The Matriarchive: a research project showcase

 

Rachel Maloney

(University of Brighton and V&A Museum Research Fellow 2019-2021)

At Brighton CCA Dorset Place Gallery from 2nd - 17th September 2021.

Film by Matt Page.

Copyright Matt Page, 2021. 

The Matriarchive was a showcase of the work created during a practice-led research project undertaken during my Research Fellowship with the Victoria & Albert Museum Research Institute (VARI) in partnership with the University of Brighton. This fellowship outlined a project entitled ‘looking for the matriarchive’ that aimed to investigate and re-frame the female narrative of domestic photographic materials from the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) collection held in the V&A Museum. The intention was to uncover, and work with, materials that represented the often-marginalised memories and experiences of women in the home. 

This project was paused during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and then adapted for online delivery, ensuring it could still encompass research participation and collaboration within the new restrictions. Navigating ways to keep the research project moving forward during the national lockdowns led to an exploration of my own family collections in connection with those of the projects research participants during one-to-one online research workshops. The results of these workshops and the research findings from my time working with the V&A collections, have been curated into a book (like a family photograph album) that was displayed in the gallery space for visitors to look through and engage with. This exhibition also included wall-based works about the project and two moving image pieces showcasing 16mm film work created in 2020 during the pausing of my project. A series of talks and events accompanied this exhibition and the space was an open forum for visitors who were invited to share and discuss the work in the context of their own family collections with the artist who invigilated the space and engaged with visitors throughout the exhibition period. 

Below you can find an illustrated essay 'Welcome to the Matriarchive' and an untitled moving image piece that were created especially for the exhibition space.

WELCOME TO THE MATRIARCHIVE

(Rachel Maloney, 2021).

THE MATRIARCHIVE ALBUM

 

 

The Matriarchive album was inspired by two historic photograph albums, one belonging to the collections at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum (the Burnip Album), and one that belonged to my great grandmother (the Laycock Album). My work with these albums is what inspired me to seek out and collaborate with a group of research participants who shared their own family albums and photographs with me during workshop sessions. The result of these collaborative workshops and the sharing of family collections is documented and reflected upon in the pages of the album exhibited here. Thank you to each and every person who participated and supported this project.


This is our story.

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Collage created from the Laycock Album. © Rachel Maloney (2021).

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Page from the Burnip album. RPS.1177:1-32-2019. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

THE PROJECT: BEGINNINGS

In October 2019, I was awarded a Research Fellowship working with the photography collections at the V&A Museum, in partnership with the University of Brighton and the V&A Research Institute (VARI). My proposal outlined the practice-led research project, Looking for the Matriarchive. The project aims were to investigate and re-frame the female narrative of domestic photographic materials in historic and contemporary family albums, uncovering the often marginalised memories, experiences, and representations of women in the home. 

 

Part of the project’s methodology was collaborative and participatory, including a series of group workshops where participants would share and discuss their family photograph albums. I had always intended for these participant workshops to be tactile and for them to happen in person. However, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the UK lockdown in March 2020, the project was paused, and all planned face-to-face workshops had to be rescheduled and redesigned for delivery via an online format. 

 

Limited access to the V&A materials and facilities along with restrictions on face-to-face research, led me to find alternative source materials that would enable me to continue my research: my own family’s collections. Through the exploration of materials in my own family collections, I was able to return to the aims of my project, analysing and re-imagining the stories and representations of the women from my own family photographs. 

THE ALBUMS: BURNIP AND LAYCOCK

 

I began my research by examining materials from the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) Collection, specifically Victorian photograph albums made by women. One object in particular, the Burnip album, with a red leather cover featuring the name ‘MARY’ in gold, captured my attention. The Burnip album, dating from the 1870s, became the focus of my research during the time I spent in the V&A’s collections. The name ‘Burnip’ which gives the album its title in the V&A’s catalogue, comes from the modern-day address label stuck onto the album’s first page, bearing the name “Miss M A Burnip” and an address in Stocksfield, Northumberland. Other than this small clue, very little was known about the album, its creator, or the history of this fascinating item. The album was a mystery, one that I was lucky enough to be investigating.

 

On exploring its pages, I fell in love with the beautifully hand-painted adornments, photographic collages and carte-de-visite¹ portraits. The maker of the Burnip album (who I am assuming to be ‘Mary’) used photographic images to create scenes that incorporated collaged photographs with illustration and hand painting in a style that seems to anticipate the Surrealist movement 50 years later. Some of the scenes created in the Burnip album really surprised me with their creativity and light-heartedness, complicating the stereotype of a formal and oppressive Victorian femininity. One page displays a photograph of a well-dressed woman holding a small dog under her arm. The photograph has been placed in the middle of a painted scene of an open window set within a stone wall that has ivy creeping handsomely around it. The ‘real’ photographed woman appears to look out of the ‘imaginary’ painted window; the boundary between painted and photographed becomes blurred. The function of this photographic portrait shifts from purely representative to something more experimental and personal, enabling our female album maker to create a new narrative and
identity for the woman, and herself.

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Front cover and pages from the Burnip album. RPS.1177:1-32-2019. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

My work with the Burnip album ignited a desire to go back to my own family photographs and to search for the untold narratives of the women from my own past. This took me to the second album that became a great influence on the project: my great grandmother’s postcard and photograph album. Beatrice Mary Laycock [1901 – 1997] made this album when she was a young woman of around 18 years of age, dated circa 1918. It tells a story I wasn’t familiar with, one that seemed separate from our usual ‘family album’ photographs and representations. This album was about my great grandmother as an individual, about her life and her friends, about her secret romances (with a man she knew before she married my great grandfather in 1923) and about her relationships as a daughter and sister within her own family.

