Exhibition research for "Virtue & Vice" at Hardwick Hall

Posted on 15 January 2013

Conversion Narratives in Early Modern Europe, 1550-1700 is a 3-year AHRC-funded project, co-ordinated by Helen Smith and Simon Ditchfield at the University of York, which will examine the stories early moderns told about their religious lives and ask what religious change meant to communities and individuals during this period.

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One of the primary objectives to emerge from this project was to present early modern Europe in a new light, and perhaps encourage the public to consider this period from different perspectives, through various modes of public dissemination. "Virtue & Vice", an exhibition at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, was key to achieving this objective.

Built in the 1590s, Hardwick Hall is one of the greatest surviving Elizabethan "prodigy houses". Hardwick was famous in its own time for its imposing structure and huge expanse of glass windows. Its ambitious, self-confident design made it a remarkable property which perfectly expressed the vision and redoubtability of its builder, Bess of Hardwick. This reputation has endured for centuries: the Hall was occupied by the Devonshire family until the mid-20th century, when its ownership was transferred to the National Trust - the Hall and its estate now attracts up to 250,000 visitors a year. Yet, situated high on an isolated Derbyshire hillside, Hardwick Hall feels like a world apart, and it seems difficult to imagine how this property could be caught up in the turbulent events and cultural changes of early modern Europe. This is exactly what our exhibition, "Virtue & Vice" sought to challenge. Based upon two particularly striking textiles that made up Hardwick's extraordinary and sumptuous interior – namely, a magnificent appliqué hanging depicting 'Faith and his contrary, in the person of Mahomet' which hangs in the entrance hall, and a rare painted cloth depicting the conversion of St. Paul which can be found in the household chapel – "Virtue & Vice" aims to place Hardwick Hall within the exciting narrative of cultural, religious and economic change that was being played out across early modern Europe, and to encourage visitors to widen their perceptions of this fantastic property. I am extremely privileged to have been involved with the exhibition through the Public History MA Placement, which I was able to undertake as an Option module in the second term of my MA in Early Modern History. Not least, I had a chance to share my own passion for this compelling age with the public (as well as the infectiously enthusiastic Conversion Narratives team)!

My placement was composed of three main responsibilities. Firstly, I assisted Helen with the development of the physical exhibition by helping her to draft the text for the main panels and by contributing ideas for its aesthetic and layout. Secondly, I assisted in the design of a mobile app which would accompany the exhibition and expand upon our central themes and ideas: having created the initial design, I went on to research and write text for it, contributed towards all stages of its development and extolled its virtues (pun absolutely intended) to the Hardwick Hall volunteers at a workshop held upon the exhibition's opening in April 2013. Finally, I contributed posts to the Conversion Narratives blog which reflected upon the opportunities and challenges inherent in developing the exhibition and app. I also had the opportunity throughout my placement to assist with other aspects of the Conversion Narratives project, particularly lending a hand at the "Cultural Encounters" public lecture series which ran between January and March 2013 – on one occasion, by helping to demolish a map of Europe made entirely of chocolate!

My placement encouraged me to reflect on the dissemination of academic research to a public audience, particularly in the context of a heritage institution such as the National Trust. Each party has its own needs and interests, and negotiating these interests was a valuable exercise. I was also encouraged to think about the relevance of new technologies involved in this dissemination, as well as engaging with established debates over exhibition design, and exhibitions as learning tools. The conversations and opportunities I experienced during my placement also led me to reflect upon the nature of academia today, particularly the importance of "impact", public engagement and what is expected of a grant project such as Conversion Narratives.

I would highly recommend the Public History MA placement to all future candidates. Not only did this experience help to shape my understanding of the field, but it has also helped to shape me as a historian. I would like to thank Sarah-Rees Jones, Sally Kingsley and the Conversion Narratives team for a truly fantastic term.

Hannah Hogan

MA History
Public History Placement