Volunteering in museums and conservation, with university support

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Fig. 1. Storage mount bodice insert in progress. Zenzie Tinker Conservation, Brighton. Personal photograph of the author. 26 Feb 2020.

I’m from the US, so my first year was a big change and I was pretty homesick. In my second year, I decided to try new things and take every opportunity that came my way. I saw that The Old Police Cells museum were advertising a volunteering role through the university’s volunteering service, so I made an appointment with a member of the team called Kat and she set up a placement for me.

As well as knowing of my subject knowledge in fashion history, Kat took note of my broader interests like sewing, which was great because she was then able to assign me a further work placement at the specialist textile conservation company Zenzie Tinker. The photographs [Figs. 1-2] show aspects of the mounting process for historic garments under conservation.

Fig. 2. Storage mount arm inserts. Zenzie Tinker Conservation, Brighton. Personal photograph of the author. 26 Feb 2020.

I’ve also completed a volunteering placement at the Brighton Museum in preparation for the Queer the Pier exhibition. Fig. 3 shows me preparing a mannequin for garment display in the Museum Lab space.

It’s been great to know one of the benefits of using the volunteering service is that if there were a problem, the university would be able to directly support me.​ ​

Fig.3: Costume Mounting for Brighton Museum’s Queer the Pier, Brighton. Personal Photograph of the Author. Jan 2020.

From undertaking work placements and volunteering I have gained so much. I now have real work experience on my CV and knowledge that I can apply to future jobs when I am finished with university. But more than that, I have made so many new friends and connections that I feel a lot more tied to the Brighton community.

I have learned so many different things, beyond technical skills, including people skills that you can really apply not just your future job but to everyday life too, and that is what is great about it. ​I now have a much clearer idea of what I want my future to look like – and I realise everything that teachers say about volunteering is actually very true!

Stitched in Place: Dissertation research from a Dorset museum to a Brighton prize

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Anne Roberts, winner of the History of Art and Design programme’s 2019-20 Dissertation Prize, reflects on her subject and its delivery under Covid conditions.

What did you do during lockdown? Perhaps you rediscovered a hobby, took up yoga or home-schooled your family? Amidst all the confusion in society I was still completing my University dissertation, for submission in May, as part of my BA in Fashion and Dress History. In the uncertain days of early lockdown, I had struggled to find motivation in what felt like Armageddon. It was a challenge to balance the demands of the ‘new normal’ with the ongoing rigour of academic drafting. For me and many of my friends, ‘getting it in’ suddenly meant something even more challenging than before, and under such circumstances I never dreamt that my dissertation might win a prize. My hurriedly changed surroundings in the countryside also seemed a world away from Brighton’s support network, and in the rush to lockdown I had left behind all of my primary source material and many of my research papers.

Figure 1. A selection of aprons made using Dorset Feather Stitch. C. 1950s. KOP Collection. Dorset County Museum, Dorchester. Personal photograph by the author. 8 July 2019.

However, after a few weeks of adjustment, my dissertation stopped being a torment and actually became a welcome form of lockdown solace, providing me with clear objectives and  a fixed submission date. Louise Purbrick’s blog post for the Centre for Design History described her realisation that world events had made her teaching appear more relevant, and I had the same sensation about my dissertation subject. Suddenly, in lockdown, so many women were starting to sew, discovering that embroidery could provide them with a pleasurable pastime at home. This neatly, if rather disconcertingly, reflected some of my own dissertation conclusions which asserted that upheaval and uncertainly could act as a catalyst for female creative endeavour.

My choice of subject had originally been inspired by my own curiosity about local references in my West Dorset village to something called Dorset Feather Stitch. Research in Dorset County Museum last summer led me to hundreds of examples of this beautiful embroidery, alongside many boxes of related leaflets, photographs and notebooks.  I remember being completely daunted by the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ that I had to try and make sense of in a very limited time frame. When I came back to Brighton in September 2019, I  consulted a wide range of primary source material, and relevant academic theories, to uncover and explain the origins of Dorset Feather Stitchery. To find out how the craft was developed, I studied the relevance of the Women’s Institute movement, embroidery as a gendered practice and the importance of Dorset as an imagined space to the women who lived there. As little had been written about the practice, I realised that I would not be able to reference anyone else’s research and that my conclusions would be my own.

Figure 2. Mary Welshman. Apron detail. C. 1950s. KOP Collection, Dorset County Museum, Dorchester. Acc.no. 2007.228. Box D. Personal Photograph by the author. 8 July 2019.

My dissertation, entitled Stitched in Place: The Origins and Development of Dorset Feather Stitch 1945-1970, argued that Dorset Feather Stitch was not just an enjoyable pastime, but also an expression of subtle feminism within a traditional rural society. The women who stitched it were inspired by its originator, Olive Pass, to engage in a practice that was defined by social purpose and female values, evidenced within the confines of a traditional rural society. My research discovered that Dorset Feather Stitch was indirectly influenced by both the Arts and Crafts movement and the Peasant Art movement, and that Pass had combined her interest in Balkan craftsmanship with English rural craft skills to create a new hybrid style of embroidery. Described in 1951 as a ‘revival’, Dorset Feather Stitch was actually a re-imagined tradition, developed solely by women for women, which combined a strong sense of social purpose with female intentionality and craft skill.

Figure 3. Detail of a photograph of Olive Pass and two of her daughters. Undated. KOP collection, Dorset County Museum, Dorchester. Archival photograph by the author. 24 June 2019.

I really enjoyed researching my dissertation and, now that the print shops have finally re-opened, I intend to give a copy of my findings to the Dorset County Museum. I hope that my research conclusions might encourage them to mount a permanent display of Dorset Feather Stitch, as it is a unique example of post-war creativity which can be identified with many of the individual Dorset women who created it.

