Leeds Gypsies and Travellers: Then and Now
In the Victorian splendour of Leeds Central Library, an exhibition of photographs, everyday and historical items and video was presented at the end of May 2010, in time for the following month’s Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month. By Jodie Matthews
Gypsies and Travellers have long associations with Leeds, dating back to the sixteenth century, yet their voices have been, as in the rest of Europe and the UK, marginalised. This exhibition is part of the wider movement to rectify that situation, valuing and educating people about the rich history of Gypsies and Travellers in Yorkshire and further afield.
One of the most striking aspects of this exhibition was the way in which it promoted the idea of Gypsies and Travellers speaking for themselves, rather than through non-Gypsy or Traveller professionals, politicians and academics. One might have expected to find interpretive panels explaining in detail the use of a kettle prop, or the outdoor washbasin, or paragraphs from historians or Gypsy lorists about culture and tradition. Here, this was kept to a minimum. At the entrance was a simple timeline of Gypsy and Traveller history in Britain, a panel more specifically about Yorkshire (and, in particular Lee Gap Fair), and a panel about the need for and purpose of Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month.
While visitors took in the exhibition, a screen showed interviews with four women, and a piece about visitors to Lee Gap Fair. Amanda Reed, Mary Lowther, Winnie Mahoney and Eileen Hanrahan spoke frankly about their families’ lives, their memories, the changes in Gypsy and Traveller culture, the prejudice they had encountered, and their expectations for the future.
Photographs, old and more recent, were displayed in sections about fairs, accommodation, and culture and tradition. One corner was devoted to family albums, a rare way of curating images of this kind. This section, rather than rely on the themes people usually associate with Gypsy and Traveller culture (albeit culturally distinctive and celebrated) were eschewed in favour of allowing the past to emerge via the faces and scenes captured for family remembrance, because the people as well as their activities and appearance were cherished. In other words, these family pictures were taken and kept hold of for Gypsies and Travellers themselves, rather than because outsiders wanted a peek at their culture. Those of us who are not Gypsies and Travellers are lucky to be able to share them briefly in exhibition spaces like this.
Pictures created by children at GATE (Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange) were also on display, showing a pride in that organisation and in Gypsy identity. Another eye-catching section was the photographs of young Travellers, teenagers and pre-teens who like many others in the UK love Cheryl Cole and their phones, but also enjoy going to fairs with their families, and to missions and conventions.
The exhibition was small yet bold. It was accessible and diverse. By bringing history to light but also exploring local Gypsy and Traveller culture today, a sense of continuity but also adaptation were put clearly on display.