Work on paper

Mark Doyle, Co-Head of Culture, and Odile Masiá, Collections Co-ordinator, at Touchstones describe how banishing the backlog enabled the discovery of an artefact that helped connect modern Rochdale to an inspirational past.

An ambitious exhibition like Herstory – a mix of high-profile works by female artists from the private collection of Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and artefacts from Rochdale’s public collection – took a long time to pull off. Not just the two years we spent engaging with Patrizia on the loans, but also the two decades our collections team has been working on a strategic documentation project and participating in sector-wide initiatives like #banishthebacklog.

The museum collection originated in 1874, years before it had a permanent home, and since the Victorian period it has been held in private houses, an old library, a former vicarage, in what used to be a textile mill and it was even hidden during the Second World War. Finally, in 1997, the collection was moved to one of the best museum storage facilities in the North West, but as you can imagine, after all those travels before the time of computers or Spectrum… well, a lot of the objects had become separated from the documentation which recorded what they were, where they had come from and where they were now.

In the meantime, the number of artworks in Rochdale’s public collection has continued to grow through a series of acquisitions of work by contemporary female artists like Clare Kenny, Rachel Kneebone, Anthea Hamilton and Susan Collis, made with the support of funders, including Art Fund. These works not only fit alongside social history artefacts that connect Rochdale to events like Peterloo, but also connect with artworks acquired during an unprecedented period of radical programming at the gallery in the 1980s, led by curators like Lubaina Himid and Maud Sulter.

Back to the future

To shine a light on our collection, we curated Contemporary Forward, a two-year programme to connect the Touchstones and the Rochdale of today with Rochdale Art Gallery and the town of the past, specifically the incredible stories of two centuries of radicalism, both political and cultural. It took determination to seal the deal with a private collection based in Italy and secure major works by the likes of Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine for display in Rochdale, but the big names had unexpected competition. Our plan to make bold statements with seminal artworks was shaken up by the quiet, patient work carried out by our collections team.

Twenty years after work started on our documentation project, we are still discovering incredible artefacts and stories that resonate with our audiences and in 2018, while documenting the social history collection, we happened upon an essay, written in 1920 by a schoolgirl called Lillian Coope. It was in a box containing school material relating to Lillian and her sister and we were instantly drawn to its beautiful handwriting. It started with the words ‘What I intend to be when I am a woman…’ and went on to detail how Lillian would like to become the perfect athlete, strong in body and mind, keen and determined.

1920 essay by 13-year-old Rochdale schoolgirl Lillian CoopePreviously staff tended to work in subject specialist areas with little creative collaboration across teams, but Herstory presented the perfect opportunity to share knowledge and discuss the potential of our collection. It was in this new, collaborative world that we discovered Lillian’s letter and it changed our thinking completely. It was a fantastic opportunity to connect Touchstones’ contemporary programme to Rochdale’s inspirational past by giving Lillian’s essay a prominent space in the Herstory exhibition.

Lillian takes centre stage

This short essay by a 13-year-old girl from Rochdale immediately struck an emotional chord. It transcended those curated connections, more broadly encapsulating the high-reaching dreams of every young person, although for a girl growing up 100 years ago the chances of realising them were curtailed by gender inequality. Although the piece was written before women won the right to vote, Rochdale women were involved in the early 20th century Suffragette movement and with gender inequality issues still so prevalent, we agreed it would have to play a central role in the exhibition. We’d found the star of our show.

The loans from Patrizia’s collection included ground-breaking artworks that would have made a big first impression. Instead we chose to open with Lillian’s essay. As a local and hitherto hidden story of hope, ambition and ultimately unfulfilled potential, we strongly believed it represented a powerful ‘touchstone’ for the rest of the exhibition. Other collection items were paired with artworks in direct dialogue with each other, but the importance of Lillian’s essay was reinforced by changing the existing architecture of the first gallery so that it had a space all to itself. By combining historical with contemporary, local with international and art with non-art we provided visitors with multiple ways to engage with the exhibition and find relevance.

Researching into Lillian’s history to develop stories for the media, we sadly found out that she had died at just 29-years of age, but nonetheless the Manchester Evening News and Rochdale Observer gave the story prominence, providing vital local coverage to continue our mission to connect people with their heritage and consider the present through the prism of the past. In fact, the whole Contemporary Forward programme has connected us all to the collection, but our experience of Herstory and uncovering this vital artefact has taught us, above all, to keep digging, documenting and talking to each other about what we find.

Image: The 1920 essay by 13-year-old Lillian Coope describing what she wanted to be when she grew up.

Mark Doyle and Odile Masiá, March 2020.