Whenever anyone says the immortal words ‘never been on display before’ it always gets an excitable response from me. Objects are left in storage for lots of reasons, lack of display space, conservation concerns, having the lack of money and time to really do them justice. Sometimes, quite simply, the right story hasn’t come along. Sometimes you need to wait for the right exhibition, the right moment to give a museum object its time to shine.
Last week a trip behind the scenes at the Museum of London offered up one of the most remarkable moments I have had in a museum. My volunteer home is mid-way through preparing for a new small display called ‘Disease X: London’s next epidemic?’ On the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the deadliest wave of Spanish Flu the idea is to explore how a possible future epidemic (which may have an unknown cause) might affect the city.
The museum has selected a small number of powerful objects that tell the story of how epidemics have hit in the past, there are stories of death and disease but also of sorrow and loss. It is an exhibition that talks of lives cut short and destinies changed.
Russian Flu killed over a million people in Europe and Spanish Flu killed 5% of the world’s population – the exhibition also looks at Cholera and Small Pox. But, as co-curator Vyki Sparkes explains, statistics can be hard to comprehend. Behind numbers there are lives lost and families in mourning.
Why I love museums is they bring you stories you have never heard of, like that of William Leefe Robinson, a Royal Flying Corps pilot in the First World War, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for being the first pilot to shoot down a Zeppelin airship when he was aged just 21. He was later shot down by German planes led by the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. Captured and imprisoned, he attempted to escape 3 times. He survived World War I and was repatriated in December 1918, he celebrated Christmas with his family, but weakened from his time in German prisons he caught influenza and died on New Year’s Eve 1918. To go through so much and be taken from the heart of your family seems so cruel. Leefe Robinson was just 23 when he died from influenza and hundreds turned up at his funeral to pay their respects.
The story of Leefe Robinson is told through a quite bizarre and slightly morbid plaque of mementos from the ‘Cuffley Zeppelin’ that he shot down. The Zeppelin was on a bombing raid over London and all 15 members of the crew were killed. The pieces of Zeppelin were given to the Red Cross and sold to help the wounded at the front. There are rings, bracelets and pin badges made from sections of wire and metal. There is fascinating piece of Pathé news footage from the crash that really gives you a sense of why everyone would want a piece of history. https://www.britishpathe.com/video/zeppelin-wreck-at-enfield
There is a fantastic picture of Leefe Robinson (far left) in the National Portrait Gallery collections standing with his comrades titled ‘Three Zepp Wreckers’. You can easily see how the handsome suave chap could become a hero to so many.
Quite by chance, later that same week, I came across more of the ‘Cuffley Zeppelin’ at the North Hertfordshire Museum. Normally something I would have just walked straight past, it jumped out at me as a story I now know, a man I am now familiar with and a life that ended so abruptly.
Whilst some lives are well known in the Disease X exhibition there will also be on display the story of an unknown too, a life given even less time. The skeleton of a 9 month old infant who died suffering from Smallpox. Co-curator Vyki Sparkes explains that epidemics rarely leave any trace in the human skeleton but Small Pox could affect the bones of growing children, this can be seen in the splayed elbow joints of the infant who was buried in the early 1800s at Crossbones Cemetary in Southwark.
Disease X sets out to show that epidemics do not distinguish between ages, taking young and old alike but also they show no respect for class or wealth either. So we come to the star of the exhibition, a stunning mourning dress that was worn by Queen Victoria in 1892 on the death of her Grandson Prince Albert Victor from Russia Flu.
The dress is stunning, literally it stunned me because I was shocked at how short Queen Victoria really was. She was only 5ft but she wore this in her 70s so may have lost a few more inches. I am quite tall at 5ft10 and I couldn’t resist having my picture taken next to the dress to give you a sense of how tiny it is. But whilst she was short she was also quite (how do I put this politely) portly too.
I am quite in love with the skill of the textile conservator Emily Austin who has spent 50 hours not only conserving the dress ready for display but building a suitable mannequin to support its unusual dimensions with what I can only assume was a lot of padding! She has sent me some of her own pictures of making the mannequin for display and you can get a sense of the complicated work in getting the dress to fit and be well supported during the exhibition. I have included her comments on each stage of the process.
Once the correct shape was achieved I covered the wadding with cotton jersey. To finish the neck area for display I covered it with cream habotai silk. Several skirt layers were required to create the correct period shape. A boned tube petticoat, a boned bustle, several layers of jet frills and gathered skirts, and finally a black habotai silk over skirt so the dress slides on easily. – Emily Austin
The dress looks so fresh, hardly worn, the black crepe silk is dark and deep. Emily tells me there is wear to the ribbons inside that she has had to do some work to. On closer inspection I notice a fabulous large patch pocket on one side, Queen Victoria was obviously a practical woman. The stitches are almost invisible and I take my time looking over every inch of the dress. Apparently there are also a number of hidden pockets inside the garment too, perhaps for a watch and chain.
Whilst chatting to Emily I remark the dress appears to not even have a stain or mark upon it. She lets me into a little secret, there is a stain on the front, difficult to pick out I can just see it.
That is when the reality of this museum object hits me. That tiny stain, a morsel of food dropped, a queen but also an elderly lady in her 70s, grieving for her 28 year old grandson. Perhaps the tears fell in private, perhaps she wished for her beloved Albert to support her at such a difficult time.
She had lost a loved one, the flu epidemic could come and take those you loved, it didn’t matter if you had money or power, it didn’t matter if you were a war hero or if you hadn’t even seen your first birthday.
The dress takes my breathe away, yes it belonged to Queen Victoria, but it is more than that, it is a powerful emotive moment in time. It never fails to touch me how objects can bring us closer to other lives. Help us walk in their footsteps, through objects we can mirror our own hopes and dreams and our own sadness too.
History is never what we leave in the past, it is what touches us now. If Disease X is to come, how prepared will we be? How will the city and country fight it? How will lives be changed? We can’t know our future but we can look to our past and museums show us how how to read the messages that are left behind however difficult they may be to face.
Disease X: London’s next epidemic? Opens on 16th November – February 2019 and it is free. https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london/whats-on/exhibitions/disease-x?id=194008
With huge thanks to co-curators Vyki Sparkes and Roz Sherris for the early preview. Special thanks to Emily Austin textile conservator at the Museum of London who shared her pictures with me.
What is Disease X? The Week, 20 June 2018. https://www.theweek.co.uk/94432/what-is-disease-x
New maps show how Russian Flu rode the rails to circle the globe in months, Scientific American, 27 April 2010. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/new-maps-show-how-1889-russian-flu-rode-the-rails-to-circle-the-globe-in-months/
Spanish Flu: We didn’t know who we’d lose next, 20 September 2018. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-45097068