Thursday 7 November 2013

The Borthwick at 60! Our anniversary exhibition

In May 2013 we put up a small ‘taster’ exhibition, marking the 60th anniversary of the Borthwick. Now we have just opened a larger exhibition which reflects on the story of the founding of the Borthwick, explores its early days, and looks at aspects of our development, past and present. The exhibition is in the Storey Exhibition Gallery, top floor, Borthwick Institute. It runs from 1 November 2013 to 31 January 2014.

Norah Gurney in old Borthwick strongrooms, 1957
Norah Gurney, 1957
The exhibition poster includes this splendid picture, taken in 1957, of Mrs Norah Gurney. She had arrived the previous year, as assistant archivist - the first such appointment. She is pictured in one of the original Borthwick strongrooms at St Anthony’s Hall, taking a probate act book down from the shelf.  The detail in the photograph is superb. It really evokes, for those of us who remember St Anthony’s Hall, the atmosphere of the strongrooms – dark and cramped, with mezzanine floors above, all racked out with rather oppressive dark green metal shelving (state of the art in the 1950s). Things hadn’t changed much between 1957 and when we left in 2004!
Norah Gurney later became the second Director of the Institute, taking over after the retirement of Canon Purvis in 1963. Tragically she died of cancer aged only 52, in 1974. There have been in total four Borthwick Directors (although the title is now Keeper of Archives). It is notable how much continuity we have had between 1953 and today – all our ‘bosses’ served first under their predecessors – this is true of our conservators too.

The exhibition reflects on development and change. Although the past couple of decades – and particularly after our move in 2005 – have seen great changes, there is an obvious continuity in our remit and in what we still think is important. 
Searchroom Office 1953
Searchroom Office 1953
This photo, of the searchroom office, ready for business in 1953, shows, for example, how some things have physically altered. But other things continue: the importance of teaching and research can be traced back to our original purpose, and so can our role in what we now call ‘outreach’.

Canon Purvis with summer school students
Canon Purvis with summer school students
 Here is Canon Purvis with students at an early ‘summer school for archives’. Teaching with documents is still central to our work, but handling techniques have certainly changed for the better! 
The exhibition traces how distinguished academics quickly arrived in the early days (the first visitors’ book is on display), and yet the first name recorded in the visitors book – and very regularly thereafter - is that of “Mrs T” (as we called her), a professional genealogist and a good friend to the Borthwick, regarded with much affection by staff. The exhibition has some photos of her 80th birthday party at the Borthwick.
We have had quite a low key 60th birthday (though we had cake to celebrate the anniversary of our opening day!) and this is partly because we had big celebrations when we were 50, ten years ago, but also because this year there has been a bigger celebration to mark the 50th birthday of the University, and of course the Borthwick is part of that.

We have been here on campus for eight years now, and only a few of the staff now remember St Anthony’s Hall.

Moving from St Anthony's Hall 2004
Moving from St Anthony's Hall, 2004
Here we are moving from St Anthony’s in 2004 – archives are being taken off the green metal shelves (how different from the new electronic mobile shelving!). It was a well-planned six month operation.
Borthwick Building half-built
Current Borthwick building half-built
 And here is the new Borthwick half built.

You can see here the massive concrete shell of the strongroom block, on the right. We had 10 strongrooms in the old building, but these came in all shapes (usually small) and all sizes (usually inconvenient). The other day, three of us who remembered St Anthony’s Hall found ourselves perplexed in trying to remember where they all were – they were scattered all over the St Anthony’s Hall complex  (as were the offices). We found there was even one strongroom (one of the less frequented ones) that we had quite forgotten!

Two of us have memories of the Borthwick going back to 1980, and so in effect remember nearly half of its lifespan. On the one hand it has been a bit nostalgic to remember the past, but on the other it serves to show how important it is to try and record, and carefully consider, our history. The Borthwick really does have origins unique among archive offices.
I hope as many as possible will come and see the exhibition. Find out why we are called “Borthwick” (it has to do with William Borthwick of Bridlington, but in fact he wasn’t personally involved at all!), why we changed our name in 2005 (have people noticed?) and why our logo is a pig (clue – it is the connection with St Anthony’s Hall). There are individual exhibition cases about the Borthwick’s founding, about Canon Purvis our first Director, about St Anthony’s Hall and why we had to move from there, about the Borthwick in the early days, about conservation past and present, and about our activities over the years.
And if you are interested in learning more about the Borthwick’s origins in relation to the founding of the University of York, come along to the 50th Anniversary Public Lecture at 6pm, Bowland Auditorium, Berrick Saul Building, on 18 November. The lecture is: “In York the opportunity waits, and all historybeckons”: the story behind the founding of the University, 1946-1963.

 Katherine Webb


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