Leather, Beer and Hammers at Lunchtime

Tom Rusbridge bites the leather and explains why, regardless of career stage, it’s always worthwhile and rewarding to wet your whistle by presenting your research to audiences outside the university.  

I started thinking about this blog post on my train back from Northampton. I had coffee all over my lap and was surrounded by what I’d call very ‘Apprenticey’ sort of people; pressed suits, sensible shoes, boring ties and loud conversations about how to manage the project that none of the rest of us wanted to hear about, but by virtue of being British and too polite were forced to. Nevertheless, my experience of presenting at the 2017 Being Human Festival had left me feeling in good spirits. The event, organised between Matthew McCormack at the University of Northampton and the National Leather Collection was dubbed ‘Leather a Lunchtime’, and consisted of three days of leather-related craft stalls and ‘pop-up’ lectures around the material. On day one Matthew McCormack spoke about his research into the evolution of Georgian shoes, on day two I spoke about leather drinking vessels in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and on day three the designer Bill Amberg spoke about the material in contemporary design.

These were more than straightforward academic papers, however. Taking my own paper on leather drinking vessels, the public engagement aspect of this event made for a different experience as a speaker. For starters, the context of the event was unlike any other event I’ve been to. Rather than being greeted with the standard array of conference biscuits and stewed coffee (and the accompanying promise of small talk), upon arrival at the National Leather Collection for Being Human our senses were bombarded. The unmistakeable smell of leather filled the room and the dominating islands of leather objects from a range of periods in the main exhibition hall instantly drew focus. More than that, though, the atmosphere of the room was punctuated by the heady hammering of leather emanating from the craft stands along the perimeter of the hall. Here, craftsmen making leather goods demonstrated their craft to the visiting public. The piercing and stamping of hides using mallets and custom-made stamps required some force, and walking in to this abundance of objects, smells and noise transformed this museum into a living and breathing workshop for the morning.

Presenting in this ‘workshop’, then, was really a unique experience in itself. In my paper I hoped to describe the contexts for leather drinking vessels in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and then analyse the drinking vessels housed at the National Leather Collection. Alike another paper I gave recently with the curator of the collection, Philip Warner, I was able to speak to the objects with the objects themselves in the room. In addition to the objects from the collection we also had replica leather drinking vessels – blackjacks, tankards, bottles and costrels – presented at a stand for a historic re-enactor. These being replica objects, however, we were able to top up the vessels with beer and invite our attendees to take a drink from leather vessels after the paper.

While one of my take home messages from the event was how pleasant it was to finish a paper and immediately serve beer, speaking at ‘Leather at Lunchtime’ for the Being Human Festival also highlighted how pleasing and how relevant our research as historians can be to a wider and more public audience. While at the event I was able to talk about the historic place of this material to those working with it today (while, I should add, taking to a piece of leather with a hammer and stamp myself). At the same time, the event was attended by history students, those retired from the trades and volunteers from Northampton who support the National Leather Collection. Across the board it was a salient reminder of the multiple values and meanings of our research.

Tom Rusbridge is a third year AHRC funded PhD student in the Department of History. His work focuses upon early modern material culture and cultural history.