealing) and provenance (intriguingly, a geology store in Sovereign Street).  This is all valuable information, yet the questions still remain as to who she is, why is she there and what is her story?  I turn to the ‘description’ category, hoping that this might provide some answers.   However, just like us viewing her image and in the absence of any further details, the curator is only able to be objective – ‘portrait of a woman with hair in ringlets, with wooden frame, blue tinted dress and painted bookcase background.’ Many such ‘found’ museum objects must suffer a similar fate, dependent upon invaluable curator expertise to create connections between such objects when brought together in exhibitions to fill in the missing pieces, tell the multiple range of stories and help make meaning.

In a recent article, the art historian Karin Wagner talks about the scope for different ‘voices’ in the catalogue records of archives.  She describes the conventional ‘institutional’ voice of the catalogue record, which aids documentation, search and retrieval, but calls for the potential of the ‘personal’ voice to also be considered.  This ‘personal’ voice might supplement the ‘institutional’ voice by capturing an audience’s interaction with and response to a museum object. Perhaps this audience could help fill in information gaps by drawing on their own personal experiences of these objects, or, in the case of our mysterious ‘found’ daguerreotype, offer even fictional stories that might engage a range of different, even new, audiences.  In our age of social media, these participatory practices may appeal and add an extra layer to catalogue description, encouraging renewed meanings and narratives to help tell stories when these have been lost.

Olivia Santovetti
Associate Professor of Italian, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds

This is a portrait of a young woman. She does not look that young but she is only in her twenties. She also looks serious and sad, somewhat imprisoned in her rigid pose, in her button-through dress. What were her thoughts when this daguerreotype was taken? What is behind that sad, absorbed gaze?

There is no object with or around her, nothing that can tell us what she was doing or who she was. Although, if we look closely, we can see shelves full of books in the background. Her father’s library? Indeed she must have been wealthy to have a daguerreotype photograph taken. But those are the only element we have. Plus the date: 1848-1849 (says the label).

Her sad, subdued look might allude to the confinement, oppression and isolation which characterised the state of many women in the nineteenth century. But her elusive and absorbed gaze might tell us something else. What if this woman was pondering one of the books on the shelves, one that she had just finished reading? Perhaps the recent novel by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre published in 1847?

Let’s imagine this. Then, Jane Eyre might have shocked this young, serious woman. She had been living a pretty grim life so far. Her mother died when she was very young. Her younger brothers left home to continue their studies – oh, how she would have loved to study herself! Now she lives at home in an isolated Yorkshire village, with her two old aunts and a grumpy, invalid father. The house becomes lively only when the brothers come to visit bringing stories of the world outside. But these are rare occasions and her life is pretty monotonous spent looking after her father and doing domestic chores. She knits and stitches next to the window and she sees life passing by. The only solace, particularly in those long wintery evening (and in that cosy library), is reading. But reading Jane Eyre was shocking– that passion, that desperation, that energy.

Jane Eyre also told her that women can rebel, they can escape the confinement and be the agent of their life.

An old book open to it's title page, showing etchings of 3 men bowing to God and a woman kneeling at an alter on her wedding day.
A typical early 19th century religious book (of the type the lady might have been reading) – The Diamond Pocket Prayer Book.

Stella Baraklianou
Senior Lecturer in Photography, University of Huddersfield

When Francois Arago announced in the summer of 1839 to the French Academy of Sciences the process of the Daguerreotype, his speech has gone down in history as the first official announcement of the birth of photography. The Dageurreotype, a French innovation, pioneered by Dageurre and Niepce was obtained by exposing a highly polished copper sheet in a large camera, giving a unique image. The polished silver was further treated with a heady mix of mercury and iodine vapours and lastly with a salt fixer to create a permanent record of the object or person that stood in front of the photographic lens.

Yet the Dageurreotype wasn’t the final form that photography would take, at least not as we know it today. The French hurried to make their announcement to pre-empt what was rumoured: that Englishman, Henry Fox Talbot, was patenting his own method of obtaining a fixed image.

An unknown woman depicted in this Dageurreotype is as mysterious as those early experiments that Daguerre and Niepce would have undertaken before perfecting their method. Yet we know nothing more about her. What was she thinking when her portrait was taken? How long did she have to sit for the photograph to be taken? Exposure times were very long – up to thirty seconds – and sitters would have head rests on the back of their heads in order to sit still. What was the occasion for this portrait sitting? Was it destined for a lover, was it commissioned by her family? Dageurreotypes became treasured objects in their own right. Encased in elaborate, ornate cases, nestled in velvet, they had to be held at a specific angle to be viewed. They were called “mirrors of memory” due to the ritualistic nature of viewing them, but also because of the shiny surface of the plate, where one could also see his/her own reflection.

I wonder if this Dageurreotype had its own special case before the wooden frame in this image and if so, what happened to it.

This isn’t photography as we know it today. What would have this unknown woman depicted in the photograph make of digital smartphones and selfies today? And can we even think of this Dageurreotype as a kind of “selfie” of its day?

Ruth Robbins 
Professor of English Literature, Leeds Beckett University

There’s a novel by Wilkie Collins, published in 1862 – a bit too late for this image, which was made around a decade earlier – called No Name. The novel is about the bastardy laws of the nineteenth century and their effects on an illegitimate daughter, left with no inheritance and no entitlement to her own name on the death of her parents, who had scandalously neglected to marry. Collins’s heroine, with great aplomb, attempts to take the law into her own hands, and make right, via a tortuous plot, the wrong that has been done to her by her neglectful mother and father.

There is no reason to assume that there’s any connection between this daguerreotype image and the plot of Collins’s novel. Indeed, the prim lady here, dressed in her Sunday best, hair carefully ringleted, and very formally posed, reading a book before a painted bookcase (she is clearly a reader), looks more likely to be reading some from the Religious Tract Society than a shocking novel by a novelist who was no stranger to the illegitimacy laws. (Collins maintained a mistress and their shared children. He may even have written the novel in part because he was concerned for their futures.)

Nonetheless, I’m struck by the coincidence that the lady here also has ‘no name’, though I have no reason to doubt her legitimacy. We don’t know who she was, so that in an irony of fate, the very image that was supposed to be her memorial in fact stands as testament to the process of her being forgotten. The image has faded and degraded, and she has become a ghost in her own story.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about women and images. Working with colleagues on the Leeds Library’s 250th Anniversary book over the last 2 years, we found that we could tell a lot of eminent women’s stories in the locality of Leeds, but we couldn’t generally find pictures of them to illustrate those stories. (The eminent men took great care to be pictorially memorialised – and it’s women who are meant to be vain!)

This slightly sad picture tells us something important despite the things it doesn’t tell us at all. It tells us that women’s histories, even women’s names, and women’s images, are easily wiped from the historical record when we don’t make the effort to know them, as individuals and as representatives of a moment in time. It’s a lesson for us too. I don’t want to be forgotten and to have ‘no name’. I want our stories – women’s stories – and my story, an individual woman’s narrative, to be legitimate, named, not forgotten.

6 black and white photographs of Victorian men.
6 daguerreotypes of named men. Male sitters were more likely to be identified; these were all mayors of Leeds: William Smith 1839, Jas. Holdforth 1838, H.C. Marshall 1842, T.W. Tottie 1837, J. Bateson 1849, George Goodman 1836).

 

Our Behind the Scenes: Who should write object labels? event will take place at Abbey House Museum on 23 February, from 12-3.30pm. Find out more here

Explore our Social History collection here.

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