When I joined the Museum of Cornish Life as Trainee Curator in January 2020 I had no prior experience with collections or exhibitions but I was keen to learn as much as possible. My ultimate goal was to produce my own exhibition and having worked on Under the Eaves (which you can see in this video tour), this traineeship has equipped and empowered me with the skills, knowledge and confidence to achieve this aim.
In 2020 Julia Webb-Harvey, volunteer researcher, began the Under the Eaves project examining the Museum of Cornish Life’s collections. Inspired by her experiences as a citizen curator, as well as debates and actions in other museums around decolonisation, her research explores the hidden stories which exist collections. In blog posts Julia has covered the links between sugar nips and the transatlantic slave trade, explored how ivory in collections can have an unexpected link with disease and considered ideas of ownership looking at the museum’s Egyptian collection.
I was drawn to this work and after reading Tehmina Goskar’s article about the role of rural museums in spearheading decolonising museum practice I was intrigued. Julia’s research seemed a perfect example of work in a rural museum engaging with hidden stories and I was keen to get involved.
My exhibition was the consequence of conversations with Julia about her research into the Camborne Collection. While Julia’s research was published online, the exhibition was an opportunity to take inspiration from her blogs and put objects from Camborne Museum on display. These objects came to the Museum of Cornish Life in 2005 when Camborne Museum closed. While some objects were put on display at that time, much of the collection was put in storage where it remained.
My main aims were to draw attention to the existence of the Camborne Collection, showcase objects which have not been on display since the museum’s closure and give visitors an idea of our research work which goes on behind the scenes. I wanted to remind (or perhaps inform) visitors that there was a museum in Camborne and that its objects are now held in Helston, but also show that although these have not been on display they are still important for our current work.
In the exhibition space, I sought to guide the visitor along a narrative path.
The first objects were photographs of the local area, showing social and industrial scenes from the 19th and early 20th century. This first section acted as an introduction to the museum and town. With the next cases I wanted to create a contrast between local objects, mostly relating to Camborne’s mining heritage, and objects from around the world which seemed a more surprising part of the collection. The second case of these two displayed some Mexican antiquities Julia has been researching as well as some objects which we have not yet begun to research, inviting the audience to consider what they may be or how they may have come into the collection. The final section showed an example of typical storage box from the Camborne Collection, with its contents showing the eclectic variety of objects housed inside. Text alongside the storage box explained how research takes a long time but also showed our commitment to continue. Nearby, a display of index cards showed the problems we face in this task when records are absent or incomplete.
Ultimately, by contrasting local objects with those from around the world I hoped to engage the visitor’s curiosity as my own curiosity had been piqued while exploring this collection.
I have learnt many things about planning, researching and co-ordinating an exhibition. However, two key lessons from ‘Under the Eaves’ have been:
- Being honest about what you do not know is difficult. Museums are sometimes thought to be repositories of knowledge knowing everything about the objects they hold and as a curator I have felt pressure to embody this. Admitting you don’t know something about an object goes against this, but is the exact situation I found myself in often with the Camborne Collection. Being open and honest about what you do not know is important as it welcomes new information from people who do know.
- Conducting work around decolonisation doesn’t have to be frightening or intimidating. Through ‘Under the Eaves’ we have been drawing light to forgotten stories and filling in the absences in the record. It can be as simple and researching and sharing the things we didn’t know before.
Ultimately, I wanted to give visitors a glimpse into what research happens behind the scenes in museums and openly and honestly share what we have found out so far.
Find out more
Tamsin Chaffin, Trainee Curator
(This post was created by Cornwall Museums Partnership with funding from Arts Council England, John Ellerman Foundation, Cultivator, European Structural Investment Funds & Cornwall Council)