Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Entry #6 Individual Trip to The Women's Library

For one of my individual field trips I went to The Women’s Library at London’s Metropolitan University. They have over 60,000 books and pamphlets, over 3,000 periodicals, over 460 archives, and a series of electronic resources that focus on documenting and exploring “women’s lives in Britain in the past, present and in the future. It inspires learning and debate and is an international resource for women’s history research.” When we got there we were allowed to view their current exhibition for free, but had to apply for a free day pass to get into the reading room. On the application we had to give our permanent and temporary address, what we were researching, what types of documents we would be using, and we had to show a form of ID. Also, we had to check our purses and jackets in the basement cloakroom, and could only use pencils to take notes.

The upstairs reading room was a quiet and peaceful environment. The books were catalogued in the Dewey Decimal System and there were about 15 shelves worth. A separate room was set aside for periodicals (a big room), and there were private areas for reading and computer use. Near the computers was a large bulletin board where scholarships, classes, studies, and other announcements pertaining to women were posted. Such a great resource – I would love to go to some of the meetings they had on there! There was one librarian working the entire reading room, and other workers came in and out giving tours to visitors. Two women worked the front desk downstairs and were extremely helpful providing information.

Their current exhibition was my favourite part though. It was titled “What Women Want” and focused on seven areas that encompass what women want. Each stop had thought provoking writings about the area and provided related new and old pictures, magazines, and materials, First, a Home Life. This area talked about how the definition of a home has changed so much, but that women want the right to design a home and family in a way that is comfortable and normal to them. Second, Freedom and Independence. Women need to feel free to express their sexuality, travel on their own, do things without having to depend on men. Third, Safety and Security. In the past and in the present women deal with issues of rape, domestic abuse, and more; they want to be free from being viewed as prey, or weak, by men and other women. Fourth, Equality at Work. Equal pay for equal work, respect in the workplace, and halting sexual harassment that is sometimes seen as acceptable and “just in fun.” Fifth, Beauty. Women want to feel beautiful, though what beautiful is is hard to define. Sixth, Pleasure. Women want to find pleasure in whatever leisurely activity they choose whether it be feminine or not, like playing sports. Finally, women want a Voice. This includes the right to vote, the right to run for office, and the right to have a say in their community and world.

A large bulletin board was set up on one wall and had an area for each of these categories. Paper was provided so that women could write their thoughts about the subjects and post them. The Beauty section was so striking. Some of the comments to “What makes a woman beautiful?” were: self-confidence, compassion, originality, heart, knowing yourself. I wrote “a wise and oft-used mind.” Yet, the majority of women worldwide don’t feel beautiful because they don’t feel they measure up to society’s idea of what beauty is. It’s so sad to reflect on the way media images and pressure stop many women from revelling in their true beauty.

I definitely recommend this place to any woman, and plan to go back there to do some more research for my Jane Austen paper. As a woman who observed and documented the behaviors and societal restrictions on women, Austen is someone who would have loved this library and what it stands for.

Entry #5 St. Paul's Cathedral Library

Our trip to St. Paul’s Cathedral Library was special because it isn’t normally open to the public, just researchers and special appointments, and because we got to take pictures in it, which is forbidden. I’d love to post a picture on here, but we promised not to post them on the web! Going up the stairs that didn’t seem to have any support was a little unnerving; but when he told us that the staircase was used in a Harry Potter film I thought it was cool J

Their library collection was pretty much destroyed by the London fire in 1666. Starting with almost nothing, they began collecting materials from other libraries, people in the town, and grew tremendously with Henry Compton’s gift of almost two thousand books in 1712. The collection has old Bibles, choir books, theological books, and more; the items there aren’t necessarily “library” materials, but encompass a series of church-related cultural deposits. The temperature in the room stays around 18.5 C to preserve the books, though our guide was quick to point out that library temperatures vary greatly due to the types of materials they contain.

Joseph Wisdom, who gave us a tour, is the only qualified librarian for the entire collection. A group of volunteers help him in conservation and shelving matters, and cleaning crews are allowed to do minimal work – not too much, lest they ruin something in the collection. I’m surprised that there’s only one librarian for a collection so large and valuable; honestly, it doesn’t seem very smart. If something were to happen to the one librarian, or if he left, it would be hard to train someone completely new.

I really enjoyed how Mr. Wisdom took the time to point out carvings in the walls and molding and elaborate, or guesstimate, on their meanings. For instance, the skull, grain, grapes, and book in the library that represent holy communion, God’s word, and Jesus’ victory over death. Many times I’ve admired the carvings and marvelled at how they were done, but I don’t ever stop to think about what they mean. From now on I plan to study those more to see if I can decipher the subtle meanings intended by the artists.

