Prioritising the archiving of professional work is essential if we’re to change the narrative to include multiple stories in our histories, writes Julie Collins.

No documents – no history” 

Fustel de Coulange.1

These words are often quoted by American historian Mary Ritter Beard, author of Women as Force in History, published in 1946. She writes:

“Women have been active, assertive, competent contributors to their societies, but when women believe they are passive, and without influence, their collective strength is undermined. … But women could be freed from the ideological bondage by discovering their own powerful creative history.2

But how do we uncover this history?

Documents, both paper and digital, allow us to speak across generations. Many of you, as built environment professionals, would be familiar with the concept of cultural heritage, especially as it pertains to buildings, sites and landscapes. If you broaden your definition to include the documents related to these places, such as plans, specifications, photos, correspondence and the papers of the creators, then richer stories can begin to be told.

So, if female and gender-diverse built environment professionals deposited their materials in an archive, what stories would arise? There is no single narrative, but multiple stories. Each person brings their own lens to examine an archive. And the stories they uncover could be about the knowledge of the era regarding climate or materials; or it could be about the way ethnicity was expressed through place; or how health was improved or worsened based on what was planned. Equally, the researcher could be looking to tell stories about power within a society, a profession, or a family; or simply (or not so simply) writing a biography of the creator of the work.

Women keep memories; men use archives

It has been said “Women keep memories; men use archives”.3

I have certainly found that women are often reticent to put themselves forward and donate their archives to collecting institutions for future generations to discover the lives they led, and this is reflected in the contents of cultural collections across the world. But where are the documentary records of women architects, planners, landscape architects, engineers and designers held? Some can be found at State libraries, in university and council archives, and at State and National archives. But sometimes you have to be willing to dig a little.

I am fortunate enough to work at the Architecture Museum in the University of South Australia. This museum was established to acquire, collect and preserve documents and related material relevant to architects, planners, interior designers, landscape architects and associated professionals. It holds more than 400,000 documents relating to hundreds of individuals and practices, including drawings, personal papers, photos, slides, practice records, books and journals. This begs the question, how many women’s collections do we hold? At first glance it appears the Architecture Museum has only a handful of women represented in its named collections, including architect Marjorie Simpson, draughtswoman Margaret Wollaston, interior designer Barbara Jacka, landscape architect Hilary Hamnett, and architect Pauline Hurren. Yet by digging a little deeper into our holdings, glimpses of the influence and representations of women appear in some other collections. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is in male architects’ archives that we can also find the stories of early female architects.

The climbing of ladders

Over a century ago, one of the earliest female architecture students in South Australia was Esther Legoe who attended the School of Mines in 1919 and won a prize for best student work. She was also an articled pupil in the office of Woods, Bagot, Jory and Laybourne Smith, who in a letter to her father expressed the partners’ “entire satisfaction” that she did “better than we expected” and had an “excellent attitude towards the routine of the office”. However, in another letter drafted by Laybourne Smith, he voiced his concern that “she must be prepared to meet the various grades of people employed in the Building Trades, and to face any slight disabilities attendant on inspection of works, such as mounting scaffolds”. Esther Legoe remained working in the office for four and a half years before leaving the profession, believing women would never be admitted to the Institute of Architects. Esther became a well-respected photographer, using her married name, Esther Bayliss. The archival documents relating to Esther are held in the Gavin Walkley collection at the Architecture Museum.

The climbing of ladders was long held up as a reason for women not becoming architects. Yet justifications and excuses abounded for the non-introduction of women into the architectural profession. After Esther Legoe’s time as an architectural student, it wasn’t until 1948 that the first woman architectural graduate in South Australia, Beverley Bolin, gained qualification from the combined School of Mines and University of Adelaide architecture course.4

In the Architecture Museum’s compactus among hundred of similar boxes is one from the Jack Cheesman collection, which contains brochures, letters, newspaper clippings and meeting minutes of the Small Homes Service of South Australia from some 60 years ago. Its intention was to provide better designed housing for those who would not normally engage the services of an architect, and Marjorie Simpson was its director. In a note to Jack Cheesman, Marjorie Simpson wrote, “I hope you will be able to keep [the files] as complete as they are, because these are now the only record of some of the activities, long forgotten and unsung, of the Small Homes Service.”5

This sums up not only the importance of maintaining women’s archival collections but alludes to the importance of writing and speaking about these unsung contributions, showing everyone just how much women have already done.

