Finding Margaret - Emerging Voices
The Emerging Voices bursary supports museum volunteers or emerging professionals to undertake training, research or placement opportunities that enhance their skills and bring new benefits to their host museum.
Becki Brattin and Katie Bunnell decided to apply for the bursary following their experience as Citizen Curators at Falmouth Art Gallery. They have been awarded the bursary to continue developing their project, “Gut Reaction” which focuses on audience responses to the Margaret Whitford Bequest, a collection of 48 contemporary prints and a sculpture acquired by the gallery through the Artfund.
Since our last blog post back in Sept 2019, we have been busy tracking down the artworks from Margaret Whitford’s wider collection: paintings, sculptures, ceramics and prints spread across 8 different museums and galleries in the UK. This has involved interactions with collections managers and curators in Cambridge, Bath, Eastbourne, Canterbury, Southampton, Warwick, Hastings and Aberystwyth where people have been interested to find out about the extent of Margaret Whitford’s collection and have been supportive of our project.
Our search has not only involved us in making connections with collections managers and curators, it has also initiated multi-layered and open-ended conversations with Margaret’s friends and colleagues from her life as an academic and feminist philosopher. Many of her academic colleagues have been delighted to be reminded of Margaret and motivated to share reminiscences that are helping us to make connections between her collection and her life. Some have given us valuable inventories of artworks detailing purchase dates and places, and others have been very generous with their time and efforts in connecting us with people who might be able to fill in more detail including some of the artists included in her collection. Through our conversations we have discovered there were more works in Margaret’s collection that she specifically gifted to friends.
We have discovered a little more about Margaret as a person: all the academic friends who have come forward talk positively about Margaret as a friend, about her relaxed and open approach to life, happy to talk about anything. If only she were here to talk to us herself! In addition to colleagues from later life, we have done some work on her early life in Cornwall: visiting the house in Redruth where she grew up and talking with women who were at school with her at Camborne Grammar. Those we have interacted with were not close friends, but they remember how exceptional she was at school and were interested to hear what had happened to her after she left.
Conversations have largely taken place online through email and occasionally by phone, but to our delight this network of communication, now gently humming in the background to our research, resulted in a visit to Falmouth Art Gallery from Professor Robyn Ferrell just last week on Fri 6th March. Robyn is a writer and philosopher from the Australian National University (ANU) and was a friend and colleague of Margaret. She had heard about our project from Prof Christine Battersby, feminist philosopher and executor for Margaret Whitford’s art estate. Robyn did not know that a large proportion of Margaret’s collection now resides at FAG and was really keen to see the works and share her memories. We recorded her talking while she was viewing the collection, kindly made available by Natalie Rigby, Collection Manager at FAG and we are now exploring ways in which we can make that available.
And this question about what to do with all the material we have gathered is our current BIG question! Here is an edited excerpt from our conversation this morning:
B : We’ve spent so much time researching, how do we format the material we currently have to shine a light on Margaret as an exceptional person and show people her remarkable collection of artworks. How do we make what we have learned accessible?
K: For our Emerging Voices application we proposed to create a digital exhibit. The idea is that if we can compile our material into a visual digital database that we and/or our audience can interrogate in a multiplicity of ways. From our perspective as curators searching through the data will help us see new patterns and connections and develop new threads to present to different audiences. I also like the idea that one person might be interested in the prints, someone else might be interested in the ceramics or sculpture others might want to know about her life and her friends and that the digital exhibit will allow them to explore those themes across all the material – if we can make it work!
B: Yes, that sounds great. I think it helps to think about specific audiences – our Citizen Curator training highlighted the importance of thinking about audience. We now have a wealth of material about Margaret and her extended collection, but who is it for?
K: Yes, I agree, it is really interesting to think about specific audiences. It would be great to think about ways we can illuminate Margaret for young women in Cornwall for instance.
B: Yes, and I think it’s really important to acknowledge the people we have been in contact with as our audience too. We have emailed and spoken to people from Margaret’s life, from her grammar school days in Camborne, her colleagues from Queen Mary and through the Society of Women in Philosophy (SWIP) as well as the artists who she bought work from and made friends with. And we have material about her students who remember her affectionately. Five distinct areas already, I think. It would be good also to connect with her remaining family – we know she has a brother, Christopher. We are sensitive to her connections – we have become familiar with names, people who are important in her life. They are in part at least the audience for our research, they are already invested. We care about them because they cared about Margaret and still care about her memory. Our communications and questions about Margaret have stimulated their memories and shared interests – some reconnected through our research.
K: Yes, they are and there are also local people who are interested. Going back to Camborne Grammar school, there are 9 or 10 women we have made contact with who said they were interested to know more about Margaret after she left school. These are also our audience – some still local, but not all
B: I am really interested in developing a local audience. Wanting to make it relevant and interesting for people in Cornwall, to make the link between a Camborne schoolgirl and a female academic feminist philosopher highly regarded both nationally and internationally. It’s an inspiring story for women in Cornwall to hear.
K: From reports we have gathered, it does seem that she felt somewhat suffocated in Cornwall as a young woman and she felt there was more for her in other regions of the country. It would be interesting to learn more about her family and community she was born into in Cornwall. Maybe she felt like every other teenager searching for their individual identity, wanting to break away from their family or maybe there was more to it than that?
B: We are hoping to make contact with her brother to find out more about her attachment to Cornwall and family but have not done that yet. We know that she left Christopher things that she had inherited from the family house in Redruth, Cornwall. And from what we know about some of the objects she kept, it feels as if she was attached to the women in her family, but we don’t know that for sure.
K: So there’s always more to find out about Margaret! What we really need to do now is to work out some ways of making what we already have visible to others so we can maybe test out what we have on the audiences we are interested in reaching. And after talking about our project with Oliver Scott, Senior Digital Engagement Officer at Cornwall Museum Partnership last week I think we should have a go at making a digital timeline with some of the material that we have and see how that works and what it looks like.
B: Ok, let’s do that and I am going to continue sourcing images of the extended collection from the other galleries and from private collections to add to our digital exhibit. Very recently we have been told that there could be a possibility of seeing the artworks that were auctioned off in aid of St. Nicholas Hospice so that will be interesting to view another group of works from her collection which aren’t on public display.
K: Cool and maybe we should also mention that we have changed the title of our project from “Gut Reaction” to “Finding Margaret Whitford”? The idea of having a gut reaction to art is still an important one for us in terms of making art accessible to all, but we think that “Finding Margaret Whiteford” is a better description of what we are doing now. It is perhaps a more active title that other people, our audience, can use to find out about Margaret themselves using the digital exhibit we are planning to make?
-Katie Bunnell and Becki Brattin