As a Visitor Engagement Assistant at the John Rylands Library, one of the most important and enjoyable parts of my role is welcoming visitors into the Library and engaging them in conversations about the building. The Library was created by Enriqueta Rylands as a gift to the city of Manchester, and we are lucky enough to receive a large number of visitors every year, from both the local area and further afield. Yet while we strive to be as welcoming as possible, recent events have inspired me to reflect on the inclusivity of the John Rylands Library as a physical space.
The psychological term “threshold fear” has been applied to museums and other cultural spaces to describe the anxiety felt by potential visitors which can become a barrier that prevents them from enjoying, or even entering the space. This anxiety can be produced by physical barriers such as a lack of disabled access, but also by more subtle factors, such as the design of the architecture and what it means to the individual. Somebody who has grown up going to museums and heritage sites, for example, will automatically feel more welcome and more comfortable in those spaces than somebody to whom they are unfamiliar. The three most underrepresented groups amongst visitors to museums and galleries are people of colour, disabled people, and people from less affluent backgrounds; these are the groups most likely to be affected by threshold fear.
The architecture of the historic section of the Rylands building, and the grandeur and wealth of the Historic Reading Room in particular, has the potential to produce threshold fear, especially amongst visitors from the marginalised groups mentioned. As an organisation that prides itself on its accessibility, we need to acknowledge that our spaces are not as neutral as we might think, and that some people will feel more comfortable and at home in those spaces than others.
The toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston by Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol this June demonstrated that, like spaces, statues – the visual representations of the stories that a society chooses to celebrate and commemorate – are never neutral, but powerful and political symbols. The Library’s Historic Reading Room is full of statues: figures from throughout the history of Western knowledge are positioned above each study alcove, and are also depicted in the stained-glass windows at either end of the room. Philosophers, writers, painters, scientists, theologians and printers are all represented in the space. Yet bar one (a statue of the Library’s founder Enriqueta Rylands), all of the figures portrayed are white men. This lack of diversity risks adding to the threshold fear that visitors to the Rylands from marginalised groups might experience.
To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that the statues in the Historic Reading Room, which include William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, and Johannes Gutenberg, amongst many others, do not deserve to be there. The individuals depicted were chosen by Enriqueta Rylands with assistance from the Baptist minister Samuel Gosnell Green, who in a letter stated that the statues represent ‘distinct phases and eras in the history of human thought’.
Given that the Library opened in the late Victorian period, the fact that Enriqueta’s choices were entirely white and male is not surprising; they reveal a lot about the nineteenth century Western canon in a period that subscribed to the notion that history is driven by the impact of a few ‘Great Men’. They also tell us about Enriqueta’s own values and priorities (the high number of Protestant theologians included speaks to her nonconformist faith, for example) and her desire to provide Manchester with a library to rival the university libraries of Oxford and Cambridge. The fact that Enriqueta herself was of Cuban heritage, born to a family of plantation owners, adds a complex further dimension to this story which has been discussed in detail in other blogs in this series.
It would be wrong to simply dismiss the statues and stained-glass figures as being of their time, however. Their presence is not neutral or invisible, but constructs the John Rylands Library as a white, male, privileged space. In order to be as inclusive as we can be, it is vital that as an organisation and as individuals we recognise this, and consider what it means for our visitors. We should acknowledge that there are visitors that might be excluded by the Library’s spaces: made to feel anxious or unrepresented, as a result of the white male bias within the Library.
One way in which we might begin to negotiate this bias is by thinking carefully about the stories that we tell about the building, and trying to diversify those stories. Rather than focusing only on John and Enriqueta Rylands, on the architect Basil Champneys, and on the men depicted in the statues and stained-glass, are there untold and forgotten stories that could be uncovered? Who were the working-class craftsmen, stonemasons and engineers that actually built the Library, for example, and what are their stories? Who were the original users of the space? Who occupied the space before the Library was built? It seems clear to me that we need to work harder to uncover these hidden stories.
Another question that we could consider is who are the historic individuals excluded by the ‘Great Men’ version of history on display in the Reading Room? Whose contributions to knowledge, culture, and the arts are ignored as a result of their gender, skin colour, sexuality, or social class, for example? If the Historic Reading Room was created today, which figures would we choose to include as statues, and what values, beliefs and prejudices would they reveal about us and our time? In the second part of this blog post I will share the Visitor Engagement Team’s ‘alternative Historic Reading Room’: people that we think deserve commemorating with a statue if the Reading Room were to be designed today.