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Cornwall Museums Partnership

A Day in the Life: Eilish Calnan, Citizen Curator at Wheal Martyn

Welcome to our blog series, ‘A Day in the Life…’ which features individuals at CMP and our partner museums and what they get up to on a typical day at work. Next up is Eilish Calnan, a participant of the 2021 Citizen Curators programme with a placement at Wheal Martyn Clay Works.

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, with the main goal of providing a new form of meaningful museum participation. The programme is led by Dr. Tehmina Goskar, Curator and Director of the Curatorial Research Centre. 

Read on to learn more about Eilish’s experience of the programme so far

A landscape of green hills and blue sky with a historic chimney in the foreground - taken at Wheal Martyn Clay Works, St Austell

My name is Eilish Calnan and I am currently taking part in Citizen Curators, run by Cornwall
Museums Partnership in conjunction with the Curatorial Research Centre. The programme aims
to democratise the curation process, as well as provide training on curating and a space to learn
and discuss the issues currently facing the act of curating and the wider museum world. I have
just finished my BA in History at the University of Exeter, here in Cornwall on the Penryn
campus, and have been deeply interested in museum studies; as well as Celtic Studies with a
particular focus on Cornwall and Ireland, and so I grabbed the opportunity to work with Wheal
Martyn Museum in St Austell!

Wheal Martyn is the world’s only known museum dedicated to the material China Clay, also
known as kaolin clay. Mining is intimately linked with the history of Cornwall, but most people
focus on the tin and copper mining of West Cornwall, with the striking engine houses
overlooking rocky cliffs and turbulent seas; many forget the history of China Clay in East
Cornwall. Wheal Martyn tells the story of the mine which shares the museum’s name, but also
the wider story of China Clay, from mining to refining, to the products made possible by China
Clay and the stories of the workers. This year’s Citizen Curator project focuses on the latter; the
lives of China Clay workers, then and now. This project piqued my interest for its link to
industrial heritage, but not the typical Cornish story, and for the social history aspect. To me,
social history is the most interesting aspect of the past; it is the element of history that allows us to emphasise and emote with people who lived before us and often in industrial history, this is the missing element. The Citizen Curators, under the guidance of Sian Powell, aim to fill in this blank and tell the stories of the people who worked in China Clay, rather than just the processes used to extract the material.

A landscape showing the outline of hills in the background against a darkening evening sky, with a pool in the foreground reflecting the sky and clouds - taken at Wheal Martyn Clay Works, St Austell

Of course, a blog post about this year’s Citizen Curator Programme would not be complete
without a mention of the COVID-19 pandemic, a barrier and a blessing. I’m based in Falmouth
and realistically, had the programme not been online, I would not have been able to take part in
it since Wheal Martyn is a good distance away from me, but the disadvantage of not really being
able to physically engage with the history of the China Clay workers has been present. My main
resource has been the Cornish Memory website, where there is a huge wealth of photographs
from Wheal Martyn, as well as a number of other collections. The British Newspaper Archive
has also been helpful, as has the help of the China Clay History Society. Being restricted to
online resources has really been a learning curve but luckily, the sessions led by Tehmina
Goskar have been incredibly helpful in advising on how to navigate the world of online research.

My specific research has been quite broad, rather than looking at a specific element such as
women at Wheal Martyn, I have sought information on the simple everyday life of the workers.
What did people do in their free time, how did they celebrate occasions and what was life like
once the working day was over? Tug of war and other sports as well as brass bands and going
to church all played a part in the life of China Clay workers. Myself and the other Citizen
Curators are currently in the process of working out the logistics of presenting our research,
which is super exciting and it’s so lovely to be interacting with people (and the past) in real life!

More about my experience with the Citizen Curators Programme (as well as Celtic and public
history, and the perils of job hunting in Cornwall!) can be found on my Twitter account


– Eilish Calnan, Citizen Curator at Wheal Martyn Clay Works

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