The wonderful thing about living and studying in London is that there is always something new to see. A few weekends ago after listening to Alan Rice give a fantastic paper about “guerrilla memorialisation” of the slave trade at the UCL based Public History Discussion Group, I headed off to the British Library, which is just a five minute walk down the road.
On my way I spotted a sign for the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Gallery outside the UNISON building. I’d never seen it before, or paid any attention to the building, but figured as it was the third Saturday of the month (see the opening hours!) I should check it out.
The Gallery is a ‘lasting memorial’ to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify and practice as a doctor in Britain, as well as an exhibition on the social history of nursing and trade unions. It’s a true ‘space of memory’ as it occupies the former Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (formerly the New Hospital for Women). It’s also an incredible display of digital technology and stands as an excellent example of the importance of technology in museums.
I was lucky to have the gallery to myself when I was there, so I got to explore all of the interactive displays and interpretative text at my own pace (a real luxury in museums!) The Gallery space includes interpretative panels (text and digital), which line the walls, a reading space, an interactive table and a walk through to the original Entrance Hall of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital. While there are very few original documents or artefacts on display, the gallery makes use of digital copies to bring history to the public.
Interactive display panels are placed around the room, and each has a particular theme, including Ambition, Leadership and Equality. Each display has four topics within these: Elizabeth’s Story, where the visitor can find out more about Garrett Anderson; Campaigns for Justice and Changing Lives, where the visitor can discover more about social issues and equality campaigns; and UNISON Now, which feature video interviews with union members today.
The image below shows the Campaigns for Justice and Changing Lives sections of the ‘Perseverance’ and ‘Making our Voices Heard’ displays. While these look text heavy, other topics make use of different media, including digital copies of documents, satirical images and videos. All of the videos included in the displays have sound and are also subtitled and interpreted in BSL.
I was initially surprised to see so much text on the displays seen above, but they made a welcome change to having very little contextual information in displays. The printed text panels were far less detailed, and gave more of an overview of Garrett Anderson’s life and the social and political history of the time. These digital displays, however, allowed Garrett Anderson’s history to be placed in the much wider context of women’s social and political history, including the origins of the equal rights movement with Mary Wollstonecraft (above left). The interviews with current UNISON members also explained the historic and current importance of trade unions (…a rare and welcome representation of unions and workers in a London exhibition!)Most impressive however, was the huge interactive table in the middle of the gallery (see image to the left). If only I could have taken it home with me.
Women are usually so abysmally underrepresented in public history I was somewhat breath taken by the ‘Enterprising Women’ display. The interactive display is designed to be used by 4 people at a time. Images of ‘enterprising women’ float over the display, which when selected bring up a detailed biography. Visitors can also search for enterprising women by either their surname or their vocation. The list of vocations alone was empowering: Doctor, Surgeon, Nurse, Politician, Medical Campaigner, Educator, Women’s Rights C19th, Women’s Rights C20th, Scientist, Writer/Artist, Founder, Political Campaigner.
There were so many inspirational women whose histories were so easily accessible, that it felt for a fleeting moment like I was in a city where women’s lives are well represented, or even that I was in a women’s history museum.
I’d really love to see this display made into an app or interactive website. It makes such a fantastic resource, and is a remarkable database of ‘enterprising women’. It also has such great potential to ensure the voices of diverse women are heard too: while this gallery is dedicated to Garrett Anderson, her history is part of a wider history of enterprising women of different nationalities, races, abilities and social backgrounds. The use of technology as seen in the EGA Gallery goes a significant way to making so many voices, including Garrett Anderson’s, heard.
All images my own. See the EGA for Women website for details of opening hours, guided tours and how to get there.