Entry #4 Museum of London

The Museum of London was built in 1976 and used materials from Guildhall and the London Museum in Kensington to start it’s collection. There are three sites comprising the museum: the one we visited near St. Paul’s, which focuses on the urban development of London and employees 150 workers; one in Hackney that deals with archaeological archives; and a third branch near Canary Wharf related to the economic and social history of the London Docklands. The Museum of London is the largest urban museum in the world, and deals with prehistoric through present day London.

Our guide is a curator at the museum and is in charge of the “London Before London” exhibit dealing with the prehistory. His goal was to present four main areas about prehistoric London to visitors: Climate, how it has changed and what that means; The River, how the River Thames is responsible for London being what it is; People, focusing on past residents as individuals not just dead peoples; and Legacy, the legacy that has been passed on to present Londoners. I’ve never really though much about how museums get designed or why they are set up the way they are, but our guide’s talk about how they worked hard to make the exhibit modern but classic, easy to maneuver, chronological, and more, I was struck by the amount of work that has to be done before the actual building begins. Above all, I thought their idea to make one side of the collection blue – to represent the Thames – was a great idea to remind people about the importance of the river.

As far as the collection, I enjoyed that there were items for the public to touch – like a caveman’s club – because it made the item seem more real. I was interested in some of the old jewelry and skulls, but after a while some of the items seemed repetitive. All of the flints and tools started looking the same and started to lose interest. However, I did enjoy the London fire exhibit, especially the six minute video that gave a visual of how much of London was consumed by the blaze. It helped give perspective on how damaging it was to the city. I did think it was funny that the fire started on Pudding Street and ended on Pie Street, and many people thought that was a sign that God started the fire to punish gluttony in London!

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Entry #3 Parliament

Today’s trip to Parliament began by entering through the Victoria Tower, which is the entrance used by all Sovereign’s. How cool was it to walk through the same doorway as kings and queens?!

Westminster was built in 1845 and is home to the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Queen Victoria was the first Sovereign and Queen Elizabeth II is the current one. However, due to issues with the monarchy in the past, the Sovereign is not allowed into the House of Commons where the real power lies. Instead, she/he has a messenger that runs interference for her/him from her throne.

Public tours are available by appointment, and there are guides and guards aplenty to ensure that you are well supervised and informed. Though Parliament wasn’t in session when we were there, we learned that the public can line up and take turns going into the balcony during debates – which I plan to do next week. I was a little disappointed in our tour guide because he didn’t seem to have his presentation put together and he didn’t talk very loud, but having been around for a while he had some interesting personal stories about seeing presidents like Reagan and Clinton, so that helped. There are three areas that stood out to me most.

First, I loved, loved, loved seeing paintings of present and former royals in the Royal Gallery and Prince’s Chamber. Seeing those made them seem more real than hearing about them in a textbook because now I can visualize their faces when I’m reading about history. In particular I enjoyed seeing all of Henry VIII’s wives. You can see where he married for beauty, pleasure, duty, and on accident. I love the movie “Anne of the Thousand Days,” which is about Anne Boleyn, so it was satisfying to get to see more of what she actually looked like.

Second, as we toured the building I kept dwelling on the position of women within the British government. There is the Victoria Tower, a large painting of Victoria in the front room, and a huge statue of her in the Prince’s Chamber. Yet, despite this appearance of acceptance of women, the whole building and current government are still male dominated. Wives of the Lords still cannot enter the rooms, the House of Lords and Commons are overwhelmingly male, and it wasn’t until 1928 that women were allowed into the House of Commons – thanks to Emily Pankhurst, who now has a statue in the gardens. Margaret Thatcher, a former Prime Minister, is another one who stands out with a large bronze statue situated among the other male statues of former Ministers. Even though her statue is the largest in the room, she is still the only woman in there.

Finally, something that stood out to me was in the House of Lords when the guide pointed out the red seat of power that a woman/baroness currently sits on. He explained that when a person assumes that seat they must become apolitical, not favouring their party more than the other. What a great idea; can we do that with American presidents? Imagine how much progress could be made if a politician in charge could become apolitical to best meet the needs of the country.

Entry #2 The British Library

I was expecting to be in awe of the collection size and operation of the British Library, but I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over by the contents of the collection. Maybe if I had done more research I would have been prepared to see sketches by Galileo and DaVinci, musical scores by Mozart and Beethovan, and a letter from Queen Elizabeth I. I think seeing part of a Dead Sea Scroll and a book penned by Jane Austen’s were what got me the most. Like others there, I had to sit down for a minute to wrap my head around what I was seeing. It is so incredible that anyone from the public can walk in and see these items for free. On that note, I was surprised to learn that anyone from the public – with a research a need – can access library materials for free. I think it’s great that the library is devoted to meeting the information needs of the entire community and not just those with a lot of money or power. In fact, the library hosts events almost every day and almost all of them are free and open to the public.

