Hi there! My name is Victoria Butt and I am a student at the University of Glasgow doing a Masters degree in Material Culture and Artefact Studies. As part of my degree programme I carried out a work placement here at Summerlee Museum.
As a student of material culture, over the past year my process of thinking about objects from the past has been re-established. Instead of the traditional way of thinking about the past (through text, with objects supplementing this knowledge), we focus directly on the artefact itself and its material properties. We learn to ‘read’ the materials and draw information from their unique properties. From doing this, we gain an entirely different perspective on the item in question. The power that objects have convey things differently than that of written words. In many cases material things can actually say a lot more than what is written down about them. This is especially true when we think about how material culture can tell us more about the people who are generally under-represented in history. These banners from various friendly societies, co-ops and political reforms are thus excellent examples of how we can read objects and learn from engaging with the materials themselves.
So, from this, we do not ask what we can decipher about the banners and their history; we instead ask what the banners tell us about themselves. Through consulting material things we can ask what they might be able to illuminate about the past
What do we mean by material culture?
There are various things to look out for when talking about material culture. A few questions we can ask are:
What decorations are there on the banners, including patterns and pictures? What symbols occur and re-occur? What colours were used? What words are written on it? Do these give us any indication of who used or made them?
What shape is the banner? What size is the banner? What is it made of? Is there anything about these properties that gives us any indications of what the function and use of the banner was?
By looking at these things we can begin to imagine how these banners may have functioned when they were in use.
Kilsyth Reform Banners
These banners can be used as an excellent case study to explore how we can use material culture to find out about the past.
The museum has three very similar banners in the collection that are all from political reform demonstrations in 1884.
All three are small, pennant shaped, brightly painted bannerettes. There is a pole sleeve that runs along the top of the banners that suggest that they were hung from the top.
The writing on all three banners is plainly and clearly written making it very easy to read.
Both the bright colours and the large writing suggests that these banners were made to be seen and displayed.
In this particular case our reading of the banners’ material culture is aided through their depiction and representation in a contemporary source. From the Glasgow gossip magazine Quiz, there is a picture of the city’s franchise demonstration in 1884 where the Kilsyth Reform banners are actually depicted in use.
Sources like these are invaluable as the press often contained detailed reports of banners that were displayed at demonstration, such as; details of inscriptions and images, size, colour, material, who carried them, and even whether the banner had been used before. Moreover they allow us to observe these material objects in their performative context.
In the case of these reform banners from Kilsyth, their performance was public procession and demonstrations that extends from the people protesting but also to the spectators.
It is estimated that around 50,000 people marched from Kelvingrove Park to Glasgow Green in this ‘Great Franchise Demonstration’.
Airdrie Weavers’ Society Banner
This is a beautifully made white silk banner with a blue silk thread fringing, cords and tassels. From the way the banner is decorated we can see that it is meant to be hung from the top.
The banner fulfils its basic duties by informing us of the society’s name (Airdrie Weavers’ Society), its motto (‘Weave Truth With Trust’), and when it was formed (1781). It is also adorned with decorations and symbols that can be used to further our understanding of the banner as a whole.
The symbols depicted are a crown on a cushion, a boar’s head with shuttle in its mouth sitting on top of a warp; which is a weaver’s symbol. There is also the standard shaking hands symbol which represents a friendly society, and is a symbol you will find on almost all friendly society banners.
1832 Reform Banner
The 1832 Reform banner is another important one in the museum’s collection. It is one of only two surviving banners marking the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill.
This rectangular banner has been painted on both sides and depicts an image of a woman who two cherubs in the air, with a lion below. The figures are surrounded by roses and thistles – representing Scotland and England. There is a scroll above the figures with gilded letters that read ‘CALEDONIA’, and another, along the bottom, reading ‘LIBERTY AND PEACE’. The woman holds a scroll with ‘REFORM BILL’ in her right hand. All the symbols and words on this banner point towards the meaning of it.
The 1832 Reform Acct was the first electoral reform act to pass through Parliament and extended the franchise so that more men could vote, but was still very limited in its scope. This banner was perhaps paraded through the streets of North Lanarkshire in favour of this bill in a public demonstration.
An important part of this banner’s story is that it has only recently been found in the attic of a derelict 19th century shop in Holytown, North Lanarkshire. It had been stored rolled up around a wooden pole for who knows how many years.
As we have seen, there is more than meets the eye with these banners and a fuller, more in-depth study of them is needed in order to properly place them in their performative and functional context; and the study of their material culture is key to this.