As ‘We are Bess’ draws to a close, Hardwick Hall is reflecting on the year that the exhibition has run- and the profound effect it has had on visitors.
The ‘We are Bess’ exhibition retells the story of Bess of Hardwick who built Hardwick Hall, near Chesterfield, in the late sixteenth century.
Along the way she experienced great loss and hardship – the death of two children and four husbands, significant debts and lawsuits against her, while her last broken marriage became a national scandal.
Yet throughout history she was has been portrayed as greedy, overbearing, and controlling, a view portrayed in the main by disinherited family members against her.
Hardwick’s research led by Dr Emma Turnbull and Professor Suzannah Lipscomb revealed that she was in fact a person who showed great interest and generosity towards her friends, family and her servants.
The exhibition features 20 modern women, from well-known names including Sue Perkins and Professor Dame Mary Beard to more local names including Robyn Riggans who set up a charity that supports women in Chesterfield.
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These women have responded to Bess’ story and consider the similarities between the challenges she faced in the sixteenth century and their own.
"I know what it is to be the only woman in a man’s world. I was the first woman to be a bishop in the Church of England. I too have been called unwomanly. I have been derided for my appearance. I have been condescended to, belittled, dismissed. I have been accused of emasculating men, of being manipulative, scheming, self-serving, ambitious" -The Right Reverend Libby Lane, the Bishop of Derby.
Initially due to run for a couple of months, the exhibition has been extended twice due to its popularity.
Elena Williams, senior house steward of Hardwick Hall, said: “The exhibition has been very emotive for the visitors.
"We ourselves, both staff and volunteers, have also felt very touched by the stories shared by the visitors as a response from the exhibition.
"We never expected the level of impact it has had.”
The ‘We are Bess’ exhibition closes on 3 November.