Before I continue on my thoughts about the library I’ll offer up a few facts. The British Library is the 2nd largest library in the world, behind the Library of Congress, with over 150 million items. Interestingly, books are stored by size not subject. There are four levels above and below ground housing the materials. It is the most government funded institution in the UK, but also relies on donations from the public. It is purely a reference library, and patrons cannot pull books off the shelves; rather, they must get assistance from a staff member. There are 1200 workers at this institution and their jobs mainly consist of helping the public by working on the welcome team, as a library assistant, a curator, or in the conservation center.

Besides the Sacred exhibit and Sir John Ritblat Gallery, I was most struck by the system they have set up for book delivery within the library. There are conveyor belts that have a barcode unique to each floor. To send a book to a different floor they scan the barcode of the destination, place the book(s) in a bin, scan the barcode on the bin, and the books are delivered in that way. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It may take longer than just running it up or down a floor or two (15-20 minutes), but it certainly makes it easier!

One final thing that stood out to me is the Turning the Pages touch-screen system that lets you flip through, magnify, and hear audio commentary on 15 historical books. Of course I was most enthralled by Jane Austen’s History of England! Because of the system I was able to read and see sketches from the whole book instead of just the two pages on display behind the glass. Our guide informed us that the initiative was started by Bill Gates, who had half of a historical document that fit with a half that the British Library had. He wanted to make sure that the public was able to see these masterpieces in their full form. It’s also a great way to make sure that the documents are available for inspection long after their physical deterioration.
I had a great time at the library and am hoping to go back to inspect more of the floors and maybe do some research for my Jane Austen project.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Entry #1: Oxford/Stratford

Today we spent time a little time in Oxford before heading to our main destination, Stratford. In Oxford, a few of us took a tour of the city and saw old sites like the first museum in England, the Radcliffe Camera, and we stopped in a few bookstores to check out their collections. The most amazing stop for me was St. Mary’s Cathedral. From several display boards we learned that John Wesley had preached a service there, and it was so controversial that they banned him from ever returning. The actual pulpit he preached from is no longer there, but the layout and design of the church remains the same. The boards also informed that Queen Elizabeth I had attended disputations at the church. We’ve been in several historical buildings and places, but something about St. Mary’s gave me chills. Many other places have been commercialized or changed to reflect how the owners “think” it might have looked. But St. Mary’s was authentic, and the reverent manner in which you are asked to behave preserves the spiritual power of the place.

In Stratford I visited three historical sites: Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Nash’s House & New Place, and Hall’s Croft. All three homes, along with three others, are owned and cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. According to its website, the Trust is an independent registered educational charity that depends entirely upon the public for support, relying on the income generated from visitors, Friends and donors. On the site, people can Adopt a Trust Treasure, make a gift in your will, volunteer time, or join the Friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust with an annual gift that gives free admission and discounts.

Shakespeare’s Birthplace is, of course, the place where Shakespeare was born. It was the home owned by John Shakespeare and his wife Mary Arden from 1556 until John’s death, when it was bequeathed to William. When we toured the home there were two people dressed in Shakespearian garb telling the history of some of the rooms and another women modernly dressed was in a room between the two making sure traffic flowed smoothly. According to one of the workers, William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway briefly lived there when they were first married, but soon moved and never lived there again. It’s historical significance is not only for seeing where he was born or how people back then lived, but seeing his surroundings and understanding how they influenced him and his writing. From the glorious flower gardens to the farming and trade work of his father, his upbringing made nature a prominent theme, and the colors and flowers he so often saw influenced the way he saw and perceived humans and the world. In fact the flowers, for me, were the highlight of the tour. It’s hard to describe the many colors and designs within the garden. There were poppies of brilliant red, dainty flowers in skin colors of pink and peach, and wildflowers that gave an air of whist and romance. I think I noticed this more because of Dr. Welsh talking about the man during her British studies who pointed out how the flowers and plants of Stratford were worked into his plays and poems. Seeing the blooms in the place where Shakespeare lived makes his writings seem more personal, and makes him seem more approachable and humanlike versus some stuffy old bard from years ago.
The Nash House & New Place and Hall’s Croft, owned respectively by Shakespeare’s granddaughter and daughter, were certainly interesting from a time period historical view, but didn’t hold the same impact as the house where he grew up. At Nash there was a woman who gave a brief history of the place before letting us roam around, and there wasn’t anyone at Hall’s Croft.

Following our walk through the houses and through Stratford, we all met up to see Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theater. The theater was a modern version of the Globe, though it sat far less than the original. I was struck by impact of the music and props, and will never forget the moment that Macduff’s wife was killed and they sliced open her stomach and a bloody looking fetus fell out. I thought I was going to be sick! The actors did a great job of portraying emotion, and the movement and gestures were helpful in fully portraying a story that would have been almost not understandable with the wordy and heavily accented dialogue.
Overall, today was the high point of my London experience so far!