Women at Abingdon Museum

To celebrate Women’s History Month, there will be a series of blogposts throughout March, each talking about a particular group of women with a connection to Abingdon. Today it is about the women who have been curators of the museum.

Abingdon Museum is perhaps unusual in having been led by female curators for many decades. This is worth emphasising as generally speaking the museum sector mirrors the conditions which prevail in other industries in which the majority of employees are women but the top jobs disproportionally go to men. In Abingdon is it mostly women who have influenced the direction which the museum takes, and have made their ideas about presenting the displays a reality.

For the first few decades of its existence, the museum had no dedicated curator. For a while it was managed by the Town Clerk, then by the librarian of the public library. The first long-term curator was Dr Fitzgerald O’Connor, who was in charge for 20 years. In 1969 the museum got its first female curator in Eve Harris, and in 1970 Mieneke Cox took over.

She was the first woman who made her influence felt at the museum, and she had some big ideas about changing the museum and making it more attractive. Mieneke was passionate about local history herself, and she wanted the people of Abingdon to feel some of that passion and enjoyment at the museum. At the time when she started the job, visitor numbers were low, and those who had visited years ago didn’t bother to come again. And why would they? The displays in the Sessions Gallery never changed, and the top floor was closed. Mieneke Cox wanted to change all that. ‘I propose therefore, with the help of the Committee, to bring the County Hall to life: to make it into a place where old and young feel at home, where learning is encouraged and care for Abingdon past and present is fostered,’ she wrote in a report. Her vision for the museum was to present a chronological history of the town illustrated with objects. For this to become a reality, she realized, the layout of the museum would have to be rethought ‘from top to bottom’. This she set out to do over the ten years of her curatorship. Ideally she would have bought new display cases as well, but the cost proved to be prohibitive. Even so, Mieneke Cox brought big changes to the museum and created something new.

Her successor Nancy Hood (later Stebbing) kept this concept going. Her tenure is remarkable also for the fact that with her the way the museum was run changed. Mieneke Cox had been the ‘Honorary Curator’, which means that in a way she was a volunteer who was not paid a salary but received a honorarium in recognition of her efforts. Nancy Hood was the first professional, salaried curator. This reflects perhaps a shift in the museum sector as a whole, as the prevalence of enthusiastic amateurs (with often extensive knowledge of history, natural history or archaeology) receded and there was a move towards professionals with some museum-specific training.

In 1990 Emily Leach took over at the museum, and under her leadership it underwent another momentous change. By now the displays which had been installed in Mieneke Cox’s time were no longer satisfactory and were described as ‘half-finished’. She also considered the ‘typical museum design approach’ and the chronological story-telling no longer to be fit for modern times. What had been new and fresh in Mieneke Cox’s day had become stale and old-fashioned.

Emily Leach with models of the new museum cases she commissioned

Emily Leach envisaged a completely different concept for a re-design of the museum. Her unifying theme was to be ‘quality craftsmanship in the town’, and the objects were to be put into the context not of a timeline, but with the building as a brilliantly designed object in itself, and with contemporary craft. ‘We wanted to raise consciousness about skills in making,’ she explained. She also made real what Mieneke Cox could only dream of, the commissioning of new display cases.

In the decades preceding and following the Millennium, the museum was again mostly run by women. Jill Draper, Cherry Gray and Lauren Gilmour (later Gale) were all curators. During this time the museum was managed in close partnership with the Oxfordshire Museums Service, and the curators were employed by the County rather than by the Town Council. Looking back what was remarkable about this period is the number of temporary exhibitions the museum put on. Some only ran for a short time, some for a few months, but often there was more than one exhibition going on at the museum. Many of these were devised by the Museums Service and shown at more than one museum in the county. Abingdon Museum profited in this way from the partnership and had always something new to show, which made repeat visits worthwhile for the local people. It was certainly a change from the olden days, when the displays never changed.

Lauren Gilmour at the top of the museum stairs

In 2012 the museum underwent another major re-organisation, in which the displays were completely redesigned, with new cases, new interpretation and a new selection of objects. Again it was a woman who put her stamp on the results. The driving force behind the renewal was the curator Jane Bowen. Her concept was to go back to a chronological presentation of Abingdon’s history, but she did not see it as old fashioned but rather as an accessible way of organising the display which would easily make sense to the visitor. In her concept the chronology is merely the framework, and it is the objects that take centre stage. Rather than serving as mere illustrations for the text panels, the objects have the main role in engaging the visitor’s interest, with the text and pictures providing the context into which the objects fit.

This is how the museum still presents itself today. Of course, women work at the museum now, and many more have done so in the past, and they have all played a part in caring for the collections, looking after visitors and educating children and adults. But it is those female  curators who have made their mark on the changing face of the museum, and on whose legacy the museum of today rests.

Featured image: Mieneke Cox reflected in the Grinling Gibbons mirror which is on display at the museum

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