Tag Archives: BWWC

Processing the WPRP Exhibit; Or, Making an Argument with Books in Cases

The Women Poets of the Romantic Period (WPRP) exhibit, called “Landmarks,” is just a few weeks away from opening in CU Libraries. The opening is set to coincide with the June 7 start of the 20th-Anniversary British Women Writers Conference, an international professional-level conference that I am co-organizing this year. When we’re done curating the WPRP exhibit, we’ll have an in-house exhibit in 8 enormous cases in the Rare Book Room as well as an online exhibit of around 20 scanned works and extended explanatory captions, photographs, and a video production. I’ve been feeling less like a dissertating PhD student and more like a contestant on Project Runway lately, working with fabric, mylar, props like shells and even a preserved spider, a museum exhibit designer, photographers, a period music consultant, and even videographers. The cast of collaborators is long and brings together librarians; graduate students in English, musicology, and museum studies; undergraduate library assistants; computer scientists and media artists; literary and art historians; and more. And thanks to the extremely friendly and collegial tone set by Debbie Hollis, the head of CU Libraries Archives and Special Collections, we are happy and very busy collaborators.

At this point, the cases are full and designed and objects are most likely in their final places, though I will no doubt futz with them more as we near the exhibit opening. My current task is to compose the script for the photographer/videographer of the exhibit and to serve as the general editor of the large collection of captions that will describe these objects online and in the video. In other words, I’m documenting the argument that I want the objects on display to make. Or rather, as I’ve found, I’m documenting the argument that the objects on display create. (I will publish these on my blog when they are complete and my collaborators are ready to release them.)

When making arguments with objects in cases, the objects, like Keats’ Grecian Urn, are anything but silent. The objects seem to arrange themselves first and the argument reveals itself afterward. This process is more physical and far less of the purely cerebral process that I have grown so used to with writing essays or dissertating. Trying to make the objects’ display conform to the argument I imagined for them did not work for me. After working with them for a year, I’ve been influenced as much by the physical and visual qualities of these books, pamphlets, manuscripts, and letters as I have by their textual content. I have spent far more time working with some of them than with others — for example, I painstakingly transcribed Mary Cockle’s letter and then worked with Susan Guinn-Chipman, another colleague in Special Collections, to piece together the parts that were difficult to read. Due to the time spent handling and reading these artifacts in cradles, in the stacks, on shelves, and on tables in Special Collections, and also the occasions I used them to teach my undergraduate literature classes, I have been influenced by their physical properties and arrangements in space and these traits have influenced my attentions and the argument I feel that the exhibit makes.

My argument for this exhibit, therefore, is based heavily on physical constraints and visual properties of the exhibit as well as my research gathered from reading these literary artifacts and thinking about them in the context of the Romantic literary era. Curating the exhibit was a mixed process of object placement based on:

  • the 200+ works in the collection that I read from June 2011 through January 2012 (my reading list was based on numerous factors, including titles and spines that grabbed my attention, ability to find them on the shelves, recommendations from other scholars, personal interests, and more)
  • pragmatism (certain objects only fit in certain cases)
  • aesthetics (certain objects only show well in certain cases)
  • my personal research interests (visual media, travel writing, the picturesque, and the gothic)
  • the arc of my desired argument as the path from one case or section to the next
  • the arc of the argument that the objects, when placed in the display cases, created and that influenced the argument I set out to make.
  • other factors I’m unintentionally leaving out

For example, the argument that I set out to make was focused on the collection as one that lent itself to the study of travel writing in the Romantic era, how print traveled, and what that had to do with women authors and complex relationships between form and gender in print culture. However, when placing objects in the front of the exhibit, in the cases closest to the door, I realized that the exhibit is as much about changing ideas of what constitutes the domestic as it is about that which lies beyond the home. This realization grew out of thinking about the Stainforth’s position in the case next to the literary annual with the beaded cover, and after pulling the Taylors’ Rhymes for the Nursery out of this case to place elsewhere. This led me to rethink the thematic organization of the exhibit. Originally, there were just two categories–natural destinations and social destinations–but these quickly expanded into three to include the domestic as our starting place. Furthermore, between the domestic and natural destinations, I noticed a collection of works, including the Taylors’ numerous works of children’s literature, that engage the Gothic aesthetic and provide a link between home, nature, and social destinations. I settled on four categories and a flow from book objects representing the domestic and home, to the gothic, to nature, and finally to social destinations and social movements. (Of course, many of these books could be placed in multiple categories.)

