In September I joined the ranks of volunteers as one of the museum’s five Citizen Curators, part of a programme facilitated by Cornwall Museums Partnership. True to form, I wasn’t sure that I could wait for the first of the taught sessions to begin my curatorial journey, and my interest had been piqued for the winter exhibition, ‘Fictitious Cornwall’.
Not so much ‘in at the deep end,’ but more like picking up a book and starting part-way through, I took the opportunity to help curate part of the exhibition. It showcases several books with deep connections to Cornwall – the authors aren’t necessarily Cornish, but the settings are. My task was to bring Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca to life, by ‘telling’ the story in a series of objects.
What have I learned?
When I look back at those hours spread across a few weeks, I can tie it back to two of the pillars of the Citizen Curator programme – research and communication. Through my Masters (Professional Writing at Falmouth), I already had notebooks filled with snippets about du Maurier’s life as well as Rebecca, and therefore I had a base knowledge to forage for the objects. Lesson One: never underestimate what you already know.
Research for objects is another matter. The museum has a gazillion objects, the next challenge was working out which could highlight some of the characters or themes of the story. Rebecca is a character-driven novel (with the landscape playing a character itself, but that’s another story), and therefore I wanted to capture Mrs Danvers, Rebecca and the un-named narrator (the second Mrs de Winter). Annette suggested that I first walk the museum, peering into dark corners in order to see what spoke to me from the museum’s displays. Lesson Two: curation comes as a dialogue between you (the curator) and the collection, listening to the questions they pose.
In the museum sweep, I had the framework, but not the items that might open up the story. For this, I had to go into the archive logs, and the costume store. There are so many wonderful items in the store, overwhelmingly so. There were a couple of dresses that shrilled ‘Mrs Danver…. Rebecca’, so they were noted down. Lesson Three: listen to your instinct.
Having identified the objects, Annette was keen that I was involved in creating the display. This called on a different set of skills, more akin to window-dressing, since there was such a small display space to work with. With museum gloves, we pulled the objects out from the museum in order to shed new light on them. We were nearly there.
There was still one piece missing. The second Mrs de Winter, she needed to fall in the gaps between her antagonists, almost literally. She is in pieces on the floor… for this we went to a local charity shop to buy a figurine to smash, as you can’t do that with museum treasures!
Lesson Four: Less is often more and it’s important to allow space for the visitor to interpret what they see.
To be a part of the development of Fictitious Cornwall was a bonus for me, right at the beginning of the Citizen Curator’s programme. I cannot wait for whatever is next.
Fictitious Cornwall is on at the museum into the New Year.