Women & Power: Reflections by Helen McGhie

‘Women & Power: Redressing the Balance’ was a 2-day conference which took place on the 6th and 7th March 2019 at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. The conference was jointly convened by the National Trust and the University of Oxford to reflect on programming around the 2018 centenary of the Representation of the People Act which granted some women the right to vote. Contributions were invited through an open call and the resulting programme brought together academics and heritage professionals from a wide range of institutions, roles and subject areas to share their work, reflect on practice, and look forward to the future of researching and programming women’s histories.

Thanks to generous support from TORCH and the Women in Humanities programme, it was possible to offer a number of bursary places at the conference. Recipients have contributed to a blog compiling reflections on the conference; the full blog series can be viewed here.

Attending the Women & Power: Redressing the Balance conference was extremely useful to support my practice-led PhD research where I’m working in partnership with Kielder Observatory, a wonderful visitor attraction in Northumberland (I’m engaging the public, staff and volunteers with an alternative feminist experience of astronomy and ‘cosmic darkness’ through photographic art) – to hear papers by engaging researchers from The National Trust, University of Oxford and unique heritage organisations was fascinating. It was encouraging to hear speakers describe their experiences of achieving impactful research in public museums and heritage sites, particularly as my work involves a careful negotiation of ideas that consider the expectations of a non-academic institution.

As my fine-art project seeks to locate a feminist experience of astronomy, it was useful to learn more about women’s history and role, including the untold stories, barriers overcome and histories reimagined through art and culture. On day one, I was inspired by Dr Sophie Duncan’s keynote, where she compared and questioned the imagined architype of the suffragette as ‘quaint’ with the heritage site as a ‘place for a break’; suffragettes were strong women who fabricated bombs, smashed windows and who set fire to post boxes (these acts of terrorism were far from ‘quaint’), whilst the history of heritage sites are highly political – heritage properties (including those at The National Trust) can be experienced as places for recreation, but it is important to remember the stories behind their embellished interiors and well-kept country gardens. I enjoyed Duncan’s invitation to think differently, through a set of innovative research projects and in the context of public engagement.

Finding innovate approaches to visualise the unseen is central to my PhD project – the ‘Accessing Women’s History’ session was fascinating, here women’s histories and gender biases were illuminated through research projects that effectively used technology, immersive experience and online archives to engage new audiences with concealed histories. I was particularly inspired by Victoria Iglikowski-Broad and Katie Fox’s inventive work on Suffrage 100 at The National Archives, where the collection was creatively used to ‘tell stories’ based on the archives through a digital immersive experience, this original project invited visitors to experience feeling how a suffragette did when campaigning, when arrested and under interrogation, and has encouraged me to consider immersive ways to challenge perception through experience in a similarly exciting and rich way.

Helen McGhie is an artist and PhD researcher at the University of Sunderland where she explores alternative ‘feminine’ visualisations of cosmic darkness through photography. More information on her research is available at helenmcghie.com and invisiblestargazing.wordpress.com. She tweets @HelenMcGhie and posts on Instagram @helen_mcghie.

Image: Life as suffragette campaigner – an immersive experience created by The National Archives. Image by kind permission of the National Trust/Oskar Proctor

Life as suffragette campaigner – an immersive experience created by The National Archives