Earlier this year, two students from the Scottish literature department at Glasgow Uni joined us on a month long placement as part of their degree. This is the first in a series of four blog posts they wrote between them on elements of the exhibition they found significant.
During his lifetime, Burns was inspired by many different things, but one of the most significant aspects – which gave him plenty of creative fodder to chew on – was the oppressive control the Scottish Presbyterian Church held over not only the people within his own locality, who provided his primary concern, but the entire nation. In its ‘A Cauld Kirk’ section, the museum chooses poems which reflect this: ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, ‘The Holy Fair’, and ‘The Holy Tulzie’. Burns’s religious satire is a rich source for one who wishes to observe the religious climate of the late eighteenth century, and so we must recognise that our present-day attitudes towards Burns’s contemporary Kirk have probably been largely shaped by his poetry. However, Burns’s religion has often been misunderstood by readers and critics alike – Burns was not an enemy of religion, nor a pious Presbyterian, but we can be sure from his satire that he hated religious hypocrisy. Around the time Burns was writing, a rift was beginning to appear within the Church of Scotland. There appeared two branches of Presbyterianism – the ‘Auld Lichts’ who represented a more severe and unforgiving form of Presbyterianism, Calvinism, which involved fire and brimstone sermons and the idea of predestination which Burns so despised. The ‘New Lichts’, with whom Burns shared sentiments and could really get behind, represented a more moderate form of Presbyterianism which sought to put more emphasis on morality and the human aspects of religion, rather than just being blindly faithful.
It cannot be denied that Burns’s religious satire is an attack on the ‘Auld Lichts’. Ever since the Reformation, individual Kirks within small communities held supposedly God-given authority over their people – and they ruled by fear. To illustrate this, the museum allows you to put yourself in Burns’s riding boots by taking a seat on the ‘cutty-stool’ or ‘creepie-chair’, situated in front of the pulpit and therefore the entire congregation. This chair is not dissimilar to the naughty-step your parents might have chastised you on, and in it Burns would have sat and been told off in front of his family and good friends, as well as he entire village of Mauchline, and this did not sit well with him at all. Burns willingly sat in similar sermons all over the country – he was a ‘sermon-taster’ – but it was his experiences within the Mauchline Kirk which inspired poems such as ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ and ‘The Holy Fair’. However, the museum does acknowledge the fact that Burns’s religious allegiances were not as clear cut as they may appear in his satirical poetry by recognising his relationship with ‘Auld Licht’ minister William Dalrymple, whom Burns admired and respected for his liberal views – it is well known that Burns was a man of many contradictions.
Hanging in the ‘A Cauld Kirk’ section is Alexander Carse’s painting ‘The Mauchline Holy Fair’, a depiction of the twice-yearly gathering described in ‘The Holy Fair’. If you look carefully at it you might notice a character resembling Burns, sporting a rather mischievous smile, walking alongside the bright and beautiful personification of Fun, closely followed by the dark, grim, Calvinist-type women representing Superstition and Hypocrisy. Mauchline Kirk is painted at the left, the pub on the right, and between them the village community, caught up in a kind of moral tug-of-war. Carse depicts the villagers as Burns would have recognised them, as individuals caught up on the tension between religion and traditional culture. This moral tug-of-war was about deciding whether to embrace their freedom – drink, chat, eat, and flirt until there heart was content – or to behave themselves and not risk public condemnation in the sermon. We see now that these people lived in constant fear of the Kirk and its authority – one foot out of place was all it took. Burns was a fond observer of human nature and he recognised that in order to be reformed, the Kirk must take moral weakness and human frailty into account.
This exhibit is only a small sample of what Burns’s moderate Presbyterianism and relationship with the Kirk has inspired, and it is important we remember the unjust Kirk practices that inspired Burns to write, so that people never have to live in fear of being ‘only human’ again.
By Kirsty MacQueen
Over the past two years the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum has benefited from generous grants from Museums and Galleries Scotland to enhance the grounds and entrance to the museum with three high quality art and craft commissions.
In 2015 a national call for entries for a new sculpture about or related to Robert Burns to be sited on Poet’s Path. This would be the newest addition to an evolving sculpture garden devoted to Burns.
Scottish sculptor Jake Harvey http://www.artfirst.co.uk/jake_harvey/biography.html won the commission with his modernist, minimalist sculpture of a haggis carved from two types of British granite.
In 2016 there was another open commission to create a mural in the entry foyer above the admissions desk. This commission also attracted many high quality submissions won by Glasgow based duo Little Book Transfers http://www.littlebooktransfers.co.uk/ LBT have painted many large, murals around Scotland for both a public and private clients.
The brief was to create a mural of images based on objects from the collection as a way to encourage visits into the museum. Perched high on scaffolding during open hours LBT painted a dynamic, graphic mural that compliments the architecture with images of star objects from the collection.
The third commission was for benches and cases in the foyer. Craftsman Willie Love from Maryhill http://makeworks.co.uk/companies/WestendCabinetmaker/ created hand-made unique cases and benches from oak. The sleek slat benches echo traditional rail station benches with a contemporary twist. The two museum quality cases combine Victorian and modernist styles with museum quality glass ‘cells’ that use the best archival materials internally.
Like the mural this commission is intended to whet the appetite of interest and encourage visits into the museum. A small study for a Robert Burns statue in Wyoming, a facsimile of the Kilmarnock Edition and even one of Robert Burns’s socks!
