Nina Layard

I recently attended a conference and got SO MANY fun, blog-able stories from the panels (including my post on Wednesday about the lady-scientist and the kangaroo fetus in her purse). I actually found the below story from the very same panel, which dealt with gender issues and the ‘natural world’ in the Victorian era.

Meet Nina Frances Layard, British poet and archaeologist:


This BAMF, as you can see, is wearing an extremely expensive fur coat while swinging a pick-axe on one of her archaeological digs. The picture is worth the effort of a blog post, alone.

According to her Wikipedia page (and what I heard about her during the conference), “She was one of the first four women to be admitted as Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, in the first year of admission, and was admitted Fellow of the Linnean Society in the second year of women’s admission. She was the first woman to be President of the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia.”

According to the abstract of the presenter, Dr. Kate Hill, “In the early twentieth century, Frank Woolnough, the curator of Ipswich Museum, engaged in a losing battle with Nina Layard, a relative of Sir Austen Henry Layard and Lady Charlotte Schreiber. Layard donated a large and important collection to the museum but insisted she should retain complete control over it, to the extent that the curator was not allowed keys to the cabinets and had to ask for permission to enter the room.

“Woolnough was an active member of the relatively new Museums Association which was trying to enhance the professional status of paid curators, hitherto seen largely as ‘mere’ caretakers. Museums were still viewed as the preserve of ‘gentlemanly’ amateurs, the people who had largely run the voluntary museums which morphed into civic museums around the 1870s; indeed, a number of corporation-run museums had systems of dual control between paid and honorary curators for a number of years.

“However, the increasing presence of women in museums further complicated attempts to delineate and give status to the professional man. As in the field of science, professionalization mainly aimed to address poor salary levels and career progression, and this was seen as being directly undercut by new women workers paid low wages and with inferior training and commitment.”

Layard was, however, a very dedicated archaeologist and she more or less strong-armed Frank Woolnough and the museum into letting her have authority over the collection she donated, and used all of her power to ensure that her status and connection to the collection was respected and given authority, even if she was ‘only’ a woman.

Pretty fantastic stuff, although it must be noted that her story is a perfect example of intersectionality at work. On the one hand, you had a highly competent woman working in the sciences, who was rebuffed for years on account of her gender (as you saw, she was through the door like a shot when various institutions started opening up membership to women); she barged her way through patriarchal doors and carved very significant territory for further women to follow in her wake.

On the other hand, however, you had a largely working-class man attempting to break through to the professionalized middle-classes and to validate and be fairly compensated for his own work. His hands were kept firmed tied by the wealth and connections of those in the upper classes and he felt as though his position had been usurped.

It must be noted, as well, that the picture of Layard above is probably the only time she actually held a pick-axe. She did not do her own digging, but rather set up a charitable set of works in Ipswich for the poor, in which she paid a team of three hundred men to do the digging, while she did the classification and research. The picture above is almost definitely posed. This doesn’t make her research or contribution to science any less valid, but it further illustrates how wealth can aid accomplishment.

It’s a really interesting view of privilege combating privilege–one used his gender and the other her wealth to attempt to get their way. In this instance, wealth won out, although it would have been curious to see what would have happened if this scenario had occurred even ten or twenty years earlier, before the rise of the ‘New Woman’. I very much doubt, if that were the case, that all of Nina Layard’s money and connections could have even gotten her through the door.

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One Response to Nina Layard

  1. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 4 Years | BizarreVictoria

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