Victoria Dickenson awarded The Society for the History of Natural History President's Medal for work on the Gwillim Project

Image by Marilyn Aitken.
Published: 19 May 2023

The Society for the History of Natural History (SHNH) is delighted to award the SHNH President’s Award 2023 to Victoria Dickenson for her work on the Gwillim Project: Women, Environment, and Networks of Knowledge and Exchange in Early Nineteenth Century Madras. The Award recognizes an individual or team’s contribution and impact in promoting and improving accessibility, inclusivity, and diversity to the study of the history of natural history.

The Gwillim Project centres around the life and world of two English sisters in early nineteenth-century Madras (now Chennai), Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds. Elizabeth and Mary’s letters home and detailed drawings, produced during their stay in Madras from 1801 to 1808, provide an immersive portrayal of Madras under East India Company rule. Their correspondence and artwork also provide insight into the landscape, climate, and ecology of the Coromandel coast, documenting birds, animals, fish, insects, flowers, and trees.

Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, the Gwillim Project uses a virtual platform to make text and images accessible to all. The online archive encompasses over 250 images from McGill Library and the South Asia Museum (Norwich), and over 700 pages of the sisters’ manuscript correspondence from the British Library, made available under an Orphan Works License. These letters were transcribed by McGill students with ongoing assistance from a network of over 50 researchers in India, Canada, Britain, and the United States, who explained archaic dress terms, translated phonetic renditions of Telugu or Tamil words, and identified places and landmarks. Network members also identified birds, fish and flowers in the over 250 watercolours in the virtual archive, providing contemporary scientific names, mapping distributions, and locating habitats.

As well as digitizing and contextualizing these valuable resources, the Gwillim project has disseminated its findings through a range of media, engaging with a variety of audiences. A series of nine webinars on YouTube, have, to date, attracted over 22,000 views, the majority from India. In-person events in at the Dakshina Chitra Museum and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Chennai, have expanded the reach of the Project to schoolchildren, university students, local historians, and birding enthusiasts, while exhibitions of the original watercolours have been hosted by museums in Toronto, Montreal, Norwich and Chennai. A co-authored book, Women, Environment, and Networks of Empire, Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds in Madras, 1801-1807 will be published by McGill Queens University Press in 2023.

The original announcement found on The Society for the History of Natural History (SHNH) website.

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