Epiphany Moment

This blog post will describe the ‘epiphany’ that inspired this research – what Lorraine Daston describes as the life-changing moment that causes one to question other aspects of life. As stated in previous posts, for me this occurred when interacting with physical (non-digital) objects and having a visceral reaction as a result. Daston articulated this well when saying, ‘These are the things that made each of us want to talk about how these particular things talk to us. They are objects of fascination, association, and endless consideration. […] By some process of reciprocity, our things individualised us as we picked them out of all the possibilities.’ (Daston, 2008: 11)

This moment occurred during my placement as Collections Assistant at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. I so vividly remember how my body felt over those few weeks – mainly because we were located in a store room that was incredibly cold, especially during the winter. Fortunately some of the tasks were quite physical, so I could warm up when moving around. One of my tasks was to document each item of twentieth-century men’s clothing in the galleries collection, with the aim of discerning which items and brand names were created by Jewish fashion-makers and brand founders. The research project was a collaboration between the University of Leeds and the Museum of London, I was lucky enough to play a small part. I undertook sensory exploration of the material properties of each item to uncover features that might help me identify owners, brand names or makers. There were many finely made heavy wool coats, dinner suits and jackets. The lining of many were smooth satin or silk, others were a rough textured cotton and some covered in dirt, mud splatter and other signs of wear, tear and everyday use.

When examining a khaki coloured gabardine raincoat made in the 1950’s (see image below of a similar coat), I searched for labels on the inside of the collar and the inside pocket. I looked through all the other pockets just in case there was anything in there that had been missed that could help me. Generally, I didn’t uncover much from the pockets of jackets or other items of clothing because the curators who accessioned them had carefully checked for any hazardous material before storing the clothing. The things I did find included multiple tram tickets for the same location with advertisements for crackers or other food stuffs on the back. I also found dried flower heads, tissues and tailors’ cards amongst other things. The tram tickets in particular were an exciting find, as they evidenced the wearers everyday routine and location. The advertisement on the back built up the picture of this person’s life further, by suggesting what they may have eaten. I started to imagine this person commuting, wondering where they worked, what the tram looked like and how affordable it was. The experience of finding the tickets inspired a similar kind of imaginative process, but with a key difference.

I plunged my hand into one of the deep pockets in the raincoat and felt something. I retrieved two crumpled up pieces of paper. Initially, I had a pleasant feeling of triumph – I was the first person to make this discovery and no one had found these items before when accessioning or donating the coat. I hoped my discovery would be important or interesting for the curators. I also felt surprised that there was anything in the pockets at all. I gently unfolded them and read the text on the paper. They were concert tickets for a band called the Spinners at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, dated 2nd April 1978. The tickets were roughly 10cm x 10cm square and were only lightly scrunched up. A visualisation of someone hastily crumpling the tickets in their hand and thrusting them into their pocket before rushing into the concert hall came to mind instantly and distinctly. This was made more apparent as I held the malleable paper in my own hand – my hand became a simulacrum for this anonymous person’s hand from the past. The crumpled form of the paper spoke of his past action, his movements, consciousness and intention, that I was now contributing to, mimicking and affecting. I felt intimately connected to him and yet I knew nothing about him. I still know nothing definitive about him. Yet it almost felt like fate.

The combination of the rich detail on the tickets and their material form propelled my imagination and ignited curiosity and excitement to conduct further research. I questioned who, what, where and when was represented in the object(s).

