For International Women's Day 2021, we explore the stories of nine pioneering women, from archaeologists to printmakers.
To celebrate International Women's Day, staff from across the Museum have picked female pioneers in their fields – women who have inspired them and their work, and whose legacy should be remembered today.
An invaluable yet overlooked Egyptologist: Marguerite Naville
– Marie Vandenbeusch, Project curator, Egypt and Sudan.
On the face of it, 19th century archaeology was a world of men. However, if you look carefully, you will see the significant contribution of women behind the scenes.
Marguerite Naville (1852–1930) was the wife of Swiss Egyptologist Edouard Naville who ran the first excavations organised by the Egypt Exploration Fund with, as he confessed himself, no archaeological experience. Edouard Naville was omnipresent during my studies at the University of Geneva where he held the first professorship of Egyptology, but very little was said of Marguerite in spite of her crucial role in her husband's career.
Marguerite not only raised their four children, but also copied and inked inscriptions, reliefs and monuments, developing new techniques that reflected both the state of a monument and its conservation. She drew many of the illustrations in her husband's publications, and one of the three volumes of an invaluable edition of the Book of the Dead fully consists of her plates. As with most Egyptologists, I regularly consulted these volumes which were until recently indispensable in the study of the Book of the Dead. Much of the photographic documentation and recordings of inscriptions as part of the excavation work in the temple of Deir el-Bahari (near Luxor) were by her.
At best, Marguerite's initials appear at the corner of the published illustrations, or her name pops up in the acknowledgments. Although she didn't appear to complain about this lack of recognition, it's important for us to remember that Edouard Naville and some of his contemporaries partly owed their successful careers to the work of their wives.
A library pioneer: Belle da Costa Greene
– Jeannette Plummer Sires, Curator, Archaeological Assemblages
Belle da Costa Greene (1879–1950) was the first director of what is now the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, and is one of the most important librarians and archivists in American history. Her story is one of hard work, intelligence and reinvention.
Born Belle Marion Greener, she was the daughter of the first Black-American graduate of Harvard University, Richard Theodore Greener. After becoming a diplomat, Mr Greener left his first family and started a new one in Siberia. In order to distance themselves from him, Belle, her mother and her siblings, who all passed as white, opted to change their names. Belle replaced her middle name with 'da Costa' – the association with Portuguese heritage used to explain her complexion.
In 1905, financier J.P. Morgan hired Belle to be his personal librarian and manage his expanding collection of rare books. She was hired for her expertise in illuminated (illustrated) manuscripts and savvy bargaining skills. Belle would go on to manage millions of dollars and make many trips to Europe acquiring rare books and artwork to expand the Morgan Library collection. She hoped to one day outdo the collection of the British Museum (the book collection now held in the British Library) and the Bibliothéque Nationale.
Her influence was so significant that in 1924 when the Morgan Library became a public institution, she was selected as its inaugural Director and remained so until her retirement in 1948. During her time as Director, Belle not only built the collection but organised public exhibitions, improved bibliographical records and championed the work of female scholars and librarians. It is remarkable to consider that she was able to rise to such a powerful role and accomplish so much as a Black woman during segregation in the United States.
Master conservator: Prof. Elizabeth Pye
– Duygu Camurcuoglu ACR, FIIC, Senior Conservator
Elizabeth Pye undertook ground-breaking work in the field of conservation. Following her archaeology degree at the University of Edinburgh, Elizabeth came to the Institute of Archaeology (IoA) in London at the end the 1960s to pursue further training and a career in the conservation of archaeological objects. She could not have foreseen at the time that her passion and knowledge would inspire so many people to become future conservators.
She started her career at the Museum, where one of her projects was working on the Sutton Hoo material together with colleagues. She trained students from all over the world, researched and published her work, and hugely contributed to the development of professional conservation. In 2015, she was presented the Conservation and Heritage Management Award by the Archaeological Institute of America.
