Recognising Burns

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Whilst museums warmly welcome visitors who come to use their cafe and shop, the ultimate aim is to engage visitors with collections. The collection at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, has been described as ‘Scotland’s literary crown jewels’ and has been ‘Recognised’ by the Scottish Government as being of national significance.

museum entrance 01082016a

Despite this, in a visitor survey carried out at RBBM in March 2015, 52% of visitors were unaware of the Recognised collection yards from where they were standing. More generally, the survey also found that the building and foyer space had an identity problem: 60% of visitors did not think the building looked like a museum and there was a consensus that it did not look like a museum about Burns.

The importance of museum thresholds is an area of burgeoning research, for example Parry, Page and Mosely’s forthcoming Museum Thresholds: The Design and Media of Arrival and in pioneering initiatives such as the Transforming Thresholds project which examines liminal spaces and managing visitor needs.

The new RBBM building, designed by Simpson & Brown and opened in November 2010, has the opposite problem of many classically designed, purpose built museums. It does not look like a ‘typical’ museum, so removes a significant barrier to many ‘non visitors’, but there is not an expectation that this is a building which collects and preserves museum objects. This partially explains why there are low expectations and a low level of awareness of the collection.

RBBM Foyer 16042015.JPG

In order to tackle some of these issues, a project called Recognising Burns (September 2015 – November 2016) aims to address a low awareness among visitors of there being Recognised collections of national significance within Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, and to tackle some of the wider issues about the building’s identity.

Recognising Burns, funded by Museum Galleries Scotland’s Recognition Fund, aims to tackle the low level of collections awareness in three ways:

Visibility: placing items from the Recognised collection in a public space, making the permanent and temporary exhibitions more visible (online, and by replacing solid doors separating the foyer from the exhibition area with glass doors)

Identification: a mural commissioned for the museum foyer to ‘announce’ the presence of the collection and to identify it with Robert Burns, as well as an artwork outside

Engagement: creating artefact trails from the foyer, staging a significant temporary exhibition, and encouraging greater dwell time in the foyer by installing furniture

This project aligns with two other initiatives which, subject to funding, will run parallel with Recognising Burns in addressing levels of awareness of collections and issues with the museum building’s identity: redevelopment of the museum website, and the creation of an artwork outside RBBM.

The redevelopment of the RBBM website,, re-launched in May 2016, had similar aims to Recognising Burns and sought to complement it. There had been a low awareness of collections on the former museum website and little interaction with artefacts. A 12 month £30,000 project, running from autumn 2015, aimed to make the collections more prominent as well as optimising the site for use on mobile devices. This project sought to raise awareness of collections of national and international significance as users cross the museum’s digital threshold.

NTS will be crowdfunding for a major artwork outside the museum to help give the building an identity. Proposals will be welcome which suggests that RBBM is a museum about Robert Burns. A crowdfunding drive will then follow to raise enough money to cover costs.

It is hoped that through improving signage and sightlines, and introducing the collection into the foyer, visitors will be more aware that the building is home to the world’s best collection of Burns treasures. A defining artwork outside the museum and work on rebranding will also go some way to priming visitors to raise their expectations and ‘think Burns’.

For more information on the Recognising Burns project, contact David Hopes on or 01292 443700.


3 thoughts on “Recognising Burns

    Reg Tait said:
    August 1, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    If the footfall is in the area of reception, shop and cafe then make people aware of what the Museum is all about.
    Have some filming of what is going on in the closed off to public the collection, study, restoration works that is going on. There is enough wall space to tp put large screens to carry the film images.
    People will look at all the images provided and be drawn in.
    Extra murals are decorative only and will not effect peoples perception as there is really enough of that around.

    Consider free tickets to the museum to those that have bought a certain level of productc either in the shop or cafe.

    The object is to inform people and suggest you can only do that where people are and be doing something different.

    Possibly a room where someone could demonstrate and show specific items that could be asked for through the other suggestive media and give a talk on those items.

    Someone around to answer general questions on Burns and if the answer is unknown or obscure then send an email reply or a reply by some method

    In the aim of firing the the public imagination the museum has to be proactive in showing what it has and does. Other collections fail because they are static objects.
    I was at the Burrell collection recently and yes there iare fantastic items but there is no Life Story attached to them so they become just mere objects.

    A last suggestion is to consider making the museum free with an open door.

    I wish you well in the aims of getting things tweaked but it is building on the success of doing something different.

    Christine Sadler said:
    August 1, 2016 at 6:41 pm

    I’ve been twice and didn’t see anything other than the cafe and some gift shops. Where is the exhibition?

      robertburnsnts responded:
      August 8, 2016 at 8:59 am

      Hi Christine,
      The Museum is on the right as you enter, beside the right hand reception desk. If you’re still stuck next time you come in then please ask one of our staff members who will be happy to help!

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