As part of my MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies, I have completed my placement at the
Elizabeth Gaskell House on Plymouth Grove. Elizabeth Gaskell, author of North and South, Mary Barton, and Cranford, lived with her family in the house between 1850 and 1865, and the museum aims to re-create the house from 1860. I chose this placement as I had visited the house two years ago, during the Manchester Histories Festival, when the house was run by volunteers, and was interested in seeing how it was to be developed into a museum.
My role with the organisation was to research topics that were connected to Elizabeth Gaskell’s domestic life, including laundry, letter writing, and sewing. Gaskell was a prolific letter writer and this was my starting point for researching the three topics. I went through her published letters to find any references or tales that could be used to make personal connections between Elizabeth are the research areas. After completing this, I did wider research on the topics, including at housekeeping guides from the era, so I could learn about the washing techniques from the period and the sewing patterns that were used by middle class families. After completing the research, the next was to interpret it and make it accessible to the visitors to the house. One of the curatorial aims of the house was to make it a place of interest for a wide audience, including both fans of Elizabeth Gaskell and those who know little of her work. Having been a history student, this was a new challenge for me, as I was used to writing academic essays. I was also required to source pictures that could be used to represent each area and devise activities which could be carried by visitors. As the house is aiming to have little text in the displays to make it feel like a ‘lived-in’ home, the information I wrote up was for the albums which are to be placed in each room and for the volunteers.
As the house is not yet open to the public and for the duration of my placement was a building site, we were unable to work in it and the research was carried out independently in our own time. There were two other students carrying out the placement and we would have regular catch-up sessions with our advisor, giving us the opportunity to feed back on the work we had done and our ideas, as well as finding out how the house as a whole was developing.
The placement has enabled me to see the development that goes into new museums and exhibitions and challenges that can be faced. It has also given me the opportunity to do primary research and interpret it for a wider audience than I have previously written for. The house will be open to visitors in the autumn and will give a fascinating insight into the life of Elizabeth Gaskell, as well as life and society in Manchester during the mid-Victorian era.