Tracing and connecting with individuals through museum objects

In connection with an upcoming historical redevelopment, the history team at York Castle Museum recently hosted a series of object “speed dating” events, which introduced the public to a range of unique pieces within the museum’s extensive collection – and only having four minutes to connect the public with the object. I was quick to accept an invitation to help out at one of these events – it was such great fun and full of really enthusiastic attendees with brilliant ideas for redevelopment.

You may think four minutes with one object may be both limiting and overwhelming for the speed dater as the object’s spokesperson had to cover historical context, relevancy to York and social history as well as ‘selling’ the object’s appeal to its audience.  However, the sessions sparked instances of passion, amazement and creativity among the visitors, as well as discussions of which stories should be included in future exhibitions at the museum and how visitors would like to see these objects to be displayed. This idea of display has various factors such as whether the object would be behind glass or actually handled by visitors and what particular aspects of the object should be promoted.

fan
A fan depicting a map of London, (Image courtesy or York Museums Trust)

The objects within the sessions included souvenirs and keepsakes, including as a “mermaid fish”, an 18th century fan depicting a map of London and items relative to York’s history, including the collar of an “aristocratic” dog who (along with his humans) lived at Heslington Hall, a beautiful manor house which is now part of the University of York.

An object which kindled a lot of curiosity was what first appeared as a small rectangular piece of stone – the object which I was lucky enough to pitch for! Close examination of this miniature stone revealed carvings, different messages and dates. The most clear carvings read: John Linn, 35, Bible, 1848 and the most interesting inscription of all York Castle. York Castle at this point (1848) was a prison, one of the key and most notorious Gaols of the North of England. York Castle Prison held both debtors and felons, a fact which suggests that this object was the creation of a prisoner.

 

19th century prison graffiti was common, it reflected the boredom of prisoners, their emotions and presence within Gaols, their identities etched on the stone walls. However this stone carving is unique: it is not fixed to the prison walls, it is movable and independent. The sides of the small stone are filed and smoothed to form the shape of the Holy book, the reverse side depicts the phrase “This Keep from Me.” The Stone Bible, in great and robust condition, fits in the adult hand securely: it acts as a mark of comfort, hope and religious devotion of a prisoner and their experience within the York gaol.

The intriguing nature of this object fuelled further interest into the story of John Linn, both for visitors and myself. The visitors were mesmerised by this particular object, the fact they were able to handle and read the object generated a lot of empathy and claims of aesthetic appeal for the object. The consensus was that this object should not be located behind glass – it needs to be handled and examined in order to realise and enhance this historical connection, an idea I strongly agree with.

After the session I decided to do further investigations into John Linn, hoping to understand his story and the creation of this object in more detail. Census records and prison registers reveal that Linn was a felon at York Castle; he was a considered a serious criminal and had lesser privileges than debtors who were still able to communicate with the outside world. Linn’s trial was in March 1848 at the York Assizes and his crime and charge was for the offence of Night Poaching. Linn received the maximum punishment written under the Night Poaching Act of 1828: transportation to Tasmania.

Research into Linn’s transportation journey revealed various facts. The first was that he was transported in the year 1850 and therefore spent at least two years within York Castle Prison. With this in mind I consider the Bible to be cherished, not only for his religious devotion, but as the only item of his possession and as possible acknowledgement and redemption for his crime. The second fact was that Linn was transported on the Maria Somes, an exclusive convict ship which had two main voyages to Van Diemen’s Land, Tasmania – one in 1844 and 1850. Linn was one of 256 other convicts on board the ship and departed from Portsmouth. The medical journal of the ship’s physician detailed the diagnosis, progress and deaths of ill passengers. Linn was not listed, suggesting that he survived the voyage with little ill health. However Linn’s further movements in Tasmania or other areas of Australia, at present, remain unknown and I intend to do further investigation.

This miniature stone bible, whether you consider it as a keepsake, a handicraft or graffiti, is fundamentally an embodiment of Linn. It is a living record, reflecting various characteristics of Linn’s identity and life. All the information needed to discover and tell his full story are carved onto the stone; the object illuminates Linn’s presence and permanent connection with York Castle Museum.

Four minutes with an object is enough time to fuel interest in its history and significance from an audience perspective. It ignites curiosity and further research into its formation and story, revealing alternative dimensions to individual narratives and the impact of an objects creation.

How would you like to experience objects in a museum, or what aspects do you look for when you see an object on display?

 

  1. Convict Records, The Maria Somes, https://convictrecords.com.au/ships/maria-somes/1850
  2. England & Wales Criminal Registers, 1791-1892
  3. Medical Journal of the Maria Somes, convict ship from 1 April to 16 August 1850 by J. G. Williams, Surgeon Superintendent, during which time the ship was employed on passage to Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land, The National Archives, ADM 101/255/1F
  4. Passengers in History, Maria Somes Ship Details, http://passengersinhistory.sa.gov.au/node/931167
  5. “York Museum reveals prisoner’s graffiti” The York Press, 2008: https://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/3961545.York_museum_reveals_prisoners____graffiti/
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