Stepping into the office of Irene Gammel must be what stepping into the past feels like.
Her office is lined with bookshelves filled with publications old and new; reproductions of photographs of Harry Colebourn with the famous bear cub, Winnie the Pooh, on Salisbury Plain.
A stylish red jacket hangs on the back of her door, reminiscent of the fashions of years past. Holding the Canada Research Chair in Modern Literature and Culture, and elected a Fellow to the Royal Society of Canada, Gammel is far less intimidating than her CV.
Heading the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre (MLCRC), she has worked for a decade in training the next generation of scholars, and championing the preservation of Canadian women’s history.
It was in 2006 when Gammel was invited by Ryerson to apply for a Canada Research Chair, specifically for modern literature and culture. Upon getting the Chair, she was able to apply for other grants to involve students and establish a strong training centre.
Part of the mandate was that funds she received as a Canada Research Chair must go towards establishing an infrastructure that would allow students and scholars to come together and learn. And so, the MLC Research Centre was born.
“The inspiration was to focus on women’s heritage in the 20th century, both within a Canadian context, but also in an international context,” said Gammel.
A prolific Modernist and Dadaist, this is a period of great interest to her, as she believes there is a fascinating trajectory between then and now.
“We can see a lot of roots to what we do today (at the MLCRC) in some of the interesting transformations (of women’s rights) and in the wildness of some of the art and art forms of the early 20th century,” she said.
War, Peace and Gender
The early 20th century was indeed a period of rapid change when a lot of women began coming into their own and gaining new rights. Up until this time, women were largely relegated to the home fulfilling traditional duties of mothers, wives and daughters.
As industrialization hit the western world and facilitated the rise of technology, the changing face of society grew to reflect the changing role of women. Women began entering the workforce, demanding equal pay and better working conditions, and most significantly, demanding the right to vote. In addition to political change, women were liberated by changes in fashion and sexual freedoms.
In 1903 the Women’s Trade Union League was established to protect and advocate for female workers; it was in 1916 when the first birth control clinic opened in the United States; and in the 1920s, women were granted the right to vote and fashion was turned on its head. Silhouettes were less constrictive and boyish, women cropped their hair short and painted their faces in rouge and mascara.
This era also brought with it a horrific time of carnage and loss through the First World War. As men went off to fight, women assumed the roles of mechanics, ambulance drivers and, in some countries, such as Russia, they were soldiers.
The MLCRC maintains a strong research focus on the First World War, because it fell smack in the middle of the Modernist Era (1880-1940) and played a monumental role in shaping the lives of women.
Their current focus is on famed Canadian war painter, Mary Riter Hamilton, who set off for the battlefields of France and Belgium in 1919, a year after the war’s end, and complied over 300 battlefield works by the end of 1921.
Despite this impressive collection, not much is known of Hamilton and her work, largely because she was a woman painting at a time when fame in the Canadian art world was relegated to male artists, such as the Group of Seven.
“(Hamilton’s) battlefield paintings have opened up a large arena for discussing World War One and the very serious issues of war, peace, but also of gender during wartime, especially (in 1919) during this time of transition,” said Gammel.
Michael Pereira, a master’s student at Ryerson and social media co-ordinator at the MLCRC, explains that he finds the politics behind Hamilton’s journey overseas to be the most fascinating part of the project.
“The (Canadian) government was not helpful, in fact, they were explicitly unhelpful,” explained Pereira on the lack of funding and support Hamilton got for her project. “But even then, against these odds, she did it and gave it all back to this country. The country that didn’t support her in her endeavour.”
The MLCRC has collected rare artefacts over the years to add material culture to supplement the theoretical research work they conduct. Jason Wang, an executive team member since 2012, explains that among these artifacts include the battlefield letters of Hamilton, and the first American edition of the Eric Maria Remarque’s First World War masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front.
“We not only preserve such cultural legacy, but also research and delve into them to seek for meaningful conversations between history, gender and material culture in the Canadian context,” said Wang.
In addition to the centenary of the First World War, the MLC has also dedicated much time and research to commemorate the centenary of the Dada Movement. Beginning in 1915 in New York City, and in 1916 in Zurich and Berlin, Dada was an avant-garde art movement that sought to break traditional artistic conventions as a way to modernize society and reconcile with the horrors of the war.
While the movement perhaps best embodies that changing face of society and of women, it is largely known for its prolific male artists including, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. But arguably, it was a trio of female artists who spearheaded and best embodied the ideals of the movement. This trio comprised of: Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Hannah Höch and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. The latter is of particular interest to the MLCRC and to Gammel who has written extensively on her life and her works in: Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity—A Cultural Biography (2002), Die Dada Baroness: Das wilde Leben der Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (2003), and Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (2011).
