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Reflections on a collaborative PhD in Parliament

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Guest post by Dr Amy Galvin

It feels like an awfully long time ago since I wrote a blog post detailing the experiences of my first year as a collaborative PhD student with the Parliamentary Archives and I am not sure how to fit into one blog post just how much I gained from what was, quite literally, the opportunity of a lifetime. However, I shall do my best to get as much as possible in here.

I won’t spend too much time on my research – a quick internet search will give further details (and you can start here if you wish). This blog post is an entirely indulgent celebration and, moreover, an expression of my sincere gratitude to all of the people in Parliament that contributed to the unique opportunities that made my PhD such an incredible experience. It feels fitting to reflect on my time there as I approach the one-year anniversary of my PhD viva, and this post will consider the extraordinary advantages of working within the space of Parliament, as well as detailing some of the exceptional opportunities that arose as a direct result of my placement there. I want to centre how truly transformational and enriching my journey was as a direct result of my interactions with the wonderful individuals I had the privilege of working with and learning from in the Palace of Westminster.

Voice and Vote © UK Parliament_Mark Duffy
Voice and Vote © UK Parliament/Mark Duffy

The Space of Parliament

Perhaps as my research was inherently interested in space, having the opportunity to work in the very place it studied was fundamental to the success of my PhD. In my first blog post, I mentioned how overwhelming it was to arrive for an interview at the Houses of Parliament. The history, traditions, and prestige of such a building filled me with awe, and the first thing I should mention is that my sense of wonder never diminished. To stand in the very spaces that the women whose stories I wanted to tell had stood was indescribable. Being able to experience the space for myself allowed me to more vividly imagine the narratives I was reading of women who had been brave and bold enough to enter when women were not allowed to be in Parliament.

Due to the collaborative nature of my PhD studentship, I was fortunate enough to have access to one of the most significant buildings in the history of Britain, and, over the course of my research, had the privilege of uncovering and (re)telling an unknown or overlooked part of its history to try and contribute to a wider culture of equality and fair representation in British politics. Writing what I think of as a herstory of Parliament within the space of Parliament itself is something I am not sure I have the words to describe and definitively shaped and strengthened my research.

Amy in the reconstructed ventilator at Voice and Vote
Amy in the reconstructed ventilator at the Voice and Vote exhibition. Image courtesy of Kathryn Rix.

Exceptional Opportunities

Most significantly, my collaborative PhD studentship afforded me the privilege of being involved with Vote 100, the celebration of the centenary of the first women granted the vote in the 1918 Representation of the People Act. My research informed part of the Voice and Vote exhibition that ran in Westminster Hall as part of the celebrations, and meant that I also had the amazing experience of being immersed in reconstructions of some of the parliamentary spaces about which I was writing. I was also asked to contribute to the book accompanying the exhibition (and attend my first ever book launch as a result!), gave tours for members of the public and groups of school students, and was able to get involved in the feedback process from people who had visited. It was an excellent insight into public engagement.

My connections to the Parliamentary Archives also facilitated speaking opportunities beyond academic conferences, most notably as part of Parliament Week and at the York Festival of Ideas. In addition to opportunities to share my research, I was also fortunate enough to attend a whole host of events in Parliament, such as the unveiling of New Dawn and the exciting Equaliteas, making my experience even more unforgettable.

'New Dawn' above St Stephen's Entrance. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
'New Dawn' above St Stephen's Entrance. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

The Parliamentary Archives Team

Being in Parliament and enjoying all of the experiences that created facilitated a uniquely rich PhD experience that I whole-heartedly believe is only possible to enjoy through such a collaboration as I enjoyed. However, the most exceptional advantage of working with the Parliamentary Archives was truly the chance to work with some wonderful people. Firstly, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to every member of the Parliamentary Archives Team who contributed to the fantastic time I had there. I don’t have space to name them all, but I shall mention a few here.

My earliest memory after my interview is thanks to Simon Gough; he took me on a tour of the Parliamentary Archives, taking me up into Victoria Tower, showing me the stunning Act Room, and, perhaps the most secret treasure, showing me the phenomenal views from the top. The tour was complete with historical anecdotes and intriguing facts that could only be shared by someone with Simon’s intimate knowledge and experience of the archives.

As part of my induction process, the Collection Care Team hosted me for a day and showed me some of the fascinating work they do to safeguard the archives, most notably for a bibliophile like me, how they rebind and protect manuscripts. Penny McMahon used her expertise to guide me in the Search Room and later facilitated the talk I gave as part of Parliament Week.

When Vote 100 got underway, I had the pleasure of working with Robin Fell on parliamentary police reports recording suffragette protests in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. At the time, Robin was volunteering on the project, but having worked in the palace for 47 years as a police officer, Doorkeeper, and later retiring as acting Deputy Serjeant at Arms, he had an incredible knowledge of Parliament that he generously shared to support my research.

Extract from police report on suffragettes chaining themselves to the grille of the House of Commons Ladies' Gallery, 28 October. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12
Extract from police report on suffragettes chaining themselves to the grille of the House of Commons Ladies' Gallery, 28 October 1908. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12

There are two people of particular note whose support, guidance, and championing brought much joy to my PhD experience, and they are deserving of special mention.  Melanie Unwin, Deputy Curator of the Parliamentary Works of Art Collection and general wonderwoman of the history of women in Parliament was like a fourth supervisor. In the early days of my PhD she gave me a personal tour of the Parliamentary Works of Art Collection, even taking me into the hallowed rooms of the Commons Library. As part of the two people heading the Vote 100 celebrations, she was integral to all of the opportunities that afforded me. Melanie was endlessly generous in sharing her excellent knowledge and expertise with me, and her generosity extended further in her support of my first publication as she guided me through the process of reproducing works of art in manuscripts, such that I was learning from her far beyond the scope of my research.

Finally, my supervisor and the oracle of the history of women in Parliament, Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives. Mari was a wonderful advocate of my research and an invaluable support to me. A whole blog post dedicated to the subject could not list all of the means through which she helped me, but among the many ways she generously facilitated introductions to a whole host of people who worked within women’s political history and gave me a perspective of how history works in the ‘real world’ beyond university.

Additionally, Mari engineered a plethora of opportunities for me; I have already mentioned Vote 100 and the Voice and Vote exhibition, and, with Melanie, she invited me to be fully involved in both, but she also encouraged me to host a multi-agency workshop on the Ventilator in Parliament, introduced me to architects recreating the spaces of the Ventilator and the Ladies’ Gallery for the exhibition, and provided me the opportunity to work with archaeologists and experts in the digital humanities creating an acoustic model of the House of Commons pre-1834 (I should not forget to mention the brilliant minds behind that project, John Cooper, Catriona Cooper, and Damian Murphy – they also invited me to speak at the York Festival of Ideas). Mari is an exceptional archivist, an expert herstorian, and a brilliant supervisor.

My PhD experience truly was made by the collaboration with the Parliamentary Archives. Thank you to all of those people who helped to make my journey such a special one.

Amy Galvin

Amy Galvin was a PhD student in the History department at the University of Warwick. Her research was kindly funded by an ESRC doctoral award as part of a collaborative project between the University of Warwick and the Parliamentary Archives

'Listening to the Commons', the project to create an acoustic model of the Ventilator, was part of the Virtual St Stephen's project funded by the AHRC and based at the University of York.

The Knowledge Exchange Unit in UK Parliament is currently advertising for a Parliamentary Academic Fellowship to be hosted by the Parliamentary Archives on Researching records held in the Parliamentary Archives relating to the Commonwealth. Apply by 13 March 2022.

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