Project archivist, Elaine MacGillivray, dances us through the magic of the ‘Body Language’ exhibition launch.
A sudden booming and magical gong hushed invited guests. Its exotic timbre reverberated throughout the polished black granite, double-height, library foyer. Chatting paused…drinks suspended. All eyes turned to the small company of ‘MSc Dance Science and Education’ student dancers as they weaved their way through the standing audience to centre stage. Simple costumes of black leotards and tights were the perfect portal to an emotive and hypnotic choreography. The audience was transported, invited to come along on a wonderful journey of movement in space and time, as the dancers responded to the percussive gong. Finally, as the vibrations of the last gong strike gradually faded away, the audience applause occupied the vacancy. This is how to launch an exhibition.
Last Thursday (25 July 2019) students past and present, academics, professional support staff, volunteers, senior university staff and project partners came together to preview and celebrate the launch of the Wellcome Trust funded archive exhibition ‘Body Language’. Guests, from all over Scotland, were welcomed by Head of Special Collections and the Centre for Research Collections, Dr Joseph Marshall. This was followed by opening speeches from Wendy Timmons, Programme Director, MSc Dance Science and Education at the University of Edinburgh, and then from Professor John Ravenscroft, Chair of Childhood Visual Impairment at Moray House School of Education.
The exhibition was declared open and dancers continued to move throughout the exhibition space, responding to percussive instruments, as guests enjoyed their preview exploration of the exhibition. We were treated to a visual feast of contemporary dance inspired by learning from the (very) tangible past. The dance students choreographed their work as a creative response to the film ‘The Gong’. ‘The Gong’ film illustrates dance teaching at Dunfermline College of Physical Education in the 1960s (which included aesthetic and dramatic forms) and is featured in the exhibition.
The ‘Body Language’ exhibition offers a unique insight into the work and life of Scottish female pioneers in movement, dance and physical education. We discover this through the archive collections of Dunfermline College of Physical Education (one of the first training colleges for female physical education teachers); Scottish Gymnastics (and its predecessors), and Margaret Morris (1891-1980). The exhibition features film, photographic images, textiles, printed works and manuscripts from across these three archive collections. The archive collections of Dunfermline College of Physical Education and Scottish Gymnastics are held at the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh. The Margaret Morris collection is held by our project partner, Culture Perth and Kinross, at their Fergusson Gallery in Perth.
The University of Edinburgh’s Main Library Exhibition Gallery buzzed with the chatter of guests, as members of Dunfermline College of Physical Education Old Students’ Association mingled with archive cataloguing project volunteers, current students with professional and curatorial staff, and academics with dancers. Guests chuckled and nodded in agreement as Professor Ravenscroft compared a visit to the archives to that of a visit to Narnia. We agree that the archives are magical: a treasure chest, full to overflowing, with knowledge, ideas, learning and inspiration. The curation and staging of this exhibition is the culmination of months, if not years, of collaborative work involving archivists, curators, academics and project partners. But it is really only the beginning. The seed has now been planted, from which will grow a range public engagement activities with a variety of communities; academic research, and an enhanced student experience. It is a shining example of how archive collections can inform, inspire, encourage and facilitate inter-disciplinary working, research and creative engagement.
Disclaimer: whilst we agree with Professor Ravenscroft that like Narnia, archives are magical, we must make absolutely clear that they are not fictional, and you definitely cannot access them via the back of your wardrobe. We know, we checked. You can however, get yourself along to the University of Edinburgh’s Main Library Exhibition Gallery to experience for yourself the magic of the ‘Body Language’ exhibition. It’s free and you don’t even need a ticket!
‘Body Language’ runs from 26 July – 26 October 2019 at the University of Edinburgh Main Library Exhibition Gallery, George Square, Edinburgh. The exhibition is open from Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm, with Sunday opening included in August. The exhibition forms part of the University of Edinburgh’s Exhibition programme as well as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme. You can view the student performance from the exhibition launch event here.
Elaine MacGillivray, project archivist.