For my placement as part of my course at the University of Manchester I worked with those who are currently in the process of renovating and re-opening what was once the house of Elizabeth Gaskell (1810 – 1865) and her family. Mrs Gaskell is most known for novels such as North and South (1854 – 55) and Cranford (1851 – 53) and many other literary works, most of which were completed during her time in Manchester. She, alongside her husband and daughters, moved to Plymouth Grove in 1850. The family remained there after her death until 1913. I chose this placement because I have always been most interested, of all the different types of museums, in historic house museums. This placement option not only offered me the opportunity to become involved with such a museum, but also to explore my love of Victorian literature within a museum context. Not only did Elizabeth Gaskell live there, but Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë have been in that house! The opportunity was far too much to resist.
My placement differed from those of my peers in many ways, but most obviously in that our access to the house was restricted. The house is being redecorated and renovated, inside and out, with the hopes of an opening in October 2014. Though this could have been disappointing, the chance to see and experience a house becoming a museum, and seeing this project from finish to end certainly made up for that. A unique learning opportunity was provided: We were able to learn much about the managerial and financial structuring of a small historical house museum, the issues they face in their early days, and experience the dedication of those involved; from volunteers to consultants to trustees. Our contact with the house came in the form of Dr Helen Rees Leahy. Helen is the curatorial consultant to the house as well as being a senior lecturer and the Director of the Centre for Museology at the University of Manchester. She has had years of experience working as a curator and museum director. We could not have asked for a better guide and teacher during this placement.
Once I expressed my areas of interest to Helen, she provided me with a tailored role within the placement: To research the holidays and travels of Mrs Gaskell across Britain and Europe, alongside the wider context of travel for leisure in the 1860s. The end product would be interpretation materials that would be included in an album in the renovated drawing room of the house. The process of researching Mrs Gaskell’s travels was made much easier by way of the fantastic resource she created for us; her letters. Reading Mrs Gaskell’s letters gave me insight in to her daily life, as well as her journeys, and provided me with a starting point for my research and project. Once research was compiled I began writing up the information to be included in the drawing room’s album. I was provided with a detailed interpretation plan for the whole house: A layered approach was taken to the information so that visitors were able to read as much or as little as they wished. Producing this material and knowing that it will now become a part of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, a woman I feel I have come to know, fills me with pride and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity.
For more information on the house please visit: http://www.elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk/