My first memory of being in a museum was visiting Dick Institute in my home town of Kilmarnock. The look and smell of the place made a strong impression: classical architecture, mosaic floors and a bronze statue in the entrance, the smell of dark wood and polish, and the natural history specimens on display upstairs. With its imposing classical facade and Romanesque decoration, I’m sure I thought at the time that it actually was Roman (in fact the building dates from 1901). My next memory of heritage of any kind was on a school visit to Dean Castle . We were shown around the stone keep and taken to see some cannon on the lawn outside. I was struck that heavy duty history could live so close to me and I can still remember the metallic smell of damp gunpowder on the winter air.
I was an average school pupil who worked hard in upper secondary and got good grades. I had only studied one science at ordinary grade – biology – so played catch-up in 5th year to take a second science subject, Chemistry. I was still sufficiently interested in both subjects to put Biochemistry on my UCAS form. To be honest, as the first person even in my wider family to consider university, it all seemed very unreal, very unlikely. Biochemistry became Chemistry at University of Glasgow and I left with a degree three years later but with little inclination to use it. Towards the end of my degree I’d began to read some classic fiction – Dickens, Balzac, Turgenev, and others. I’d also started to travel more and more. Eventually, I moved to different parts of England, Wales, and Ireland, working in youth hostels, travelling, reading, and, eventually, turning my attentions to an arts degree with the Open University.
Towards the end of this degree (English Literature and History) I began to wonder what I should do next. At that time I was living in Pembrokeshire, in South West Wales, working in a field study centre. I wrote to Pembroke Castle and to Tenby Museum and Art Gallery, two of the biggest attractions in the area, to volunteer my services. Pembroke Castle wrote back asking me to rewrite some interpretive panels (for which I was paid) and Tenby invited me to volunteer with them one day per week.
Perched on a cliff overlooking St Catherine’s Island, Tenby Museum and Art Gallery is a small, independent museum supported by a few paid staff a large and lively volunteer workforce. It has an extraordinary collection of modern art, reflecting the importance of Tenby and Pembrokeshire to artists such as Gwen and Augustus John, Graham Sutherland, and Philip Sutton. Over the winter of 1996, I was asked to catalogue some of their archive. I was given pretty much free reign to sort and research a backlog of papers. To my great surprise, among some unexceptional bits and pieces I discovered a manuscript of an unpublished poem in the hand of Laurie Lee, who used to summer in Tenby. The spirit of the volunteers, and the flamboyance of the then Director, John Beynon, made a deep impression. I decided I’d become a curator and proceeded to take a master’s degree with the University of Leicester. This was by distance learning which allowed me to work to pay for the degree and, eventually gain some first hand experience in museums. My first post was as curator of Burns House Museum in Mauchline. The museum and its fine collection of Burnsiana was in a period of transition, passing from ownership by Glasgow and District Burns Association to East Ayrshire Museums. Working with the local community, I reorganised the collection and experimented with different ways of making the exhibitions more interesting. It was the perfect way of cutting my teeth and building my confidence.
Because I’d worked closely with the community, at the end of the season I got a job with the Open Museum, the outreach wing of Glasgow Museums. My role was to work with a team of volunteers to put together exhibitions in a leisure centre in Pollok. The project, called the Greater Pollock Kist, aimed to stimulate greater community use of the City’s collections and encourage people from G53 to visit their ‘local’ museum, the Burrell Collection. Working with such a diverse group of people was good preparation for my next position; project officer on an initiative called the Distributed National Burns Collections Project. Over 15 months I worked with 25 different institutions finding out more about their Burns collections and using this information to form a scoping study report, website, joint database, educational resources, and strategic road map. The project was based at Burns National Heritage Park and did much to make the case for greater awareness of the size and significance of Scotland’s distributed literary collections leading, arguably, to the transformation of the birthplace and to Recognition of the National Burns Collection in 2009.
On completion of the project, I moved to the University of St Andrews, setting up the Gateway Galleries and developing plans for a new university museum, MUSA. By 2006, the National Trust for Scotland were leading the redevelopment of Burns National Heritage Park, becoming owners of the site and the collection in 2008. The Trust needed a curator and someone who knew something about Burns and they imagined that I fitted the bill. In many ways, I was a harbinger for NTS in Alloway; I was the first member of Trust staff and worked closely with Burns Monument Trust and South Ayrshire Council to prepare for the handover of the collection and its decant from the old museum building beside Burns Cottage. The four year project to design and build the new museum was hard work but it was, for me, the opportunity of a lifetime to do Burns and the collections justice. In the process of working on the new exhibitions, I really enjoyed the research element but because of the pace of the project, one could never spend nearly enough time on one particular area. After the speeches on the day the museum officially opened on 21 January 2011, I left for a research fellowship with the Shakespeare Institute and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The fellowship combined practical projects, such as the development of an app called Eye Shakespeare and the writing of digital strategies, to a doctorate focusing on how digital technologies and environments affect how we interact with artefacts. On its completion I joined the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester for a short time covering for a research associate on maternity leave. During this time, I applied for a curator position at a literary museum in London. The director who interviewed me informed me afterwards that I wouldn’t be offered the position but that I should consider applying for his job coming up in a few weeks. Having spent 10 years as a curator, and then 3 as an academic, I was ready for a challenge and this seemed like the right time for me to try a management role. Coincidentally, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum was also looking for a director at that time which I applied for and got. I now have the privilege of leading the museum I helped to create and which, in its own way, helped make me.
Returning to Dick Institute today, mainly on work business, I am still humbled on entering the building and still struck by a childlike awe which I hope never leaves me.