 

Exploring this album allowed me to ‘get to know’ my great grandmother, who I remembered as a frail yet stern and often stubborn elderly lady. I was able to imagine the life she had as a young and carefree woman - a life outside of the family unit she was integral to in her later years as a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. It made me curious about the independent life she had lived, her thoughts and feelings, her relationships with her three sisters and the stories she shared with them. This album allowed a small glimpse into that life and, not unlike my research into the Burnip album, it subverted the narrative that I had expected to find. Like ‘Mary’ the creator of the Burnip album, Beatrice was creating her own identity through the albums and materials collected in it. She created a voice for herself, carved out a place where she could afford to be a bit silly or cheeky, a place for fun and secrets. I feel like both of these album makers were re-defining aspects of their identity through the pages of their domestic albums. This led me to wonder about other people’s private collections: what could they tell us about the lives of women, of our families and ancestors. So, I put a call out inviting others to become part of this project through a series of workshops.

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My great grandmother’s postcard / photograph album 

(The Laycock album), circa 1918. 

Photograph of my great grandmother 

(Beatrice Mary Laycock), circa 1918. 

1 The carte-de-visite was patented in Paris in 1854 by portrait photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819 – 1889) and refers to a specific type of 6.3 x 11.4 cm card with an albumen photographic print mounted on the front. Cartes-de-visite were almost exclusively portraits of people, usually formally posed full-length photographs taken in a professional studio against a plain backdrop or staged scene. Their small size, relative affordability, and the ease with which they could be produced, sold, and shared meant they became very popular in England during the 1860s; they were perfect for collecting and displaying in albums. 

THE PARTICIPANTS

 

I was overwhelmed by the positive response to my call out for participants and from it I was able to recruit over 15 research participants, a mixture of men and women aged between 21-75. As I couldn’t run any in-person workshop sessions due to the pandemic, I arranged a series of one-to-one online workshops as an alternative. I had some concerns that these remote workshops would feel impersonal or awkward by being held on a digital platform, potentially shifting what we might uncover during the sessions.  However, I was surprised at how powerful and engaging each participant workshop was and the ease with which we were able to talk about and share our family histories and images. I believe that the connection we felt was amplified by the ongoing lockdown and separation we were all feeling, -living in isolation and away from family and friends.

 

The Matriarchive album which was created from these workshops sessions, and the images within it, are a testament to this project. Included in this, they bear witness to the research workshops undertaken in such unusual circumstances and the participants who made them possible. The images and stories shared were unique yet universally understood. They could be complicated and emotional sessions, often as painful and traumatic as they were joyful and liberating. These experiences, I hope, were empowering and allowed the participants a safe space to explore and consider their own family history and narratives through photography. 

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Advert created as a call out for research participants to be part of the workshops. © Rachel Maloney, 2020.

THE PROJECT: REFLECTIONS 

 

Being allowed a glimpse into the lives of other people’s families and ancestors is a privilege. Photographs can be misused or misunderstood. They can misrepresent or obscure and be used to enforce and repeat the stories we think we should hear or are told we should pay attention to.
Photography is a privilege. 

 

With photographic collections, both public and private, it can be as revealing to look at what is missing or absent as to what is visible and present. I looked particularly at female narratives, searching for a ‘matriarchive’ that had gone unrecognised or unappreciated in the history of photography, most notably domestic or hand-made photographic materials. Admittedly, -my own research in this project reflects a limited representation of diversity. There are evident gaps: an absence of Black voices or Queer narratives for example. This is partly due to the limited representations already in existence within the institutions of the V&A Museum and the University of Brighton and partly a reflection of the limited scope of the project.

 

Everyone who expressed an interest in participating in this project and consented to sharing their collections with me, was accepted to be a project participant. I wanted the workshops to be as accessible as possible and I tried to reach participants from a range of backgrounds and experiences. However, I acknowledge that my networks were too narrow, primarily because I only advertised for participants within my networks at the University of Brighton and the V&A. This narrowed the scope of people I could reach to those already working or studying at the university, or those connected to the V&A and its research networks. Midway through the project, I realised that public presentations of the work in progress could encourage a wider range of participants, but the timeline for the project didn’t allow me to follow this up. I hope to continue the project and its work in some way in the future, and to incorporate a more rigorous framework for reaching and working with a diverse range of participants and communities.

 

The sample of people I reached was broadened through a talk and workshop I delivered for a team of V&A Volunteers. I like to think this encouraged people, - who may not have originally felt confident in participating in a project like this, to come forward. I am aware of the missing voices of participants I did not reach: of those who do not see themselves represented or reflected in these album pages, or within the archival materials I discuss.

 

I encourage everyone to go back and look at their own family photographs and collections, to narrate their own history and to represent or re-represent themselves within the wider narrative of our society and culture. Start your own projects, have your own conversations and maybe even make your own album. This can be an entirely private and domestic pursuit, one you would not share with others, but it is an activity that can be empowering and educating, even on an individual level.

 

Photography allows us to be seen. By narrating our family stories, albums can give us a voice. Through investing in our own domestic and family photographs, can our marginalised or misrepresented experiences and narratives be better brought to light?