Spotlight on The Holburne Museum

Ahead of our newest hotel opening in Bath, we sat down with our friends at the Holburne Museum. The Holburne has an extensive collection of fine and decorative art and changing exhibitions.

We chatted to Senior Curators Amina Wright and Tom Boggis, as well as Curator of Decorative Art, Catrin Jones. Together, the team bring many years of experience to Bath, garnered from famous art institutions across the country, such as the V&A, the Geffrye Museum and the National Trust and English Heritage sites.

Holburne Curators (L-R): Senior Curators Amina Wright and Tom Boggis, and Curator of Decorative Art, Catrin Jones.

Ever wondered what life is like behind the scenes? To find out how exhibitions are planned, how the museum has changed over time, and for some top tips for visitors to Bath, read on.

Catrin, you’re the Curator of Decorative Arts, where would visitors see your work?

Catrin: Jokingly I’d say I look after everything except the paintings, miniatures and works on paper – and that’s quite an eclectic collection here. I joined the Holburne three years ago. Previously I was based in the ceramics and glass department at the V&A, before that I’d worked at the Geffrye Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, and Waddesdon Manor, part of the National Trust.

Amina, you’ve been here the longest, 15 years. Has your role changed over the years?

Amina: It has changed hugely. I used to organise all the exhibitions, we have about half a dozen exhibitions each year, sometimes more, sometimes less. I looked after the fine art collection and general administration of the collections department. But as the museum has grown, the team has grown and I am now able to do much more.

Tom, what’s a day like in the life of a Holburne Curator?

Tom: It’s quite broad. In exhibitions, we could be researching a future topic, sourcing loans which will be appropriate works from public or private collections, or planning the final stages – bringing the graphics together, writing exhibition text, and arranging the selection of objects within the room.

We also work with permanent collections. It’s about how we put those collections together, look after them, display them and try to make new elements of the collections accessible for our visitors.

What physical changes might visitors see in the museum if they’ve been before?

Amina: In 2001, we began the process of appointing an architect, and with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, started to plan the extension and refurbishment which gave us the museum as we know it now. Back in 2008 before we closed, locals would say “The Holburne Museum, what’s that?” “where is it?” and “what do they have?” or “I didn’t know that building was a museum”. People didn’t really come here.

Since reopening in 2011, people all across the country know about the Holburne Museum and light up when they talk about it. They know the name, they know what we do, so the refurbishment has made an enormous difference.

Another change is that admission is now free. Anybody can wander in. There is no risk involved. They can stick their nose through the door, if they don’t like it they can go away, and if they do like it, which they mostly do, they’ll come back.

How long does it take to put an exhibition together before the public see it?

Catrin: It depends which space, the scale of the work, and how far ahead we’re planning. We have three main spaces. One is our main exhibition space upstairs, one is the ballroom, where there is an eight-metre-long table where we alternate displays from the collection and contemporary commissions and installations. Then there is a smaller gallery where we display a variety of things.

For the larger shows, it’s a minimum of two years really. That’s quite a small window for the logistics involved for such big shows. But for a contemporary show it can be a lot less, it really does depend on what stage we become involved and what we commission.

Tom: When we’re pulling an exhibition together, we’ve got to be flexible.

There are always pieces that we know will be absolutely key for our visitors, and there would not be an exhibition without those objects. But at the same time, we can’t always get the things we want.

Lenders are usually very generous but they’ve got their own requirements. They need to consider what are they lending elsewhere, and how often their pieces have been on show that year. It’s a delicate mix of being really clear about what we want for an exhibition, and being realistic about what we can source.

What do you love most about working here?

Catrin: Being able to work with contemporary artists. They have a real connection to our collection because the museum can be the starting point for an innovative new work, which is fun to be part of.

The largest scale exhibition I worked for was with Laura Ellen Bacon who is a sculptor, she works with willow and we are very pleased she has just been nominated for the Woman’s Hour Craft Prize final as well. She worked with our volunteers to create a huge insulation on the front of the building, which was inspired by the migrations of swallows. It was a huge piece, quite a challenge to do.

There are also projects that I am doing with the permanent collection. We have a collection of about 10 thousand items so being able to put things on display that haven’t been on show before, is a really exciting part of the role, discovering lots of things behind the scenes which is very interesting.

Amina: It’s an independent museum, which in a way makes things precarious because, we have no determinate funding, we have no safety net. But being independent means we can do whatever we think is best.

We’re not under pressure to do something we don’t like, and that’s very nice. There’s a sense of freedom here.

I think it also builds our team and community. We’ve got 300 volunteers, and 2,000 friends of the Holburne. All these people make it feel more like a community than an organisation. And we also know who our audience is, because we see them every day.

Catrin: It’s nice to be part of an organisation that has got very strong local connections and was based on one man, who was a Bath resident and housed his whole life’s collection, William Holburne. Now we can borrow work with international importance and work with international artists.

How much time would you recommend guests give themselves when visiting the museum?

Catrin: Because it’s free entry, visitors can just pop in. It’s a very compact space, you can see a lot in a short space of time, but obviously as curators, we’ll say you need hours and hours to experience it!

Amina: I would say, if you’re seeing a paid exhibition, allow an hour. Then if you’re staying on to see the permanent collection as well, allow another hour, but don’t forget to leave time to enjoy the garden café and browse in our shop, explore the gardens.

As Bath residents, what are your top tips for people visiting the city?

Amina: The Kennet & Avon Canal – it’s not very well known. It’s something that you could combine with your visit here. A walk along the canal is fascinating. We’ve got 13 locks in Bath alone, but it is a delightful place for a walk.

Catrin: When I moved to Bath three years ago, one of the things I particularly liked was that you’re near greenery as well as being in the middle of things. There’s a hill up to Alexandra Park which you can walk up, it takes about 15 minutes and there are the most spectacular views of the city from there. It’s a view you don’t always see, which is really beautiful.