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‘Believe me, I remain...’: the Mary Greg collection at Manchester city galleries

Mitchell, Elizabeth Sarah (2018) ‘Believe me, I remain...’: the Mary Greg collection at Manchester city galleries. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

This thesis traces the history of a collection of domestic objects and amateur crafts given to a museum during the first half of the twentieth century. Using the metaphor of archaeology, it takes an object-centred approach to the investigation of changing relationships over time between a collection of objects, an archive of letters, and the institution in which they are held. Drawing on developments in sensory anthropology, theoretical distinctions between objects and things, and letter-writing as a gendered social practice, it treats this material as both ‘evidence and affect’, using writing and photography to consider sensorial and emotional responses to objects, documents and place alongside the historical data they may yield. It situates this within wider historical and biographical research into private and public collecting during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In so doing, this thesis provides new insight into the histories of collecting and the development of the municipal art gallery in Britain during the interwar period. It evidences the centrality of decorative art to an increasing domestication of the art museum in the aftermath of the First World War, even as modernist art practices prompted the development of the formalist ‘white cube’ aesthetic. It demonstrates the conflicted position of decorative art objects within this developing dynamic, caught between aesthetic and ethnographic criteria of value. It also challenges received knowledge in relation to the gendered history of institutional collecting. Mary Greg is identified as a significant patron of multiple museums, her interests contributing to an expansion of scope in what was considered worthy of museum preservation. The Mary Greg Collection in Manchester is shown to manifest, in microcosm, a history of changing attitudes towards the material culture of the domestic past, from nineteenth century antiquarianism, through an Arts and Crafts sensibility and developments in domestic ethnography, to the early twentieth century theorising of childhood and the interwar handicrafts revival. However, this thesis also demonstrates how formal technologies of record keeping, distinctions between professional and amateur, and developing hierarchies of museological value, as well as social and gendered modes of propriety, all contributed to the obscuring of one woman’s contribution to British museum culture. Bringing the history of the collection up to the present day, this research also considers the ways in which museums incorporate the sedimented layers of their own institutional histories, and how the meaning and value of objects in museums changes over time. Drawing on a Ruskinian notion of ‘voicefulness’, found within the collection’s history, it makes a case for alternative museological criteria of value based on qualities of intimacy, love and curiosity. In so doing, it demonstrates how the legacies of past collecting practices, often difficult to reconcile with contemporary professional concerns, may yet have the potential to yield not just new insights into the past, but new possibilities in the future.

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