“Transatlantic Digital Victorians” is an exciting collaborative student/faculty research project between the University of Huddersfield and Huron University College in Ontario, Canada. The project demonstrates how digital history can build bridges between local history and the wider world, as well as help create undergraduate research links between our universities. It was designed for students to add to their research skills, to learn to present their research digitally, and practice the public history skills integral to the 21st century Historian’s Craft.
Our two classes worked together in parallel, choosing objects from our local community partners, and creating digital exhibits that explore the local and transatlantic history of the objects and their importance to our wider research communities.
Students chose objects from the museums to exemplify one or more of the following:
- The local history of the museum
- Handmade artisanal objects
- Objects that show transatlantic connections
- Objects that are particularly ‘Victorian’
- Objects important to our community partners
The Huddersfield students also made use of a 3D scanner to create scans of their objects, but as will become apparent, this resulted in the creation of some interesting art pieces rather than authentic historical reproductions.
Skelmanthorpe Textile Heritage centre is located at 6 Queen Street, Skelmanthorpe. It is a ‘one up, one down’ former weaver’s cottage. The downstairs is maintained as family living quarters as they would have been in about 1900.
Eldon House is an historic site in downtown London that has been preserved and maintained since 1960 when it was donated to the City. It was home to four generations of the Harris family.
Huddersfield students and Skelmanthorpe
Lauren Quarmby, from group 1 (which included James Lenihan, Emily Wrighton, Eleanor Butterworth, Anna Maluk and Joe Thoroughgood), writes:
‘The time spent in Skelmanthorpe allowed us to view history through various objects and the layout of the old Victorian house, it also allows us to gain more understanding on what their everyday life was like. The Heritage Textile museum enforced the idea that history isn’t just in books and it can be studied in all different palaces. We chose objects which we were interested by and that related to the time period well, these objects had to meet certain criteria. One of our objects was a pretty trinket dish with Queen Victoria’s face in the middle, this was a hand crafted Victorian piece. The other object we selected was a clay pipe again handmade and reflected the time period. We scanned our objects through a 3D scanner however the scanner did not pick up the objects as we had expected it to, but we did gain some insight on how technology can help historians work with the past.’
Group 3 (Cal Duffy, Steve Lovett, Lisa Bates, Jack O’Brien, Isobelle Paterson, Andy Smith, Millie Pearson and Megan Quinn) also chose the pipe. They say that the pipe is a local object as it is too fragile to have travelled far from its maker. They were manufactured from the early 1800s. It was selected for the exhibition as it represents the working class and shows a decent level of prosperity, but not too great wealth as the pipe of a richer man would be wooden. Pipes were also fashionable in contemporary literature, like Sherlock Holmes. Decorated pipes such as this could be used for advertising and decorations hide misalignment in production..
As historians, we are not used to using digital technologies so we were learning new ways of interpreting objects by using the 3D scanner. In the museum, we placed historical objects on the scanner and played around. We scanned the trinket dish – which has a old penny in its centre – and the result was not what we expected. Other examples of what went wrong can be viewed here.
Anne Mullan, from group 2 (Todd Dow, Kenyon Stansfield, VIcky Ball, Marina Afonso and Barbara Carling), explains that:
‘The trip to Skelmanthorpe allowed the group to view the material culture of the past. This involved choosing objects that fit into a certain criteria. Our group chose to look at a tin of golden syrup as it was an unchanged well-established brand that looked particularly Victorians and had transatlantic connections. Our other object was a shuttle as it was a typical Victorian invention which related to the local history of the museum as it was an artisanal object and was used in the weaving industry in Skelmanthorpe. These objects are different, however, are similar in the sense that they both evoke images of Victorian Britain and can be recognised today. To capture these objects the group took photographs and a 3D scan of the object. The 3D scanner did not capture the object as we hoped it would but the experience of using it gave the group an insight into the ways in which historians can use technology to preserve the image of these objects.’
Group 3 chose a very interesting tin, of ring travellers. They are used in weaving to ensure the ease of travel of yarn across the loom. The tin is perhaps the most obvious example of transatlantic connections, though in this case shows how the Anglophone world spread outside of the British Empire.
Group 4 (Nick Joynes, Rebecca Horne, Megan Booth) added descriptive captions to their objects.
Carbolic Soap: Wash your mouth out
Carbolic soap was the cleaning detergent of choice during the Victorian period. This was a multi-purpose item used for bathing, washing and scrubbing clothes. Carbolic soap was also exported to the USA by a soap company called Lifebuoys. This soap was still in use in British state schools until the 1980s and was often used as corporal punishment to wash out a student’s mouth. In addition to this, it is still in common use in the Caribbean.
Chamber pot: Takes the piss
The chamber pot was a porcelain vessel for use at night to avoid making a dangerous trip to the communal outhouse. However chamber pots themselves could also be dangerous and there are numerous recorded deaths that can be attributed to them. This gives a more interesting angle to an otherwise mundane object. Chamber pots are still in use today for sickness and more impoverished corners of the world. Chamber pots can also sell for up to and beyond a £1000 depending upon the maker.