Perhaps because of this awareness, Marjorie donated further correspondence files of her own relating to the Small Homes Service to the Architecture Museum. The Simpson and Simpson collection encompasses the work of her architect husband, Peter Simpson, as well as her own when she worked in partnership with him. Unfortunately, she was reticent to donate her own solo work or student work, self deprecatingly saying we wouldn’t be interested in that.

Quite obviously then, archives matter – both paper and digital – which leads me to ask, what are those of you who are working in these professions designing this year? What will be physically standing in fifty years to indicate there is a story to research?

Archivist Joanna Sassoon wrote, “Archives have the power to shape memory, how a community remembers and how a community forgets”.6

The fact is, there are women working in the design professions; therefore, there should be women represented in the records of the design professions. We shouldn’t be leaving the discovery of women architects and their work to chance.

Are you actively making a record of your practice as a design professional? Why not? Do you feel you have a responsibility to future generations of women who may be interested in a career like yours? Ask yourself, what can you do this year to ensure there is a record that remains?

Here are some steps you can take today:

  • Start to make a photographic record of your built works – maybe not all of them, maybe just those that you believe are significant. Label these with the place or building name, client, date, address, people involved, some brief notes on the project.
  • Make sure you have an accessible set of drawings of your projects, either paper copies or stable digital formats, PDFs, and label them as drafts, with version numbers, or as built. Make sure you can open any digital files, duplicate them and let someone know where you have saved them.
  • Gather together biographical information about yourself and people in your practice.
  • Check on that storage shed out the back. Make sure the roof isn’t leaking and that the documents are still intact. Open the old hard drive in the bottom drawer or try and find the CD with those old photos of finished works (and a CD drive to open it!)
  • Then, think about the future, talk to a collecting institution, talk to your family, or your partners about your records and put a strategy in place outlining what you want to do with them.

“No documents – No history?” Perhaps it’s worth making some plans.7

Dr Julie Collins is a Curator and Research Fellow at the Architecture Museum, UniSA Creative, University of South Australia. Images: Courtesy of the Walkley collection, Architecture Museum, University of South Australia.

  1. Anke Voss-Hubbard, “‘No Documents – No History’: Mary Ritter Beard and the Early History of Women’s Archives”, American Archivist, 58 Winter 1995: 16.[]
  2. Mary Ritter Beard, Women as Force in History (New York: Collier Books, 1973 [1946]), 341.[]
  3. Susan Tucker and Svanhildur Bogadottir, “Gender, Memory, and History: In One Culture and Across Others”, Journal of Archival Organisation, 6(4) 2008: 288.[]
  4. Julie Willis and Bronwyn Hanna, Women Architects in Australia 1900-1950 (Canberra: RAIA, 2001): 86; Julie Collins, “Legoe, Esther Lenn”, Architecture Museum, University of South Australia, 2013, Architects of South Australia.[]
  5. Correspondence to Jack Cheesman from Marjorie Simpson, 19 August 1970, AM S209/4/4; Collins, Julie, “Simpson, Marjorie Constance”, Architecture Museum, University of South Australia, 2008, Architects of South Australia.[]
  6. Joanna Sassoon, “Sharing our Story: An Archaeology of Archival Thought”, Archives and Manuscripts 35(2) 2007: 41.[]
  7. Julie Collins (2012), “A powerful, creative force: the reticence of women architects to donate their professional records to archival repositories”, Archives and Manuscripts, 40, 3, 181–190.[]