Display In Focus: Love & Desire


Writing this post is Jonathan, one of the students on the project. I’m the one in the grey jumper at the back of this image here.


Part of the purpose of this blog is to provide some insight as to how we in the group constructed the overall exhibition, and to that end, here’s a rundown of how my own display was put together.

Part 1: What Was I Even Going To Talk About?

So, we laid out pretty early in that we wanted the general abstract of the exhibition to have a LGBTQ+ theme and confront various issues on identity, particularly owing to the historical connection with the University such a topic presented. However, for the sake of management, and providing each student an opportunity to showcase their own skills, it was decided we would delegate amongst ourselves an individual theme and display that each of us could develop of our own accord. A trickier process than it might seem at first glance, as it required asking just what sort of topics we wanted to approach, how we wished to approached them, and most particularly whether or not there was enough material to support have. That latter point is what I first ran up against.

See, the initial idea I sought to develop was representation of LGBTQ+ figures in fiction. Then it was noted that we had to use material from the collections of the Museum of English Rural Life and/or the University archives, and it dawned on me that I may not be able to find so much. The uncertainty lasted for weeks, until one day we were given a tour through the archives on the MERL site, and inspiration appeared before us.

mills and boon book

So alright, ‘Representation’ in the sense of specific characters and stories wasn’t going to pan out. But a dissection of the imagery of culture, and how  it relates to given identities and desires? That could be done with what we had.

Part 2: Location, Location, Location

With a rough idea of the direction of my display in mind, next came the task of deciding where I was going to have it, what was going to go in it, and how it would all be arranged. The first part was decided to be the Staircase Hall in the MERL, featuring four cases – one tall standing case, and three table height display cases. Prior to my own display, the Staircase Hall had been host to Wintertide, a display that explored the concept of winter throughout the world.


Before any work could be done to put my display in place, Wintertide and all its material had to be put away. This was done in February at the first opportunity; unfortunately as I hadn’t trimmed down the list of objects I wanted quickly enough for submission – lesson learned, one will invariably want more than can actually be used – objects for the Love & Desire display couldn’t actually be put in. However, planning could be done now that the cases were empty, to get a better idea of how it would all fit.

Part 3: Installation, Installation, Installation


This was a first effort to figure out how the case containing Mills & Boon related material – the material that perhaps most touches on ‘Love & Desire’ in the whole display – might actually be able to hold it all. With the leaflets only a little bigger than the books I sought to use, it quickly made apparent I was going to run out of space for the ten books I was hoping to use,  alongside material on Violet Winspear, if I laid them flat.


Human beings live in three dimensions however, and I began to consider how I might ply this to make the most of the space. This is what the planning looked like with the leaflets…


While this is how it appeared in my crudely drawn draft. Usage of vertical space would reduce the necessary horizontal space, while still showing off the covers – the primary reason for the books being in the case,  as they showcased romantic and sexual fantasies – at a reasonable enough angle. It was a cunning plan…


Almost foiled by the simple fact there weren’t enough stands. The result was to attempt a mix where some would stand, others would lie flat, and hope the mixed arrangement looked interesting enough to make up for the inconsistency. While I didn’t have labels put together at this time, I used holders to get a rough sense of where they would occupy the space, also providing an opportunity to better understand what the labels would actually need to summarise around them.


Meanwhile, attempting to install in the standing case presented two previously unconsidered issues. Firstly, just how well the sunlight would shine directly down on the case, refracted by the suspended levels, obscuring some of the images. Secondly was that the ‘green’ edge of one of the suspended levels could in fact cut across any images that were too ‘high’ beneath them. Unfortunately there was no real way of solving either issue; only mitigate them by careful positioning and deciding what I wanted prioritise clarity for, based on a presumption of where a viewer might stand.


Then there was this. A letter from the Conservative government of 1987, to inform the public in the midst of panic regarding HIV/AIDS. A sobering piece, in the midst in what was looking likely to be more lighthearted and/or curious poking at the peculiar nature of old expectations and social standards. There were questions about whether or not it really belonged; if perhaps its placement in contrast would induce a kind of whiplash in the experience of a viewer that would dissuade them from continued engagement. The suggestion was made to move it to another of the displays where it might be better placed, but in the end I felt that perhaps such harsh contrast was necessary, and indeed could be highlighted through the object’s isolation at the very top of the case.


A less emotive, and much more spatial issue emerged in dealing with the Victorian children’s literature. Had to enough space for label holders, but also couldn’t have century old books brushing up against each other. The solution was to again use a bit of vertical space, in this case (metaphorically and literally) resting the books on towers of foam blocks, providing clearance.

For the fourth and final case… that was actually left to Jordan and Ffion, as perhaps four cases was one too many for myself. So with that out of the way, all the major material for my display was in place…

To Be Continued.


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