Jilly Burns: What’s on your shelves? Review of what museums hold shines light on past

National Museums Scotland and Culture Perth & Kinross Community Art Project at Perth Museum and Art Gallery&Artist Jill Skulina working with local community groups have created a Japanese-style robe. Pictured 13 year old Samira al-Barwani a pupil from Perth High School who helped to create the Kimono. Picture by Graeme Hart.
National Museums Scotland and Culture Perth & Kinross Community Art Project at Perth Museum and Art Gallery&Artist Jill Skulina working with local community groups have created a Japanese-style robe. Pictured 13 year old Samira al-Barwani a pupil from Perth High School who helped to create the Kimono. Picture by Graeme Hart.
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At National Museums ­Scotland we are ­committed to broadening access to the National Collections across the country and to supporting ­other museums around Scotland by ­sharing our expertise.

As part of this drive, we have been leading on a number of projects in recent years dedicated to bringing new knowledge and specialist curatorial support to Scottish museums where this doesn’t exist locally. In addition to providing a free national curatorial training programme for local museum staff, we are extending this support through externally funded projects.

Jilly Burns, Head of National and International Partnerships at National Museums Scotland

Jilly Burns, Head of National and International Partnerships at National Museums Scotland

We have undertaken a series of reviews which have seen our specialists provide local museums with new information about their collections. This has enabled them to improve their care and management and to unlock some of the stories behind them.

We initially piloted two different projects. The first, Old Tools New Uses, surveyed domestic technology collections across Scotland while the second employed a new curator to be trained by current specialists to produce a review of Pacific Collections in Scottish Museums. Both were funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund administered by the Museums Association.

Old Tools New Uses allowed us to publish a catalogue of important domestic technology collections across Scotland and supported local museums to donate duplicate objects from their collections to the ­international charity Tools for ­Self-Reliance. It supports people in the UK and Africa to develop skills and produce local products with ­historic technology items, like ­Singer sewing machines.

Our review of Pacific collections allowed the collections of Perth Museum, the University of Aberdeen and Glasgow Museums to be more fully appraised, a process which brought a number of important objects to light.

Links were made between collections held in different museums. For example, a group of items collected in Papua New Guinea are now in the ­collections of North Ayrshire Museums, the Mclean Museum in Greenock, the University of Aberdeen and National Museums Scotland. Research into these objects offered new insight into interactions between traders, missionaries and government officers. Each of these museums has gone on to carry out more detailed research or to create new displays or programmes featuring these collections.

In 2019, we will be working with museums around Scotland on three new reviews covering ancient Egyptian, east Asian and natural sciences collections. These will identify where important collections can be found around the country, with particular highlights shared in online stories.

The ancient Egypt and east Asia reviews, funded by the National ­Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Museums Association Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, have already identified previously ­unidentified objects.

These include two rare 19th ­century Korean textiles at Perth Museum & Art Gallery: a yellow robe worn by students sitting government examinations and a beautiful ceremonial costume worn at court rituals. These were recently displayed in Perth Museum & Art Gallery in a collaborative exhibition, Dress to Impress.

We are currently recruiting a ­palaeontological curator to lead a national survey of fossil collections in local museums and to review ­natural science collections in general.

This post is funded by the John ­Ellerman Foundation, which is focused on the development and ­support of curatorial expertise across the UK and in particular the limited access to natural sciences expertise in local museums.

National Museums Scotland has a world-leading natural sciences department and this project will enable us to provide more structured advice to local museums.

There are rich fossil collections held in ­museums around Scotland, and this gives us the chance to integrate them into international research ­initiatives. Beyond that, we hope it will offer us insight on the best way for us to develop our future work to support national natural science ­collections in the long-term.

Regardless of subject matter, in each of these reviews our main focus is raising the profile of Scotland’s ­collections and shining a light on the rich and varied range of objects to be found in museums around the country.

There are always new stories to be told and it’s our ­privilege to help reveal them.

To find out more about National Museums Scotland’s national programmes visit www.nms.ac.uk/national-international and to apply to be the new John Ellerman Project Curator visit www.nms.ac.uk/vacancies

Jilly Burns, head of national and international partnerships at National Museums Scotland.