Collections Rylands Reflects Series

Rylands Reflects: Representation Matters

Representation Matters, Angel Cossigny talks about her quest to find intersectional figures in our collections.

Angel Cossigny writes:

Black and white photograph of the glass stacks shelving at the John Rylands Library.

I remember when I was still in school being asked something like ‘What great things have women done then?’ and I didn’t to my shame have an answer. It comes down to what you learn or don’t learn both through the education system, learning from those around you and self-education. I couldn’t name any female heroes, inventors, pioneers or activists. Now, many years later I have learned about many inspiring women. I have discovered intersectional pioneers like Mary Anning (working class Palaeontologist), Wangaari Maathi (Environmentalist and social and political activist), Maria Mitchell (Astronomer, naturalist and professor) and Anna Atkins (Botanist and photographer). More info on these remarkable women at the end of the blog.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything in our collections by these women to highlight in my Rylands Reflects blog post. So, I went back to the drawing board. I knew I wanted to highlight the stories of those less represented, of the heroes, inventors, activists, changemakers, pioneers and writers. I was thinking about lack of representation and the importance of being able to see or learn about the histories of people that you can relate to, who look like them or have a similar background. I would love for everyone to be able to feel comfortable going into museums, galleries, libraries, and cultural institutions and to feel that they belong there. I started thinking about what I could do to support this aim, as a member of the Visitor Engagement Team. I decided I wanted to collate as many inspiring people as possible from our collections, a huge task when you consider that we have over 10 million items and counting. I hope to use the information I uncover in social media posts, blogs, collection bites, public programming and more.

While it’s great to have festivals celebrating different cultures/peoples, it shouldn’t be confined to just that day, week, month. It should be all year round embedded into the fabric or patchwork of stories we tell. People cannot be fitted into a single box, and neither can their stories. I was happy when I talked to my line manager about my plan, and she encouraged me to go ahead with the project.

I didn’t really know where to start when looking through the collections. I decided the best way to begin would be to start small, and to do as much research as I could. I began following different social history pages on social media, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, going to webinars, and reading books to learn what I could. I started getting excited about so many of the stories I heard about and wanted to find out more. I also began to identify relevant material in our collections, within four months I had found 140 people of interest, some months later I have over 200 and counting. I have uncovered records on 66 of the people I have found so far, most of them are as yet undigitised. I am compiling a list of references in the hope that we can propose a big digitisation project for material relating to the intersectional unsung heroes in our collections.

The first person I found in our collection was the poet Gwendolyn Brooks while I was doing research for Black History Month. Her poem ‘We So Cool’ is found among a selection of other poets and published by Broadside Press. Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for Annie Allen at 32. She was Poet Laureate in the State of Illinois where she grew up and the first African American woman to do so. At 68 she was also the first black woman to be a Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. Brooks was keen to share her love of poetry, especially with young people and visited schools, colleges, universities, prisons, hospitals and drug rehabilitation centres. She encouraged and honoured poets through award programmes and prizes which she funded herself. I hope to write a blog on Brooks and the Broadside Press next. (You can find the item in our Private Press Collection here.)

I might not have found anything in our collections about the astronomer Maria Mitchel that I mentioned earlier, but I did on Caroline Lucretia Herschel who made discoveries of several comets, including the periodic comet 35P/Herschel–Rigollet. Herchel was the first woman to be paid a salary working as a scientist. She was also the first woman to publish scientific findings in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1828), and named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1885 along with Mary Somerville. In our collections we have two books by her: a ‘Catalogue of Stars’ and a ‘Memoir and correspondence of Caroline Herschel’. These items can be found in our Special Collections here and here respectively.

Representation really does matter. When we can see it, we can become it. I hope over time to be able to share my findings with you over the course of my Rylands Reflects blog posts and that you will be encouraged to learn more about these people. Perhaps they will inspire you too.

Mary Anning

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. (The Natural History Museums has several items of in their collection and an article on her too, which can be accessed here.

Wangari Maathi

A social, environmental and political activist from Kenya and a Nobel Prize winner. Mathaai 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 the biodiversity. You can find out more about Maathi and her amazing work here.

Anna Atkins

A botanist and photographer who made the first book illustrated with photographic images. Atkins self-published her photograms on cyanotype paper over 3 collections: Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the first of which was in October 1843. Atkins cyanotype impressions provided the detail to differentiate one species from another. Atkins was brought up by her father after her mother died shortly after childbirth. He was an acclaimed chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist. From him she gained scientific education, rare for a woman of her time, a time when women were restricted from practicing science professionally. She provided various plant specimens to the Kew Gardens eminent botanists and in 1865 her herbarium was donated to the British Museum. Atkins book of botanical cyanotypes can be found here in the collections of the British Library.

Maria Mitchell

An astronomer, naturalist, librarian and a professor. Mitchell was the first woman to be internationally known as both a professional astronomer and a professor of astronomy after accepting a role at Vassar College in 1865. Additionally, she was the first woman elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She discovered a comet in 1847 that would later become known as Miss Mitchell’s Comet in her honour. She was also involved in the anti-slavery movement and that of women’s suffrage. You can read more about Mitchell and her legacy here.

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