In addition to the support for our own museums, we (the Citizen Curators) have a mission, “to collaboratively curate a collection distributed among the museums that reflects the diversity of Cornish society past and present.”
It goes even further, linking the collection to the significance of the Cornish Minority Status, whilst both recognising Cornishness and particularly poorly-represented people. The national collection then aims to promote a dialogue with audiences about the project and also enable us (Citizen Curators) to make recommendations for the collections in our museums for today.
It’s feeling like quite a task. Especially when you read on in the brief and it talks about us asking ‘new questions, presenting previously untold or under-examined stories.’ No pressure!
Where to start?
I decided to start by walking around the museum, trying to absorb what is in the collection. For the Museum of Cornish Life this is both easy and challenging. Many of the collection items are on display, so the potential is huge. The challenge is that the museum’s approach is for very little curation, so the ‘digging’ for stories starts early. Another, hidden, challenge is that many objects have little or no donation record… and therefore provenance or stories are hard to attach to objects.
I’ve walked around the museum several times with my Cornish National Collection enquiring mind engaged. Rather unsurprisingly, the lives represented in the museum are mostly those of men. The photographs are mostly of men. The trades/professions are mostly of men’s. There is a Victorian kitchen (arguably a woman’s domain given the period), but it’s not really representing anything uniquely Cornish – not even a pasty in the oven. The museum’s collection reflects the curators of the past. It will be no surprise to learn they were men, white men.
I then swapped emails with Tehmina Goskar, the programme’s lead, and took the self-direction to think more deeply about the minority status. I realised that I didn’t know much about it, other than the date it came into force.
The Cornish Minority Status
In 2014, Danny Alexander made a statement to the press that the Cornish were being recognised for their ‘proud history and distinct identity’. This was hailed as a success by those who had campaigned for it. I am sorry to say that it rather passed me by. The award was given after a long campaign, with a couple of very clear and thorough documents (see Cornwall Council and Gorsedh Kernow). These provide excellent reference material.
I’ve had a few conversations recently about Cornishness with friends and family, and the distinctiveness risks falling into stereotype and cliche. Poldark doesn’t help matters. When you try and strip those stereotypes away, it strikes me that there are qualities of the Cornish that are perhaps inherent because of history, and geography.
You can’t separate Cornishness from the influence of the sea. You can’t separate Cornishness from the geology. You can’t separate the fact that Cornwall was recognised as a place before England (The maps in the Gorsedh Kernow paper are amazing). These elements have morphed themselves into characteristics of Cornishness – maybe something about being independent, resourceful, creative, resilient, and patriotic (to Cornwall).
With my non-Citizen Curator head on, diversity or no, I would expect the Cornish National Collection to cover these qualities, which may draw on objects that could lend themselves to stereotypes. Mining, Cornish wrestling, gig rowing, farming, fishing, traditions (like Helston Flora Day) and even the Cornish pasty. Some of these are even listed in the proposal paper put forward by Cornwall Council in support of the minority status. You can’t have it both ways (the cliche and the distinctiveness), but perhaps you can present them and try and unpack the cliches.
Back to the project brief
The diverse voices are quiet in the museum, for the reasons described above (men!). They are more generally in history too, an opinion echoed by the staff at Kresen Kernow during our recent field trip. Those unrepresented voices will be hard to find. My innate creative-self is asking to write an imagined account, an imagined response, but this is not a narrative non-fiction, this is history. History deals in facts, not fictions.
On my last visit to the museum, before the Christmas break, I spent a morning in the archives of the Old Cornish Society, mostly old photographs and newspaper articles (from 1920s-1950s). Whilst these are secondary sources, they provided a different way of accessing and thinking about the project brief.
Perhaps we can celebrate some of the ‘stories’ (whether that is traditions, people or items, not as in made-up stories) that may only be known locally here to visitors of the Museum of Cornish Life. One of the treasures in the museum is the Bethlehem pasty (also awarded Cornish Heritage Object of the Year in 2019), carved by young soldier from stone from his tour in Bethlehem. It represented home for him, and is a way of tying an object of Cornishness to something a little different.
In reflecting about this project, I keep on returning to the same thought train – the Cornish are hugely resourceful, imaginative and inventive. Within the museum’s collections, there are several examples of great inventions to overcome what were locally presenting issues. That’s a whole other blog, for another time.
What comes next is my long-list of objects, from the museum walks, the newspapers, for us (the curators of Museum of Cornish Life) to debate and work up our collective list of ten. Watch this space.