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By Sarah Coggrave on

New Acquisitions: The Cottingley Fairies

Exciting new items are always being brought into the museum’s collection. In the first of a series, Sarah takes a look at the Marjorie Curtis Collection and its links with the tale of the Cottingley Fairies.

At the National Science and Media Museum we are always bringing exciting new items into our collection. In this series of blog posts I will be highlighting some of these, and explaining what happens when new materials arrive.

In the first post of the series, I will be looking at our brand-new Marjorie Curtis Collection—a box of intriguing artefacts relating to the Cottingley Fairies case.

Cottingley Fairies photograph featured in The Strand magazine
Photograph featured in The Strand magazine, Marjorie Curtis Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

For those that don’t know, two cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, caused a media sensation when they apparently photographed fairies near their homes in Cottingley, Bradford. In 1917, Elsie and Frances (then aged 16 and 9 respectively) began creating the series of images that would make them famous.

You can read more about the story in this blog post, and you can find out more about other Cottingley Fairies materials in our collection by searching Collection Online or our Archives Catalogue.

So why is it important for us to collect materials relating to this story? Well, it helps us to explore the ways in which photography has been used historically, and questions the idea that photographs objectively depict reality. It is also fantastic that the Cottingley Fairies case links the National Science and Media Museum with Bradford, as an important example of local history with national significance.

Cottingley Fairies photograph featured in The Strand magazine
Photograph featured in The Strand magazine, Marjorie Curtis Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

But these aren’t the only considerations the collections team must make when acquiring new materials. We also need to consider the extent and condition of the materials—can we care for them and make them available for use? Can the ownership of these materials be clearly established? Are there particular conditions attached? You can read more about what we consider on our ‘donate an object’ page.

When new materials eventually arrive, my job is to work alongside our archivist to check the contents, make a basic record, repackage anything fragile and make a note of any concerns for the conservation team. Inside the box we found photographs, news clippings, a few publications, as well as a postcard and poster relating to the film inspired by the story—FairyTale: A True Story (1997). After checking the contents, either the archivist or myself (in this case the former) create a description:

The Marjorie Curtis Collection contains a selection of materials relating to the “Cottingley fairies” photographs, as taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths. Curtis was married to Percy Curtis, who was uncle to Wright and Griffiths. The collection contains publications containing representations of the Cottingley fairies, promotional materials, newspaper cuttings and other published material relating to the photographs. The collection also includes family photographs of Marjorie and Percy Curtis, Elsie Wright, Frances Griffiths and other family members including Elizabeth Fieldhouse (Grandma Curtis).

As Marjorie Curtis, whom the collection is named after, was the aunt of Elsie and Frances, we have in the collection a wonderful selection of family photographs, which help to contextualise the story better. Elsie and Frances were known for their photographs, but they were also individual people with rich and interesting lives. Materials such as family photographs help us to understand them as people, rather than merely news stories.

Photograph of Elsie Wright
Elsie Wright, photograph, Marjorie Curtis Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
Postcard featuring portrait of Frances Way (formerly Frances Griffiths), seated with children David and Christine
Postcard featuring portrait of Frances Way (formerly Frances Griffiths), seated with children David and Christine, Marjorie Curtis Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
Reverse of postcard featuring portrait of Frances Way (formerly Frances Griffiths), seated with children David and Christine
Reverse of the above, Marjorie Curtis Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

With images like these, as anyone inheriting old family photographs will know, it can be difficult to identify who is who. Thankfully in this case we had a helpful note on the back, and again below:

Family photograph including Else Wright
Family photograph including Else Wright, Marjorie Curtis Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
Reverse of family photograph including Else Wright
Reverse of the above photograph, Marjorie Curtis Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Some of these items are quite delicate, so it was very satisfying to give them safe new homes in specially made folders, sleeves for the photographs and an acid free box for the complete collection. Wherever possible we preserve the original order, and while it may not always make sense to us initially, it is an important clue as to how the collection was assembled and used before it arrived.

Another significant part of the collection worth noting is a copy of the famous article written by Arthur Conan Doyle for the Christmas edition of the Strand Magazine in 1920. As the author of the well-known Sherlock Holmes books, Doyle’s intervention was key in helping to bring the case to a wider audience.

Article about Cottingley Fairies by Arthur Conan Doyle in the Strand magazine
Article by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Strand magazine, Marjorie Curtis Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
Article about Cottingley Fairies by Arthur Conan Doyle in the Strand magazine
Article by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Strand magazine, Marjorie Curtis Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

As a result, having a copy of this article is very useful in terms of documenting the case.

Much as I would love to share more of the collection, there simply isn’t space in one blog post. Instead I encourage you to visit the museum and contact us to arrange to see our newest acquisition! Anyone can make an appointment to view materials not currently on display, and we are always keen to welcome new visitors.

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