exhibition

Nothing in the Papers: Writing Women Back Into the Archive

How do you respond to an archive when it lacks the exact information you’re looking for?

Students of Central Saint Martins MA CCC programme – including Rosa Abbott, and MOOP co-founder Lucy Malone – addressed this when they organised an exhibition in response to the archive of the Royal Female School of Art. Words by Rosa Abbott

Nothing in the Papers  – the finished exhibition at Central Saint Martins Window Galleries from 11-25 April 2019

Nothing in the Papers – the finished exhibition at Central Saint Martins Window Galleries from 11-25 April 2019


Nothing in the Papers is an exhibition responding to the archive of the Royal Female School of Art (RFSA), a female-only art school operating in London from 1842–1908 that now exists as a grant-giving organisation.

Eight students on CSM’s MA CCC programme (including MOOP co-founder Lucy Malone) contributed to the project. We chose to work with this archive out of a shared desire to uncover the kinds of narratives and stories traditionally ignored by museums – to find out about the women who studied at or taught at this progressive 19th-century art school, and the types of art they produced.

And yet, when we consulted the archive documents, we found none of these stories: we were presented instead with folders of financial papers, secretarial minutes and letters – almost all written by men.

A little further digging outside of the archive – reading journal articles, for instance, or exploring newspaper clippings at the British Library – shed a little more light on the women of the RFSA. We learned that life drawing was banned for female students in 19th-century London, but that one daring RFSA headmistress, Fanny McIan, attempted to circumvent the ban in the 1840s by teaching female students life drawing in her own home. (She was caught and forced to step down from her post shortly after.) This snippet of feminist educational history inspired us to pay homage to women like Fanny McIan who were absent from the school’s archival documents, and to write women artists back into art history. We decided to invoke the past by turning to the present. 

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To do this, our group sent out an open call to current female-identifying students of University of the Arts London, playing upon the historically-contentious topic of life drawing by asking students to submit studies of either the nude or draped figure.

From the responses, we curated a group exhibition of contemporary art by eight artists: Abigail Hammond, Afra Almajed, Catherine Smollett, Eden Sweeney, Indiana Lawrence, Meera Madhu, Sandra Poulson, and Simina Popescu. Encompassing sculpture, photography, drawing, collage, textiles and digital media, the artworks we chose explore a myriad of pertinent issues, including self-perception, modesty, menopause, hair, body image, societal expectation, and sex work. They depict a range of intersectional identities and attitudes, crossing race, ethnicity, religion and age.

Invoking female artists and educators neglected by art history, Nothing in the Papers aims to honour the women who came before us, and continue the legacy of the RFSA. We position this exhibition as an active piece of research – topical, practice-based and generative, centred around the vital action of taking back space for women. 

Nothing in the Papers is an exhibition in Central Saint Martins Window Galleries from 11–25 April 2019.

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Making the Museum of Ordinary People (MOOP) - reading between the lines of letters from the bank

“I learn to re-connect on an emotional level with my father’s letters”

MOOP participant, Philip Franklin used everyday documents to explore the unspoken parts of his family history. Here’s how he created his powerful piece for MOOP last year

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“Your father had no hobbies,” my Uncle Harold, his twin, said to me once, “unless as you say, drinking and smoking constitute hobbies, or playing Frank Sinatra records at earsplitting levels.” He was speaking of a time when chaos had descended on our family, when hurt and pain were the stuff of our everyday lives. 

Both my parents had been dead for more than twenty years, but the chaos had overtaken me again, and I realised that a damaging compulsion was leading me to the same downfall as he, a repeating pattern of memory, thought and action.

I was writing a memoir, inspired by Stephen Poliakoff and Alan Garner, based on a collection of letters sent by Barclays Bank – his employers – to my father over the course of his career. But the work was stalled – it was as though I was looking at our family history through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. Then came MOOP.

Suddenly I am hearing that archives are “the secretions of an organisation” and learning of a mysterious world of inert plastic, linen tape and brass paperclips. But there is much more to come. I learn to re-connect on an emotional level with my father’s letters. Lucy asks – What isn’t in your collection? What is missing? And that unlocks an altogether different psychic space.

I investigate the words in the letters, daisychain them like Tom Phillips’ text re-creation “A Humament‘ (One day) (in his native heart) (Mr Franklin) (does more harm than good.)’

I experiment with sound. Bells, weird knocks, backward speech and birdsong. It is a process infused with anxiety. I listen for my mother’s voice on old cassette tapes. I am certain there is one of her calling upstairs when I was in my brother’s bedroom. I find it – she doesn’t call though. She comes upstairs and speaks to me – we have had a row and the air spits with tension.

One week our homework is – take some photographs that reflect any narrative in your collection or anything you have uncovered in your writing. I go on a photographic walk “in my father’s footsteps” around Brighton, Hove and Portslade, with my dying Vivitar camera/camcorder, the viewfinder broken so that the composition of my photos is a matter of luck. My father appears in some of the images, disguised as my own shadow or reflection. 

The former bank building where Phil’s father used to work

The former bank building where Phil’s father used to work

I develop the story as a performance piece. I am reluctant, nervous, but Jolie encourages me, pushes me. After the rehearsal I’m on a high. It rains, and I’ve left my glasses in the Marlborough. Jolie has left them behind the bar for me to collect – I feel like a star of the Fringe!!!