Group 5 (Alice Kershaw, Bradley Hipperson-Race, Hannah Connell, Robert Gravener) write that:
‘Our second trip to Skelmanthorpe consisted of us progressing our observation and research into Victorian life of the textile village. This meant using the 3D scanning machine to scan objects that we felt reflected the lives of the people living and working there at the time. Our chosen items did not scan properly. The machine instead interpreted every rotation of an object as a new object. For example, on scanning one woman’s clog, the scanner gave us six.
Group 6 (Katie Smithson, Zack Rhodes-Hey, Agnes Lipcsey, Eve Davison) chose to examine the pocket watch as for the entire group it is something that we associated with Victorian gentlemen and is an obvious marker of wealth. The pocket watch symbolised a level of income within society as only certain people would have been able to afford such items. The idea of a story behind the pocket watch was intriguing as there was a variety of possibilities as to how it came to be in the Skelmanthorpe Museum. The fact that the watch was in relatively good condition suggested that there was a possibility of it being a family heirloom, explaining why it had been cared for so well. Not only did the watch represent to the group elements of social history, it signified developments in technology also as the design of the watch was intricate in comparison to the first types of pocket watches.
We chose to investigate the steam iron as it helped to show significant developments within technology with regards to the iron itself and the domestic appliances being modified so that the appliance could work. The iron represents large technological developments as before this type of iron, people would have had to use a coal iron which was much heavier and harder to use. The Skelmanthorpe museum guide did explain how the iron would have been a privilege to have as during the Victorian era they would have been relatively expensive. The iron was therefore considered to be an indicator of wealth, similar to the pocket watch, as not everyone would have been able to afford them.
One student wrote of the experience of visiting the textile heritage centre and village that,
It was interesting to see the ways rural people lived during the Victorian period due to the way the house had been kept alive, far from the rural idyll associated with the English countryside. Furthermore, the experience highlighted the hardships of Victorian life but also the importance of being a community through a shared baking oven and well. This contrasts from the normal emphasis on learning about Victorian life: urbanisation and city life. It is also interesting to see how views of social freedom have changed from the Victorians seeing the city as a place of liberation to modern perceptions of freedom in the countryside.
Additionally, visiting Skelmanthorpe has made it clear that not all history is learned in the classroom and real history is out there, in places such as this, for historians and the public alike to experience. It has been an inspiration to pursue study outside in the real world.
And the last word on Skelmanthorpe goes to Agnes Lipcsey, a student from Hungary studying in Huddersfield for a term:
It was a great experience since I haven’t been in many English villages before. Moreover, it was really nice to have the opportunity to learn about the history of the area from the local people. Although, we didn’t manage to scan the objects perfectly, it was still interesting to see the 3D scanner in use. I also enjoyed the discussion about the objects with my group since each member of the group came up with an interesting idea concerning the history of our objects.
Huron Students and Eldon House
We’ve presented some highlights from the Huron students objects from Eldon House here. For their full online exhibition visit the History at Huron research website
Andrew Carruthers, Andrea Nikola Tonkovic, Dylan Nutbrown and Chelsea Rutherford
This hairbrush was purchased by the Harris family in Japan in 1897 on their world tour. The brush would have been part of a vanity set of the same pattern and design consisting of combs, other brushes and a mirror. The brush’s handle and back is made of a single piece of ivory. The brush would have been handmade and carved by Japanese craftsmen.
The porcelain dish is a unique piece from Japan as it is a piece that would have been owned by a wealthier patron but not designed for export like the ivory brush. The porcelain is very fine and is slightly transparent due to the materials used in its creation and likely has a much higher bone content than other duller pieces. The china dish has a blue and white floral pattern of the typical of the late 19th century.
This Oil Lamp is called a diya which is a lamp designed for ceremonial purposes. The diya is constructed in three different parts, the bottom or base, the middle, and the top. Each part of the diya is shaped and decorated to most likely represent a piece of cultural significance. The object is made of brass, which is a copper/zinc alloy.
Emma, Natalie, David and Phillip
For the full descriptions of these objects visit our Tumblr
This tea measure was found in a tea caddy in Eldon House. The middle compartment of the tea caddy held tea measures, made of crystal. The etching on the measure is that of a swan. The swan was the crest of the first matriarch of Eldon House, whose family name was Ryerse. She would measure out the amount of tea that she thought the household needed for the day, and then lock the piece away after she had given it to the cook.
This object is a decorative lamp from Eldon House. It was initially a candleholder, crafted in India out of enamelled brass, and later converted into an electric lamp. This candleholder was purchased by the Harris family during their trip to India at the end of the 19th century.
Taylor, Sencer, Matthew and Millie
You can see more about our objects of the Empire on Prezi