Next up in my week-long feature for International Podcast Month we have one of my fave new history podcasts of 2020 – the Things in Jars Podcast.
Six months ago, Assistant Curators Melissa and Poppy were busy preparing for Wordsworth Grasmere’s grand reopening. Formerly known as Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum, our little Cumbrian site was nearing the end of a lengthy period of redevelopment, and gearing up to welcome visitors back on Wordsworth’s 250th birthday in April 2020. Everything was busy. Melissa was working hard on our exhibition programme, travelling across the country to record gallery films with Wordsworthian experts. Poppy had spent many weeks in Dove Cottage, cleaning, packing, and moving items out of storage and into their new homes.
Nobody could have guessed that, by the time Wordsworth’s birthday rolled around on the morning of 7th April 2020, we wouldn’t be there to see it. Like many museum professionals around the world, we were both furloughed at the beginning of April due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And as a result, Things in Jars was born!
Starting a podcast was a scary step for our introverted selves, but we wanted to stay connected with the museum world and to keep doing what we love. Things in Jars is a museum podcast for lovers of history, heritage, and the bizarre, where each week we explore fascinating artefacts from museums around the world. It’s a virtual cabinet of curiosities, where tales of severed hands and haunted dolls sit side-by-side with stolen brains, stone circles and Presidential body parts. We’re also passionate about supporting aspiring and emerging curators, and have recorded a series of job-focused episodes for those wanting to break into the sector.
With 8 episodes released so far and so many amazing objects discussed, it’s impossibly difficult to choose a favourite object to write about! The trouble with being a curator is that they all end up being favourites. But we’ve pulled ourselves together and had a go – and Melissa is up first:
When planning our Medical episode, one thing immediately sprang to mind: a letter written by Sara Coleridge, in which she describes her experience of breast cancer in the early 1850s.
Sara was the daughter of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and is best known for editing her father’s works after his death – though she can count the pioneering fantasy novel Phantasmion as one of her many literary achievements! I’m lucky enough to know some of Sara’s letters personally, as they are part of the manuscript collection at Wordsworth Grasmere (where Poppy and I work).
In this particular letter, written to Edward Quillinan on 8 October 1850, Sara describes her symptoms and treatment options, including abandoned plans for surgery, with frank honesty. ‘I am now rallying’, she writes, after sinking into ‘a state of nerves’ that left her unable to eat or sleep. She describes sensations of ‘swelling & fullness and tightness’, before explaining ‘I am not allowed to raise my right arm over my head to dress my hair’. But – thankfully – ‘writing is permitted’. With regards to recovery, she acknowledges there is little hope: ‘I am not medically encouraged to look to the termination of my malady.’ Sadly, Sara died 18 months later, aged 49.
I admire Sara a great deal: her intelligence and wit shine through her letters, and her candid accounts of her struggles with health (both physical and mental) throughout her life are fascinating and deeply moving. I loved having the chance to share a small part of Sara’s life on the show, and I’m sure she’ll be back for future episodes!
You can read Sara’s letter in full via Wordsworth Grasmere’s online collection, at https://wordsworth.org.uk.
Poppy managed to sidestep choosing a specific object, and instead chose a favourite theme. Sneaky.
Episode 8 is my favourite so far, because the chosen theme was Circus. I can’t remember when or what started it, but for the longest time I’ve been totally in love with the idea of the circus. In fact, something that cemented my friendship with Melissa in the early days of our getting to know each other was our shared love of Erin Morgenstern’s fantasy novel ‘The Night Circus’. For both of us, it was the perfect escape into a shimmering, toffee-popcorn-scented world of striped tents and bonfires; fairy lights and fortune-tellers. Pure magic from start to finish!
So, it was a dream come true to sift through various circus archives for stories to bring to the podcast. In the Ringling Museum collection – a circus museum based in Florida – I discovered a bottle of bronze body paint belonging to an aerialist named Charlotte Shive. On Googling her name, it transpired that Charlotte lived my ultimate fantasy – abandoning her career as a nursing student to run away with the circus in 1917.
In an article written by fellow circus performer Lillian Leitzel, I learned that the Barnum and Bailey Circus trained on a lot opposite the hospital where Charlotte worked, and before long, she met and married aerialist Frank Shive. He trained her to perform stunts on the trapeze, and she soon became an integral part of the shows (how she did this so quickly, I don’t know. I’ve been taking aerial circus classes myself for the past two years and I’m convinced that it’s impossible to look graceful as a beginner!). Unfortunately, Frank got sick and died within fifteen years of their marriage, and to pay his medical bills, Charlotte developed a hair-raising solo trapeze act (with no safety net!), and undertook stunt work for a 1928 film. She did return to the circus after Frank’s death – this time, performing an act that involved being lifted into the air by her teeth. Yikes!
We always come back to the human stories on our podcast, and I loved getting to glimpse into Charlotte’s life through something she owned. And of course, bronze body paint totally embodies the glitz and glamour of the circus, which makes it an instant favourite with me.
Episode 8 can be found in full here: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1211966/episodes/5045864
Despite being terrified to put ourselves out there in the podcasting world, we’re very glad we took the plunge! We are so grateful for everyone’s support and lovely comments – they keep us going when the editing gets tough, or the technology rebels against us for the millionth time!
In terms of what’s coming up on the podcast, we have big plans for the month of October, when we’ll hopefully (fingers crossed!) be bringing you an additional, Halloween-themed episode every week, joined by some very spooky guests! We’ll also be recording a special Q&A episode for Ask a Curator Day on 16th September, where we’ll be answering questions sent to us on Twitter and Instagram. If you have any burning questions about curating museum collections or life behind the scenes of the museum – or if you just want to know what our favourite items are, and what we’d get a tattoo of if we had to choose – we’d love to hear from you! Follow us on Instagram (@ThingsinJarsPodcast) and Twitter (@ThingsinJarsPod) for updates.
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