Hot days, and outside the Spire, everyone but me drinking beer; we are sanding boxes for plinths. Lucy, Barbara, Rose and Anonymous help me create my exhibit. My fingers are sticky with spray mount.

Then it’s the last day of MOOP’s pop-up museum. The responses have been unbelievable. I take a last look at my exhibit, which is due to come down tomorrow. My parents are present here, revealed behind layers of time I have stripped away.  

Philip Franklin will be developing “My Father’s Footsteps” for MOOP: STORIES – the Museum of Ordinary People’s return to the Brighton Fringe in May 2019 – on Tuesday May 21st at Phoenix Brighton, 7.30pm-10pm, along with other exhibits themed around “Legacy”.

Reserve tickets to MOOP: STORIES here

Making the Museum of Ordinary People (MOOP) - Diary entries from Anonymous

“Until recently, I didn’t allow myself to collect the objects I wanted. MOOP gave me permission to do this…Nay celebrate it.”

MOOP participant, Anonymous, traces back their thoughts and feelings about forming an exhibition for the museum’s launch last year. Here’s how they found the process

“Discarded/Reclaimed” by Anonymous

“Discarded/Reclaimed” by Anonymous

February 2019

Home from meeting MOOP regarding my second involvement in a MOOP event. So much suddenly in me I want to say, I’m shocked by this reaction. It’s like a big bang of expression that I did not expect could be in me. I feel energized and awakened. I will do my best to express what stands out in my memory of the first MOOP thing I did. I’ll do my best to be honest, as i feel it’s in honesty, that expression has its weight.

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1st big memory of last year’s involvement in MOOP

Meeting MOOP for the first time, I remember feeling eager that my collection be “good enough” to be invited into MOOP. Probably because of my childhood need for “Mu-ther” (said in a lobotomised orphan in a sepia asylum pic) to affirm me.

2nd big memory of last year’s involvement in MOOP

The first workshop session and agreeing the boundaries of the group. I proffered a rule. I was terrified. Throughout the process my unease would swirl through fear of judgement, anger, rejection from the group and from MOOP.

MOOP memory #3

The build. Unbelievably the collection of objects that my inner voices railed against at every sight, are going to be in a real room, with real people, casting their real eyes on it.

When I arrived, there was a lot of sitting around. I was soothed. Maybe it won’t happen after all?

We begin and it’s very hard work. I clash with someone. It echoes in my guts like swirling barb wire. Someone else is kind. That hurts too.

I plod and plod and do everything except the core piece that I’m meant to do. I call over MOOP’s chief build person. They say they like it all. This is the second time they’ve told me this. Like the first time, what I actually hear is: “that’s an ok selection of stuff, we both know only a small selection is good enough, I’m too busy to say more but its also too late to do anything about this, so just get some stuff into that box, pronto.”

I discard half the collection (into a bin bag, whoosh) I retain what I like the most and try to feel for the rest.

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Clock ticking, tension rising, inner rogues gallery all throwing their bits around. Eventually a selection is settled on. Momentarily. Then oscillations betwixt pride, shame and sweat.

People asking all day if I’m staying for “the opening”. Slowly I realise the opening is something for which people dress up, or are at least dust/debris free.

I go for a walk and, true to my “piece”, find some abandoned clothes that fit me perfectly.

No, I didn’t make that up.

MOOP memory #4

A friend of mine damaged an exhibit. I felt ashamed.

MOOP memory #5

After it was all over, we had a closing drink. I was shocked my piece would be coming back to me. I felt let down (“Mu-ther”). How could my soul be of no more interest to my parents?

I packed it away. I was surprised. Or the part of me that wanted to bin it was surprised I’d packed it away.

MOOP memory #6

I have a photo on my fridge of the final exhibit. It is beautiful to me.

Anonymous will be exhibiting “Discarded/Reclaimed” at each of the three events for MOOP: STORIES – the Museum of Ordinary People’s return to the Brighton Fringe in May 2019.

Reserve tickets to MOOP: STORIES here

Call-out for contributions for a future MOOP exhibition

We want to hear your stories about everyday household items for an exciting project

Image: Vanveen JF

Image: Vanveen JF

This is an appeal from the Museum of Ordinary People (MOOP) for you to take part in a special project taking place in Brighton later this year.

We are calling out for people to tell us a story behind a household/everyday item.

Look around you. At the seemingly mundane items you’re surrounded by. Is there an object that means something more?

A potato peeler? A toothbrush? An ancient mobile phone you no longer use? An old newspaper you’ve kept?

What does it mean to you? What memory or feeling do you associate with it? What’s the story? Who or what does it remind you of?

Image: Dani Rendina

Image: Dani Rendina

We all give objects layers of meaning – they are the props of our everyday lives. They become damaged, loved to death, carefully preserved, used religiously, or are barely touched. These objects become artefacts of our personal history. This is the magic in the mundane.

Image: Fancycrave

Image: Fancycrave

All you need to do is write to us at museumofordinarypeople@gmail.com, telling us what the humble everyday object is, and describing the story or memory associated with it as honestly and in as much detail as you can.

We want to understand the emotional resonance behind the object. Why is this a story you’d like to tell

Please also say if you would prefer to remain anonymous.

Thank you!