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.
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.
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, www.burnsmuseum.org.uk, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 01292 443700.
A previous blog post looked at the ‘up-cycling’ of the press that printed Burns’s first collection of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect also known as the Kilmarnock Edition. The repurposing of the press happened in 1858 and it was turned into an arm chair. The chair became an ornamental and useful piece of fine oak furnature, that was a souvenir or relic of Burns’s inaugural work.
This is not only one example of creating souvenirs or relics relating to Burns’s work and life from materials which are linked to aspects of his fame and life. At the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and Bachelors Club, Tarbolton there is an amazing array of material! This blog post will look at a few highlights in the collection.
From the passing of Robert Burns on the 21st of July 1796 at the age of 37 people wanted to own a piece of the man! Over the years after his death the “Burnsiana” grew and developed, the collection of Burns souvenirs is broad and includes material that has been up-cycled from other objects or materials include pieces of Burns Trysting tree made into collectables, hair jewellery made with pieces of Jean Armour’s hair and pieces of Burns’s kist/coffin.
An interesting item in the museum collection is a necklace that is in the Fame section of the museum display. The necklace has 40 wooden beads and a wooden cross at the front with metal embellishments. It is 54cm long and the wood used in the necklace was taken from the Auld Alloway Kirk, just a short walk from Burns Cottage and next to the Burns Monument.
Alloway Kirk is a ruined church, which was built about 1516. By the time Burns wrote Tam O’Shanter the Kirk was in ruins. It had not been used for several decades and was in a ruinous state.
There is little information within the object record other than that the necklace is dated to 1822 – which dates to when Burns Cottage was under the tenancy of John Gaudie, and when the Burns Monument was under construction.
Other unique wooden souvenirs in the collection include a Pipe Case reportedly made from part of Burns’s Kist (3.4572), this is not unusual in the sense that it is connected with Burns’s burial – with the acquisition dated to 1834, below is an image of a piece of wood taken from Burns’s coffin when his tomb was opened so that Jean could be buried alongside him.
As with many souvenirs or relics the authenticity of the object is unclear – in this case eyewitness accounts state that the coffin was intact.
Wooden souvenirs with a direct connection to Burns’s life, made from the wood of trees grown on the banks of the Doon or, in this case, from the rafters of Alloway Auld Kirk, were highly sought after by Burns enthusiasts and general Victorian collectors.
In the 19th century there was a real interest in relic collecting relating to contemporary Poets – for instance at Keats House, Hampstead has in the collection a Gold Broach with some of Keats’s hair displayed in it, c.1822 (K/AR/01/002); another relic kept by the British Library is Percy Shelley’s ashes set inside the back cover of the book Percy Bysshe Shelley, His Last Days Told by His wife, with Locks of Hair and Some of the Poets Ashes (MS 5022).
At RBBM we have a lock of our Poet’s hair which is said to have been snipped from Robert’s head shortly after his death by his wife, Jean Armour, and given to her friend Jean Wilson in Mauchline as a macabre souvenir.
The world of Burns souvenirs and relics is vast and this only highlights some of the more unique… and interesting aspects of Burnsiana!
 Mackay,.J.A Burnsiana (1988)
 Lutz,.D Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture (2015).
by Catriona, Learning Intern
I have been volunteering now for over 4 years, in fact since the museum opened. I mainly volunteer at the weekend, guiding visitors round the museum. I find it enjoyable and rewarding. After I took early retirement from my employment as a Radiographer I was employed at an Historic Scotland property and I particularly enjoyed doing that. When I read about the opening of RBBM I wrote hoping they would require volunteer guides. I was lucky as training was just about to start and I was invited along to take part. I am very proud of the museum and want to make it come alive to as many people as possible. Seeing how much our visitors appreciate the collection and how much pleasure they get from their visit matters to me. It is important that our visitors take away a greater understanding of Robert Burns’ life and work. Occasionally after the tour, visitors seek me out and want to learn about other attractions in the area. I am pleased to help as it is very important for tourists to leave with the best impression possible. There is much to experience during a visit to the RBBM site and it is important to be enthusiastic and informative about everything that we have to offer. I get a lot of pleasure and satisfaction out of guiding. It has heightened my desire to keep on learning as much as I can about Robert Burns. To ensure that I have first hand knowledge of the places that were important in Robert’s life I have visited related sites in Dumfries, Kilmarnock, Kirkoswald, Mauchline and Tarbolton. I could say my favourite thing about RBBM is the Cheese Scones! Seriously I just think the whole package has so much to offer……something for everyone. Team Burns are a talented, lively group of people and I am proud to be part of it.