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The Tale of the Brass Box

By Vanessa Cardui |  April 28, 2016 |

The brass box

A couple of us went up to the Brotherton Library at Leeds University a few weeks ago, for the opening of their new Treasures of the Brotherton gallery, which showcases some of the amazing things they’ve got tucked away in their Special Collections. One of these collections is known as the “Romany Collection”, and includes objects, photos, books and other things about Romanies, Gypsies and Travellers. What we saw there made us think, and made us ask some interesting questions about the real stories behind the history.


It’s great that they have this stuff on public display, not tucked away in a back room somewhere. Even though the exhibition’s publicity doesn’t mention that there’s material about Romanies, and even though the word “Romany” is in quite small letters on the signs in the gallery, it’s still good to have it included. But – and this is true with any exhibition – it’s not just a matter of having things on display, it’s also about how they’re put into context: how they’re displayed, what the curators write on the labels, and the information given to viewers about what each object means.

One object we saw was a small brass box which, according to its label, was given by a group of Gypsies to a collector called George Smith in the 19th century, out of gratitude for his help with educating their children. There was nothing about who George Smith was; but as we looked at the label, we realised that this tale of a gift given by grateful Gypsies was entirely from his viewpoint, and we started to wonder if there might be another side to the story.


A quick Google (ah, thank goodness for phones!) filled in some of the blanks about George. Born in 1831, he made his name in the 1860s as a campaigner against child labour. Unlike yer average Victorian do-gooder, he wasn’t an aristocrat – he was a working-class man who had been a child labourer himself – so in that respect, he was pretty impressive. But later in life, he turned his increasingly meddlesome attention to Canal families, and then, to Gypsies: in the 1880s, he tried to get laws passed that would mean all Gypsies’ wagons would have to be officially registered, and their “sanitary conditions” regulated to specific standards. Although George’s heart was probably in the right place, he doesn’t seem to have asked the views of those he was “helping”; he just charged in there regardless. Nothing changes...!

But the Brotherton told us none of this – not even a hint that there was anything to discover, so we could look George up and decide for ourselves. Instead, it uncritically presented the story that grateful Gypsies gave him their valued heirloom. We began to wonder if that’s really how it was – or was it more like “Yes, mate, this box is our most treasured possession, honest, so thanks a bunch for your help, now please for Heaven’s sake leave us alone!” That seemed to us to be just as possible a narrative as the one we were given, and with just as much (or rather, as little) solid proof to back it up – but the Brotherton’s story is presented as fact, without any detail about how (or whether) they know it’s true, and without a suggestion that this object might have what’s known as a “contested meaning” (in other words, what it “means” isn’t cut-and-dried, and might depend on whose perspective you’re looking at it from). Like the proverb says: “Until the lion has a historian, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter…”

In future months, Leeds GATE will be working with the Brotherton’s Romany collection, discussing things like this, and seeing if we can explore the objects from some different angles and find some new stories. And there’s also our own Archives here at GATE -  we want to make sure the information we collect about the meaning of the photos and objects is from the point of view of Gypsies and Travellers for once!  So if you’d like to get involved with this sort of stuff, making sure Gypsies’ and Travellers’ stories get into the records, give Vanessa a ring at GATE, and join in.

By Vanessa Cardui and Valerie Elliott

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