Out of the archives came the faces of bygone students and staff, some of which had not seen the light of day for decades. An old sound recording brought alive the quavering, clipped tones of an earlier time. Faded photographs stirred up nostalgic reflections about the past. Representatives from former Commonwealth countries in national dress are grouped around a distinguished Director of SOAS, examining plans for the (then) new building. Students in black and white evening attire or long dresses attend a formal dinner; smiling young men – and women – in army uniform, prepare for departure to wartime postings, and their unknown futures.
What exactly was involved in curating an exhibition to celebrate 100 years of SOAS history: some of the highs, lows, or different surprises?
Dr Pierson: “We were asked by the late Paul Webley to create an exhibition on SOAS’s history for the centenary. Our brief was to make it interesting for visitors both within and beyond the SOAS community. It was to be a history of the School, not a history of things, as would be the case in an art exhibition.
“As this was to be the first major event of the Centenary we felt an enormous responsibility. We also felt the weight of history and the necessity to find a way to visualise the history of the School within the limits of both space and objectivity. We constantly asked ourselves: how can we possibly condense the history of this fascinating institution into a manageable presentation and visualise it for a general public?”
It was challenging but also fascinating: SOAS in its first 100 years was diverse, colourful, inquisitive, impactful and outward looking.
“One of the highs was certainly the joy of researching the history of an institution we both felt we knew, from long-standing involvement as staff and former students. Every decade was more colourful and impactful than we had ever imagined. Yet, we also had difficulty finding visual material for much of what we wanted to present. Some key individuals had to be presented through books, for example. We were also unable to borrow some material that might have been very interesting, for reasons of cost or permissions. A low point, but one which is common in most exhibitions, was the realisation of the sheer volume of text that needed to be created from scratch and the limited time in which to write this and arrange it with visual material that was still coming in, as we were setting up.
“There were numerous surprises, both in terms of exhibits discovered and characteristics of SOAS that were unknown. For example, we were struck by how diverse the early staff members of the School were, in terms of both gender and nationality. John also managed to track down fascinating exhibits from the war years, including fashion photographs with SOAS as a location and flash cards for Japanese military terms, used by students studying languages at SOAS during the war. The Library and Archives also alerted us to very interesting material, such as letters from Boris Karloff to his brother that included information about cricket and Hollywood. We also discovered that the history of the student union is very interesting and its events used to be very grand in the early days.
“From its opening, SOS/SOAS has been associated with extraordinary individuals. There were so many that it would be impossible to single out just one or two; so many in fact that we really had to be selective in the exhibition. What we discovered was that these individuals were not all academics but also students, staff and visitors who combined to make SOAS what it was today.
“A pedagogic or institutional history has value but it is less well suited to the visualisation that an exhibition demands. The feedback we received was almost universally positive, which really surprised us. After all, this was our history of SOAS so we felt sure that visitors would note anything that appeared to be biased or exclusive. In fact, the opposite was the case. We heard really positive things from former staff and students, the general public and current SOAS employees.
“Exhibition organisers always wish they had had more time and money but generally speaking, I think our approach was the right one and we would probably do it the same way again. We focused on people, and their stories are what drove the research and interpretation.”
Asked what advice she would give to the organisers of SOAS bicentenary exhibition, Dr Pierson concluded, “Start with the people. They are what make the School what it is.”
Dr Stacey Pierson and John Hollingworth, MBE, two longstanding members of staff, co-curated the celebratory exhibition “Academics, Agents and Activists: A History of the School of Oriental and African Studies 1916-2016 held from 12 October to 17 December 2016 in SOAS’ Brunei Gallery. Around 7,500 visitors came to the exhibition, one amongst a wide programme of events marking the centenary of SOAS University of London.
- Degree programmes in the History of Art and Archaeology
- MA Museums, Heritage and Material Culture Studies
Dr Stacey Pierson is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Ceramics in the Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts, and a member of SOAS China Institute (SCI), one of the world leading centres for China expertise located in the heart of London. Previously, she was Curator of the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, which housed one of the foremost collections of Chinese ceramics outside China. She has published a transcultural history of Ming porcelain, which considers the impact of reception on object identity. Her current research is focused on the history and influence of collectors groups and learned societies on the development of the discipline of art history in Britain.
John Hollingworth, MBE is Exhibitions/Galleries Manager of the Brunei Gallery, SOAS. He has worked at a number of different museums and collections in the UK. Since joining in 1997, he has curated over 150 exhibitions.