Rylands Reflects

Rylands Reflects: Our Spaces Are Not Neutral Part 2, The Visitor Engagement Team’s Alternative Reading Room

Part of the ‘Rylands reflects’ series, in this blog the Visitor Engagement Team share their suggestions for inspirational figures to feature in a re-imagined Historic Reading Room.

In the first part of this blog I discussed the lack of diversity on display within the Historic Reading Room at the John Rylands Library, and the impact that this might have on visitors to our building from underrepresented and marginalised groups. With the exception of a statue of the Library’s founder Enriqueta Rylands, all of the many statues and stained-glass figures that line the walls of the Reading Room depict white men: figures from the Western history of knowledge, such as Plato, Shakespeare and Newton.

Reflecting on this lack of diversity got me thinking about who else I’d like to see represented in statue form in the Historic Reading Room. Which influential and inspiring people from throughout history would deserve a place if we were to create an alternative, more diverse, version of the Reading Room? Rather than just share my own ideas, I decided to ask my colleagues on the Visitor Engagement Team for contributions. Together, we came up with a list of inspirational individuals that we would love to see as statues in an alternative Reading Room.

1. Mary Anning (1799-1847), chosen by Angel Cossigny

Mary Anning was a working-class woman who learned about fossils from her father as a child.  She had an inquisitive mind and was very tenacious, often risking her own safety for a find. This led her to discover many firsts in the world of palaeontology: some of these fossils can now be found in the Natural History Museum. She became known for her finds along the Jurassic coast.  Through her own sense of curiosity she taught herself about anatomy through observation, reconstructing her finds and borrowing scientific papers.  Although she wasn’t given the credit she deserved, or allowed to become a member of the Geological Society, many palaeontologists consulted with her as an expert in her field.

Portrait of Mary Anning by an unknown artist © Creative Commons

2. Amy Ashwood Garvey (1897-1969), chosen by Lee Wolstenholme

Born in Jamaica in 1897, Amy travelled the world campaigning as an African nationalist, anti-colonial and feminist activist. She was also an astute businesswoman, serving for a number of years as a director of the Black Star Line Steamship Company and founding the Negro World newspaper with her former husband and fellow African nationalist Marcus Garvey. Amy attended the 5th Pan-African Congress held in Manchester in October 1945 and was one of only two women to speak at the event. She helped lead the way at this defining moment in history, arguing strongly for the right of African, Asian and other colonised nations to become free and independent. 

3. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), chosen by Annie Dickinson

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was a philosopher, poet, playwright, novelist and scientist active during the seventeenth century. As a female author in a time when women were expected to be obedient wives and mothers, Cavendish was nicknamed ‘Mad Madge’ and dismissed as eccentric, both by her contemporaries and for years after her death. Nowadays, the importance of her contributions to literature, science and philosophy has been recognised: her work on naturalism and materialism anticipates modern philosophy, and her trailblazing novel The Blazing World is regarded as the first ever work of science-fiction.

Engraving of Margaret Cavendish from The World’s Olio (1671), British Library 8407.h.11

4. Malorie Blackman (1962-current), chosen by Caroline Hall

Author and former Children’s Laureate, her Noughts and Crosses novel series, about an interracial couple in an alternative history in which native African people had colonised Europe, is revolutionary in its simple, but acutely satirical, depiction of racism in modern British society.

5. Josephine Butler (1828- 1906), chosen by Caroline Hall

A social reformer who campaigned for women’s suffrage and better education opportunities for women. Her most famous campaign was to repeal the Contagious Disease Acts, which allowed police to force women thought to be prostitutes into a medical examination, and then incarcerate them against their will, in an attempt to control the spread of venereal diseases. Some of the prostitutes were as young as 12. Her efforts led to the Acts being repealed in 1886, and she continued campaigning for the end of human trafficking that forced women and children into prostitution.

6. Ian Dury (1942-2000), chosen by Emily Tan

Ian Dury was an English singer-songwriter, actor and artist. As lead singer of Ian Dury & the Blockheads, he rose to fame in the late 1970s during the punk and new wave era. With clever and humorous lyrics their songs included ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ and ‘Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3.’ Dury’s most personal and controversial song was a solo project released in 1981. ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ was written as a protest against the International Year of Disabled Persons. Dury drew on his own experience as a disabled person to write lyrics that were deliberately provocative. The song became an anthem for the disabled community and it was performed at the opening ceremony for the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games.

