Having lived in Leeds for three years, and never got round to visiting the Leeds City Museum, I felt that I should take the opportunity to have a look round before I left University – it was certainly worth the trip. The Ancient Worlds section of the Museum seems slightly confused, although during my visit this wasn’t helped by the numerous school children running around noisily. Roman, Greek and Egyptian artefacts are presented together in displays organised by theme, and this leads to these diverse artefacts appearing as if they are geographically and chronologically homogeneous. However, the limited space allocated to this exhibition would make it a challenge to cover any of these areas in more detail. When I visited there was an excellent exhibition, Pharaoh: King of Egypt, which the British Museum is touring. This contained some beautiful objects accompanied by informative display boards.
My favourite area of the museum is “The Leeds Story”. This highly engaging exhibition has a good balance between child-friendly interactive displays, information boards and interesting artefacts. While it documents the history of Leeds from pre-history to the modern day it is the more recent history that I found most absorbing. While all artefacts represent an individual story, the later section of the exhibition uses pieces amazingly effectively as representations of more general phenomena. The displays are flanked by period photographs which add to the atmosphere. Perhaps the more recent nature of these objects, some of them from within living memory, makes it easier to empathise with their owners, especially as many people will already have a basic knowledge of subjects such as the Suffragettes and World War Two.
The sampler sewn by 10-year-old Mary Park in 1858 in memory of her brother is a moving insight into one family’s tragedy. Mary urges,
“Dear Parents do not Grieve
But Rather ReJoice
That the Hour Draws Nigh
When I Shall Have
No More Pain No More Sorrow”.
This poignant passage seems incongruous, surrounded as it is by traditional sampler features such as the alphabet. As well as telling the story of one family, the sampler is also indicative of conditions in Leeds at this time; beside this sampler we are informed that in 1867 1 in 5 children did not reach their first birthday.
The display on Leonora Cohen, a Leeds suffragette, is fascinating. In 1913 she smashed a case at the Tower of London, “in protest against the Government’s treachery to the working women of Great Britain”. The display features documents from her trial, in which she successfully conducted her own defence. Alongside the more standard exhibits such as a suffragette sash and tea set there are also some more intriguing items, such as Leonora’s fancy dress costume which comprises a gaudy dress complete with prison warder doll.
The items I found most poignant were a photo of Arthur Louis Aaron VC, DFM (1922-1943) alongside the citation and letter from Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris to Aaron’s parents. The citation describes how Aaron was severely wounded while piloting his aircraft but insisted on struggling to first pilot, and then instruct, his colleague to pilot the plane as they returned to England and landed safely. The exertion of this led Aaron’s injuries to be fatal. Sir Arthur tells Aaron’s parents that “In my opinion never, even in the annals of the Royal Air Force, has the Victoria Cross been awarded for skill, determination and courage in the face of the enemy of a higher order than that displayed by your son on his last flight”. The photo of the 21-year-old pilot in his uniform brings home the youth of many of those who demonstrated such bravery during the War. As with Mary’s sampler, this personal tragedy is representative of the fate of thousands of men. The enormity of the numbers who died is hard to comprehend. In making history personal, this photo and letter are in some ways more moving than the most extreme casualty statistics.