In March 2017 Dr Laura Carter and Dr Alana Harris of King’s College, London, organised a conference on ‘London’s women historians’, held at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR). The day culminated in the launch of a portrait exhibition featuring 20 London women historians – active from the early 1900s to the 2010s – on the walls of the IHR’s main staircase. Here Dr Carter and Dr Harris explain how the exhibition came about and their intentions in staging it. Open to all, it continues throughout the summer.

In an earlier Talking Humanities post, Rozemarijn Van de Wal generously described our conference, ‘London’s women historians: a celebration and a conversation’, which took place on 13 March 2017 at the Institute of Historical Research. As part of this event, we created a ‘pop-up’ exhibition of portraits to adorn the walls of the IHR staircase, which is still in place and available for all to see.

This post describes some of the curatorial intentions and decisions surrounding the exhibition. It coincides with the launch, by IHR Digital, of an online version of the portrait exhibition. This microsite also provides links to video and audio recordings of the conference proceedings from 13 March, plus entries on featured women historians from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a ‘further reading’ list, and an invitation to ‘continue the conversation’ by nominating other notable women historians.

First, why did we make this exhibition? Since 2014 the IHR staircase has been lined with 11 formal, monochrome portraits of the institute’s former directors – all male – beginning with the institute’s founder, Albert (A. F.) Pollard from 1921. Our idea for an alternative portrait exhibition was galvanised by conversations we’ve had time and time again about the impression given by these existing 11 portraits that we passed on the stairs en route to the library or a seminar. Intentionally or not, they seemed to tell a ‘great men’ story about the historical profession that nobody really believes anymore. But their presence of course reinforced that story in this version of the IHR’s self-presentation.

The first idea we had was to cover up the directors’ portraits and replace them with those of women, so borrowing a feminist technique that some Cambridge and Oxford colleges have adopted for their historic dining halls. But, as friends and colleagues pointed out, covering up the men seemed to suggest that we wanted to erase their contribution from the profession, which would be counterproductive too. Nor, anyway, were we keen on the idea of simply replacing them ‘like for like’ with women, as there were no such women.

Inserting gender into the story of the historical profession in London meant looking beyond the institution (and, sometimes, the academy) and of retelling the narrative visually. This required a narrative that was messier and more uneven than the permanent collection of IHR directors’ portraits suggest. Moreover, it is really purposeful that our portraits are printed and affixed in a way that’s much more transient (and sometimes more ‘domestic’) than the existing formal images. This represents the often precarious position of women historians in 20th-century London institutions. You will also notice that many of the images we have chosen show their sitters as active rather than posed, and many are also joyful. This is no accident.

From the start we talked about crowdsourcing potential women historians for inclusion. This led to an active Twitter conversation and countless generous email exchanges. This activity produced a 200-strong list of candidates. Talking to colleagues at King’s College London, we eventually developed the criteria of women working in the ‘intellectual space’ of London and the IHR across the same time period covered by the directors — from the early 1920s to the second decade of the 21st century. The intention here was not to confine or reduce the story of women in the historical profession to London. This, of course, would be completely misleading. However, we did need to give our temporary exhibition a focus and an internal coherence, and it seemed to make sense to concentrate on this important site (and space) for women’s research and activity as a first step.

However, even with our London theme there were still tough decisions to be made. We focused on trying to get a good spread of historians working in different fields. In doing this we found, unsurprisingly, a preponderance of early medievalists and economists, a dearth of political historians, and – across the period – many pioneers of women’s and gender history. Imperial history seemed to be something of a gap, as did the number of conservative or ‘Tory’ historians. Yet in looking to fields such as the history of religion, we found some women pioneering new approaches to power and embodiment.

We were also keen to show that what it meant, and means, to be a historian has changed and developed across the 20th and early 21st century. In 1915, according to the Englishwoman’s Year Book, there were 16 women holding university appointments with ‘history’ in their job title in Britain. By 1928 there were 40 women academic historians, only 16.5 per cent of the total community which was itself very small, closed and elite. But these figures don’t really account for the many other women historians who were teaching, research, archiving, conducting administration, publishing and so on. In response, our final set of 20 historians included archivists, administrators, popularisers, and those who spent most of their energies teaching – as well as those who wrote field-defining books and attained professorships. The IHR portrait display is arranged in a way that speaks to some of the clusters and partnerships that we found during our research into these women. In doing so, it gestures to the importance of networks, mentoring and collegiality to women historians across the decades, and now.

There are, however, still glaring absences, gaps and erasures, attributable to structural inequalities that were operational in the past – and indeed continue into the present. Thinking intersectionally about our choices, we have reproduced a wall of white, middle- or upper- class and (mostly?) heteronormative women. In this, we have been unable to counteract the logics of the social, cultural and educational prejudices of 20th-century Britain. Searching in particular for women of colour in the metropole who were writing, teaching, and indeed making history has not yielded new names. Looking beyond London might prove more fruitful, as may a survey of women who learnt their craft in London but practised and perfected it elsewhere. It may be, though, that we have to acknowledge (in order to proactively critique) these classed, racial and sexual inequalities. In doing so we may begin to address a continuing and deadening homogeneity within the profession.

Dr Laura Carter is lecturer in modern British history at King’s College London, and research fellow at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, from October 2017. Dr Alana Harris is lecturer in modern British history at King’s College. She is the author of Faith in the Family: A Lived Religious History of English Catholicism, 1945-82 and co-editor of Love and Romance in Britain 1918-1970.

The 20 exhibition portraits are also available online via the London’s women historians microsite, together with video and audio recordings of the March 2017 conference, ‘London women historians: a celebration and a conversation’.