Fairfax House - Public History MA Placement

Posted on 16 April 2014

Fairfax House - Curatorial and Exhibitions placement

My placement at Fairfax House, a Georgian townhouse in the centre of York, involved assisting with the planning, research and installation of the current exhibition ‘Head to Toe: Accessorising the Georgians’. I was initially drawn to this placement because of the proposed content of the exhibition. Intended to display and discuss the beautiful accessories worn by ‘fashionable’ Georgian society, the exhibition brief closely aligned with my own research interest in eighteenth-century women’s clothing. The placement also offered the unique opportunity to be involved in the progress of an exhibition from the earliest planning stages through to the public opening, a process that was not only rewarding but extremely insightful. Through my work for the MA in Public History I had gained a thorough grounding in the academic theory behind museum exhibition practice and object display, however the placement was especially useful in proving that theory is not always as simple in practice!  

For the first few weeks of my placement I was tasked with searching for objects in other museum and art gallery collections that could be put on loan to us. As the collection at Fairfax House is made up mainly of furniture and the decorative arts, all but one of the accessories on display in the final exhibition are on loan from other institutions. This was at times quite a frustrating process; many of the larger institutions, for example the British Museum and the V&A, were unable to facilitate loans at such short notice, while other smaller museums were either difficult to get in touch with, or had very little information about the objects in their collections. However, this meant that I gained much practical experience in the loans process as well as confidence in contacting other museums and institutions. This stage of research was individual and largely internet-based, and I spent a minimum of twelve hours a week working on the placement, working one full day in the office each week and making up the rest in my own time. This arrangement was perfect, as it meant that I was able to ask the staff for help and guidance on a weekly basis, but could also conduct research in my own time and in the comfort of my own home!

The second stage of exhibition research was much more enjoyable and closer to my comfort zone. The objects on display in the exhibition are accompanied by images, text panels and object labels and I was therefore asked to research a range of themes including domesticity, dress and undress, underwear and cosmetics. I absolutely loved researching primary material, and came across an amazing range of sources. In particular, this 1789 tip for making sure one’s cheeks were round and plump, as was the fashion, made me smile:

“One great fault committed daily in the management of children, when they are very young, and which hurts their faces extremely, is allowing every body to kiss them. Nothing is more capable of making their cheeks flat, and of producing pimples and such sort of blemishes.”

Unfortunately there was no room for this tip in the final exhibition text, and it was at times very difficult to condense all my research into text panels of about 300 words. As well as several text panels, I wrote many of the object labels in the exhibition, something which required less primary research as I was reliant on the information provided by the object’s lender. I learnt much about writing for the public in an accessible style, and tried to ensure that my text invited visitors to engage with the information by taking current historical debate into account and providing primary source material where possible.

I think that both the other student on placement and I were useful to Fairfax House because we were able to conduct a huge amount of research that it was just not feasible for members of staff, who were also busy with the day-to-day running of the house, to undertake. I certainly benefitted from the placement, especially in terms of practical museum experience, and thoroughly enjoyed researching content for the exhibition. I am very proud of the final exhibition, and it has some really beautiful objects on display that would otherwise be hidden away in storage and inaccessible to the public. My favourite items are a pair of shoes embroidered with strawberries and an embroidered pocket, and I believe that the greatest strength of the exhibition is that it allows the public to engage with and respond to these objects on a personal level.

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Elizabeth Spencer

Public History MA Placement