Harewood’s Electricity Story: building an effective collaboration

*Update: please see the Harewood House category for other posts about this project.*

Music Rm both lights on095
The chandelier in the Music Room at Harewood House. Photocredit: Harewood House Trust.

In funding new collaborative projects, a key focus of the Exchange is not just on the project outcomes, but on the ways the partners think about collaborating in order to deliver these outcomes. The idea that effective collaborations can be designed from the beginning of a project is something which partners are encouraged to explore together, and so early on in our project I sat down with Ann Sumner, Historic Collections Advisor at Harewood, Zoe White, Education Manager and Rebecca Burton, Collections Assistant, to think about how best we could collaborate, and what the benefits for all of us would be.

For this the Exchange provided a framework to help us think about how to formulate three ‘principles of collaboration‘ which would help us to plan how we would work together, and against which we would measure our success as we moved through the project. Each principle was to entail one or two expected benefits for one or both partners. The framework encouraged us to consider the values which we held in common and the ways in which we hoped to benefit from the collaboration – not just from the project itself – and to turn these into commitments to guide our work on the project.

Electrical artefacts from the collections of the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Leeds.
Electrical artefacts from the collections of the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Leeds.

For our first principle of collaboration, we thought that it was important to be able to understand each other’s respective work environments, and in particular to understand each other’s heritage collections and what we do with them. As well as Harewood’s extensive collections of art, artefacts, and archival resources, the University also has collections, such as the collections of the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, which include old electrical artefacts many of which were used in local Yorkshire schools to teach physics around the turn of the twentieth century.

For our first principle, therefore, we decided that we would make time to visit each other’s working environments and learn about respective heritage and cultural collections and exhibitions. I had already spent some time visiting Harewood, but at some point during the project Harewood staff would also come to visit the campus, and I would show them around. We anticipated two main benefits arising from this principle: firstly it would help each partner to appreciate the institutional structures, physicality and the working practices, patterns and methodologies, of the other, and secondly it would increase our awareness of each other’s heritage and cultural visitor offers, and how we utilise and display our respective collections.

Another of the points on which we decided was that we would try to plan for meetings to last a little longer than we might otherwise have done in order to ensure a more relaxed atmosphere which would allow space for creative and innovative ideas to develop. We hope that this will enable us to establish good personal relationships with the partnership which will encourage us to want to collaborate again – this is tricky as we‘re all very busy, but so far it seems to be working!

Light Night 2015: It’s Electrifying!

The Housekeeper - in two minds about electric light.
The Housekeeper – in two minds about electric light.

On Friday evening, 9 October, we put on a special performance in the Brotherton Library’s Brotherton Room with the help of four student actors from the School of Performance and Cultural Industries (PCI). Called ‘It’s Electrifying!’, the show was organised as part of Leeds Light Night, an annual evening of free arts events (exhibitions, performances, installations) all based around the theme of light that takes place across the city, including the University. As this ties in so well with the themes of our project, this was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Working closely with a colleague from the School of PCI, George Rodosthenous, who is also one of the lecturers supervising the production of our Electrified musical, we recruited four drama students as volunteers to take part in our show. Fitting in planning, script writing, rehearsals and organising costumes around everyone’s busy schedules was a challenge, but the students worked hard, and other members of PCI staff were also very helpful; special thanks go to Allana Marsh and Steve Ansell for helping to sort us out with costumes and props at quite short notice!

The show started with the maid cleaning outside the room and humming, before noticing the audience and inviting them in.
We started with the maid cleaning outside the room and humming, before noticing the audience and inviting them in.

We used the performance to address the hopes and fears surrounding the introduction of electric lighting into people’s homes around the end of the nineteenth century. There were four characters, representing a range of classes and opinions, for example the young lady of the house, excited at the aesthetic possibilities of the electric light, and her mother-in-law, who was sceptical, didn’t understand what electricity was or how it worked, and didn’t think it should be brought into their home.

The older lady - didn't understand electricity.
The older lady – didn’t understand electricity.

We also had the housekeeper, who was happy that the new lights didn’t give off any soot or smoke to blacken the paintwork, but who was sad to need to make redundant the boy who had been in charge of the candles and oil lamps. Finally, the maid was wary, knowing that people had died through accidents involving electricity.

The 15 minute show ran four times over the course of the evening, and over 110 people came to see it. We even had a song about the electric light from the 1880s, which the characters sang and hummed over the course of the performance. The Brotherton Room itself was also the perfect venue for the show; dating back to the 1930s with the rest of the main body of the Brotherton Library, it is an incredibly atmospheric space, and made a very passable country house library for the performance. It looked great lit up with electric candles.

One half of our display of objects....
One half of our display of objects….
...and the other side.
…and the other side.

Also forming part of the event was a display of historic electrical objects from the University’s Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, which we used to tell the story of domestic electricity from its generation to its use in the home, from the 1880s until the 1940s. These included an old battery, a copy of a Mrs. Beeton book from the 1920s which dealt with electric cookery, and an Overbeck Rejuvenator, a 1920s electrical therapy kit for use by individuals in their own homes. The audience was encouraged to take a look at this display after the performance.

We got great feedback on the creativity, the costumes, and of course the singing! We’d like to thank our colleagues in PCI, in the Brotherton Library and in the Museum, and in particular the PCI students, for all their help making this event possible.

The cast.
The cast.