I intend to return to Brighton to study for a History of Design and Material Culture MA and hope to further develop my academic research and writing skills.  Having found out that Dorset Feather Stitch was also practised in Africa, Canada, and New Zealand, I would like to research the reasons for the export of this uniquely English cultural practice. It might also be interesting to test my theories by interviewing some Dorset women, who remember being taught the work as teenagers.

Fig. 4. Some of the Women who made and sold Feather Stitchery in Dorchester in 1951. KOP Collection. Dorset County Museum, Dorchester. Archival photograph by the author. 24 June 2019.

In this Covid environment I shall have to adjust to Uni life happening online, but I am looking forward to a resumption of at least some kind of teaching normality. I can’t wait to get back into the library! As a result of my dissertation experience I am particularly interested in uncovering more stories of women’s lives through objects that may have been overlooked in museum collections.

From Oslo to Brighton: An Erasmus Exchange

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Charlotte Andora Hylland, an Erasmus exchange student from University of Oslo, details her experience at the University of Brighton in the History of Art and Design programme.

As a Norwegian, it’s hard not to be fascinated by England, as samplings of British culture is so present in our own. Our second-grade teachers ask us “What’s the weather like today?” in the most English accent they can muster; our parents read Harry Potter to us on our bedside and Christmas isn’t really Christmas until the whole family has sat down together to watch Dinner for One. My own personal fascination with English royal history, as well as the faint hope that my Hogwarts letter had simply been lost in the post, made my choice to be an Erasmus exchange student in Brighton quite an easy one.

Poached eggs and tea: my very first English meal in Brighton.

I remember the feeling of standing on the train station about to board the train to Brighton. I was nervous, excited, terrified and quite frankly clueless. I had never been to the city before, I had no idea how Oyster cards work (and still don’t), and I didn’t know where the University was. This is one of the first things I learned about English people. They are always ready to help you! Norwegians are notoriously shy, held back and highly allergic to confrontation. We might consider someone asking us for the seat next to us on the bus to be a confrontational situation. We are private people who don’t generally talk to strangers. But I had no idea what bus to take to the University or where I could get groceries, and so I simply had to put the lid on my Scandinavian anxieties and ask. English people are rumoured to be very polite and, in this instance, I was not disappointed.

Before long, the hiccups began. First, I learned that the University of Brighton has to separate campuses. The City Campus and the Falmer Campus. Depending on the modules you sign up for, you either attend the City Campus in the city centre, or you attend the Falmer Campus on the countryside of Brighton, roughly 35 minutes away from the city by bus. My modules were Women’s Fashion from 1740-1914, The Cultural Politics of Dress and After Modernism: Postmodernism and Beyond, modules from the first and second year of the BA programme in History of Art and Design. This meant that I was to attend the City Campus. I had, however unknowingly, applied for student accommodation at Paddock Field Halls near the Falmer Campus. Furthermore, when I arrived at the accommodation office at Paddock Fields, there was no sign of my application for a room. After a few hours, they did find a room for me, and things were looking better. And then, later that evening, I got very ill. I was ill for days, which resulted in my not being able to attend activities for the exchange students to get to know each other.

Watching the waves on Brighton beach.

The reason I mention this, is that Dr. Annebella Pollen, Principal Lecturer in the History of Art and Design programme, as well as Bernie Happs, the programme administrator, made such an effort to make me feel welcome when I felt like the city and the exchange experience was rejecting me like a bad organ transplant. As I missed out on the activities for exchange students in Brighton, Annebella made sure some of the students got in touch to meet with me later on. When I confessed I wasn’t happy living in Paddock Field halls, she was very hands-on in finding me different accommodation. Any student who decides to exchange to the University of Brighton can rest assured that they will be well taken care of!

In Brighton, a lot of things are different from Oslo. I am not used to thanking the driver when I exit a bus, I am not used to be called “darling” or “love” by people I don’t know. I gradually got used to poached eggs, but I never quite got over my fear of sounding like the Norwegian Nobel Committee every time I opened my mouth. But the thing I find differs the most is the educational structure. To be frank, at the University of Oslo, students are responsible for themselves. You sign up for modules, buy the books, study independently and attend lectures in huge lecture halls. No one keeps track of you, and your learning outcome depends on you. I found the academic studies at the University of Brighton to be more seminar-based. In all three of my modules, our class would consist of roughly 10-15 students who had all read the recommended reading and came prepared to discuss it. My tutors at Brighton seemed genuinely interested in discussing and digesting the material together with the students, and have us think like actual historians, rather than have us memorize the material. In Norway I am used to being one of sometimes a hundred other students in a lecture hall where no one asks questions (because we are Norwegian). At the University of Brighton, you are not only encouraged to ask questions and participate, you are expected to and assessed on it. This was a challenge for me at first but I found that I learned so much more from this way of teaching.

Charlotte Andorra Hylland outside the Royal Pavilion, Brighton.

My time attending the University of Brighton was sadly cut short due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. I had to rush back to Oslo after only five weeks in Brighton. But in those five weeks I got to meet so many wonderful people and make so many friends for life. My roommate from Brighton and I still keep in touch and my tutors were such an inspiration especially as they took me to Brighton Museum to introduce me to some wonderful exhibitions. I am so sad I had to leave early. Still, I think the University did a great job, keeping the academic semester on track via the conference app “Microsoft Teams”. I was luckily able to finish all my modules.

I learned a lot from my stay in Brighton. I learned the value of reaching out to find people are there to help you. I’ve learned the joys of exposing myself to a different culture and making friends across borders. In all, I advise all students to consider taking the exchange experience.

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