Rachel Maloney, the University of Brighton’s V&A Research Exchange Fellow, discusses how her project has had to adapt during lockdown. Rachel is an artist and researcher whose work focuses on memory and personal narrative within family photographs and archival collections.
October 2019: An exciting beginning
At the start of the academic year I was lucky enough to begin a Research Exchange Fellowship with the University and The Victoria and Albert Museum. The Fellowship aimed to support the ongoing research collaboration between the two institutions, with the appointed Fellow working towards improving knowledge of, and access to, the V&A’s archival collections.
My proposal outlined a practice-led research project that would investigate and re-frame the female narrative of materials held in the V&A’s photographic collections. I also planned to carry out research workshops that invited participants to share and discuss their personal family archives.
The V&A began acquiring photographs from as early as 1852 and it now houses one of the largest collections of photographic material in the world. This includes the recent acquisition of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) Collection, which in 2018 was migrated from the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford to the V&A.
You can find out more about the V&A’s wonderful collection of photography here
I began my archival research looking at the RPS collection, specifically the uncatalogued Burnip Album, a beautifully hand decorated Victorian photograph album with the name ‘Mary’ embossed on the front cover.
This album dates from around 1870 and its pages contain a mixture of family photographs and carte-de-visite style portraits. The album has recently been digitised and I am in the process of cataloguing it for the V&A’s Search the Collections website to enable it to be accessed by a wider public audience.
The content of the album, which I am assuming was created by a Victorian woman named ‘Mary’, appears traditionally feminine. However, its humorously playful and imaginative construction challenges the stereotype of the repressed and obedient Victorian woman. It also subverts the purpose of ‘straight’ record photography in the way it plays with collage and mixed media to form new meanings. This album raises questions about the social and cultural roles of both photography and femininity, and it prompted my desire to find out more about the women connected to this album, to allow their voices to be heard and re-framed.
March 2020: A Pandemic
On the 17th March 2020 I was in the V&A archives gently turning the pages of the Burnip Album as I catalogued it. Later that day the V&A Museum announced it would be temporarily closing due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I was expecting the announcement but still felt shocked, it had all become very real all of a sudden.
I started thinking about the research workshops I had planned in April and May; it was very unlikely they could go ahead. I had received ethical approval, prepared for the sessions, booked the rooms and recruited some interested participants (all of whom I had corresponded with and was excited to meet). Everything was ready, but by the 20th March the university also closed its doors and the whole country was preparing for lockdown.
I contacted all the project participants informing them that the scheduled research workshops would be postponed until it was possible to run them safely. I told them how sad I was to cancel as I had been very much looking forward to meeting them and sharing our family collections together during the workshops. I also assured them I would produce some digital content for my blog and continue the project remotely.
As soon as I had sent that email, I panicked! How could I keep the project going without any facilities, with no V&A access, and no research participants to interactive with or sessions to run? My practice has always been about the analogue, about the intimacy of physical objects, how could I relay that whilst stuck at home on lockdown?
April and May 2020: A new way forward
Whenever I become lost or overwhelmed by a project, I try to trace my way back to its beginning and unravel what led me to where I am. With this project, that beginning was my own family archives.
So I went back to them, lifted lids off boxes, delved through albums and envelopes of loose photographs, laying them all out in front of me. Finally, I had the time to really commit to my own collections, to really see them.
I started to digitise these items, placing my family photographs carefully on a black background so they could be re-photographed and re-imagined. Every object, photograph, and then one by one the flowers from my grandmother’s flower press, all got their time in the limelight as I pointed my camera at them and created another layer of imagery to this collection.
I decided I wanted to share this process, to create some blog posts about how I had, and others could, engage with and re-narrate our family archives. I began publishing blogposts about how I was re-discovering items from my own collections (‘Family Archives in Lockdown’) and guidance on how others could simply and effectively document their own collections from home (‘Photographing Family Collections from Home’)
As I began posting this content, I realised the project had taken on a new dimension, remotely, in a way I never thought it could. I didn’t believe the images would forge connections without the intimacy and human interaction that comes with sharing photographs in person. I was wrong. The images still held a power and intimacy when I shared them on the blog, both for me and for others who commented that the posts made them reflect on their own family collections and photographs.
I definitely want to re-arrange some face-to-face workshops when it is safe to do so. However, I’ve been surprised how well my practice, and this project in particular, has managed to adapt and even flourish within the restrictions we are currently living through. Things have certainly changed, and anxieties are high, but we can still be creative, we can still stay connected and we can keep moving forward- even if we are on a bit of a detour!
Keep well, stay happy, and dig out those old photos!
– Rachel Maloney
University of Brighton V&A Research Exchange Fellow