I’m a historian and I’ve recently been working on a book about material life in Victorian and Edwardian Institutions. At Home in the Institution: Material Life in Asylums, Schools and Lodging Houses explores lunatic asylums (as they were known to contemporaries), schools for middle-class girls and boys and different kinds of lodging houses.

I write about material life because it offers a new way of understanding how people operated in the past. If men and women left no other record of their lives, trying to uncover the material worlds they lived in can help us understand their experiences. In the case of institutions, looking at the spaces created for inmates, and the goods they were allowed, can reveal the operation of power in these places. This means not just looking at decoration and furnishing, and the clothes and objects provided by institutions, but also at how inmates used space and what they did with the things they were given.

The research I’m writing about comes from a project – At Home in the Institution – which I worked on at RHUL with Lesley Hoskins and Rebecca Preston. It’s also the basis of a collection of essays, an online image gallery, and a local history website.

I started this blog to look at some of the things that were important to the men and women who lived in these institutions, and to develop some ideas that didn’t make it into the book. Historical writing often leaves many loose threads, stories untold, and things forgotten because they won’t fit into a conventional analytical frame. This blog is my attempt to tease out some of these strands, and write about them in a different way.

Over the past year I’ve also been working on using my research in a different way, to curate an exhibition with Lesley and Rebecca – Homes of the Homeless: Seeking Shelter in Victorian London, which was on at the Geffrye Museum of the Home in Hoxton earlier this year. Sifting through our evidence for a different purpose and presenting it for a wider audience made me think about our research in a new way. So some of the writing here is about that process.

I’m also on maternity leave at the moment – and blogging fits into nap time.

Jane Hamlett 04/09/2015 @janehamlett

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