Crafting Civilizations: Egyptomania in Nineteenth-Century Girls’ Crafts


by: Kaela Raposo, Lowens-Libraries Fellow

I joined the Peter and Ana Lowens University of Victoria Libraries Special Collections Student Fellowship in the final semester of my English honours undergraduate degree, and this experience was one of my favourite parts at UVic. The unique combination of interdisciplinary collaboration and hands-on learning makes the Lowens-Libraries fellowship program an exciting space to try out new kinds of knowledge mobilization, which we do not always have the opportunity or resources to pursue in the classroom. For my project, I created a digital exhibit that explores representations of ancient Egypt in girls’ craft tutorials in the rich nineteenth-century British print periodicals (specifically, Atalanta and The Girls’ Own Annual) of UVic Special Collections and University Archives.

Using tutorials from late nineteenth-century volumes of The Girl’s Own Annual as a guide and drawing on a critical making approach, I recreated three craft objects—a ceramic, a painted fan, and a sampler—to demonstrate how these girls’ crafts can be read as active participation in Egyptomania. I then created an omeka exhibit that delves into the significance of each tutorial, the historical context surrounding them, and their relationship to my own interpretations of the crafts. With the support and expertise of mentors, Dr. Samantha MacFarlane and Dr. Alison Chapman, I determined that the late Victorian repurposing of crafting (an appropriately feminine activity) to convey historical lessons could be considered proto-feminist, while not agitating the conventional heteronormative culture by encouraging girls to incorporate their interest in ancient cultures into their domestic activities. 

Although I had noticed a connection between ancient Egypt and Victorian girls’ print culture throughout my work with my honours supervisor, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Leighton (who encouraged me to apply to the Lowens-Libraries Fellowship), I did not think that the proposal to craft my way through could be an acceptable scholarly endeavour. However, each workshop expanded my understanding of what research and academic output can look like. With the encouragement of this program, I was able to turn scraps of ideas from several chaotic voice memos to myself into a functional digital exhibit and a collaborative physical exhibit.

In our weekly workshops taught by professors, librarians, and/or artists we learned about the composition of the material in Special Collections and University Archives as well as the breadth of study available to students and faculty in the library. Dr. Janelle Jenstad’s book history workshop helped me think of the book as a material object within a network of relationships rather than just a container for text that can be analyzed. In addition to her constant mentorship to each fellow, Heather Dean’s archives workshop gave me the tools that I needed to navigate the library’s archives and even include some of this material in my project (specifically, two scrapbooks made by Victorian girls). Librarian Christine Walde gave us a glimpse into the range of stunning artbooks held by the University of Victoria, expanding my idea of the artbook beyond a codex with images to include zines, pop-up books, and sculptures.


In terms of the materiality of the book, professor Erin Kelly’s paleography workshop detailed the composition and history of ink (from oak galls to India ink), the evolution of letters in the English language, and how to identify individual’s handwriting (that is, the “hands”) in a book. Bookbinding with librarian Michael Lines deconstructed the components of books into understandable pieces. Making paper with Frances Hunter at her studio was both an excellent stress relief exercise (mainly, the act of hitting pulp with a mallet for hours) and a lesson on how paper came to be made the way it is today. I ended up putting this paper through my printer and creating a decoupage ceramic jar as one of my crafts.

Before MacFarlane’s workshop on exhibit planning, I did not know how I was going to create the digital exhibit that I proposed. After her workshop, I felt prepared to write and structure my exhibit. She also encouraged us to think about making exhibition content accessible by adding sound and readable text. Dr. Matt Huculuk’s omeka workshop and tour of the Digital Scholarship Commons not only taught me about the range of technological resources available to students, but also (importantly) how to create my exhibit using omeka.


In my four years at the University of Victoria I was taught to write essays well, but with the rise of AI language processing tools, having an English degree can be a scary prospect. Through the university’s opportunities for scholarship that combine creative projects with technical writing skills, I was reaffirmed in my program of choice. The Lowens-Libraries Fellowship program demonstrates how hands-on learning paired with analysis and public-facing outputs reveal wider trends and meaning in material from Special Collections and University Archives.