Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom

Me outside the Museum of London Docklands, contributing to the #museumselfie Twitter hashtag (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Me outside the Museum of London Docklands, contributing to the #museumselfie Twitter hashtag (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom is a temporary exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands in Canary Wharf, open until Sunday the 1st of November. I went along because not only did Christina Broom photograph the campaign for female suffrage in the early twentieth century, she was also an impressive woman in her own right, as the first female British press photographer. The exhibition is worth checking out if you are interested in photography or social history, as well as the two main topics; Brooms photography of the suffrage movement and the armed forces.

Christina Broom was a small woman, and it must have been difficult to carry her heavy camera and equipment around (Source: Museum of London).

Christina Broom was a small woman, and it must have been difficult to carry her heavy camera and equipment around (Source: Museum of London).

In 1903 at the age of 40, Christina Broom noticed the increasing popularity of postcards, and began photographing local views and events in order to produce her own. Her husband had never fully recovered from an injury acquired during a game of cricket, and she took up photography to provide for her family. For the next four decades Broom hauled her heavy camera and tripod back and forth across London documenting the city and its people. Soldiers and Suffragettes is the first exhibition devoted solely to Broom’s work, and aims to share her story so she can receive some of the appreciation she deserves.

Because of my own interests I was mostly drawn to Broom’s photos of the suffrage movement, but I also found her military photography engaging. Broom was trusted by the soldiers, and she photographed many before they left to take part in the First World War. The photos of soldiers with their families on the platforms at Waterloo Station are particularly moving. The knowledge that this might have been the last time the men ever saw their loved ones is haunting, and the fact that Broom was allowed to capture these significant moments is an indication of how good she was at her job.

Broom photographed soldiers saying goodbye to their friends and family before leaving for the First World War. The pictures are haunting (Source: Museum of London).

Broom photographed soldiers saying goodbye to their friends and family before leaving for the First World War. (Source: Museum of London).

Broom’s pictures of the suffrage campaign are wonderful. She photographed campaigners both famous (including the Pankhursts) and obscure, capturing the sheer number of people involved. It is easy to think that Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst won the vote for women single-handed, but this is far from the case. Broom’s photos depict many of the organisations involved in the campaign, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and the Women’s Freedom League, led by the incredible Charlotte Despard.

A photograph of Charlotte Despard taken by Christina Broom (Sources: National Portrait Gallery).

A photograph of Charlotte Despard taken by Christina Broom (Sources: National Portrait Gallery).

The exhibition also highlights the economics of the suffrage campaign. Although a supporter of female suffrage, Broom’s main reason for photographing the movement was financial. Supporters of female suffrage would collect memorabilia, the proceeds of which helped to fund campaigning. The WSPU had their own shops, in which they sold everything from postcards like the ones Broom produced to tea sets designed by Sylvia Pankhurst. The exhibition also includes photos of fairs held by various suffrage groups. One of the purposes of these fairs was to raise money. For example, at the Women’s Exhibition in Knightsbridge in 1909, a replica prison cell was constructed. Visitors were charged 6d to see inside and hear about what life was like for suffragettes in prison. The economics of social movements is something that I think gets frequently overlooked, so it was good to see it so prominent in Soldiers and Suffragettes.

Christina Broom's photograph of a suffragette dressed in a replica prison uniform at the Women's Exhibition in May 1909 (Source: Museum of London).

Christina Broom’s photograph of a suffragette dressed in a replica prison uniform at the Women’s Exhibition in May 1909 (Source: Museum of London).

Soldiers and Suffragettes is an exhibition that appeals on a whole range of levels. I even enjoyed the section about the technology of developing and printing the images- the backlit negatives of Broom’s photos were beautiful, making the Suffragettes look like vibrant ghosts. I would definitely recommend checking it out over the new few weeks before it closes.

Not only was Christina Broom a pioneer, leading the way for other female professional photographers, she was also very talented. Her images are moving and personal, as well as a fantastic record of a dynamic period in London’s history.

