Christina Broom – Soldiers and Suffragettes – Museum of London Docklands, Oct 2015

Christina Broom, Copyright Museum of London
Christina Broom, Copyright Museum of London

The Crime Museum, a new blockbuster exhibition from the Museum of London opens this Friday, but they have another exhibition on at the moment that I feel a great deal more connection with. Christina Broom – Soldiers and Suffragettes is on at the Museum of London – Docklands site and you don’t have long to visit it, it closes on the 1st November.

I have been thinking about cameras and photography a lot in the past few months, everywhere I go I see them. The first aerial photography at the RAF Museum, the first space photography at the Science Museum, I think it is a sign that I really must write about this exhibition before it closes.

An early Aerial camera from the RAF Museum
An early Aerial camera used in the First World War 1915,  RAF Museum
Konvas cine camera used in space by Gherman Titov in 1961.
Konvas cine camera used in space by Gherman Titov in 1961, Science Museum

I received for my birthday a new camera, my loving husband promptly booked me on a course to learn how to use it. I suspect he thought I may well leave it in the box until I plucked up the courage to use it. I spent a day learning about shutter speeds and aperture sizes, the rule of thirds and the golden hour. I think it would have helped if I had at least turned the camera on before I went of the course, I was struggling with the basics, let alone progressing to more advanced levels.

Don’t get me wrong, I love taking photographs, I am obsessed, I take thousands on my phone. But they are often the quick surreptitious snapshot of a moment, not much planning or thought. I remember taking my Dad’s old Canon film camera out a few years ago. I wandered around London taking a few shots. I duly took the film to be developed and the anticipation of waiting to see the prints was exquisite. They feel very special to me, I am not sure why.

One of my treasured old pictures
One of my treasured old pictures

But that is the trouble now, pictures don’t feel special. There was a blog I read recently by Joe Wilson – he had a great picture and quote from ‘Photography: a Victorian sensation’ on at the National Museums Scotland. In the blog he asks if we are desensitised to photography, we instagram and snapchat the life out of photographs, they are dispensable and throw away. Yet we take, share and look at more photos than ever before.

Photograph taken from Scottish Museums Federation blog - https://scottishmuseumsfederation.wordpress.com/2015/10/02/a-modern-desensitisation/
Photograph taken from Scottish Museums Federation blog – https://scottishmuseumsfederation.wordpress.com/2015/10/02/a-modern-desensitisation/

“More photographs are taken in two minutes today than were taken in the whole of the 19th century”.

It was in reading this blog that my thoughts turned to Christina Broom, hailed as Britain’s first press photographer. She was a remarkable woman but strangely you don’t need to read a single word of the exhibition to get a sense of that, you just need to look at the pictures.

I keep thinking of her confidence, to go out with all her bulky equipment, which in itself would have been an oddity, but for her to stand there and herd people into a shot would have been something to see. Not just a woman taking pictures of other women, but of men; soldiers, a woman in a man’s world. She must have been formidable to capture these moments and create this sense of connection with her sitters, it really is something to marvel at. She was determined to make a living for herself and the fact we know of her now is a testament to the remarkable job she did.

The Bermondsey B’hoys’ taken by Christina Broom, c1914 copyright Museum of London
The Bermondsey B’hoys’ taken by Christina Broom, 1914 copyright Museum of London

When I look at the pictures in the exhibition and those in the online collections at the Museum of London, I wonder what the sitters are thinking. There is one of the ‘Bermondsey B’hoys’, taken in 1914, there is a camaraderie and an ease in which they sit in front of Broom, she has their confidence and trust. I look in their eyes and I know they are all looking back at her, it creates this weird connection with the lady herself. One or two of them look a bit serious or perhaps unsure, she has captured this moment in time so perfectly, but she has also captured their thoughts, they are so close to us but remain a mystery.

The exhibition gives us a wonderful insight into early 20th century life, of Suffragettes on marches and at fundraising events, in particular a picture of a sweet stall at a Women’s Exhibition in 1909 is captivating, so beautifully adorned it is reminiscent of so many modern-day school fairs, if only we could all dress so elaborately.

The Sweets stall at the Women's Exhibition, 1909. Copyright Museum of London http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/298038.html
The Sweets stall at the Women’s Exhibition, 1909. Copyright Museum of London http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/298038.html

Two items in particular catch my eye, the photo album lent by our current Queen, belonging to Queen Mary, who was a keen photographer. So many families have old photo albums tucked away in drawers, it tickles me to think of how little separates us with regards to our photo collecting habits. Sadly photo albums are becoming a thing of the past, even though we take more photos than ever before.

Queen Mary's photograph album
Queen Mary’s photograph album 1913-16

The final object that sticks in my mind was a press pass to Westminster Abbey for the internment of the Unknown Warrior. The week before I had been on a tour of the Abbey, and stood in that exact spot by the memorial and I have one of those spooky moments where all I see are connections. This little memento, kept safe, is charming, the handwritten invitation to Mrs Albert Bloom, as Christina was known is another reminder of a woman doing remarkable things in a man’s world. I find it as poignant as any of the pictures Broom took of the Suffragettes.

Press Pass to Westminster Abbey and the burial of the unknown warrior 1920
Press Pass to Westminster Abbey and the burial of the Unknown Warrior 1920

There are so many reasons to visit this exhibition, it opens up stories on so many levels, on Suffragettes and soldiers and our photo-taking heritage, it has some beautiful shots of London and, before I forget to mention it, is also completely free so there really is no excuse.

Now I have written this blog I feel my duty is done and I plan to get out there and use my new camera this week, I will be channelling a certain remarkable Mrs Broom when I do. I can’t hope to take any pictures as special as hers, but perhaps with my words I can urge you to visit her at the Museum of London Docklands before she goes, and maybe even take a few snaps of your own.

Tincture of Broom
Tincture of Broom

 

Christina Broom – Soldiers and Suffragettes runs till 1 November at Museum of London Docklands and is free. For more info please check the website – Museum of London Docklands

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