In the run up to Ask a Curator Day on Twitter, our Collections Team give us an insight into their work caring for historic artefacts across Scotland.
Towards the end of the interview for my current job I asked my now manager if he could give me an example of a typical day working in the Collections Team. He laughed in response, and told me there was no such thing as a typical day in this job. Today, whenever people ask me the same question my answer is exactly the same as his was four years ago.
The Collections Team care for over 35,000 objects that relate to 165 of Historic Environment Scotland’s over 300 properties in care. We consider these our ‘galleries’ in the HES museum. Our collections include architectural elements from buildings, sculptured stones, fine art, military items, and much, much more. We also care for archaeological material recovered during sponsored excavations – a conservative estimate for this would be an additional 50,000 items.
As a team we’re based in Edinburgh, and for the most part the work we do is the same as that of any other museum. We catalogue and audit our collections, arrange conservation work, carry out research, put on exhibitions etc. The twist is that our collections are scattered across the entire country, the furthest object being about 300 miles away on Shetland.
Inevitably, the job involves lots of travelling, and lots of forward planning. Our documentation database lists over 5,000 active locations where collections are either displayed or stored, as well as a further 18 locations where we have items on loan to another institution.
Some of our sites need to be visited more frequently than others depending on the type and condition of the collection, and the nature of the property. We visit our key collections at least annually (usually more often), and generally visit our smaller sites at least every two years. We also maintain close contact with site-based colleagues.
Collections Manager Rona Walker has recently been involved in the redisplay of the carved stone collection at Elgin Cathedral
One of the best things we can offer our visitors is the chance to see our collections in their original context. This is not without its challenges – maintaining the internal temperature and humidity of a historic property to museum standards is no easy task (see this blog about Iona Abbey for example)! Different materials will react to their surrounding environment in different ways.
For example, a furniture collection displayed in a damp environment may cause the wood to swell and mould growth. As a team, we try to capture this information early on in order to prevent damage occurring.
Collections Manager Rachael Dickson carries out some housekeeping work prior to the display of two colours from the Battle of Waterloo, a collaborative exhibition with The Royal Scots at Edinburgh Castle
The preservation of the buildings themselves is of course equally important, and finding a balance between the needs of both requires multi-disciplinary working between a range of colleagues.
As a small team with a wide remit, we also work with a range of contractors who provide specialist services in areas such as conservation, research, and displays. These invaluable individuals offer us a vital support network for maintaining our collections to a high standard. It also allows us the opportunity to learn new things, discuss different ideas, and engage with the wider heritage sector.
If variety is the spice of life, then I would rate this job as five chillies! There may not be such a thing as a typical day, but there’s certainly no such thing as a boring day either.
Collections Registrar Hugh Morrison has conducted several tours of one of our object stores for HES colleagues
You can explore some of the highlights of our collections online.
Ask a Curator Day takes place on Wednesday 14th September. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to get involved.
Lynsey works in the Collections Unit and is responsible for the care of objects relating to properties in central Scotland. This includes documentation, collections care, research and outreach, and risk management. She is based in Edinburgh, but spends a lot of time out and about working at various properties across the region.
View all posts by Lynsey Haworth