Perhaps a good question to ask is: where is the argument in this exhibit? Does it emanate from the objects’ placements, the path of the visitor/viewer through the exhibit, or my textual explanations of the relationships between these objects and their home in the greater collection? How does the digital exhibit and collection influence or affect the in-house exhibit, and vice versa? And what about the additional documentary components of video and photography of the exhibit? It’s a lot to curate and even more to interpret. I admit that from where I stand right now, I’m lost in the process and on deadline, to boot.

As we know, readers and interpreters will read and interpret how they will; one cannot force readers’ paths of critical attention any more than I can control which case visitors to this exhibit will want to look at first. The case by the door is the obvious choice, but who knows, a viewer may be drawn to the red cloth in the Gothic case in the back of the room, or the promise of the spider specimen hidden therein. Despite my lack of control, I will offer my exhibit argument as a way to thoughtfully present a microcosm of the magnificent ~500-work WPRP collection. The argument and the path from case to case will, in theory, lead scholars, readers, and visitors into the collection either in the Rare Book Room or online and will draw renewed attention to Romantic-era women poets who are have changed print culture and literary history.

[Author’s note: this post was originally published on my research blog: http://kirstynleuner.wordpress.com.]

Unabashed Admiration for the BWWC

Last week I attended the 19th annual British Women Writer’s Conference in Columbus Ohio, and I’m still on a kind of academic natural high. In the interest of full disclosure I must tell you that I went partly to present a paper and partly because I’m co-chairing the conference in Boulder next year, and thus needed to observe its workings.  It was quite a large conference: 250 people, as many as 6 concurrent panels, and fantastic keynote speakers.  I was impressed by the smooth operation of it all, but more than that I found myself impressed by the conference’s ethos.  It was genuinely inspiring.  I’m going to struggle not to gush in this post, but seriously—what a wonderful experience.

One of the most important things I realized over the three days I spent there was just how indebted I am to the scholars who have gone before me, a fact made all the more clear since many of them were in attendance!  I had not realized how recently the canon of 18th and 19th century British Literature has opened to include many of the women writers now considered some of its pillars—but only 19 years ago did a group of graduate students recognize the dearth and decide to do something about it by organizing the BWWA.  One speaker pointed out the importance of the tenure system, since many of those who have published books on what were obscure women writers, did not venture to do so until after they had tenure; this seemed incredible to me, but in later conversations several people I spoke to confirmed the statement.  Somehow I had imagined that the women’s movements of the 1970s had accomplished all this work; realizing that it has happened in my young-adult lifetime, and that many of the scholars who brought it about are still in the midst of their careers, really humbled and inspired me. The very people I was mingling and chatting with were some of those who had made it possible for me to work on the things I’m working on.  Even more incredible is that so many of them were graduate students when they began to make a difference!

This brings me to the second reason my respect for the BWWA has increased: they really, truly believe in the power of graduate students and this belief is built into both the structure and spirit of the organization and conference. Though many of the students who began the BWWA are now full professors who serve on the executive board, they entrust the planning and running of each year’s conference to grad students at the host university.  Responsibilities include all the logistical things (location, lodging, food), but also the academic things like choosing and inviting keynote speakers, choosing a theme and writing the call for papers, and reading submissions and organizing panels.  I was so impressed with the group who ran this year’s conference, and likewise impressed by the many expressions of trust, confidence, and appreciation the BWWA board and many of the higher-ranking conference attendees expressed to them.  (And it really was a beautifully-run event; completely well-organized, and in a gorgeous location).  The BWWA also strives to sponsor a few travel grants especially for graduate students, and this year they added a grant for “contingent faculty,” to reach out and include those in the tough space between graduating and finding a tenure-track position.  In short, the whole feeling of the conference seemed to be one of graciousness, inclusion, and enthusiasm for everyone’s work—a real collegiality that reached across rank and age and letterhead.  I chaired a panel that featured two imposing professors (one the editor of an academic journal and the other from Yale), and I was a little nervous…but then I found myself taking notes as much on their manners as on their papers, because they were so impressively gracious!  Each time she was asked a question, the Yale professor would share her thoughts and then say, “Thank you so much for bringing that up!  What do you think about it?”  Great conversations and intellectual exchanges took place in that panel.

