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Jul 31st 2020

The Life and Times of a Citizen Curator – Part Three


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 Carolyn Thompson, volunteer at the Museum of Cornish Life

Yes, I do have a full time career that consumes a vast amount of time and energy and no, I definitely wasn’t looking for more work in my life. What on earth was I doing looking at a poster advertising a course for Citizen Curators and furthermore, actually considering joining the 2019/20 group of students?

Reader, I enlisted.

Among other things I am a volunteer at the Museum of Cornish Life in Helston. Essentially my time at the museum is spent chatting, (some might say gossiping), on the front desk. Two of us work, running the shop, the information centre and generally creating a convivial atmosphere for visitors to enter. I love a local museum and always have. Memories from my childhood centre around many rainy days spent in local museums, (yes I holidayed in Britain). They are quirky, random, unexpected and full of curiosities. The Cornish Life museum is tops in all categories. It is not only a museum of Cornish life but of all life and in this respect, there is something relevant in the collection to each of us.

It was here that I came across the poster.

Fast forward to June 2020, the course and its tasks have been completed – what have I learned and experienced since its start in the balmy days of Autumn 2019?

The course covered training in museum awareness and curatorial practice for volunteers from seven designated Cornish museums. We learnt how to care for and how to learn from museum collections, and heard first hand accounts of the different areas of work within the museum community. Interwoven with this was a historical guide and commentary on the formation of museums, both national and local, and the leading goals and aspirations that accompanied the establishment of their presence in our lives. This led to some challenging and interesting discussions about the stories that museums and galleries tell, knowingly and unknowingly. Voices from the past that have dominated our history have been challenged for many decades but now in the light of Brexit, Black Lives Matter and contemporary issues on gender and diversity, these discussions were particularly pertinent.

Our job as curators was to learn, to listen, and to hear all the different voices in these discussions and to use this information to enable us to undertake the specific task of creating a Cornish National Collection. In addition to this we were asked to evidence our journey through this course. My own wish was to create a visual handbook for children, illustrating the various topics we had encountered and explored. (I think visual imagery is under used as a powerful tool in communications). For some strange reason I thought this was a great idea. Ah yes, the clarity of hindsight.

The mission for the Cornish National Collection was to present a collection that would reflect the diversity of Cornish society past and present, and to pay particular attention to hidden stories or voices previously unrepresented. No worries at all then for me who had pretty much zero knowledge of Cornish history, had never passed a minute thinking about the cultural nature of Cornwall or examining the Cornish identity. I mean other than reflecting on the quality of the Cornish cream teas I regularly wolfed back.

This question needs to be answered.

In 2014 Cornwall gained recognition as a National Minority, this comes with an obligation to bring an understanding of its cultural heritage including the controversies. Discussions about Cornish identity can become politicised and in particular, with Brexit as our back drop it sometimes felt uncomfortable to be thinking about cultural differences rather than our commonalities. It’s clear that Cornwall needs to be understood and celebrated as more than a holiday destination and that a wider set of voices and stories should be heard within the museum and gallery sector. Our proposals had to support this aim.

My particular contributions ranged from objects within the museum space, (the float suit), to man made structures in the landscape, (the Cornish Hedge), to the artistic imagination expressed in a film, (Gorthwedh). All of these were intimately bound up with a unique expression of Cornishness not generally heard or noticed.

To be brief, (and that would make a change) the float suit by Trengrouse was one of many life saving devices he designed after witnessing a fatal shipwreck on the Cornish coast. As you can see from the photos, very little has changed since his original design. Imagine the lives he has saved, thousands of these suits are bought each year for toddlers and yet he’s unknown. I thought it might be timely to celebrate people who had saved lives rather than individuals who have massacred thousands in the pursuit of British values.

I wanted to include the Cornish Hedge firstly because I love them, but also I felt that landscape had so clearly shaped the lives of Cornish people that it would be an omission not to put forward something from the natural world that is crying out to us and needs to be heard. “Cornish hedges are older than the pyramids, older than Stonehenge and the oldest manmade artefact known to be still in use for their original purpose”(cornishhedges.co.uk). What’s not to celebrate?

The film Gorthwedh is made by a collaborative of Cornish artists led by Callum Mitchell. It’s an exploration into the industrial past and the hidden stories of the tin coast in Cornwall and its meaning to the local residents. The focus was on those who are not usually given the opportunity to be heard. That ticked all the boxes for me and it’s also a deeply moving film.

Many more things were learned and mulled over in the time of this course and it’s given me a depth of understanding about the land of Cornwall. I left the course determined to undertake study in Medieval Cornish history, learn the language, learn the furry dance. Have I done any of these things? Watch this space…

-Carolyn Thompson