Sans Dust: Flickr and Instagram as Archives

Rachel Taylor graduated from Royal Holloway’s research-based MA Cultural Geography last year. She is currently working for the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Her research interests include public engagement with academia, museums, identity politics and how we understand human remains. Here she reflects on online archives, particularly photographic ones, as a research method. The internet is not one of the first things that springs to mind when you think of archives, but it is a valuable resource for academics if we only made use of it. Follow Rachel on Twitter: @mereplacenames


A photo of the British Museum available on Flickr (Source: Alex Roach)

A photo of the British Museum available on Flickr. Rachel Taylor used websites such as Flickr and Instagram to analyse visitor behaviour in museums in the research for her Masters dissertation (Source: Alex Loach).

In an age where the most popular ‘camera’ used by Flickr uploaders is the iPhone 4S, it’s time to reconsider photography, contemporary archival methods and move beyond the idea that dust – “the scholar’s choice of dirt” (Lorimer, 2009: 248) and tangibility are the only bedfellows of archival scholarship. Cultural geographers and non-geographers alike are beginning to consider the importance of the online archives that are increasingly playing an important role in our day to day life, and what follows are some brief reflections on the promise and pitfalls of working with these modern archives.

The field of online research is still in its infancy. Having conducted research on the place of Web 2.0 in understanding modern museum behaviour, I’m interested in the many ways in which this infancy provokes questions on the methodological difficulties of working with online archives.

While working with archives has often involved accessing material fiercely guarded by gatekeepers, with a strong emphasis on the physicality of the archive, contemporary visual archives such as Flickr and Instagram offer the chance to conduct research from any location and to gain an immediate appreciation of how the ‘photographers’ that use these sites articulate their social identities and make memories. Rather than delving into little seen and barely touched sources, the empirical data of online archives is generally available to anyone with an internet connection, with “the family photo album, once confined to living rooms…brought into the equivalent of the town square” (Kramer-Duffield and Hank, 2008: 1).

A man studies some paintings in a museum in Denmark in this image from Flickr (Source: Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen).

A man studies some paintings in a museum in Denmark in this image from Flickr (Source: Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen).

Despite online photographic repositories offering innovation in archival methodology, both Flickr and Instagram can be accused of hosting throwaway images, with each Instagram photograph “rapidly replaced by the next” (Champion, 2012: 86). Champion draws upon van Dijk in considering the disposability of Instagram images, suggesting they can be equated “to postcards which were meant to be thrown away” (2012: 87). While online visual archives act as a repository of memory, the very fact that they serve as repositories means permanence and importance are not privileged. In a world where some feel the need to photograph every morsel of food they eat, images are no longer confined to capturing the extraordinary. Rather, the banal, everyday moments of life take centre stage.

On a practical note, this disposable nature of the online world hinders attempts at locating images, often exponentially increasing the labour of data collection and encapsulates the difficulties of carrying out research on the Internet. Instagram’s web platform allows a maximum of twenty images to be viewed at any one time, with no means of viewing large amounts of images at once. Web platform such as and Websta do provide assistance, but issues with cached data and partial information ensure data collection remains a demanding task.

An image of a woman studying something at a museum on Flickr (Source: Pedro Ribeiro Simões).

An image of a woman studying something at a museum on Flickr (Source: Pedro Ribeiro Simões).

While paper may crumple and ink fade, webpages can be edited, deleted and moved. More traditional forms of archival scholarship are reliant upon gatekeepers’ superior knowledge of their collections to guide the researcher in knowing what to look for. In the online world, images are effectively lost if one does not know what they are looking for, with elements such as hashtags, captions and geotags all serving as digital clues to contextualise the images in the vast visual banks of photographic repositories. The wealth of information contained within these non-visual cues demonstrate that when carrying out archival research with online sources, visuality is only one element of the photographic archives.

Despite these challenges, platforms such as Instagram and Flickr offer the chance to engage with how users visually curate their lives. The act of photographing something denotes it as something ‘worth’ seeing. These images then are “increasingly active objects” (de Rijcke and Beaulieu, 2011: 665). These active objects shouldn’t be viewed as objective records, but rather seek to actively represent the person taking the photograph, “negotiated” with an audience in mind (Goffman, 1959 in Larsen, 2005: 419). Photographic practice acts as a form of memory making and establishing one’s presence, allowing content producers to self-curate their everyday life and activities. In an ever increasingly visual world, online archival work offers the ability to understand and interpret contemporary behaviour – sans dust.

