A Day in the Life of a Curator

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I’ve been the Curator of The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection for 11 years now, and I can say that writing this feature is remarkably difficult. Here at Quilters’ Guild HQ two days are rarely the same! The variety of my role certainly adds interest and excitement, but makes writing a ‘typical’ day a challenge indeed. On the one hand some days are very active and hands on. These would include exhibition installation days, either at other museums or events such as The Festival of Quilts – where the main feature of the day is unpacking quilts, climbing ladders and pondering over which uneven edge of the quilt to line up with the (sometimes equally uneven) edges of the walls around them. Other days are significantly more sedate and involve a lot of time in front of a computer, answering emails, writing text and documenting items in our collection.

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Hanging the York St. John University students’ collaborative exhibition inspired by the Red Manor House Coverlet at The Festival of Quilts 2019.

I know that many people are envious of my job. And they should be! It’s a great Collection to work with, infinitely interesting and there’s always something to learn. But like most roles in the heritage sector there is probably a slight misconception as to what I actually do. The most frequent conversations with visitors and groups who have come to exhibitions, study visits or talks over the years have usually gone like this:
“Wow it must be great to have your job”.
Yes indeed.
“You just get to sit and look at old quilts all day. How amazing!”

Well, kind of. Actually, that’s not really what I do. I mean, I do look at them, obviously. But probably not as often as you think! In fact those of you who have visited The Collection, or any other museum, will know that the majority of Collections, in any subject field (save large vehicles), are usually packed away in storage most of the time, for their own preservation and good management. And so is the case for the Quilt Collection. Wrapped in acid free tissue and housed in boxes or on rolls, they mainly reside in our temperature controlled and monitored store. In the dark. Items being researched, prepared for loans or accessioned (this is when we complete the administrative records and physical checks to admit an item into The Collection) are of course removed from their boxes to allow these activities to take place, but only a few at a time. As our pieces are so big, it is easier to deal with items in smaller numbers to ensure they can be safely returned to their boxes, all properly wrapped up. I still remember the confusion and disbelief of one unexpected visitor many years ago who knocked on my door, asking on the off chance if I could get The Collection out for her to have a look. ‘Which piece were you interested in?’ I asked. ‘Just all of it’ she replied. Sadly she left disappointed.

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Carefully stored quilts resting in their temperature controlled store.

At the time of writing this piece (June) I’m actually in a period of relative calm. I know that the deadline for this piece is actually September – please do not be misled – I am rarely this organised! But with The Festival of Quilts fast approaching, plans for our 40th Birthday party and some annual leave booked in, now really is the best chance to get this done. Lucky for me Gilly gives me generous deadlines. The last few months have been very hectic, writing the 40th anniversary publication Forty: The Evolution of a Collection. After writing comes editing, re-writing, and other people suggesting edits followed by re-writing. I’ve been working with our Brand Manager Catherine on content, layout and images, with the latter two really being all sorted by her. We are currently at the final proof stage, so I feel I can relax a little.

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We’ve also just been through our Museum Accreditation assessment visit, in preparation for our application going to the full board at the end of June (Editor’s note – The Guild has since received confirmation that we have achieved Full Accreditation status!). Accreditation is an Arts Council scheme that ensures you are reaching professionally agreed standards in the way you care for and allow access to your Collection. It’s a lot of work, but necessarily so, to ensure standards are both met and maintained. Keeping on top of all the work and policies can at times be challenging, especially in a small team.

And so, this ‘Day in the Life’ is relatively ordinary. I’ve worked through my emails after an early start (no nursery drop off today) and answered some general enquiries, providing some dating and identification information to several members of the public. I’m on at least cup of tea number 3 (managed to ‘cash’ in on a couple of early rounds as people arrive in the office!) and the Trustees start to arrive, for today is Trustee Meeting day! Several times a year the Trustees attend meetings at the York office. The meeting after the AGM is a great opportunity to meet new Trustees, and before the meeting starts I show two of them around the Quilt store, so they could get an idea of the size and scope of The Collection. After the hubbub has died down the rest of the morning is spent on emails, organising volunteer help for the forthcoming open days, liaising about a new conservation project and organising some transportation for a new acquisition to The Collection.

IMG_1059.JPGThe postman delivers an exciting box wrapped very traditionally in brown paper and string. It’s another acquisition, accepted at the last committee meeting – a Pauline Burbidge pill box hat made in the 1980s and donated by Deirdre Amsden, our first Guild President from 1979-1982.

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’40: Four Decades of The Quilters’ Guild Collection’ exhibition at The Festival of Quilts 2019.

The rest of the day is spent planning the Festival of Quilts exhibition. The objects have all been decided, and the layout of the gallery drawn up. The text uses the research from the book, but needs some rewriting to make it appropriate as use for gallery interpretation. This will take me a few days, but I make a decent start. Let’s see what tomorrow will bring!

Heather Audin, Curator of The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection

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