Museum musings: A dream job, but museum was just running on empty
In an occasional column, Dorothy Blundell takes a sideways personal look at what goes on behind the scenes at The Bowes Museum where she is a volunteer
BEING in charge of The Bowes Museum was a mixture of great delight and huge frustration for Elizabeth Conran, the last curator before Adrian Jenkins became director.
She retired in 2000 but still lives in Barnard Castle and (outside of lockdown) is a frequent visitor to the place which was effectively her second home for more than 20 years.
Mrs Conran is a diminutive, softly-spoken Scot with an ever-ready cheery smile. Her bright eyes and sharp mind belie quiet determination and a vast art knowledge. She looks back on her time as curator with fondness and has a wealth of stories to tell, including how, with a lot of help from county council and the public, she secured two huge Canaletto paintings for the museum.
She also successfully avoided winter closure and dealt with the aftermath of a break-in when the little gold mechanical mouse was stolen.
“I had always really liked The Bowes Museum and to be made curator was a dream come true,” she said. “I stepped up the number of exhibitions by making more displays out of the collections and also showcased local artists. We had £1,000 a year for exhibitions, but more money was available for conservation, so I would find something out of the store which needed conservation and then put that into the exhibition. It was about using what funds we had and whatever grants we could raise in creative ways. Money or grants would be used for a short-term project, such as a temporary exhibition, but it also had a longer term benefit with conservation or framing. And then, materials used for exhibitions could be reused later.
“Winter closures were talked about in 1998-99 as a way of saving some money, but it had not been properly researched. Who would have done the dusting and looked after the collection? We would still have needed security so any savings would have been very modest. I encouraged the Museums and Galleries Commission to produce an independent report on the museum. They asked the late Sir Richard Foster to investigate.
“He said that the museum was running on empty. This eventually resulted in an exhibition from the Royal Collections, which proved that the museum could attract visitors in winter, if it was sufficiently funded.”
Among many successful exhibitions, in 1992 – the museum’s centenary year – she promoted a display of the Queen Mother’s wardrobe.
It attracted more than 80,000 visitors in only four months. And ten years earlier, visitors had also flocked to the museum, this time to see the Canalettos – among the biggest and best by the painter. It had taken six months of hard work in raising awareness, begging for grants and with a public fundraising campaign before sufficient funds (£385,000) were raised by the timed deadline.
“My supervisor in the county education department was very supportive and helpful. I wrote a committee report outlining the fundraising plan to purchase the paintings. The committee supported it and made an extra first grant to the museum to launch the campaign,” she said.
If the bid had failed, the paintings would have gone abroad.
“It was a great relief and a great triumph and terrific publicity for the museum,” said Mrs Conran who confessed to doing a jig around her office when she heard that the final grant had been awarded.
Mrs Conran comes from Larbert, near Falkirk. She studied fine art, maths and astronomy at Glasgow and achieved a masters degree. She also studied French, English and moral philosophy. She worked in London at the Kenwood Museum and then went to Manchester first as keeper of art at the then City Art Gallery, afterwards as arts advisor to Greater Manchester Council, where she met her husband, George Loraine Conran (Loraine to his friends), who was a museum director in the city. They had a daughter, Violet, who sadly died in 2015, aged 42.
About 35 years ago there was a break-in at the museum and several objects were stolen, among them the clockwork gold mouse.
Luckily, and in part because of John Bowes’ attention to record-keeping, when the mouse was spotted in a Swiss auctioneer’s catalogue, the museum was able to successfully argue that it was the rightful owner.
“We had photographs of it and even the original invoice from when it was bought by Josephine for £22 in May 1871,” she added.
Among her favourite items in the collection are two paintings. One is Sassetta’s Miracle of the Eucharist, which shows a lay brother of the Carmelite order being struck dead as he receives the Holy Communion because of his sacrilegious doubting of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It was painted around 1424, making it one of the oldest objects in the museum. It has local connotations, according to Mrs Conran. She says it might probably be the scene depicting the death of John Wycliffe who came from the village of the same name. He was the first person to translate the Bible into English and was regarded as a heretic as he did not believe in transubstantiation (bread and wine being turned into flesh and blood of Christ). He was said to have died during mass. The second painting is remarkable for its unremarkable appearance and little known profile. It is a 17th century Dutch seascape by Simon de Vlieger (c.1600-1653).
“It’s a very quiet painting, all in grey. But there is clever creation of space... a column of ships on the left and on the right take your eye down the middle where there are no ships. It’s my theory that it was a tribute to a Dutch admiral who had been killed in combat. The guns on the ships are firing, like a salute. The emphasis of space in the middle of the painting is evocative – it’s a space which is meant to talk to the viewer.
“The eye is drawn into the middle by a series of diagonals created by cloud and reflection... and I just think it’s wonderful; terribly evocative.”
Every Bowes Museum curator knows their time as guardian is limited and every curator must work to leave the place and the collection in a better state than when they first came to it. Mrs Conran did just that and was awarded an OBE in 1994.
“John and Joséphine Bowes were a source of inspiration – firstly to buy art not just for themselves, but for the people. They built the museum so that people could enjoy the collection and they even bought items they did not personally like because they thought the items should be seen. So “inheriting” the care of the museum as curator – or director, as it is now – is quite a responsibility. It is the job of curators to see to it that the public are engaged.”
She added: “ For me, the delight of the job came with being in such a lovely place surrounded by so many beautiful objects. But the frustration came at not being able to spend enough time on the art and the lack of money to do what I needed to improve the collection.”