The current exhibition in Special Collections and Archives has been curated by two groups of first-year History students as part of the coursework for module HIST 106 ‘Exploring History’. This project-based module encourages students to identify and use primary sources to research a Liverpool-related topic, in this case, the architecture and sculpture of St George’s Hall. The topic was selected to highlight the rich holdings of Special Collections and Archives on this theme, including recently catalogued drawings by architect Charles Robert Cockerell for sculpture and decorative fixtures and fittings. Cockerell had been appointed to oversee the completion of the building following the death of its original architect, Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, in 1847.
Group A (left hand case) identified materials from Special Collections and Archives to explore how St George’s Hall has represented the city, both through the choices of those responsible for its design and in its subsequent use. As the group discovered, although from the outset the building has functioned as a symbol of Liverpool, it has been the focus of both celebration and protest, community cohesion and social segregation.
Group B (right hand case) chose to explore who was represented in the sculpture in the Hall and St John’s Gardens and who was omitted. Notably, until the introduction of a statue of Kitty Wilkinson in 2012, the only statues of women in and around the building were symbolic representations of Liverpool and civic virtues, whilst the only representation of a person of colour was a freed slave in the Hall’s pediment (now demolished). However, as the group discovered, Kitty Wilkinson herself is a near-mythical figure, with little surviving evidence of her activities. Why, they wondered, was she chosen over the human rights campaigner Eleanor Rathbone, whose activities are well documented in the Rathbone papers in Special Collections?
Through collaboration on their projects, the groups have gained first-hand experience of historical research and its challenges, including the non-existence of evidence and limitations of primary sources. They have also grappled with the practical and intellectual problems of representing their findings through objects rather than textual narrative.
Throughout the project, the students have made heavy use of the materials in Special Collections and Archives, which has taught them how to search for items using the catalogues, how to select useful resources and the preservation problems associated with displaying old books and documents. I’d particularly like to thank Special Collections Librarian, Katy Hooper, for introducing the theme and Archives Assistants Edd Mustill and Colin Smith for installing the exhibition.