Obituary: Mary Bryden, former public programmes director at National Museum

Mary Bryden, former director of public programmes at the National Museums of Scotland. Picture: Contributed
Mary Bryden, former director of public programmes at the National Museums of Scotland. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 7 May 1950 in Edinburgh. Died: 19 May 2016 in Melrose.

Diligent expert acknowledged by experienced museum colleagues in Scotland and beyond. Skilled and patient sponsorship negotiator, be it with Sheikhs, Britons or Russians. Witty and cultured in social discourse. A person of devotion, prayer and faith. School teaching as a first career. Succinct, purposeful and gentle in the giving of sensible, sensitive and cogent advice. Excellent pianist, winning Silver and Gold medals at Edinburgh Competition Festival. In childhood, author/designer of diverse magically written and delightfully illustrated programmes for family theatricals and carol concerts. Empathetic. One-time RNIB Guide Dog Puppy Walker. Good staff manager. Loved by her family and friends. Above all graceful, plucky and dignified in the Pick’s Disease which so sadly beset her in 2007. In a nutshell, this was Mary, former Director of Programmes, National Museums of Scotland and previously of the National Museum of Antiquities.

Worth sharing, the views of public figures in the last day or two add much to this pen portrait.

Lord Smith of Kelvin, NMS chairman for nine years and trustee for seventeen years has written “Mary had boundless energy, great intelligence and education, was a gifted communicator and worked wonders at the National Museums of Scotland. The world, and the arts world in particular, has lost someone very special”. A successor NMS chairman, Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, has described Mary as “a bright spark”.

Sir Mark Jones, one time NMS Director and later V&A Director, since her death has described her as “so energetic, lively and vital… and I remember her with great affection”. In the Tribute Book prepared by colleagues on Mary’s early retirement, Mark - significantly - wrote of Mary being a pioneer of NMS education activities. In June 2011, he dedicated his “Hard Times for Museums?” presentation to the Royal Society of Arts in Edinburgh to Mary, in public recognition of her museum service achievements over almost thirty years.

Mary enjoyed good relationships with sponsors, NMS Board members and politicians alike and conversations with Donald Dewar would have majored on literature, Mary being widely read. Sir Tom Devine, former board member has said “I am so sad to learn of Mary’s passing. When I was associated with NMS, Mary could light up a room with her bubbly personality. She was wonderful to be with”. Mary also, for example, formed a sound work relationship with Ministers such as Patricia Ferguson. Mary, the daughter of Gilbert and Doreen Bryden, spent her life simultaneously between the family’s central Edinburgh house and her parents’ weekend/holiday home in Melrose, which was bought in 1969. Both were loving Christian homes. The family welcomed friends, encouraging reading and debate plus diverse activities, one of which involved Mary quite literally wresting her brother from a tree.

Mary loved classical music, especially the recitals, individual or public, by her professional pianist and organist brother John, in whose successes and cultural tours travels she took justifiable pride. A view shared by many is that John has been a tower of strength, pragmatism and support to Mary in this last sad decade.

Mary contributed wisely to the Scotland Committee of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce. Her flair, good humour, modesty, discretion, style and capabilities were self-evident to us all, evidenced in exchanges between various RSA Fellows following her passing.

It was a privilege to have had Mary as a committee colleague and critical friend: she could cajole, tease, encourage or criticise any one or more of us without malice or arrogance, occasionally all in a single sentence. An expert in the quick piercing look or the elegant Joyce Grenfell-esque lifting of an eyebrow, she could induce action, caution, silence or a giggle, all or each as appropriate in any particular circumstance.

Mary and film-maker Murray Grigor, strongly encouraged me in 2007 to establish, and over the years to sustain, the RSA Fellows’ Media, Creative Industries, Culture & Heritage Network. The Mary-Murray work relationship, like so many, was rooted in duly earned and mutual professional esteem. Of Mary, Murray writes: “Mary played a crucial role in bringing John Bute’s inspiring vision for the new Museum of Scotland to pass”.

Scotland’s collective national loss? A purposeful and productive career cut far too short. Mary’s legacy? A shining example of cultural leadership on behalf of Scotland, of poise, of personal integrity and discretion, and of humbling courage in long-term adversity.

All this commands respect and should not be forgotten.