Rachel Taylor.

Image Sources 

Loach, Alex. ‘British Museum,’ Flickr. Last modified 20 January 2013, accessed 16 March 2015.

Rasmussen, Peter Kirkeskov. ‘Art Lover,’ Flickr. Last modified 23 May 2014, accessed 16 March 2015.

Simões, Pedro Ribeiro. ‘At the Museum,’ Flickr. Last modified 7 September 2013, accessed 16 March 2015.

Disobedient Objects: Mainstreaming the Subversive


The entrance to the ‘Disobedient Objects’ exhibition at the V&A museum (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last weekend, the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A museum in South Kensington closed. For the past 6 months, when you walked into the front entrance of the museum on Cromwell Road you could turn right and walk into a gallery filled with the objects of protest, from a suffragette branded teacup, through a remote-controlled spray-paint machine, to giant inflatable cobblestones. Safe to say it’s not what you would usually expect to find in “the world’s greatest museum of art and design.”

Since its foundation in 1852, the V&A museum (named after Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert), has housed a collection representing 5,000 years of human history, in the form of art works of all kinds, from all over the world. The purpose of Disobedient Objects was “to examine the powerful role of objects in movements for social change” (V&A, n.d.) using “objects that open histories of making from below.” (Flood and Grindon, 2014; 8).

The 'Disobedient Objects' exhibition.

The ‘Disobedient Objects’ exhibition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I visited the exhibition several times, and I thought it was fantastic. It had objects of all shapes and sizes from social movements and protests all over the word, and it even had an empty space on the wall for visitors to contribute to as more social movements and contentious issues developed over the course of the exhibition. However I did notice some interesting conflicts between the culture of the museum and the cultures of protest represented by the objects in the exhibition. Protest is ephemeral, messy, and anti-hierarchical, and it was very interesting to observe how the museum, a place of quiet permanence, dealt with these characteristics.

The ceramic 'intervention' at the entrance to the V&A.

The ceramic ‘intervention’ at the entrance to the V&A (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The first example of conflict appeared before you even entered the exhibition. On the walls outside the main entrance to the V&A is a ceramic ‘intervention,’ made by Carrie Reichardt and the Treatment Rooms Collective. It is beautiful, but it was done with the full permission and approval of the museum, and is mounted on metal frames, so it can easily be removed. It demonstrates a common phenomenon that occurs when subversive subcultures are accepted into mainstream culture; they lose some of their edge, their spontaneity, often the things that made them so exciting in the first place.

The seating provided for watching a short film.

The seating provided for watching a short film (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Another example I noticed of the clash between museum and protest culture was during my last visit. It was the final day that the exhibition was open, and it was very busy. A short film was projected onto the back wall of the gallery, and there were a few bench-like things in the ply-wood used for displays so that people could sit and watch it. On this day people were sitting on the backs of the benches, with their feet on the ‘seat’ bit, to watch the film because it was so busy. They were ordered down by a V&A employee, a triumph of the strict rules of museum spaces over the freedom of protest spaces.

A sticker in the exhibition protesting a pay cut for V&A staff.

A sticker in the exhibition protesting a pay cut for V&A staff (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

My final example is less a contradiction, and more just something I thought noteworthy. I have already mentioned the space in the exhibition set aside for visitor-generated materials as the exhibition progressed. On this wall, and dotted around the rest of the exhibit were stickers protesting a 10% pay cut at the V&A. If you celebrate methods and practices of criticism, you have to be prepared to receive some criticism yourself.

Subversive subcultures such as graffiti, skateboarding and protest have all been appropriated by mainstream culture to various extents over the past few decades. I think that Disobedient Objects is a good example of this process, and highlights some of the difficulties involved. The social norms and expectations of museums are very different from those of protest. Disobedient Objects existed on the border between the two, a precarious position that was reflected in the constant negotiations around how the space was used by visitors and controlled by the museum.


“Disobedient Objects: About the Exhibition.” V&A. No date, accessed February 2nd, 2015.

Flood, Catherine and Gavin Grindon. “Introduction” in Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon (eds.) Disobedient Objects. London: V&A, 2014.

“Victoria and Albert Museum.” Wikipedia. No date, accessed February 2nd, 2015.