Today, many of her students are working in universities, museums, galleries and excavations across the world, training the next generation of conservators. I was very lucky to be one of her students, and followed her path to become an objects conservator at the Museum as well as working on various archaeological excavations with the knowledge and experience she passed down. I also had the opportunity to excavate and conserve side by side with her at the famous Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk in Turkey which is an experience I will never forget.
The queen of prints: Tatyana Grosman
– Catherine Daunt, Hamish Parker Curator of Modern and Contemporary Graphic Art
Tatyana Grosman (1904–1982) was the founder of Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), a hugely influential printmaking workshop based on Long Island, New York. Born in Russia, Grosman fled to the United States in 1943 with her husband Maurice, a painter, to escape antisemitism in Europe. For twelve years the couple lived in New York City where Tatyana played the role of 'artist's wife' until Maurice's ill-health instigated a move to West Islip, Long Island and required Tatyana to become the breadwinner.
There, she had the idea of setting up a studio where artists could make prints and collaborate with poets to produce artists' books. Although she knew little about printmaking, she was passionate and enterprising, and was able to start the workshop with a press purchased from a neighbour for 15 dollars, two lithographic stones that the couple had found in their yard, and the expertise of the printmaker Robert Blackburn. She was also successful in persuading young artists to come and work in the studio, despite the fact that some viewed printmaking as stale and old-fashioned. She enticed, among others, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, Cy Twombly and Helen Frankenthaler.
By introducing these artists to printmaking, and then publishing and distributing the results, Tatyana Grosman became a key figure in reviving printmaking in the United States and propelling it to new creative heights. The Museum holds impressions of some of the greatest prints produced at ULAE, including Two Maps II by Jasper Johns (1966), Accident by Robert Rauschenberg (1963), and Untitled (Hair) by Kiki Smith (1990). It is mostly the artists that we think of when we see these prints, but I always like to remember the woman behind the press, without whom, none of these amazing works of art would exist.
Innovative designer: Margaret Hall
– Ann Lumley, Design and Brand Manager
Margaret Hall, OBE, RDI, was Head of Design at the British Museum and, over the course of 37 years, she led her team in designing countless exhibitions and galleries that engaged and informed millions of visitors each year.
Margaret was appointed as Exhibitions Officer in 1964 – the first person employed by the Museum with the task of improving the design of displays, traditionally the sole remit of curators. She built up the in-house design department and oversaw the design of all the permanent galleries and special exhibitions. A highlight of her career was the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition, which is rightly regarded as the first blockbuster archaeological exhibition, and became a benchmark for museum design. So significant was this achievement, Margaret was awarded an OBE for her role in the exhibition.
Margaret was a pioneer of her time – she was the first in-house designer to establish best practice for museum design standards and a leading example across the sector. She did all of this as a woman in a very male-dominated world.
I started work as a Graphic Designer in the Design Office of the British Museum in 1989, and after 32 years, I am now Design and Brand Manager. It was a great privilege to be part of Margaret's Design Office, to learn from her and to become a small part of the Museum's design legacy.
Pioneering archaeologist: Fayza Haikal
– Aurelia Masson Berghoff, Naukratis Project Curator, Greece and Rome
In the field of Egyptology, Fayza Haikal (b. 1938) has faced the combined challenge of being both a woman and an Egyptian, at a time when archaeology was dominated by European men. Fayza's father, an eminent politician and renowned scholar, wanted her to receive an international, secular education, so she attended, among others, the Lycée Français du Caire, the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University and Oxford University.
Before pursuing her graduate studies in England, in 1960 she participated in the UNESCO rescue mission in Lower Nubia (Egypt), documenting the hieroglyphic texts of monuments soon to be flooded by the construction of the High Dam in Aswan. At a time when Egyptian women were not allowed to leave their family's side, she had to employ finesse and determination to be able to travel and to be accepted alongside her male colleagues. In her own words, she 'opened the way to Nubia for female Egyptologists in Egypt'.