I learned about Dury’s life through working on an exhibition of pop-music inspired work by artist Peter Blake. Blake taught Dury at art school and they formed a life-long friendship. Blake’s portraits of Dury featured in the exhibition as well as Dury’s real-life rhythm stick. Ian Dury died in 2000 leaving a creative legacy through his work that is still inspiring people today.

Ian Dury in concert, 1978 © Public Domain

7. Katherine Johnson (1918-2020), chosen by Gemma Henderson

Katherine Johnson’s ground breaking spirit, not only as an exceptional mathematician but as a woman of colour paved the way for women in science. Her contributions to the NASA Mercury and Apollo space missions which saw astronauts orbit earth and safely land on the Moon were, until recently, overlooked. But she has now quite rightly been hailed as a pioneer, not only in her field but as a woman who defied the expectations of the society she lived in, both in gender and race. When I hear Neil Armstrong’s quotation about a small step for man I can’t help but think of the giant leap for woman that Katherine represents.

8. Wangarĩ Maathai (1940-2011), chosen by Angel Cossigny

Wangarĩ Maathai was a social, environmental and political activist from Kenya, and a Nobel Prize winner. She formed the Green Belt Movement in 1977. It was an environmental organisation that focused on planting trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights. Maathai encouraged Kenyan women to plant tree nurseries in their communities, searching nearby forests for seeds from trees native to the area.  This made it a low-cost initiative which would empower women and help improve the environment by increasing biodiversity.

Wangarĩ Maathai, 2008 (“Wangari Maathai” by Oregon State University is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

9. Mary Prince (1788-1833), chosen by Lee Wolstenholme

Mary was born enslaved on the island of Bermuda in 1788 and spent her whole life resisting mistreatment at the hands of those who held power over her. She finally managed to break free after she was taken to England as a servant in 1828. She then joined forces with the anti-slavery movement, who published her memoirs “The History of Mary Prince” in 1831. This was the first book about a black woman’s life ever published in Britain and it sold out three printings in the first year. Her vivid first-hand account of an enslaved person’s experience galvanised the abolitionist cause. It reminds us how effective black abolitionist campaigners were in the fight for freedom.   

10. Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), chosen by Lee Wolstenholme

Sylvia Pankhurst helped to launch the Women’s Social and Political Union in Manchester with her sister Christabel and their mother Emmeline. As a talented artist, having studied at the Manchester School of Art, she applied her skills devising the Suffragette logo and various leaflets, banners, and posters. Sylvia bravely threw herself into the battle to win the vote for women and was arrested and forced fed on a number of occasions. I was lucky enough to meet Sylvia Pankhurst’s son Richard in 2003 during a commemorative event at Sylvia’s old place of study, Manchester High School For Girls. It was exciting to hear such a personal recollection and first-hand account of her campaigning life, that stretched far beyond the limits of her mother Emmeline’s fight to win the vote for wealthy, educated women. Sylvia would still be radical by today’s standards – striving for universal equality and justice for all, no matter what background, nationality, colour or creed. 

Sylvia Pankhurst protesting in Trafalgar Square, 1932 © Public Domain

11. Alan Turing (1912-1954), chosen by Lee Brooks

A meagre few lines cannot do justice to Alan Turing’s accomplishments and career. Turing made a key contribution to the Second World War, leading a team at Bletchley Park that broke encoded German naval messages. After the war, he worked at the Victoria University of Manchester and was influential in the early development of the computer, including working on the Manchester Mark 1, one of the earliest stored-program computers. Despite his critical influence on the Allied war effort, Turing was persecuted by the British state for his sexuality and was forced to choose between imprisonment or hormonal treatment in 1952. Tragically, Turing committed suicide in 1954, with his war-changing contributions known only to a few. Known as the ‘Father of Computer Science’, his achievements are still keenly felt in the twenty-first century.  

What do you think of our choices? Who would you like to see commemorated as a statue in our alternative Reading Room? Let us know in the comments section below!

2 comments on “Rylands Reflects: Our Spaces Are Not Neutral Part 2, The Visitor Engagement Team’s Alternative Reading Room

  1. John Bromley-Davenport

    And what about Bernard Lovell, especially as the seventy fifth anniversary of his arrival at Jodrell Bank is imminent. I am happy to write a piece for you. John Bromley-DSavenport

  2. Your spaces should not be neutral but affirmative. And if you commemorate Sylvia Pankhurst, don’t forget her work for Ethiopia!

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