Gammel explains that Ryerson has been the recipient of a large donation of artwork by Berenice Abbott, who was good friends with the Baroness and fellow Dadaist. Gammel hopes to expand upon this research and to focus specifically on Abbott in the coming years.
In addition to the works of Hamilton and Freytag-Loringhoven, the MLCRC has also championed the works of Canadian Lucy Maud Montgomery, the famed author and creator of the beloved Anne of Green Gables. Wang explains that the centre has also received original letters written to and from Montgomery.
Gammel herself also co-curated the Winnie the Pooh exhibit, which was displayed in the Ryerson Image Arts Centre gallery in the winter of 2014, and which has now become the Remembering the Real Winnie exhibit. This prod
uction is currently on loan to Assinboine Park Conservatory in Winnipeg until October 2017, and is expected to travel to New York City and London.
A Larger Scope
While the MLCRC is relatively unknown in the Ryerson community, outside of the specific departments it is integrated with (namely, English, fashion and various master’s programs) the work that has been produced by the centre and by Gammel has gained substantial international recognition.
“It’s an interesting dynamic, because even though Ryerson is the home for the centre, the scope is larger than that,” explains Pereira.
Recently, the Modernist Studies Association (MSA) approached Gammel and the MLC to place a bid to host their 2019 annual general meeting. This is a tremendous opportunity, because the MSA is an international institution working at the forefront of Modernist history, and is a forum that facilitates scholarly discussion among universities around the world. The theme for the 2019 conference is Peace and Reconstruction, and Gammel is confident that Ryerson will win the bid.
“I very much look forward to the opportunity, where we will have a coalition of universities coming together, and where Ryerson will be able to provide leadership in the conference,” said Gammel.
Audrey Wright, research co-ordinator and supervisor at the MLC, echoes this sentiment and believes hosting a conference of this magnitude will be instrumental in putting the MLC on the map.
Additionally, the MLCRC has connections to the Literaturhaus in Berlin, to Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg and to the University of Prince Edward Island. Gammel’s work on Baroness Elsa was also cited in
a New York Times article about the centenary of Dada earlier in the year.
The Next Generation of Academics
Aside from the publications and work that has come out of the MLCRC, Wright explains that the most important ripple is the group of students who have been trained as sharp researchers, writers and budding academics.
“A huge part of the MLC’s mandate is training the next generation of academics,” she said.
Through programs such as Work Study and AURA, she explains that it is a great platform for Ryerson to give back to its students by offering them funding by way of jobs.
Kristen Jess, a fourth-year English student, started working at the MLCRC as an undergraduate research assistant in May 2016. She hopes to pursue a career in publishing and has a keen interest in memoirs and examining literature through a historical lens.
“Being here makes me more involved with academia instead of just going to class,” she said.
She explains that having her work edited by Gammel and working alongside her will be very important in pursuing a career in publishing.
Henry Gomes, a master’s student at Ryerson, has been at the MLCRC since June 2015 working as an archivist, cataloguing primary documents and artifacts and digitizing them. He was a key member of the team that organized the Winnie exhibit by digitizing the photographs, printing and framing them, and shipping them out to Winnipeg.
“These are all skills I can apply to a career,” he said. “It has been really practical and hands-on.”
Cameron MacDonald, a recent graduate of Ryerson’s English program and head researcher of the Hamilton project, explains that being able to collaborate in a diverse professional setting has been beneficial.
“Collaborating with other undergrads, and receiving feedback from master’s students, doctoral students, post-doctoral fellows and a Canada Research Chair, has been super cool to say the least,” he said.
For Pereira, who has been at the centre for almost three years, the best part is that “it feels good and feels right to actually know that there are different sides to our history and that we are trying to unearth it.”
“It feels good to know that the MLCRC is doing important work and that you’re a part of it somehow.”
In addition to the experience the centre provides for its student researchers, it hosts the initiative, PUBZ: The MLC Writing and Publishing Zone. Established in 2013 by Gammel, and of which Wang is the convener, it is a student-driven forum for honing skills related to professional publishing, reviewing, job talking, along with peer-support for the writing of theses and dissertations.
While the MLCRC under Gammel will look to branch out to do different research in the coming years, women’s history will always remain core to their mandate.
“Women’s history is all of our history,” said Pereira. “We can’t look at history just from the male perspective, even though we often do. I think the work coming out of the MLC nuances the picture.”
“It’s important (work) because it gives history a multidimensional scope,” added MacDonald.
With substantial funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Ministry of Research and Innovation, Gammel hopes the MLCRC will “continue to be a forceful training centre that works at the edge of scholarship that provides that international leadership for modern literature and culture.”
If the esthetic of Gammel’s office is any indication, the MLCRC hopes to continue to do great things in the future for both Canadian history and women’s heritage, with one foot firmly planted in the past.