Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Robert Burns Museum.

In April 2009 I was contacted by Charlie at Studio MB about whether I'd be interested in producing some illustrations for the new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Scotland. A frantic one-day trip to Edinburgh revealed that this was going to be big - but I didn't appreciate how big until the end! For the uninitiated, Robert Burns is Scotland's national poet, and they're immensely proud of him. For around eighteen months I worked on this project, the biggest to date both in terms of scale, quantity of work and challenge.

The Burns' family cottage, Alloway.

The Museum had received an award of several million pounds for re-design and build. The existing museum consisted of the cottage 'Rabbie' grew up in, the landmarks he was associated with - the Brig o'Doon, for example - and a visitor centre. Studio MB, who also designed the Bosworth Battlefield Centre fifteen minutes from me in Market Bosworth, were charged with producing the creative elements. I spent the next year and a half working on a wide range of imagery for the £21m centre. I saw, for the first time in many years, my work rendered in three dimensions, and at a scale previously unseen.

The end result consisted of ten 2m high weathervanes, over 520 square metres of illustration, four wallpaper designs, 25 metal animals, three 3D cows, five metal-cut story illustrations and lots of other ingredients which combine to richly envelop and embellish the collection of artefacts which present Burns the man; the poet, the father and the farmer. On November 30th we went to the grand opening, through the much feared snow and ice.

Watching how people interacted with and observed the exhibits was fascinating. The main room is tall, dark, eerie, and atmospheric indeed, luring you in to look closely, and at first I felt a little bit teary at seeing so much of my work and at such a scale. It literally enveloped everything else, and created the continuity that held it all together.
The whole thing begins with a timeline of the poet's life paralleled with historical events around the world:

The main room had the feeling of completely enveloping you, which I liked - I felt this built on the suggestion of claustrophobia suggested by having been into the tiny cottage first. The entire Burns family and all their animals co-existing in that tiny space. Lighting levels were very low, but in parts very directional, so that, entire elements of the illustrations - particularly at low levels - disappeared. I saw people bending down to peer (good, nice bit of interaction) but also saw those unable to bend far struggling to see things - this applied to the imagery up high too. Children were at the right height to spot hares and cats, but due to the colour differences being very subtle in the print, combined with the low light, those things appeared to be overlooked. Here's what you see as you enter the dark and gloomy Intro gallery...

Section of the cornfields in the introduction gallery, containing quotes by Burns

The original artwork for one of the cornfields, much reduced!

Detail of the Poetry Perimeter wall (the nearest house sits around 4ft tall) - artwork...

...and on the wall.

Section of artwork...

...and on the wall.

Here's a shot of Rhona, landlady at the B&B, posing by the Trysting Tree, a metal tree composed of lines from Burns' poems on which visitors could hang messages of their own. This picture illustrates the difficult lighting - I'm wondering if this might get addressed in the future. (We stayed in her 'Robert Burns Suite' - how could we not?)

Behind the last picture with the tips of the branches showing, (with Jean on the foreground, Burns' long-suffering wife who outlived him by decades) you can see the start of one of the four wallpapers designed to fill the 'Inspired By' cases, looking at the the inspirations for Burns' poems: love, music, nature, books. Behind Jean is 'Love'.

And this one is 'nature' (artwork section below) and next, 'Words and Music'.

These little laser-cut metal pieces were literally leaping off and out of the books on the shelves - shown here is Don Quixote and Macbeth's witches, all from stories which ignited the young Burns' passion for writing.

The Man O'Parts exhibit showed the different roles he had to play in his lifetime indicated by a particular item such as hair or razor hidden behind a 'clue' illustration (note my 'entirely faked but accurate' Burns signatures!) The illustrations are tiny and done with a very fine nib and ink - but they were huge in print!

Outside, the ten weathervanes, telling the story of Tam O'Shanter, looked great against a very appropriate sky. I thought they were going to be bigger to be honest - I got the height and width confused though obviously - I thought the 'vanes were 2m wide! Nonetheless, seeing something I'd created at A3 in ink become a solid object spinning with the biting wind was wonderful.

Weathervanes on the path leading between the Museum's main sites (also available on the obligatory gift shop teatowel!)

The storytelling continues back in the cottage, with Su Blackwell's beautiful paper sculpture telling the story of Hannibal's War.

Cottage window: the family shared its living space with the animals, including the dairy herd next door. The snuffling cows would, I imagine, have been a comfort and a source of warmth.

Finally, not one of my creations, but an exhibit which brought a lump to my throat was the collection of floating embroidered babies' gowns over the little bed - it moved me suddenly and without warning, and illustrated with painful vividness the hard lives they all lived. That any of them survived is continually amazing to me!

The Burns babies' gowns seem to 'hover' over the bed in which they were all born.

My only regret is I wish I'd been able to come to the museum first before starting work. And maybe a couple of times throughout. Reading about Burns and his poetry wasn't, with hindsight, enough for me to really grasp 'the man'. Of course this would be difficult since the museum itself wasn't built as I saw it...but the cottage and the environment would probably have created enough of an impression. If I'm ever involved in something like this again, I'll insist on visiting for a couple of days first, camera and sketchbook in tow.

Speaking of which...Robert Burns' own writing set - a tiny quill and nibs, with ink and a sharpening knife.

It was an incredibly challenging job but I enjoyed it so much, and learned an awful lot - something which pleases me since it proves no matter how long you've been doing something, there is ALWAYS a ton more to learn.

The Guardian featured a some photographs of the museum on its website on 25th January.

There is so much detail at the museum, I'd recommend a trip there, whether you actually like his poetry or not! The sense of place and Scottish history is immense, and the surrounding countryside is breathtaking. Details are below.

In the press:
Where we stayed:


ipad apps uk said...

Great one very interesting
happy birthday to Robert burns

Vicki Gausden said...

Love the bits where the characters pop out of the pages! SO exciting to see your work in 3D form. WIll have to pay the museum a visit...

Unknown said...

Sarah, thank you for a great write up of this stunning job! Your work looks amazing and T and I are planning on getting over there soon for a good look round! Just recovering from 2 Burns Suppers in a row, where the man,his poetry and song were truly celebrated in Scottish style! Well done on doing the work of "our" Bard proud!Give your nibs a well earned rest :-)

Becca McCallum said...

I love this write-up. I'm an education intern at the RBBM, and before that I was a volunteer there. I've always loved the illustrations and the silhouettes used in the museum so it was a treat to read this post about how they came about!


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