I’ve written before about illuminating discoveries in local museums, such as finding the works of Rolinda Sharples in the Bristol Museum and Gallery, challenging the notion (among others) that women historically stayed at home doing nothing much. Our recent week in Wales turned up some interesting evidence to counter assumptions about traditionally masculine skills and pastimes.
We visited Swansea Museum and in common with many local museums up and down the country at the moment, they have a sizeable current exhibition on the local experience of World War One. The displays cover life in the trenches, and on the home front, looking at the full gamut of lives affected and the contributions of men and women alike, in fighting on land and at sea, in nursing and in war work in industry and agriculture, as well as the experiences of conscientious objectors. The updates on the later lives of those who survived the Western Front made for very interesting reading, including men who’d lost limbs or survived other appalling experiences. Some never recovered, mentally or physically. Others simply went back to their families and former lives working in the coal mines, on the docks and on the farms, with or without artificial limbs, or lingering shrapnel working its way out of their flesh for decades after.
Part of the transition from the unreality of war back to civilian life was what we would now call occupational therapy. The display cases had a fine range of decorative pin cushions, embroidered keepsakes and belts etc, made by wounded soldiers and those on active duty alike, sent home to wives and sweethearts. A few were a bit rough and ready but most were made to a very high standard, showing both craft and dedication.
Fancy needlework? For manly men? Yes, and when you think about it, what’s so surprising about that? Every soldier’s kit included needle and thread, as making running repairs to uniforms would have been routinely required. This fancy needlework was a way of connecting with home, as well as occupying hands and minds amid the trials and tribulations as well as the extended periods of boredom that make up warfare. If books and newspapers were available, not everyone wants to read.
More than that, I remembered a piece I’d heard on Radio 4’s All in the Mind programme a few years back, about treating PTSD in soldiers suffering after modern wars. Therapists have been teaching patients to knit. They have discovered that patients benefit from talking through traumatic experiences at the same time as having their hands and part of their attention occupied with such a task. These memories become denatured, less intrusive, as the brain somehow reprograms itself in a way that doesn’t happen when talking without such activity allows the memory to replay awful events with undiminished horror.
It seems that the British Army may have cottoned on to this, whether or not they realised it, well over a hundred years ago. There were similar examples of embroidery from WWI and earlier in The Regimental Museum of The Royal Welsh Regiment in Brecon, as well as a very fine patchwork table covering made up of scraps from uniform tunics in scarlet, green and cream wool cloth.
Incidentally, while celebrating the heroic service of this regiment’s soldiers all over the world, and most notably at Rorke’s Drift, the particular museum wasn’t in the least bombastic or jingoistic about the ‘glory days of Empire’. There were clear and concise explanations of the short-sighted and divisive actions and decisions by British governments and generals which prompted local protests and unrest, resulting in the wars which young men were sent to fight across Africa, Asia and elsewhere. These days, such military museums have moved well beyond ‘My country, right or wrong!’.
There’s so much for the writer in all this. A reminder that what we might consider women’s skills and hobbies nowadays, weren’t always so. A reminder that life goes on before, around and after dramatic, traumatic events, both for whoever might be at the centre of it, and for their family and friends. A reminder that ordinary people cope in different ways with extraordinary events.
I’m not yet sure how these various things will work their way into my writing but experience tells me they will. Meantime, support your local museums!