New Display at the Yorkshire Museum Reveals the Hidden Women of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society

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New Display at the Yorkshire Museum Reveals the Hidden Women of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society

14 May 2018

A new display revealing the hidden history of the women who gave their time, money and collections to a society which initially banned them from joining has been revealed at the Yorkshire Museum.

Set up in 1822 as a forum to improve members’ understanding of natural sciences, the Yorkshire Philosophical Society (YPS) refused membership to women until 1850.

However a select number of women contributed significantly in those early years and new research by University of York MA student, Rachel Campbell, together with artefacts from the Yorkshire Museum collections has been put on display to tell their stories. Rachel said:

“Women were not allowed to be members when the society was set up in 1822 but as Annual Subscribers they had access to the Yorkshire Museum and the York Museum Gardens. The main way women could take part was by donating money and various items to the museum, such as fossils and minerals. They were part of a group of wealthy families who were important to the society, providing them with useful social and economic networks.”

Among the early donors was the Norcliffe/Best family. Anne Norcliffe, of Langton Wold, was the first woman to be mentioned on the list of donors. In 1824 she gave the museum items similar to the ones in the new display. Her daughter Mary Norcliffe Best donated Roman artefacts and various types of insects.

Mary Ellen Best, the artist, was her daughter and regularly visited the Gardens and Museum, meeting other members of the Society and enlarging her circle of acquaintances and potential patrons. The self-portrait on display, ‘The Artist at Work’, shows Mary Ellen at her easel. This watercolour is currently on display in York Art Gallery as part of the ’70 Years of Giving Exhibition’, which celebrates the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Friends of York Art Gallery.

Another early contributor was Susan Thorpe, married to Anthony Thorpe, who was one of the men who set up the Society in 1822. In 1831 Susan donated bones from animals found in Kirkdale Cave, a key event in the establishment of the society. Discovered in 1821, the cave contained fossilised bones of animals not found in Britain such as elephants, hippopotamus and cave hyenas. Its discovery revealed an ancient eco-system that once existed in what is now North Yorkshire. The bones on display are the type donated by Susan Thorpe.

Rachel carried out the research at the Yorkshire Museum while on a Public History Placement. This is an option module offered as part of the MA in Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York and provides students with the opportunity to experience developing a public history project in practice, and to reflect critically upon that practice.

The display is on show at the Yorkshire Museum until June 2018.