Her time in England in the early 1960s was formative and enjoyable as she experienced new degrees of freedom, although she still met a familiar resistance towards women in the world of archaeology. Despite her experience, when she asked to be included in the British mission in Nubia, Prof. Emery, her then supervisor, turned her away, explaining he didn't 'take girls in [his] team'. Decades later, I remember asking one of my professors if I could join an archaeological mission in Libya and receiving the same answer. Still, Fayza Haikal persevered and soon became the first Egyptian woman to hold a doctorate in Egyptology – her research focused on Egyptian papyri at the British Museum.
Fayza taught new generations of Egyptologists in Egypt and worldwide, and a number of her Egyptian students have gone on to hold prominent positions in museums, universities and the Ministry of State Antiquities. In 2015, her contribution was formally recognised with a nomination for 'Woman of the Year' from both the Egypt Exploration Society and the Ministry of Antiquities.
The science of colour: Ruth M. Johnston-Feller
– Joanne Dyer, Scientist
Ruth Johnston-Feller (1923–2000), like me, was a colour scientist. She was one of the first to work with museum collections and her background was, in many ways, similar to mine. She spent the early years of her career conducting research in infrared and ultraviolet spectroscopy as I did, but in the late 1950s she discovered that her real calling lay in the visible part of the spectrum – colour!
In her early career, Ruth was the first to use instrumental methods for formulating and controlling colour in paint and plastics manufacturing facilities. She then met her husband Robert L. Feller (Bob), who introduced her to art conservation research. From then on, Ruth devoted her attention to the measurement of colour and its appearance in art, and to studying fading in pigmented and dyed materials.
Ruth died in 2000 and although we never met, her pioneering spirit lived on through the inspiring conversations I had with her husband Bob who I met during my early career in the field. A true innovator, much of what we do in museums today would not have been possible without Ruth's ground-breaking work in the field of colour measurement, and her appreciation of how colour had the power to create and shape experience, something which I hold close to my own heart in my work at the Museum.
'A Chinese Bloomsburian': Ling Shuhua
– Yu-Ping Luk, Curator, Chinese collections
As an immigrant, I find it inspiring to learn more about Chinese women artists and intellectuals who came to live in Britain. Among them was the writer and painter Ling Shuhua (also known as Su Hua Ling Chen, 1900/4–1990) who moved to London in 1946, and remained in the city for the most part until 1989 when she returned to Beijing.
Ling and her husband Chen Yuan were part of the cosmopolitan cultural elite in China. Already a respected Chinese writer, Ling published her autobiography Ancient Melodies in English while in London, an endeavour initially encouraged by Virginia Woolf and later Vita Sackville-West. Her connection with the Bloomsbury Set started through Julian Bell, who was her lover when he visited China.
Ling had held exhibitions of her paintings in London, Paris and Boston. She lectured and published on Chinese art and literature. One of her Chinese articles, How do we look at Chinese paintings?, mentions the Admonitions scroll in the British Museum.
Ling was one of the important Chinese women who by their presence and activities generated interest and greater understanding of Chinese art and culture. It is a history that deserves to be more widely known.
Master numismatist: Anne S. Robertson
– Eleanor Ghey, Curator, Coins & Medals
Although I never met her, I feel I owe a great debt to the numismatist (coin expert) and archaeologist Anne S. Robertson (1910–1997) for her work on Roman coin hoards found in Britain. Her catalogue of hoards, An Inventory of Romano-British Coin Hoards, published after her death in 2000, represents her lifetime's research carried out alongside excavation, teaching and research at the Hunterian Museum and the University of Glasgow.
In an era when newspapers and journals are increasingly available online, it is easy to forget the huge amount of work that gathering this information involved. Her exhaustive study provided the foundation for new research into the growing number of finds that have come to light since its publication.
The number of women in numismatics is growing, but we are still in a minority. For centuries, the discipline was the preserve of collectors, who shared their collections and knowledge via networks that were not accessible to all.
Robertson was also pioneering in her interest in the archaeological context of coins, something that had previously been neglected. She combined museum work with practical archaeology and excavated many important Roman sites in Scotland throughout a long career, eventually being made Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Glasgow.