As the objects arrive and are meticulously placed in the gallery I thought it would be a good time to reflect on how we got to this point, to set the scene before we open in just two weeks time. My name is Ruth Battersby Tooke and I am the curator of ‘Frayed: Textiles on the Edge’. The exhibition was conceived at the end of 2012 in response to the exciting news that the ‘other’ Lorina Bulwer letter, that we had seen pictures of when it was auctioned in the mid 2000’s was in the Thackray Museum, Leeds. I had a telephone call from the Curator, Lauren Ryall-Stockton asking me if I knew anything about Lorina as she had searched for the name and found the ‘Hidden Histories’ report. Exciting events like this are few and far between in the museum world and I dashed out of my office and across to the Bridewell Museum to find Ruth Burwood and share the news – cue much geeky air punching as the realisation that the Lorina letter was in a public museum collection and not in private hands which meant that all of the researchers that we had worked with would have access to the object, a transcript and goodness me, we could also loan it and put it on display….
So the work of developing an exhibition around these two extraordinary objects began. It was Jo O’Donoghue, Curator at Great Yarmouth and her enthusiasm and vision that encouraged a broader approach, one that set the context of textiles and Mental Health. From this point I began working with the strengths of the Norwich Costume and Textile collections, the way in which we have collected people’s stories as well as the objects and amongst those amazing stories were three other textiles that had relevance to the idea of making textiles as a therapeutic act. Not only an occupational therapy, a meaningful and structured way of busying the hands to still the mind, but also a powerful way to communicate, a creative and expressive way to release an inner voice.
So by displaying the Brereton Bed-hangings, John Craske’s ‘Evacuation of Dunkirk’ woolwork picture and a patchwork quilt made by Newgate prisoners under Elizabeth Fry’s direction we had powerful themes which put these textile objects in the context of therapy but also each creation was still very much referring to individuals and their often complex experiences.
More on all of these fascinating objects in future blog posts…
The next key piece of the puzzle was the Elizabeth Parker sampler from the V&A. This potent object is often mentioned as a source of inspiration for contemporary textile artists and has extraordinary resonance as a testimony, reading almost like a tortured diary entry, the words have such a power to speak directly to the reader although it was written nearly 200 years ago. Enter Sue Prichard, Curator of Contemporary Textiles at the V&A and creator of the hugely successful ‘Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories’ exhibition at the V&A. Sue had been to visit us in Norwich to view the Lorina Bulwer embroidered letter and was hugely supportive of our exhibition and helped to secure the loan of the Elizabeth Parker sampler in order to be able to unite all of these immensely important objects together in one show.
I work with other curators in the Eastern Region who have Costume and Textile collections, we deliver training events as part of the SHARE scheme and meet up regularly to talk about our work. At one of these meetings I outlined the project and immediately Clare Hunt of Southend Museums mentioned an Occupational Therapy kit donated recently to them. We were delighted to be able to borrow this for the exhibition as it provides a valuable part of the story, from the early history of Occupational Therapy as a medical discipline at the end of the First World War to these ready made kits being distributed to ex-service personnel at the end of the Second World War shows so clearly how the solace of stitch has clear benefits to those who need it in difficult times.
Next time, more information on the stories behind the objects on display and we will introduce the contemporary artist’s whose work adds a whole new dimension to the exhibition.