As a Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies student at the University of East Anglia (UEA), the opportunity to spend my work-placement supporting the Olive Edis project was unmissable. I feel very fortunate have been a part of its development, culminating in the opening of the fantastic new displays at Cromer Museum.
One of my tasks has been conducting face-to-face questionnaires with visitors to gather their feedback about the new gallery. What was striking, and no doubt is a testament to Edis’s rich and varied portfolio, is how visitors have repeatedly expressed a meaningful and often personal engagement with the work. It was thought-provoking to see that different people responded to surprisingly varied aspects, including (to name but a few examples): the changing roles of women that these images reflect; the costumes and clothing used by her sitters and by Edis herself; what the collection can tell us about the life of the photographer and of the photographic techniques of the time; or, of course, how they capture the personality of the enigmatic fishermen.
For me, this is an interesting reflection on one of the unique qualities of photography. By its nature it is an index of reality but the images offer us only a fragment of that reality and are necessarily an interpretation of it. Whilst the photographer frames her subject to tell a certain story or bestow the image with the desired aesthetic quality, the meaning of the photograph is not fixed. As recent debates will tell us, layers of interpretation are added throughout time, influenced by aspects such as the photograph’s mode of display, the context it is placed in, and the perspective of those who are viewing it.
Edis’s photographs have become an intrinsic part of North Norfolk’s cultural heritage and, linked to photography’s potential for varied interpretations, they have become valuable for a range of historical purposes. Sheringham Museum for example, is currently hosting a fascinating display of European fishing ganseys. Here, the museum’s colourised Edis portrait of Sally Middleton served as an important reminder that ganseys were not only worn by fishermen and that there is evidence of patterns being adapted for different members of the family. Edis sold this portrait as a postcard and later exhibited it at the Festival of Britain but for Sheringham Museum, the detailed quality of the image and the addition of colour enabled volunteers to recreate the gansey-like knitting pattern of Sally’s waistcoat, adding an important local connection to the exhibition.
At the Girl Guide Archive Resource Centre in Coltishall, which looks after a large collection of historically important items relating to the history of Girl Guiding in Norfolk, Edis’s group portrait of Commissioners taken in 1919 was of particular interest. Not only does it serve as a useful tool in demonstrating style of uniform used in this era and help with the identification of items in the collection, but visitors to the centre have been asked to record their thoughts and feelings about the image, coming up with a wide range of questions and responses.
It’s been a fascinating experience to learn about Olive Edis, and I am excited to see the new perspectives that people will continue to bring to this wonderful collection.