National Bard

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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Mother of the Bard

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There is no doubt that parents and guardians are instrumental in the formative years of a child’s life, and this was certainly the case for Robert Burns. One of his most famous poems, Tam o’ Shanter, was inspired by stories Burns’s relative Betty Davidson used to tell him in his childhood, and he credited Betty with ‘the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkries, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, inchanted towers, giants, dragons and other trumpery’ which later inspired many of his folklore related poems. Burns’s father, William, was also hugely influential – Burns himself explained that the Cottar’s Saturday Night is loosely based on his experiences growing up on a farm, and William’s desire to ensure his children were educated meant that Robert received the schooling he needed to write his poetry.

However, the person who would no doubt have had the largest part to play in raising the young Bard was his mother, Agnes. Born Agnes Broun in 1732 in Kirkoswald, the eldest of six children, she received some formal schooling and was taught to read a little, but could never write. Her mother died when she was ten, and her father remarried and seemed to take little interest in her after that. She was sent to be looked after by her grandmother, Mrs Rennie, whose collection of songs and ballads would have probably inspired Agnes’s love of singing.

Young Agnes was initially engaged to a farmhand for seven years, but broke off the relationship after he was unfaithful. She married William in 1757 after meeting him at a fair in Maybole the year before, and the couple went on to have seven children – Robert, Gilbert, Agnes, Annabella, William, John and Isabella.

Agnes loved singing. She had a find collection of lullabies, ballads and even bawdry songs in Scots which she would sing to her children from a young age. This would no doubt have made a huge impression on the young Bard, who later went on to collect many old Scottish songs and ballads in The Scots Musical Museum. Once again, his upbringing against a background of traditional Scottish music and folklore was the perfect inspiration for future literary endeavours. Alongside her singing and domestic chores, she also played an important role in the development of the farm at Burns Cottage – she would have grown vegetables and made butter and cheese from the milk produced by the family’s cows.

William Burnes died in 1784 and was survived by Agnes for 36 years. She spent the majority of this time living with her son Gilbert and died in his home in East Lothian in 1820. Despite an inscription to her on William’s gravestone in Alloway Auld Kirk, she is actually buried in the Churchyard of Bolton. Isabella, Robert’s youngest sister, wrote this about her mother:

‘She was rather under the average height; inclined to plumpness, but neat, shapely, and full of energy; having a beautiful pink-and-white complexion, a fine square forehead, pale red hair but dark eyebrows and dark eyes often ablaze with a temper difficult of control. Her disposition was naturally cheerful; her manner, easy and collected; her address, simple and unpresuming; and her judgement uncommonly sound and good. She possessed a fine musical ear, and sang well.’

Many famous historical figures are men, however the majority of these men were raised by women. There is little doubt that Agnes Broun had a large formative influence on her son, and inspired his love of music and song, as well his appreciation in later life of women who had a musical ear. She not only physically gave birth to Robert Burns, but also brought him up to become Scotland’s National Bard.