The following blog post was written by RBBM’s Learning Officer as a guest blog for Museums Galleries Scotland – http://nationallysignificantcollections.scot/
Few objects associated with Robert Burns are as well-known, or as instrumental to his fame, as the ‘Kilmarnock Edition’. Published on the 31st July 1786 by John Wilson of Kilmarnock, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was the first volume of poetry and song to be written by the man who was to later become Scotland’s National Bard. Containing some of his best-loved works including Tae a Mouse, The Cotter’s Saturday Night and The Holy Fair, it is one of the items in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum’s collection treasured most by both staff and visitors.
The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (RBBM) is based in Alloway, South Ayrshire and is run by the National Trust for Scotland. The site consists of the Birthplace Cottage; Alloway Auld Kirk and the Brig o’ Doon (both of Tam o’ Shanter fame); Burns Monument and gardens; and of course the museum itself. The site is one of three in the ‘Burns Group’, also comprising of the Bachelors’ Club where the young Robert set up his own debating society, and Souter Johnnie’s Gallery, once the home of John Davidson (on whom Burns may have based the character Souter Johnnie in Tam o’ Shanter), and now an art gallery and craft shop showcasing local work.
The museum collection comprises of over 5,500 objects including 2 Kilmarnock editions. Only 612 copies of this first edition were printed, each containing 44 poems and songs written by the Bard. Although John Wilson was known for celebrating local talent, he was still reluctant to take a chance on an unknown poet from Ayrshire – in the end it was agreed that he would print the work only if Burns could raise enough advance subscriptions. The book cost 3 s each – 350 copies went directly to subscribers, and the rest quickly sold out within a month.
Reviews of the Kilmarnock edition were largely positive, although some made reference to Burns’s supposed lack of education (despite his home schooling by tutor John Murdoch and his familiarity with a range of literary and enlightenment figures including Alexander Pope, Adam Smith and Robert Fergusson). The Monthly Review in December 1786 also lamented Burns’s use of, ‘an unknown tongue, which must deprive most of our readers of the pleasure they would otherwise naturally create; being composed in the Scottish dialect, which contains words that are altogether unknown to an English reader…’. This seems a strange notion today, when Burns’s use of Scots is regarded by many as one of his best loved and most distinctive features.
Despite sentiments of this nature, the book began to circulate in Edinburgh, attracting positive attention from eminent society figures. Within 8 weeks, Burns was thinking of re-printing. The second edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (the First Edinburgh edition), was printed by William Smellie and published by William Creech in Edinburgh on 21st April 1787. The cost of this was 5 s to subscribers and 6 to other buyers. Over 3,000 copies were published, firmly establishing Burns’s reputation and paving the way for his future success as a poet and songwriter, both during and after his lifetime.
Today, RBBM displays a Kilmarnock edition alongside an interactive facsimile which allows visitors to browse the pages digitally, therefore preserving the original for future generations. But this is not the only item of interest we have relating to this first volume of Burns’s works.
Above we have the printing stocks used to decorate books published by John Wilson in Kilmarnock, and below is an elaborate seat fashioned from the printing press which was used to print the first edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It was converted into a chair during the Victorian period in an early example of ‘upcycling’, and was also famously the chair Muhammed Ali sat in when he visited Burns Cottage in 1965.
The 5,500 objects in RBBM’s collection include original manuscripts of Burns’s works, letters to and from the Bard, artefacts belonging to Burns and his family/friends, artworks, books, Burnsiana (trinkets relating to Burns), and more. Together they make up the most extensive collection of Burns related objects in the world. But none would be important today without the book of 44 poems and songs, originally sold for 3 s each, representing an Ayrshire farmer’s first step towards becoming Scotland’s National Bard.
In November 2009, a small book containing 14 Burns poems and songs was presented to astronaut Nick Patrick by ten young Scots taking part in the Scottish Space School. This book was to make a 5.7 million mile journey the following February, completing 217 orbits of the Earth on a two week long mission to the International Space Station.
The Scottish Space School is an initiative delivered by the University of Strathclyde, designed to encourage young people to consider careers in science and engineering. These particular students were taking part in a trip to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, where they were able to hand the book over to Nick Patrick. Originally, the book was given to the Space School by Alan Archibald, a distant relative of Jean Armour, Burns’s wife. It made its out of this world trip to celebrate the Year of Homecoming in 2010 aboard NASA’s STS 130 Endeavour spacecraft.
The book is now part of our museum collection, alongside a photograph of Nick who said:
‘It was a real honour to have met such an enthusiastic group of young people, not only to continue the inspirational work undertaken by the Scottish Space School, but to also help spread the timeless poetry of Robert Burns.’
This blog was written by Iona Fisher, a work experience student from Carrick Academy.
In 1788 Burns trained to be an excise officer and was an excise man until he died in 1796, as well as farming in Ellisland. Excise men (also known as gaugers) covered large areas of Scotland’s countryside and their job was to inspect and record taxable materials, such as malted grain, soap, candles and paper, before and after they were manufactured. To do this Burns would use dipping rods to measure liquids and scales to weigh dried materials. Burns was aware that people did not necessarily like excise men, so he carried a pistol around with him to protect himself.
Also in RBBM’s collection are Robert Burns’s duelling pistols: http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections/object_detail/3.8557.a-c
With Robert Burns’ health condition getting worse, he moved back to Dumfries to live his last few days. On his deathbed he gave his physician – Dr William Maxwell, his pair of duelling pistols. He died in Dumfries on the 21st of July 1796 from a heart disease. Roberts’s wife, Jean, gave birth to her last child the day of Burns’s funeral and she named him Maxwell after Robert’s physician. The pistols were donated to the Burns Monument Trust by William Hugh Fleming in 1987 and they are now in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 01292 443700.