Interview with Professor Suzannah Lipscomb

Creative Director of "We are Bess"

TT:         How did you come to be Creative Director of the exhibition?

SL:          In one of the best ways for a project to start – a conversation over a drink with Polly Shomberg [TT: Visitor Experience Consultant at National Trust] who was a former colleague of mine at Historic Royal Palaces. We have always been keen to work together again, and we just started talking about different ideas, related to the Women in Power theme for 2018, and this grew out of that.

TT:         What challenged you most in putting the exhibition together?

SL:          We were very unsure if we would get enough contributors – but we were overwhelmed with the level of support and interest we had.

TT:         Historians spend a lot of time explaining that the people of the past were not like us – they had a different world view, and we can’t just see them as the same as us. How does that understanding work with this exhibition, which is bringing modern women’s perspectives to bear on Bess?

SL:          Their lives and their outlook were very different, but this exhibition is drawing parallels with certain common experiences – for example, the loss of two of Bess’ children young, being widowed, having to take care of her family, marital breakdown. Her experiences can make us think more deeply about our own. Often, we use the present to interpret the past, in this exhibition, we are using the past to interpret the present. Also, interpretation changes over time. For so many years, we have looked at Bess only through the words of Shrewsbury or the St Loe family [TT: the family of Bess’ third husband, Sir William St Loe, who believed she had unfairly influenced his will].  We need to look at more sources, to obtain a fuller picture.

TT:         What would you like visitors to gain from the exhibition?

SL:          I’d like them to re-examine their own experience in the light of Bess’ life: to ask themselves ‘How do I feel about that?

TT:         What can we learn from Bess?

SL:          To hold to your truth, to make your case and stick to it, don’t let yourself be crushed. Bess was  resilient, and she used her networks effectively. 

TT:         How do you feel about the fact that women are still struggling to fulfil their potential in the world when we thought that we had achieved equality? That we are still fighting the battles of forty years ago?

SL:          Yes – we thought we had overcome the inequalities of the past, and perhaps rested our efforts. I guess we should never think the battle is won, but keep pushing forward.

TT:         What would you ask Bess if you could meet her?

SL:           How did she endure so much?