heritage

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. http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections/object_detail/3.t13 

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

These pens are much mightier than the sword!

 

 

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Scots language at RBBM

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Scots is one of three indigenous languages in Scotland alongside Gaelic and English. It is recognised as a language in its own right and Burns is recognised as one of the greatest proponents of this language. Here at RBBM, we utilise Scots to reinforce its relevance to the museum, its landscape and its local heritage. You can read more about our promotion and usage of our mither tongue in our Scots Language Strategy: http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/scots-language-strategy/.

If you have visited RBBM before, you may have spotted our use of the Scots language in our exhibition labels, products and books in our shop, and in our café menus. We also explore Scots in our education programmes, and it is part of our architecture – you’ll find Scots words engraved into the building’s walls, adorning our glass windows and incorporated into some of our exterior sculptural works. We would love to know which Scots words you have seen around the site are your favourite. Tweet us @robertburnsnts using the hashtags #Scots and #Scotslanguage to share.

Tim Chalk 1

At the front of the Museum on the grass, you’ll find a bronze and steel sculpture rising from the leaf-shaped soil. This piece is by Tim Chalks for Chalk Works, and it is site-specific – designed to relate closely to the environment and the people associated with its location, much like Chalks’ other works. The form of this sculpture plays with the way Burns drew inspiration for his poems and songs – from the land – by ploughing Scots words taken from Burns’s To A Mouse from the earth. Further emphasis is placed on Burns’s concern with nature, and his farming background, by two bronze crows attempting to feed from the Scots words. This inclusion of feeding birds is fitting for RBBM too, especially as they are crows, one of the most intelligent types of bird, as we aim to fill (up) our visitors with the knowledge of Burns’s life and works, as well as of the richness of the Scots language.

Tim Chalk 2.JPG

A crow at RBBM’s entrance, placed to direct visitors into the Museum from the grass, is also part of this sculpture by Chalks, as are the additional crows in the Museum Gardens. The Museum Gardens are also home to a selection of Chalks’ other sculptural works. Why not pop along to see them and explore what their interpretations may be?

By RBBM Learning Trainee, Sophie Watt.

WHAT DOES YOUR CUP SAY ABOUT YOU!

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Tea or Coffee? The question is simple but can evoke strong opinions from people. Likewise people can have strong connections and feelings to the cup they choose to use. Here in the RBBM education office we are mixed tea and coffee drinkers, but our cups are very different: some have polar bears, others star signs – mine is a purple donkey!

In our museum collection we have Agnes ‘Clarinda’ McLehose’s coffee cup and Jean Armour’s tea cup and saucer.  These two objects stuck with me, and when I thought of the objects side by side, I began to draw comparisons between the design, liquid, and ultimately, the two women who were big personalities in Robert’s life.  What did the cup say about them? I began to think through the drink and cup and create an image of these women in my head.

Tea and coffee were both expensive drinks in the eighteenth century. Coffee was consumed in Coffee Houses, which were hubs for the discussion of trade and politics; while tea was far more gentile and social, and employed a whole set delicate paraphernalia. Also, by 1785 tea was far more affordable than it had been previously -this was due to the Government slashing duty on tea to reduce smuggling.

Clarinda is already looking a wee bit adventurous… and exotic? While Jean, the gentle ‘wife’ is more feminine with her tea!

Jean’s tea cup and matching saucer is white with a red floral decoration. The cup and saucer appears sturdy and reliable, even today there are little signs of damage or tea staining! A frequent problem in break room mugs… The flower decor is pretty but it looks tough and enduring like it would survive storms and frosts. For me it speaks to the fact that Jean stuck with Robert through thick and thin!

Jeans Teacup

By comparison Clarinda’s coffee cup is far more exotic, But then Clarinda was exotic, she was part of the upper classes and literati of Edinburgh, a far cry from Jean in the countryside. Her cup is refined and dainty, porcelain with the Chinese Pheasant; a symbol of beauty and good fortune, also the representation of literary refinement.Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway.

The imagery behind the cups brought to life for me parts of their characters and personalities, giving us hints about the two main women in Roberts’s life.

In the end I love the delicate design of Clarinda’s coffee cup, but I am a tea drinker at heart….