The story behind the stories of ‘Women of Empire’ Reply

By Sangeeta Kocharekar 

Three groups of female mannequins stand in the foyer of the Waverley Library. They stand tall in their costumes. They look courageous. Humble. Unknown. Safiye and Ella

The mannequins represent the untold stories of the women whose lives were transformed by their experiences during World War I. These are the women who took over from the men on farms, the women who organised local Red Cross branches, the women who waited for the telegrams of news of their husbands and sons and brothers, and the women who sewed clothing for the troops.

These are the women selected for the ‘Women of Empire’ exhibition.

“I call them ‘extraordinary, ordinary women’ because they were ordinary women. They could’ve been anyone, they could’ve been from Canberra or Ballarat or Waverley in Sydney or Timbucktu,” says Fiona Baverstock, the exhibition’s curator.

“They were transformed by their experiences, but they also transformed themselves and the society around them.” Fiona worked with her husband, Keith Baverstock, who acted as Chief Experiences Officer (CEO), for three years to pull the exhibition together. Fiona and Keith are collectors and dealers in antique and vintage fashion, textiles and associated memorabilia, and have been involved with staging costume exhibitions for 10 years.

Keith has been involved in historical projects for 40 years in Australia and overseas. His main role is to market the exhibition, design the artwork, and plan the set-up and pack-down logistics. “Also, despite being a mere male, I do have a very good eye for fashion and do a lot of the purchasing here and overseas,” he says.

InaThe process of compiling the items for the exhibition unfolded naturally, Fiona says. “Every time I got something that was of that era, I would pull it out of the stock, put it aside and say, that’s going to be First World War,” she says.

Once she’d chosen the women whose stories she’d wanted to tell — about 36 in total — Fiona asked herself what she thought the women would have been wearing during their war experiences. She considered if she had similar pieces already in her stock, or if she could somehow acquire them.

If the costumes needed to be acquired, Fiona and Keith would then set about scouring the world to find them. They dealt mainly with specialist auction houses, and specialist dealers, but tended to steer away from online auctioning such as eBay, as they didn’t feel they could trust the authenticity of items on such sites.

Researching and selecting the women to be included in the exhibition was also a lengthy and meticulous process. “I go to as many original sources as possible. The Internet’s wonderful, but there’s a lot of rubbish on it. There were not lots of books on the women,” Fiona says. She went through original documents, diaries, and military personnel files, and old newspaper accounts to collect information.

She found it difficult deciding who to leave out of the exhibition, not who to include. “We wanted to pull together as many different strands as possible, to represent women who’d been active in different ways. We wanted as many different kinds of participation as possible represented,” she says.

Fiona then distilled each of the selected women’s stories into 200 words. The stories accompanied the mannequins in the touring exhibition. The exhibit will tour public venues across Australia and New Zealand for four years, from 2015 to 2019. This year alone, it has already appeared in five venues, including Waverley Library, and Bowen Library, part of Randwick Council.

Fiona and Keith had previously worked with Bowen Library, setting up an exhibition, called ‘Dressed for the Voyage’, on the costumes passengers wore on the Titanic. As they were dismounting the exhibition, they told Georgina Keep, Local Studies Librarian at Randwick Council, that they were working on a new project, ‘Women of Empire’.

Georgina asked if Bowen Library could have it for the centenary of the Gallipoli Landing in April 2015. She got the exhibition.

Bowen Library had dedicated the centre of the library as exhibition space in 2009 and filled it mainly with local exhibitions. Since then, it has broadened its exhibition program to encompass art, sculpture, local history, and children’s artwork from library activities, Georgina says.

However, the space was too small to accommodate the total number of mannequins in the ‘Women of Empire’ exhibit, so the library invited Waverley to share the project. Together Georgina and Sophia Smiley, Local History Research and Engagement Officer at Waverley Library, went through the list of women and divided it between the two libraries.

While neither Georgina nor Sophia had favourites, they can point to special women.

“In our library we had Maud Butler, one of the only known nurses of Aboriginal ancestry or descent, so we were happy to have some diversity in the collection by featuring her story,” Sophia says.

She also mentioned the story of Elizabeth Anne Lassetter, who was on her way to France with her son, Fred, to see her husband who was serving there. The two were on board a ship called the Lusitania, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine.

The description next to Elizabeth’s mannequin says, “Fred and friend Harold urged her to take off her skirt and the three of them plunged into the freezing water. Floating past, with its legs in the air, was the ship’s grand piano and the two men hauled Elizabeth aboard, linking arms around her so that she could not fall off.”

Fiona, who had dressed Elizabeth’s mannequin in an elegant luncheon dress of cream silk with lace and beading, wrote at the end of Elizabeth’s story, “We imagine she would have clung to the slightly passé ‘hobble’ style created by the lace band around the skirt.”

Sophia says the story illustrated the dangers that anyone could have faced. A few primary artefacts from the ship were displayed in the glass case next the mannequin.

Georgina regards the stories of mothers who had lost more than one son as particularly striking. “It was good to tell their stories. And I think sometimes that it what people are most affected by — the personal side of the women’s experience living through the war.”

Keith’s favourite story is that of Jane Sam. “She was a street urchin, prostitute, reformatory girl and did everything that society of the period found distasteful, and yet she became the mother of heroes,” he says. Jane Sam sent five sons of her 16 children to war; four returned.

The four-week exhibition attracted a steady flow of school groups, regular library visitors and many residents.

“One lady travelled from Wollongong. She saw our advertisement in the National Trust programme. She was very moved by the exhibition. She took photos and on her way out, thanked me,” Georgina says. Sophia says that patrons at Waverley Library were also very pleased with the exhibition.

Keith says the exhibition is important to visit because it is a topic that has largely been ignored by museums and the media.

“Behind every soldier there was a mother, sweetheart, sister or wife. They all have stories to tell,” he says.

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