Amid the steel and soot, grease and cogs, belts and tools of the factory, haunts an alien presence. It’s a surreal stage set in the heart of the museum, reconstructing the interior of a working class household in the early twentieth century. With authentic table, chairs, stove, washboard, ornaments and cooking implements, the room and its contents are entirely clad in damask wallpaper.
Museum of Bath at Work itself represents a historical revision and recognition of the city’s industrial heritage, often neglected in favour of Roman-Saxon remnants, Georgian architecture and a tedious connection to Jane Austen. Much of the collection is drawn from the activities of Victorian entrepreneur J. B. Bowler, whose engineering and soft drinks business thrived from 1872-1969. The main exhibits are fascinating reconstructions of the firm’s workshops, offices and factories, but Julie McCalden turned to the off-display oral histories archive. Inspired by first-hand accounts of women’s lives at the turn of the century, ‘Working from Home’ is a dramatic but muted intervention.
A kettle teeters on its stool, match boxes scatter, children’s toys assemble: many signifiers of domestic labour are gathered here - cooking, childcare, washing, match-making, sewing. Anything that isn’t wallpapered is painted precisely to match its grim patterned background. From the outside, the installation appears large and imposing, a seizure of museum space. But, peering inside, charcoal curtains are drawn, hanging bloomers drip sootily, a clock melts invisibly into the wall: the room is dim and claustrophobic and timeless.
One of the few objects left unsoiled by damask is a small wall-mounted mirror, beside a prayer book, hairbrush and charm bracelet. It’s the only sign of the absent woman’s interior life, and perhaps hopes and dreams. Banned from reading or writing on grounds of ‘health’, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s unreliable narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper is fascinated by the patterning of the room in which she is imprisoned. We follow her journey into madness, in which she first imagines, then in desperation becomes a woman who crawls under the wallpaper. Here too, beneath the aspirational wallpaper lies a woman, a metaphorical absence that belies her literal exclusion from historic accounts of work, labour and industry.
Of course it’s a situation that persists. It is often said that no form of industrial or capitalist society could exist without its unpaid workers: the caregivers, the homekeepers, the domestic labourers. Today, affective labour is becoming the norm for men as well as women, and work is a 24/7 preoccupation for all. At a time of ‘austerity’ when harsh cuts will affect women the hardest, ‘Working from Home’ isn’t only a recovery of the past, it’s a reflection of the present: the invisible precarity of the lives of workers and yes, of women. On the day that I make a return visit, the museum is quiet, and there are no signs, interpretation or even any indication that this unwieldy exhibit is an artwork. Somehow this enhances the unreal quality of the installation: without explanation, it is silently and persistently incongruent with the surrounding colourful displays of local industriousness. It’s a nagging doubt, a niggling reminder, a haunting. Something is missing, something is overlooked: not just then, but also now.