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Exhibition pins down a past of poignant memories

* 15 June 2004 *

Exhibition pins down a past of poignant memories

Stories of life, love, passion and loss down the centuries, from Civil War Cavaliers to Mods and Rockers, are revealed in a collection of badges, medals and jewellery on display at the University of Sussex Library.

The exhibition, entitled Read Me and put together by museum volunteer Jonathan Whitson, is drawn from collections of "exonumia" - small, decorative objects other than money - from the Decorative Arts, Preston Manor and Local History collections of Brighton and Hove Museum Service. There are five themed cases, each dealing with a different message, and each offering a fascinating insight into the preoccupations of their day.

One case features badges that advertise all kind of allegiances, from a Charles I supporter's badge from the English Civil War and a British Fascist badge from the 1930s, to the CND badges and "awareness" ribbons of recent years. A case entitled "I Was There" has holiday souvenirs from Grand Tour travellers ('micro mosaics' from the Vatican were popular) and British Whitby jet.

Campaign medals from Waterloo and the Crimea recall past battle glories while the trench art of World War I soldiers, in the form of rings fashioned from billycans, offers a poignant glimpse into another experience of war.

A case devoted to mourning jewellery includes items depicting Princess Charlotte (only child of George IV), the original People's Princess. She was seen as the great hope of the British monarchy, but died aged 21 in childbirth in 1817. The public outpouring of grief that followed was exhibited in mementos - now called Charlottiana - created to commemorate her. "Like Princess Diana, her face was everywhere," says Jonathan Whitson.

In the Victorian era, mourning jewellery was all the rage. Photo portraits of departed loved ones were worn in lockets, rings and brooches, and a whole cottage industry grew up around the fashion for items made from human hair. The earrings and bracelets featured in the exhibition are particularly elaborate.

Items in other cases reflect changing fashions in religious belief and the growing interest in science (as shown in 19th century "geological" jewellery) and our constant fascination with design and adornment, as seen in pieces from the Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements.

Dorothy Sheridan, head of Special Collections at the Library, says: "I am delighted to host this exhibition and am keen to ensure that this will be the first of many future collaborations between the University and the Museum Service. It means that objects from Brighton and Hove museums not normally seen can be displayed. Each of these badges, brooches and medals has a personal story behind it, which enhances the interest."

The exhibition is open to the public (please bring proof of ID if a non-university visitor), who can also add to the collection by donating badges on a special pin board, and attaching a personal note with the item.

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