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 email@example.com or 01292 443700.
Our forthcoming exhibition, The Real Face of Burns, explores the legend of imagery that has grown up around our bard. While we think we know what Burns looked like, the majority of Burns imagery is based on a portrait done by the artist, Alexander Naysmith. Yet, while Naysmith knew Burns, the other images done during the life of Burns seem to conflict. Who is the real Robert Burns here, in our collection of images, and will he please stand up?
This is our main image of Burns, isn’t it? It has become the most popular and the most often copied, perhaps because its original creator, Alexander Naysmith, was a famous painter and his images were well known and seen. However, while Naysmith was well acquainted with Burns, has he perhaps idealised his friend in this image? Robert Burns in the Naysmith style is handsome, perhaps even slightly ‘pretty’, with slim features and fashionable dress. While the Scottish countryside evokes Burns’s farming background, the muck and pleiter of farming life seems absent in this Edinburgh painting.
There are other paintings of Robert Burns done by people who knew him and saw him, and they differ substantially. There is the Peter Taylor portrait in our collection here at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, which shows Burns again in Scottish landscape, still fairly slim, sitting quite formally with a large farmer’s bunnet, but with none of the refined air of Naysmith. Sir Walter Scott, who had met Robert Burns, said of the portrait that ‘I would not hesitate to recognise this portrait as a striking resemblance of the Poet.’
Then, to confuse us further, there is also the Alexander Reid miniature of Burns. This shows him fairly swarthy in face and with a sturdier figure. Yet this portrait was painted only 6 months prior to Burns’s death, at which point he was often described as looking visibly ill and worn. Nonetheless, Burns himself said that this portrait was the best likeness of him that had been taken, and the thicker figure also seems to match with silhouettes taken at the time.
So who is the real Robert Burns? Is it the slender man gazing across the ethereal landscape? Is it the sturdy farmer with ruddy cheeks? Or are these depictions merely focusing on specific aspects of the man, perhaps adapting his image to portray him as they saw him, or wished to see him? The romantic poet, the Ayrshire farmer, the common man, the heaven taught ploughman, the lover, the debater, are all different sides of the real face of Burns.
So come along to the Real Face of Burns and discover old and new ways of seeing Robert Burns! Exhibition opens February 21st at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.
In 1791 Robert Burns’ younger brother, Gilbert, got married. For Gilbert’s wedding present Robert gave a somewhat bizarre gift – a wax ornamental apple. In an attempt to rationalise the possible thought process behind this present we have interpreted in diary form the thoughts that might have been going on in Robert’s head as the wedding approached.
It’s Gilbert’s wedding soon an’ I really need tae think about what I’m goin tae get him. Gilbert and I are gey close, and I’d love tae get him something special. First I thought about books, you know – he was awfy keen on books, just like me as a lad. That Hannibal book that I loved, I sure I mind he was fair intae the story himsel’, or was it just me that really liked it? Jean tells me that while books may count as special tae me, its nae abodie that feels that way.
Ellisland, April 1791
I was sitting by the fire the other nicht when I saw Jean yaisen the bannock toaster we got for oor wedding, and I started tae think on getting Gilbert wan o’ those, but Jean says that’s nae guid – she’s heard that some other billie has already got them wan.
Ellisland, May 1791
It’s getting right close tae the wedding now and I still haven’t got Gilbert oniething for it. I’ve thought of so many things: shaving kit, coffee cups, tea cups, books, farm stuff, but nane o’ those things are that special. Jean’s been getting on at me again. She says if I don’t buy him something soon, she’ll go out herself and get it. Ah, if only I was wi’ my sweet Clarinda! I’m sure she wouldn’t hassle me in such a fashion.
Ellisland, May 1791
Well, wi’ a week till the wedding, I’ve finally got somethin. Jean’s no happy – she says it’s a weird gift and that she cannae think what brought me tae buy it. Still, what’s wrong wi an’ ornamental wax apple? Gilbert likes apples – he likes them straight fae the tree, and stewed in a pie, so why wouldn’t he like a wee wax wan on his mantel piece? But that’s wumman for ye.
Ellisland, June 1791
Sadly it is quite likely we will never know why Robert Burns gave his brother such a peculiar gift. Was it an inside joke? Did Gilbert just have a weird taste in interior design? What do you think?
Written by Mhairi Gowans, Learning Intern
So Easter is over for another year and the chocolate eggs have all been eaten. Burns Cottage has been relinquished by the pirates, for now!
This year our annual Cadbury Easter Egg Hunt trail was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It wasn’t only a great excuse for museum staff to dress as pirates (some with unanticipated gusto), we also had huge numbers of visitors through the doors to get stuck in!
For those of you that couldn’t attend, the museum was hijacked to become the Hispanola for the weekend, decked out with sails, rigging and a massive stash of pirate booty (or in land-lubber terms – a huge pile of delicious Cadbury’s chocolate eggs).
The pirate trail proved very popular, taking families on a mad dash around the site, guided only by a ragged island map to discover who had hidden all the treasure. One of our visitors has made a fantastic video that shows them in action.
Up at the cottage there was mutiny afoot, with a mini trail of pirates who had been given the black spot to discover in each room.
I’m sure none of the museum staff or volunteers expected that hoisting a main sail, paper mache-ing a treasure cave or sword-fighting with visitors would be part of their job description, but once again their hard work was the key ingredient for the event’s success. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum…