Guest Blog: Visiting Cornwall’s Museums the Green Way

For many people, working in a museum might sound like a dream job. I was one of those people (and indeed I still am), but this week I have been lucky enough to find the only job that is even better – working across several museums, for the wonderful Cornwall Museums Partnership. My name is Nick Collins and I’ve been here for an all-too-brief secondment from the University of Exeter as part of their Professional Pathways programme. I’ve visited museums and galleries across the county this week, and below I’m going to share my thoughts on the amazing exhibitions they’re running at the moment. There’s another theme I’d also like to share. I’ve been trying to show how we can be greener in our museum visits, and help to reduce congestion on Cornwall’s roads, which will be as busy as ever this summer. I’ve travelled to all of these exhibitions using nothing more than public transport and my trusty steed (a bicycle, not a horse). But more on that in a moment…

On Monday, I started at Penlee House to see Munnings in Cornwall, an exhibition which will take regulars there from the familiar territory of the early Newlyn School into the perhaps less familiar territory of the later Newlyn School, whilst also introducing new visitors to the beauty and humanity of this school of painting. It is that humanity which really shines through in this exhibition – perhaps ironically, given that its principle subject, Alfred Munnings, is best-known for painting horses. But, whatever the paintings, show, we have to remember that it was people who made them, and this exhibition tells those people’s stories with touching sensitivity. Often, the glimpses we get of artists’ lives are startlingly intimate. Munnings’ painting coat, palette and brushes are here, as are examples of his letters and sketchbooks and his beautiful poem to Jessica Heath. Harold Knight’s portrait of Munnings dominates the entrance to the exhibition, portraying only a few hints of the alleged tension between the two. It is one of three portraits of Munnings, another being a self-deprecating, caricatured self-portrait. Munnings’ contemporaries dominate the next two rooms, with Harold and Laura Knight, Samuel John “Lamorna” Birch, Frank Gascoigne Heath and Charles W. Simpson particularly prominent. They give us a wonderful insight into the world of the Newlyn School’s less-famous later stages.

Sir Alfred Munnings

The Lamorna Inn, 1915

Oil on canvas

Sir Alfred Munnings Museum

© Sir Alfred Munnings Museum. DACS 2019

Come Tuesday, and we made the longest trip of the week, all the way up to Bodmin (yes, by public transport!) to Cornwall’s Regimental Museum. Have a look at the video below this paragraph…

I wasn’t joking, describing music as a great morale raiser. The army has known it for centuries, a story told with great insight and originality by CRM’s Citizen Curators, in their exhibition Music, Morale and the Military. There are some fantastic objects here, including the D Day dodgers’ banjo, carried by soldiers in Italy in the Second World War in ironic reference to the derogatory nickname forced on them; and a Light Infantry Drum, which ties in very well to the rest of the museum and the superb videos which allow former members of that regiment to tell its story in their own words. The real highlights, though, are the playable 1920s piano and the new recording of the DCLI Boys Marching Song (a local song probably not heard in almost 100 years), both of which make the exhibition a fantastic place to stay for a while and enjoy the atmosphere. The exhibition was created by the Citizen Curators, a group of five volunteers who put it together over a period of several months. The programme will be running again with new volunteers from October 2019 to April 2020 across several museums in Cornwall. Have a look at the previous blog post for much more information on that.

The equivalent Citizen Curators’ exhibition at Falmouth Art Gallery has finished (until the next one!), but the spirit of community curation is alive and well in their new exhibition Stuff and Nonsense, which I saw on Wednesday. There are several pieces of community-curated art and there will be more throughout the summer. There is also the chance for every single person who walks through the door to contribute, with visitors being asked to upload photos of their own “shrines” in response to those created for the exhibition, and also to leave their own found objects alongside those in the exhibition.

The Nonsense half of this exhibition is brilliantly uplifting, featuring illustrations from Quentin Blake, Tony Ross and Edward Lear which are sure to please children and to bring out the child in the rest of us. There is even a woodblock used in the illustration of Alice in Wonderland, alongside Lewis Carrol’s diary, a real highlight. Several fantastic automata have also found their way into the exhibition. Anyone who enjoys seeing these should also make their way down to the library, housed in the same building, which features more, including an enormous example based on Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books.

Uplifting Nonsense

To return to the transport theme, Thursday presented an unusual challenge. Many people would see Portcurno Telegraph Museum as inaccessible by public transport, but there is in fact a bus which stops right outside it. Admittedly, the unusual challenge I mentioned was the fact that said bus broke down in St Buryan on the return journey, but I’m sure that doesn’t happen often… If the owner of St Buryan Caterers, who very kindly gave me a lift back to Penzance, is reading, thanks once again!

The Telegraph Museum itself is today perhaps more relevant than it’s ever been – as we live through our own communications revolution, it becomes ever more important to understand previous ones. At Porthcurno that story is told not only in terms of the technology (which is covered superbly through working objects and demonstrations) but the people who used and made it, whose lives are shown through their photos and possessions. The highlight is the spectacular Second World War bunker, filled with hundreds of artefacts, many of which are still working. The photo here is the escape stairs, a tunnel leading from the bunker all the way to the surface and beautiful views of the valley.