I do wonder what some of the male attendees thought of their BWWC experience, because the conference population is overwhelmingly female. I’m not sure whether this happens because women scholars tend to be more interested in women writers, or because the conference itself mirrors its project of creating space for the women of history to speak by creating space for today’s women scholars to speak, but it’s certainly noticeable, and in a really cool way. I find myself often thinking about how I navigate my professional life as a woman—the personae I adopt when I teach, when I write, when I present.  A recent study found that when letters of recommendation portrayed a candidate (regardless of that candidate’s gender) as “nurturing” or “warm,” they were less likely to be hired than a candidate recommended as “assertive” or “independent.”  The point is, gender stereotypes still materially affect our professional lives, and I know many women scholars feel a bit more conscious of playing the professional part than men do.  There were more men at this year’s conference than in some years, I’m told; the BWWA board is not exclusively female, and men make valuable contributions to the organization and conference—but still, one of the really wonderful things about the BWWC was a sort of communal letting down of the hair.  It didn’t necessarily feel any less professional, just a little more…down to earth, maybe?  It’s difficult to describe.  Conversations might as likely turn to the challenges of breastfeeding in a suit or helping a 12-year-old with his homework, as they would to Mary Wollstonecraft or Elizabeth Gaskell (and I can just imagine Wollstonecraft and Gaskell discussing the same types of things!).  On a bus trip a big group of us got laughing about what “type” of academics we were—the scarf academic, the chunky-jewelry Chico’s academic, the Birkenstocks academic, the e-bay Anthropologie academic, or (in my case) the Target sale-rack academic (they have great cardigans!).  Nobody felt self-conscious about ordering a chocolate martini, or savoring a crème brulée, or complimenting someone on their shoes, or gushing about one of the Regency Reenactment dancers’ crocheted gloves (yes, we enjoyed a performance of Regency dancers).  It was sort of like a super-smarty-pants girls’ weekend out.  One professor who has attended the conference for years called it her “Old Girls’ Club.”  While I generally feel pretty good about the respect shown to women in academia, there is still something to be said for female friendship, and I would say I really did make friends at the BWWC.

In all, I came back from Ohio with newfound respect for what the BWWA does and how they do it, as well as perspective on how the work we do as graduate students can palpably, materially affect the profession for good. Building the Association has clearly been a labor of love for those who have participated in it, and I’m excited for the opportunity to make my own contribution throughout this next year.  Our committee here in Boulder will be pouring our hearts into planning the 2012 conference, to make it just as great of an experience for future attendees as I had last weekend—and even when our turn is over, I look forward to participating with the BWWA for many years to come.

Conference Planning & Dreaming on Such a Winter’s Day

My friend and colleague (and fellow blogger) Kelli Towers Jasper and I are in the early stages of planning our first conference: the British Women Writers Conference (BWWC) 2012, which will be held at CU-Boulder next year (click here for the upcoming 2011 BWWC website — if you’re presenting, Kelli and I will see you there!). We were advised that planning a conference is like planning a wedding (luckily, we’ve both done that), complete with anxieties about finances, timing, food, lodging, speeches, number of guests, transportation, and more. Though there will be no vows that I’m aware of, I have been chastened by early planning and organizational efforts and feel blessed to have such a well-organized and motivated co-chair, Kelli, and experienced faculty advisor, Jill Heydt-Stevenson, in this effort. (If you have organized a conference and have advice or experience to impart, pretty please post a comment to this blog and share your wisdom with us!)  Continue reading Conference Planning & Dreaming on Such a Winter’s Day