Behind the Scenes

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In this blogpost we go behind the scenes of our temporary exhibition, The Real Face of Burns, to speak with exhibition’s curator, Sheilagh Tennant of Artruist ( For the last three years, at RBBM, Sheilagh has been managing and curating the first rolling programme of contemporary art exhibitions to be introduced at an NTS property. But what is it like to run art exhibitions? Read below and find out!

An artwork by David Mach on display in The Real Face of Burns exhibition
An artwork by David Mach on display in The Real Face of Burns exhibition

How did you come up with the concept for this exhibition?

Well I was aware that Burns’s appearance seemed to be a source of fascination for both artists and the wider public and so decided to explore this. I was amazed to discover there were so few portraits of him painted while he was still alive – only five – and thought it would be interesting to invite contemporary artists to come up with new interpretations.

How long does it take to organise an exhibition like this?

People would be surprised by how long it takes to organise exhibitions – in national galleries and museums it can take several years. However for the Real Face of Burns, while I initially came up with the idea a few years ago, if we take the initial artist approaches as a starting point, the process began just over a year before the launch date.

How do you find and select the artists for the exhibition?

By visiting as many art fairs and exhibitions, going to as many degree shows as possible, as well as reading art publications – over time it’s possible to become familiar with a lot of artists’ work and to build up a good awareness of who is out there. In this way, when a theme is selected, artists whose practice would ‘fit’ with a particular theme will come to mind. I also aim to introduce new graduates whenever possible. A selection of different work in different media , all aiming to depict an aspect of the same theme, somehow always looks good together when all the artists are clearly very gifted – regardless of the age and stage of the artists. I do find it particularly rewarding to have the opportunity to nurture new talent.

What do you need to consider when arranging the display?

Well there are, of course, the practical considerations of what is physically possible within a space, safety etc. Beyond that you have to think about works which will complement each other and, while perfect symmetry isn’t going to be a realistic aim, it’s ideal to achieve a balance within the space.

What is your favourite thing about this exhibition?

For this exhibition the answer has to be the Reid miniature, loaned by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – to me it is so precious because Burns himself believed this work to have offered the best likeness.

What is the most difficult thing about putting on this exhibition?

To be honest there haven’t been any significant difficulties with putting on this exhibition! However I would say the most difficult aspect of all the exhibitions I have curated in this programme, which has been running for three years now, has been getting the message out to people that these shows are on and worth a visit – especially when the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum has so much else to offer too!

Sheilagh Tennant has been managing and curating art exhibitions for nearly 20 years in London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow
Sheilagh Tennant has been managing and curating art exhibitions for nearly 20 years in London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow

Come and see the Real Face of Burns before it ends on June 14th!


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