The escape stairs from the Second World War bunker at Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

I finished the week just this morning at Royal Cornwall Museum for their exhibition Eye to the Sky exhibition, which tells the story of John Couch Adams, who predicted the discovery of Neptune, through Manga. It is an incredible story, and a highly innovative way of telling it. The Manga sits alongside more traditional museum objects, including a large celestial globe and the astonishingly-restored portrait of Adams, which has been transformed from quite literally having a hole in the unfortunate astronomer’s forehead to as good as new. Bringing both of these approaches together creates something far better than either style could have achieved alone.

The addition of Cornish language adds a lovely touch to the Manga which tells the story of John Couch Adams and his fellow Cornish astronomers.

So what have I learnt this week? A lot. More than I can really say. I’ve been lucky enough to work in museums before and if this experience has been an exception it’s because it’s been even better than those other times. Museums tell us stories, entertain us and make us think, but never has it been clearer to me than it has this week that they can also change lives. From the Citizen Curators who put on such wonderful exhibitions, some of whom have gone on to continued involvement in the heritage sector, to the home-educated children who I saw taking part in a workshop in Falmouth, I have come to understand that museums are about more than probably most people realise. They harness history and the arts as a positive force for the present, and it has been an honour to see how much difference that can make.

I would like to thank the University of Exeter for their part in organising this placement and for the stimulating and enlightening training I took part in there last week. Most of all, I can’t thank the people at CMP and all of the museums in the partnership enough. I hope to see you all again sometime.

Guest Blog: Join Us in Year Two of Citizen Curators

Dr Tehmina Goskar is the Director of the Curatorial Research Centre and leads Cornwall Museums Partnership’s Citizen Curators programme. We are delighted that Tehmina has kindly written this blog to answer a few FAQs  for anyone who is interested in taking part in the programme.

We have just completed a successful Year One of the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund supported Citizen Curators programme. 29 participants who joined as volunteers at their chosen museum successfully completed the programme and received a certificate for their accomplishment.

If you are interested in taking part in Year Two of Citizen Curators, here are some of your questions answered.

Two of the Citizen Curators examining some of Penlee House Gallery and Museum's collection in the object handling session.

 

What is Citizen Curators?

Citizen Curators is a free work-based training programme in museum awareness and modern curatorial practice aimed at volunteers from our community. The programme is provided by Cornwall Museums Partnership in collaboration with seven museums. It is funded for three years by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund administered by the Museums Association. The Programme Leader is Dr. Tehmina Goskar, Curator & Director of the Curatorial Research Centre.

 

When and where does it take place?

The Citizen Curators course takes place between October 2019 – April 2020. Seven Cornish museums are taking part in the programme: Cornwall’s Regimental Museum, Bodmin, Wheal Martyn Clay Works, near St Austell, Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro, Falmouth Art Gallery, Museum of Cornish Life, Helston, Penlee House Gallery and Museum, Penzance and Telegraph Museum Porthcurno.

 

How many places are there?

Each museum has five places. Each year there will be approximately 35 volunteers undertaking the Citizen Curators course.

 

What experience and qualifications do I need?

None. Just a thirst for learning, the ability to demonstrate your curiosity, and be willing to find things out for yourself. You should be able to commit the time needed to make the most of this opportunity. We encourage you bring and to talk about your existing skills and previous experience.

 

A Citizen Curator creating music by hitting a silver plate with a spoon during the interpretation session.

 

How much time do I have to spend on the programme?

You must attend the six core sessions: collections, communities, research, interpretation, communication and curating the Cornish National Collection. These will take place on a monthly basis from October. They will take place in one of the museums in your group. That means about one full day per month. In addition, you will be working on researching and creating content about the collections in your museum. This might be according to a brief set by the museum or it might be on something your group thinks is important. You can expect to commit to between 4 hours to 1 day per fortnight on this. You are welcome to volunteer more hours but this is entirely down to you and your museum. There are also optional opportunities such as field trips and discussion events you will be invited to take part in.

 

What kinds of things will interest me?

Museum collections contain a wealth of untapped knowledge, stories, and ideas from political events and abstract art to family history and science. Our museums are waiting for you to help them share that knowledge with different people. If you get excited by new discoveries, finding something out or asking probing questions then Citizen Curators is for you. The course will teach you how to curate thoughtfully and meaningfully. It will help you to see the relationship between knowledge creation and communication and you will gain a whole set of specific skills as a result.

This year the cohort will be invited to research collections to highlight new stories, particularly those of under-represented people and subjects. This will also include getting involved in the creation of a Cornish National Collection that will reflect the diversity of Cornish society past and present, while also highlighting our distinctive culture.

 

Two Citizen Curators learn how to

 

What do I need to do to sign up?

The seven participating museums are beginning to look for their next candidates. In the first instance, check out their websites and get in touch with the museum that most appeals to you. In due course, they will send you a questionnaire to complete and we will take it from there.

You can contact the museums participating in Citizen Curators by clicking the links below:

Cornwall’s Regimental Museum 

Falmouth Art Gallery

Museum of Cornish Life, Helston

Penlee House Gallery and Museum

Royal Cornwall Museum

Telegraph Museum Porthcurno

Wheal Martyn

 

Dr Tehmina Goskar
Director, Curatorial Research Centre