  • Who: Because I was on placement I had access to the collection files including notes about the donors and any personal significance each item might hold. After checking the file correlating to this accession number however, I didn’t come across any further information. The coat, tickets and object label were the only evidence I had. I knew from the galleries label that the coat was made for a man in the 1950’s, and because it was made and potentially bought during the period between 1950’s-1970’s it was probably worn by a man. (The first use of the term unisex dates from the 1960’s.) The style of the coat suggested that the wearer was potentially middle or upper class. ‘Gabardine’ outerwear was invented by Thomas Burberry in 1879 and was popular with ‘upper class sporty types’ (McRobbie, 2015). The shorter, double-breasted gabardine coat was a wartime success, and halfway through the conflict, Burberry became an official outfitter of the British Army. (See advert below of Burberry advertisement) I knew that the coat had been worn in the 1970’s (due to the date on the tickets) and so I considered the possibility of a couple of things, 1. It could have been bought 10 or even 20 years earlier. As a practical coat that was designed to last, it may have been an item that was worn regularly over a long period of time. 2. The style of the coat was quite traditional. The style still isn’t considered unfashionable, but may not have been worn by a young person in the 70’s. Both of these things suggest that the wearer could have been aged anywhere between 40-70, or at least was not a young person in the 70’s. Due to the fact that the coat was in the collection and clearly not in use, I next pondered over whether the coat was worn again after that night at the Philharmonic Hall. If it had been worn again, why weren’t the tickets thrown away or moved? This led me to wonder what had happened to the wearer. Had the coat been put back into a wardrobe that night after the Spinners concert, and forgotten about? Was the wearer separated from it for some reason? How long did it stay in the wardrobe before being donated to the gallery? Presumably it was an ancestor or relative who donated it to the Walker. How far has this coat and these tickets travelled?
  • What: I analysed the physical and literal material properties in front of me. There was the material properties of the coat itself. Gabardine is a breathable yet waterproof twill made by coating individual strands of cotton or wool fibre and was used in the manufacture of the famous trench coat. This helped me to build a picture of the person who wore it, their tastes and even socio-economic background, but it is also resonant of the season, place (North West of England) and potential weather on the night of the performance. I analysed the tickets for their material properties. The paper appeared to be a cheap mass-produced type, from memory roughly 0.05 – 0.1 mm thick. The tickets had one jagged edge each – this conjured an image of the tickets being pulled out of a ticket machine like a bus ticket and torn against an edge for the ease of the cashier. They were cut into squares which caused me to consider whether they had been cut by hand, or by guillotine by the Liverpool Philharmonic staff, or whether they had arrived at the Hall pre-sized. The ink and text looked as though it had been printed digitally either by thermal printing or solid ink printing, both of which were in use by 1978 (an image of the first thermal printer can be seen below). I pictured the transactional interaction between the wearer of the coat and the Philharmonic Hall staff as the tickets were purchased and handed over. The seat numbers looked as though they had been printed separately and by a different method, potentially hand stamped, as they were faded and off-centre from the rest of the text. Lastly, when I got home searched the band The Spinners, and listened to the music this person would have heard. This added another sensory layer to my experience of the objects, I closed my eyes and imagined sitting in the hall and hearing the band play live. I was able to look up the band members during the 1970’s as well as listen to their songs from this period online.
  • Where: Next, I knew that the interaction took place in Liverpool at the Royal Philharmonic Hall. According to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic website, ‘Founded in 1840 by a group of Liverpool music-lovers, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is one the world’s oldest concert societies and throughout its history, has been at the heart of Liverpool’s cultural life’. The hall itself was built in an Art Deco style in the late 1930’s after the original building was destroyed by fire in 1933 (see image). The picture that had been building in my mind became more and more vivid as I researched the hall and saw the building’s exterior, which has hardly changed since it was built. Because I have experience of working in a Box Office selling tickets and interacting with visitors, I felt an intimate connection to this scenario. I found it relatable. The brief moment of purchasing a ticket, hastily forcing it into the pocket of a raincoat and proceeding into the theatre space may have seemed insignificant at the time to those involved, yet it holds great significance to me.
  • When: The most important aspect of this experience for me is undoubtedly the date printed on the ticket, and the feelings that were evoked when I was made to feel ‘transported through time’. The specific time era or geographical context is not important, but I find that I feel inspired by objects that were used or made either before I was born or outside of my living memory. I have often felt connected to objects in museums that are reminiscent of everyday activities and mundane actions. I could be unconsciously searching for a connection to others from the past, to understand their motivations and decisions that I can compare to my own and relate to. Perhaps I am interrogating objects for their potential human qualities and functions. I draw upon my own embodied experiences and memories to relate to the past and understand objects. The essay by John Harries (2016) discusses this kind of embodied connection to history and people who lived before, as does GM Trevelyan in An Autobiography and Other Essays.

Each of the characteristics of the coat and the tickets I just described contributed towards by perception and visceral reaction to them. The jagged torn edge of the tickets, the shape and form of the paper and the time that had elapsed between them being placed there and myself extracting them, were integral elements. It is worth nothing that I am writing this account many months after I initially encountered the tickets, and my research and extended thinking about it has undoubtedly altered the way I perceive the experience and the objects now. In the instantaneous moment of unearthing I may have unconsciously registered all of the above visual cues, but I am only now able to articulate them and explain the reaction. But going back to the Daston quote from the beginning of this post: These are the things that made each of us want to talk about how these particular things talk to us. They are objects of fascination, association, and endless consideration. […] By some process of reciprocity, our things individualised us as we picked them out of all the possibilities.

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