Monday, June 25, 2012

'Home and Away: Girls of the British Empire' Exhibition

Screenshot of the Girl Museum exhibition home page
Phew! I survived the 'Colonial Girlhood/ Colonial Girls' conference  and the Australasian Children's Literature Association for Research (ACLAR) conference in Canberra last week. It was a bustling two weeks and was exciting to meet so many historians and literary scholars working on girlhood in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. We had not one, but two papers on Girl Guiding! Not one, but two, papers on Irish girls' literature! Regular conferences don't often provide for such girlhood riches.

As part of the conference, Associate Professor Cecily Devereux from the University of Alberta delivered a public lecture, 'Fashioning the Colonial Girl: 'Made in Britain' Femininity in the Imperial Archive'. You can listen to the lecture recording and view the slides here. (It's also not every day that a conference keynote speaker discusses Bessie Marchant's adventure fiction in detail.) Our other special event was the launch of the online exhibition 'Home and Away: Girls of the British Empire', which was curated by Ashley Remer, Head Girl at the Girl Museum, with a team of helpers, including Bronwyn Lowe (a PhD candidate in History who assisted us with the conference organisation).

I am indebted to Ashley for being so willing to prepare an exhibition that related to our conference theme and was so pleased to see such a beautiful looking virtual exhibition. One idea that resonated throughout the conference was the lack of archival material documenting the experiences of actual colonial girls: their voices and writings are most often missing from what we can reconstruct. Kristine Alexander's paper on Girl Guide photography unveiled the untapped resource of photographs taken by Guides, who were encouraged to document their activities with specially manufactured Kodak cameras. She also showed how Guiding captured Indigenous girls in photographs, often topless, in ways that reinforced the civilising mission that underwrote the British Empire. The Girl Museum also uses photographs or, more specifically, photographic postcards, to create a global picture of colonial girlhood. While the girls have been posed and framed by  adult photographers, the collective impact of these images imparts a powerful sense of the lives of girls in a diverse range of colonial sites.

Our conference endeavoured to enable comparison of the differing manifestations of colonialism around the Empire, and so we were pleased to have papers about girls in Australia, Canada, South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand, Malaya and Zimbabwe. 'Home and Away' exhibits postcards of girls from all of these areas (with the exception of Ireland), as well as drawing in regions we were unable to cover, such as the Caribbean and South Pacific.

There are several striking elements that become visible as you travel across the map of the Empire "on which the sun never set" during your virtual tour. The stories of Indigenous girls, whose lives were irrevocably transformed by colonialism, whether in white settler colonies or colonies of occupation, intertwine with those of the British daughters of the families who performed the work of Empire. In the instance of India, for example, a photograph of young girls from Madras in the 1870s (one of whom appears to be wearing wedding jewellery) shares a page with ringlet-haired, British girl Marjory, who poses in front of a distinctly non-European Christmas tree in the Andaman Islands in around 1908. On the exhibition page about Africa, a young Tanzanian woman, Salima, is charged with brushing the hair of "Gwenneth at seven months" as her ayah. Below this image, six-year-old British girl Elspeth Grant (author of Flame Trees of Thika, a book about her African childhood) feeds her pet antelope calf, while wearing what looks like a pith helmet, in Kenya.

As the stories that accompany the photographs explain, colonialism brought with it both oppressive changes for native girls and, within these enforced cultural shifts, some opportunities new to girls and women, like formal education. For British girls, colonialism could enable and excuse modes of behaviour that would not have been acceptable "at home", but images such as that of a girl of perhaps no more than three-years-old wearing her father's Canadian mounted police uniform reinforce the limits of the gendered work of Empire.

The reverse of Ah Moy's postcard
When you click on the photographs themselves, the reverse of a postcard is displayed, on which is printed further information about each image, or speculation about its context where no details have survived. The culture of photographing native peoples for circulation via postcards to the metropolis, as well as the photographing of Indigenous servant girls, is explained throughout these descriptions. While a number of these images are disturbing for their framing according to the anthropological theories of the time, the most upsetting image is perhaps that of Ah Moy, an eight-year-old girl who was reportedly the last slave sold in Hong Kong in 1929. For all of the reasons offered for imperial intervention in India because of child brides and condemned practices such as suttee, the continuation of female slavery in Hong Kong throughout British "ownership" from 1842 to 1922- at which point Winston Churchill announced that the practice would be abolished- showed the varying degrees of concern for colonial girls and their use as justifications for expanding British territory ever further across the globe.