Go back to article: '½ vol. not relevant': The scrapbook of Winifred Penn-Gaskell
The early twentieth century obsession with the representation of pilots and their iconic status as figures of popular cultures – the first celebrities in the age of mass media – seems peculiarly dated now. Flight as an activity has been normalised into a civilian mode of transport. Yet the interest shown by Penn-Gaskell in prescribing the image of those who flew, drawing on modern mechanical inventions and neo-classical homoerotic representations of the body, lives on in the dress-up photoshop outside the Science Museum’s Flight Gallery (see Figures 6 & 7). It may not be deemed appropriate to pose nude and with flexed muscles here, as the bodybuilders of Penn-Gaskell’s imagination did, but visitors to the Flight Gallery are invited to wear the uniforms of different ages of aviation history and to purchase a picture of themselves inhabiting that role. Just as Penn-Gaskell’s scrapbook unites disparate themes of Edwardian technology, masculine self-presentation and commercial photography, the entrance to the Flight Gallery in South Kensington is now a place where a heroic (and bathetic) self-image can be purchased. Perhaps Penn-Gaskell’s visual combination of the display of the human body and the aesthetics of modernist technology was not as ridiculous as it may at first seem.
© Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
A selection of pilot outfits for use by visitors to the Flight Gallery photo studio at the Science Museum, London.
© Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
The green screen used for superimposition photography at the Flight Gallery photo studio, Science Museum, London.
The political and historical significance of combining modern transportation technology and depictions of strong male bodies can help to contextualise the collecting practices of Winifred Penn-Gaskell, and refute the condescending and limiting views of her collection that were held by the first curators and keepers responsible for it at the Science Museum in South Kensington. Theories of collecting practices have often relied heavily on Freudian models of subject interpretation, but generalised applications of psychoanalysis to the histories of collectors are particularly reductive in the case of a woman about whom little but her marital status, birth and death dates are known. Conservative historical practices, inevitably, provide us with more information on the wealthy male collectors whose interests have so far been the subject of most investigation by historians than collectors who belonged to other social classes, genders or non-European backgrounds. In the absence of detailed historical records on the life of Winifred Penn-Gaskell, I believe it is important to refocus our attention on the political and historical environment which engendered her interest in flight memorabilia and aeronautica, as well as her more concealed parallel interest in the performative male body.As Krzystof Pomian has argued, introduction into a museum collection does not withdraw an object from economic circulation within the context of conservation and display:
...it is an undoubted paradox that objects which are kept temporarily or permanently out of the circuit of economic activity should even be so afforded the kind of special protection normally reserved for precious objects. The fact is that they are precious objects, yet they paradoxically have an exchange value and no practical or usage value. (Pomian, 1990, p 10)
Penn-Gaskell’s scrapbook both demonstrates and complicates Pomian’s thesis. Kept in protective storage the item is accorded value beyond its financial worth, yet having been labelled irrelevant, the scrapbook is kept apart from the rest of the collection, which consists of items much more evidently 'precious'.Clearly an economy of reasoning is at work in determining which objects are of high enough value to warrant preservation. Where the scrapbook is deemed marginal, albums of airmail stamps – not dissimilar in form to the scrapbook – occupy a prized position in the Penn-Gaskell stores. The Penn-Gaskell scrapbook, then, has been protected in part due to its proximity, and similarity, to more easily valued items of aeronautica.
Returning, by way of intra-journal conversation, to Ben Russell’s concluding statements in his paper on the Watt Workshop, I would add that the usefulness of making things is not so evident in cases which do not correspond to evident values of economic utility. The Penn-Gaskell collection was reactive to the history of flight, and has left no great technical legacy, but I do not believe that this has diminished its importance, or that it should be negatively compared to the ‘decorative items and objects of consumption’ accrued by a great scientific figure such as James Watt. Should we then look at collections as productions in their own right? If we do so, questions will necessarily arise over issues of their production and what conditions ought to apply to their ownership.
Russell concluded his study of Watt with the assertion that ‘the most important thing for the UK now is to get people out there, thinking, designing, making and selling tangible things’. The Penn-Gaskell collection teaches us a different lesson: it demonstrates the social limits of inclusion in a ‘things’ oriented culture – in which James Watt’s workshop is preserved as a place of Romantic genius infused with ‘Geist’, while Penn-Gaskell’s cottage store is used implicitly in records to devalue her skill as a collector. Here, it is not the impulse to creativity, but to reflexivity and critique which leaves such an interesting mark on its objects. Penn-Gaskell made something which is near impossible to sell. It is for cases such as these that we must develop alternate systems of evaluating objects which exist and are created outside of economic circulation when they enter the collections of science and technology museums.
In a disciplinary and capital-driven framework of successful invention and production, Penn-Gaskell’s scrapbook is a total failure. And that, I believe, is precisely why it is so interesting.
This research has been funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council UK Collaborative Doctoral Award between the Science Museum and the University of Cambridge. My thanks go to Simon Schaffer, Boris Jardine, Patricia Fara, Andrew Nahum, Kate Steiner and my reviewers for their time and comments on various drafts.
Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140210/007