Activate Learning at the Bodleian Libraries: Helen Muspratt, Photographer

A triple photographic portrait by Helen Muspratt


Activate Learning at the Bodleian Libraries: Helen Muspratt, Photographer

A gold horizontal flourish

Project type: Learning

Project dates: October 2020 – January 2021

Activate Learning Further Education students visited the Bodleian to encounter the work of Helen Muspratt and create their own photographic responses. The responses were shortlisted and a prize awarded to the winner.


Helen Muspratt at the Bodleian

As part of Photo Oxford’s 2020 Festival celebrating the centenary of women students being formally admitted to Oxford, the Weston Library hosted an exhibition of Helen Muspratt’s photography.

The Public Engagement team worked with Jessica Sutcliffe, who recently donated her mother’s archive to the Bodleian Libraries, to create short films discussing Helen Muspratt’s documentary and portrait photography. Muspratt’s work was informed by her political convictions and featured experimental techniques including solarisation, rayographs, and multiple exposures.


Access to Helen Muspratt material

Forty-four photography and media students from Activate Learning’s City of Oxford College campus watched these films and visited the exhibition in October 2020 to discover more about the work of this pioneering photographer.

The students discussed barriers to women and other under-represented groups in the arts and the ethical issues surrounding documentary photography today.

They also chatted informally with members of the Bodleian Exhibitions team who had installed the Muspratt display to gain an insight into career roles in the arts and the practical aspects of installing a photography exhibition.

Developing responses to Helen Muspratt

Following their visit, 15 students created their own responses to Muspratt’s work. 

The students were given an opportunity to discuss their work one-to-one with portrait photographer Fran Monks.

Winner and shortlisted responses

The students' photographs were reviewed by Bodley’s Librarian, Richard Ovenden and Fran Monks to choose the winner for a £200 prize.

Originally, the intention was to display a shortlist of the students’ work in the Weston Library alongside the Helen Muspratt exhibition. However, due to a national lockdown that was not possible. 

The shortlisted photographs were by TJ O’Neill, Tyler Woodford, Gabe Cardona, Callum West and Erin Shanahan.

The overall winner was TJ O’Neill. Tyler Woodford’s work was highly commended.

The judges felt that by getting in close with the camera, and framing the subject’s face with her hair and sleeve, TJ has made a strong and intimate portrait which makes a bold visual impact.

Additional student responses

The following responses were also submitted to the project.

Pilot project

This pilot project with Activate Learning is part of a wider collaborative partnership across Oxford’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums (GLAM) which aims to build positive working relationships with local FE students studying for qualifications in the creative industries.

Through visits and, in the future, assessed curriculum projects and placements, we hope to better understand the barriers to youth engagement and work with tutors and students to increase access to professional and creative roles in the Arts and Heritage sector.

Reflecting on the project, one student felt that they had gained “an understanding of creating work to fit a brief and what that entails. Then also recovering feedback for improvement based on that brief.”

Another student commented: “I feel as though I have a stronger understanding of black and white portrait photography and also I think it might of helped me realise a new passion that I’m going to pursue more in the future at university.”

The Helen Hamlyn Trust logo
Photo Oxford 2020

Generously supported by:

MPB in association with Bodleian Libraries