For the V&A Archive’s contribution to International Women’s Month, I have chosen to profile Marion Thring, the first full-time female guide-lecturer at the V&A.
Today, approximately 65% of the V&A’s workforce is female. This was not always the case; in the early twentieth century, museum work was considered a predominantly masculine vocation. Consequently, when Marion Thring (1899 – 1976) was appointed guide-lecturer in 1934, the news was sufficiently remarkable to spark widespread and lively comment in the press. The Birmingham Post, for example, remarked that ‘It is very rarely that posts such as that at the Victoria and Albert Museum are assigned to women’ (1).
Marion Thring, photograph published in the Daily Sketch (9 April 1935), V&A Archive, MA/49/4/18. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Thring came to the V&A with an impressive background in museum education and curatorial work, both in Britain and America. She had worked previously at the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery for two years where ‘she was mainly responsible for the organisation of the department of historic costume and textiles … and for a considerable rearrangement of the department of European ceramics’ (2). Before that she had spent three years at the Pennsylvania Museum of Art as curator of ceramics. The press believed that both these facts recommended her to the V&A authorities.
‘Staff history card’ for Marion Thring, V&A Archive, MA/60/3/3. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Thring told the Evening News that the appointment ‘thrilled me tremendously’ (3). Much was made of the fact that in securing her post, Thring had had to beat off 200 applicants and, more particularly, ‘face the competition of men experts many years her senior’ (4). However, while many press stories celebrated her achievement, one newspaper struck a more ambivalent note when it orientated the V&A’s collections towards a female audience and so implied that the job was particularly suitable for a woman: ‘It [the V&A] is so rich in objects of strong feminine interest’ (5). Another newspaper suggested that Thring’s outwardly sober behaviour was a consequence of her self-consciousness about her role in a male dominated environment: ‘Miss Thring seems anxious never to appear frivolous lest she be taken for a less academic lecturer than a man’ (6).
Public Lecture-Tours programme, July 1937. Marion Thring led the category ‘B’ tours, V&A Archive, ED 84/301. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
In an interview that she gave to the Aberdeen Press and Journal, Thring used a colourful gastric metaphor to explain that her role as a museum guide was ‘to prevent people from nauseating themselves during their first visit with a glut of undigested art and to present the exhibits in such a fashion that visitors will want to come again and again’. She communicated passionately her belief that as ‘a storehouse of living ideas’ the V&A was there it inspire its visitors, to enable them to connect with objects through their stories, and to transport them to another country or culture ‘without spending more than a bus fare’ (7).
As guide-lecturer, Thring’s responsibilities included delivering two lectures a day and showing visitors around the museum. She also intended to ‘make a special feature of guiding parties of children during the holiday periods’ (8). Several of the publicity photographs that illustrated the news stories reporting her appointment show Thring in the midst of a gaggle of attentive and curious school children.
Photograph published in the Birmingham Gazette (5 January 1935), V&A Archive, MA/49/4/18. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
While Thring’s appointment was a first for the V&A, the Birmingham Mail pointed out that a couple of women had already broken the ‘glass ceiling’ at other cultural organisations. For example, Miss R. J. Edwards had become the first woman guide in London when she beat off competition from men and women for a similar post at the Natural History Museum (9).
Marion Thring’s attendance book, V&A Archive, accession A0150/21. The later entries show Thring’s declining health as requests for periods of sick leave become more regular and prolonged. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Thring resigned from her post in 1944 on health grounds. As the V&A’s first female guide-lecturer she takes her rightful place at the head of a long line of talented female educators at the V&A who have inspired and continue to inspire visitors with stories of our collections.
1. V&A Archive, MA/49/4/17, p. 268: Birmingham Post (5 December 1934)
3. V&A Archive, MA/49/4/18, p. 25: Evening News (5 January 1935)
4. V&A Archive, MA/49/4/18, p. 25: Sunderland Echo (5 January 1935)
5. V&A Archive, MA/49/4/18, p. 31: unidentified newspaper (7 January 1935)
6. V&A Archive, MA/49/4/18, p. 198: Yorkshire Observer (16 April 1935)
7. V&A Archive, MA/49/4/18, p. 259: Aberdeen Press and Journal (4 June 1935)
8. V&A Archive, MA/49/4/18, p. 25: Evening News (5 January 1935)
9. V&A Archive, MA/49/4/18, p. 202: Birmingham Mail (20 April 1935)