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Cornwall Museums Partnership

Heritage Treasures - Part Four

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. The Citizen Curators have just completed year two out of three and to celebrate, we wanted to share with you some of the wonderful experiences some of our Citizen Curators have experienced throughout the programme.

Please keep reading to hear from Citizen Curator Tiffany Coates…


Life in Cornwall always turns up surprises and the Citizen Curator course has proved to be one of them. I wasn’t sure I particularly liked museums, but the information about the course intrigued and interested me. I signed up and didn’t look back.

Starting with the 10-foot cannon confronting me outside the Museum of Cornish Life in Helston, it has proved to be fascinating from start to finish. A widely varied group from a range of backgrounds, we came together and shared our learning each month, bringing our experiences from our various host museums.

My host museum was PK Porthcurno – the Museum of Global Communication. I got to know its various departments, exhibitions and storage areas. It was fascinating to delve into the archives.

When I recently looked back through my curatorial logbook about my learning experiences, I found the following sentence which has some resonance now, a description from my first session in the archives:

“Reading through documents and discovering new jargon and words that needed looking up, such as furlough.”

Meanwhile on the course on our first session, we were introduced to the tools of the trade….

The teaching sessions continued on rotation through the other partnership museums, giving us an insight each month into how they operated and what they showed.

During the six months of the course I went out of Cornwall a number of times and used the opportunity to visit other sites of cultural interest, taking what I had learnt with me. These places ranged from the CS Lewis Square in Belfast to the House of Lords in London; I found that with the experience of having been on the course, I was looking at them in a different way. Enjoying them whilst also pondering the reasons for the choices of the curators and how everything is presented.

Early on in the programme we came across this: “Research has shown that people trust museums more than they trust newspapers” which made me realise what an important role curators can play. We explored the role of the curator, which is 50% Communication and 50% Creator. We looked at methods of research and the questions to ask about objects: What, How, Where, When, Who and Why.

Our topics were wide-ranging including ethics, digitising collections in 2D and 3D and the role that Augmented Reality can play in museums. How to organise an exhibition. The packaging and handling of objects. Visitor Challenges, equality and diversity, Cornish identity and what it means.

A session at the Penlee House Gallery and Museum included a look at the collections that had been curated by our colleagues on the course. From paintings to ceramics and textiles – fascinating to find out about the decisions they had to make regarding which objects to include in their exhibitions, and what went on behind the scenes to create these collections.

We enjoyed some interesting field trips, including to St Ives to see the Tate and the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, Shelter Box and Kresen Kernow which is home to the world’s largest collection of documents, books, maps and photographs related to Cornwall’s history and also houses Cornish Records. We looked at old documents, deciphering copperplate handwriting was a new skill to most of us.

In January I found a muddy coin in a field, it turned out to be a 1909 Edward VII penny. I tweeted a picture of my find for Heritage Treasures Day with the hashtag #HeritageTreasures

As part of my work I had a project to complete with the aim of showcasing archive objects. I was to select an item from the archives, carry out some research on it and produce a short video at the end to show my findings. I’d never made a video before but with the museum to support and advise, it went really well.

I discovered a didgeridoo on a shelf in the far corner of the archives. Something about it caught my imagination as I tried to work out how it had travelled 12,000 miles from Australia to the small village of Porthcurno in Cornwall.

I proceeded to research, both locally and further afield, getting in touch via email with Aboriginal Arts Groups in Australia as well as Museums over there.

It was a fascinating process, I also enjoyed turning my research into a video, learning new skills about video production and putting things online. The results can be seen in the short video here.

As with everything in the UK since the end of winter, the Covid 19 virus affected activities. Luckily we had just finished our final core sessions and field trips. It was mainly my video work that I had to adapt, relying on still photos rather than filming.

The course was a great experience, with many interesting learning activities and experiences. It has changed the way that I view so many things – I now find myself spotting ‘curated’ collections in unlikely places. I would recommend the course to anyone who might have a curiosity about the world around them.

-Tiffany Coates

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