A day in the life of a museum curator

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We were sad to say goodbye to our Curator, Sean, last week as he retired from the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum to spend more time on his art and in his garden! We did manage to persuade him to write a quick blog post before he left, looking back on his time as curator here… we would like to wish him all the best in his retirement, and thank him for all his hard work at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum over the years.

From September 2014 until January 2018, I was curator at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, part of the National Trust for Scotland.

Some people ask “what does a curator do?” Every post is different. I was curator of contemporary and modern art for Glasgow Museums from 1999 until 2014. It was a similar job but had many differences too. In many ways it was a faster pace at GoMA with much larger gallery spaces and constantly changing displays of collections and loans. 

Here at RBBM one of the main things I do is type as I am now. That was true of GoMA too and I suppose most jobs now. Other things I do besides typing include giving tours of the museum, surrounding sites and the stores. This is one of my favourite things to do and most visitors interested in Burns enjoy it. I enjoy conveying my love of Burns and knowledge of the collection. I am new to Burns and only started studying him when I started this job, I was hired for my ‘museum experience’. But I was pleasantly surprised to find I really like Burns as a subject. I enjoy his mind through his letters, poems and songs. He was both talented and humane. It is quite thrilling to hold original letters and manuscripts that he wrote or objects he owned. I will miss this aspect of the job, but of course, anyone anywhere can read Burns. That is one of the perks of writing, it is easily dispersed.  

A picture of the Kilmarnock edition and electronic facsimile we have in our collection
The Kilmarnock edition and facsimile in our collection…

I also had the responsibility here of planning and running three or four temporary exhibitions a year in the gallery space. This could be quite a challenge with little funds. I think my favourites were the Sharmanka show and Burns Squared.  

I also answer lots of enquiries from around the world. This is the largest collection of Burns objects in the world – over 300 rare books and 312 original manuscripts by Burns himself. I am only now beginning to comprehend and understand the collection. Collections are only as good as the caretakers who speak for them and love them and this knowledge takes time. Without this knowledge and passion collections become mute objects. 

Probably one of my favourite objects in the collection is Robert’s writing set. 

Robert Burns writing set including sharpening knives and quills
Robert Burns’s writing set

These pens are much mightier than the sword!



A Day in the Life of a …. Curator

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RBBM Curator Rebecca Stapley kicks off our new series of blog posts, A Day in Life… An insight into the goings on behind the scenes of the museum and the people that make it tick.

What’s the first thing you did when you arrived this morning?

I got in at 8.30am and turned my computer on. I then went straight into the museum to put the Hanwell monitors back into the display cases. These are the small white boxes that you’ll see in the museum. They monitor light and humidity levels and need to be taken out to be calibrated once a year – there’s 34 of them so it takes a while to put them all back! The doors need to be opened with special rollers with suction pads, and I need a stepladder to reach the top of the cases, and then I need a trolley to hold all the Hanwells as I go around…and it all needs to be done before we open to the public at 10am!

Give me a brief description of what you did today.

 Today I: Put the Hanwells back. Checked the glass cases in the museum for finger marks and nose smudges and polished with the PEL museum cloths. Answered enquiries about foreign language translations, old books, and the lighting levels in the museum. Took a phone-call from a documentary maker. Cleaned the tabletop in the Monument. Swept up escaped soil from our contemporary art installation! Talked to a family of kids about their favourite house in the contemporary art installation (the metal house with all the cracks won hands down). Put together information on the public art around the site. Answered internal emails (and drank a lot of ginger tea at my desk!) Oh, and then I sat down and answered these questions.

How would you describe a normal day in the life of a Curator at RBBM?

 At a risk of sounding clichéd – there isn’t  a ‘normal’ day in the life of a curator! There’s always something different to do, or someone new to talk to (in person or on the phone). For instance, on Monday last week I was at a local nursing home with the Education team; on the Tuesday I gave a tour of the site to a group of people (and removed all the Hanwells from the cases); on Wednesday I was at my desk answering emails and enquiries and on Thursday I was at HQ in Edinburgh for meetings with the Collections team and the Trust librarian. (I was off on Friday!)

What’s your favourite thing about the job?  

I have lots of favourite things about my job….but I do really enjoy the opportunity to talk to people from all over the world about Burns, the museum collection and the wider site:  the Monument and gardens, Burns Cottage, Brig o Doon and the Auld Kirk.

What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you working at RBMM so far? 

The strangest thing that I’ve done so far in this job was throwing haggis at a photographer while I was dressed in 18th century costume. It was a freezing day, my hands got covered in gunk from the haggis, and we were on the pavement outside Burns cottage with the photographer lying practically in the road as I hurled haggis at his head. We got a lot of very slow-moving cars driving past! (this was a photo-shoot for our annual Haggis-Hurling competition)