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Issue 57 - Celebrating the Bard

Scotland Magazine Issue 57
June 2011

 

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Celebrating the Bard

James Carney visits the recently opened shrine to Scotland's most famous son

Monuments and memorials have been being raised to Robert Burns since before he was cold in his grave but anyone visiting his Ayrshire home town of Alloway in recent years will have been acutely aware that the Bard’s immortal memory surely deserved better than the jaded and down-at-heel Burns’ Cottage or the wholly forgettable Tam o’ Shanter Experience.
Fortunately, control of all the old Burns National Heritage Park properties has passed to the National Trust for Scotland and out of the ruins has emerged one of Scotland’s most eagerly awaiting new museums, the stunning new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. It officially recently opened its doors to a grand fanfare of music, song, haggis and of course, poetry – the kind of party in fact Burns himself would surely have loved!
Six years and £21m in the making, the museum is the largest and most ambitious project the Trust has undertaken and for the first time, the world’s most important collection of Burns’ material can now be housed under one roof. More than 5000 historical artefacts, manuscripts and memorabilia have been assembled, everything from the small incidentals of the poet’s daily life, such as his pens and his waistcoat buttons, to prize exhibits such as the handwritten originals of Auld Lang Syne and Scots Wha Hae.
Yet the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is more than just the new museum itself. All the Burns properties in Alloway: the Cottage, the Auld Kirk, the Burns Monument and the Brig o’ Doon, have been revamped to provide visitors with different perspectives on the poet’s life, times and inspirations. However, unlike the days of the former heritage park, they are now under a single ownership, which allows their presentations and interaction to be far more co-ordinated and coherent. As museum director Nat Edwards puts it: “You will not just be able to read the manuscript of Tam o’ Shanter, you can see the fireplace round which Burns first heard the stories that he turned into that poem, and you can look out the window and see that landscape, places like the Kirk Alloway and Brig o’ Doon where the poem takes place. It gives you every facet of the man and his work.”
The new building makes a feature of the traditional materials used in its construction but as museums go, there’s little else traditional about it. For one thing, its eco-credentials are second-to-none: the timber frame is made from locally sourced Douglas fir and its sweeping, wave-shaped roof uses turf as insulation. Heating and ventilation are also sourced naturally using specialised heat pumps buried deep underground which draw power from within the earth itself.
These connections with the natural world seems particularly apt given Burns’ original profession as farmer and ploughman, occupations that were themselves intimately bound up with the earth
and which provided him with such a rich seam
of inspiration.
Inside, the museum is as far from the stuffy and tired presentations of its predecessor as it’s possible to imagine. A lot of thought, imagination (and doubtless expense) has gone into the cutting-edge interpretation technology and the variety of multimedia elements that kick in almost as soon as you cross the threshold.
Interactivity is at the heart of much of the experience here, with lots of hands-on exhibits and installations in evidence around the sites. Audiovisual presentations, listening pods, a juke box filled with Burns’ own songs and even a very tongue-in-cheek news bulletin feature (presented by a ‘Jeremy Waxman’ no less) looking at the burning issues of the poet’s time are all used to fire the imagination and bring the man to life using the four main themes of ‘Identity’, Inspiration’, ‘Fame’ and ‘ Creative Works’.
Happily, all this technology complements rather than overwhelm the exhibits. “The important thing,” according to Nat Edwards, “is to let Burns’ words tell the story. We try to keep our own interpretation light and let people make their own minds up and really listen to the words of Burns, really listen, really read...”
And while much of the museum’s message is concerned with the past, it also underlines the continuing relevance of Burns and his poetry by providing a showcase for the work of contemporary artists. As well as featuring specially commissioned works from leading Scots creatives such as George Wylie, Sue Blackwell, Kenny Hunter and Timorous Beasties as part of the core displays, the Museum also includes a temporary exhibition space.
In 2009, Scottish Television viewers voted Burns ‘the Greatest Scot’. In the new museum and the innovative and engaging way it re-imagines and re-presents Scotland’s favourite son to new generations, the National Trust for Scotland has at last done Burns, and his homeland, proud. In doing so, it has raised the bar for how future NTS properties and other museums will be judged.