This month’s fantastic ‘Uncovering the Archives’ blog is with Kirsty Archer-Thompson FSA Scot, who is Collections and Interpretation Manager for the Abbotsford Trust. Abbotsford Trust is an independent charity responsible for protecting and managing the former home and estate of Sir Walter Scott; a grade A listed house and designed landscape near Melrose in the Scottish Borders. We chatted to Kirsty about Abbotsford’s unique plumbing, upcoming anniversary celebrations, and runaway cows!
Hi Kirsty! Thanks so much for chatting to us today. How long have you worked at Abbotsford for, and what experience did you have before landing the role?
I’ve been working at Abbotsford for almost six and a half years now, having relocated to the region from York in 2014. I’m a bit of a melting pot of interests academically, having originally completed a joint Honours degree in the unusual combination of English Literature and Archaeology. Despite a few raised eyebrows, it didn’t feel particularly alien to me to combine a material science and an arts subject; I’ve always been fascinated by the past and the stories we tell about it, the way that we use objects as imaginative portals. After that, I then went on to postgraduate study in York, focussing on interdisciplinary Medieval Studies. My thesis was actually an exploration of a 15th-century manuscript that Scott had purchased for Edinburgh’s Advocates Library, although I was only obliquely paying attention to the name at the time! All of this breadth of interest has come together working at Abbotsford, the home of a writer and an antiquarian. I still remember exactly how I felt looking around on the day of my interview: completely hooked, line and sinker.
What does your role as curator entail, and what challenges do you face in the role?
That is a good question because one of the things that always surprises people I speak to about my role is the sheer breadth of it – there is often a misconception that you sit in an ivory tower, poring over archival treasures all day every day, and never see another soul! But breadth is very much the order of the day in a small organisation. Unlike a large national or regional heritage organisation where the fields of curatorship, collections management (i.e. documentation and administration), preventative conservation and historic buildings management are all separate spheres, in many independent historic houses and charitable trusts, including Abbotsford, these vast and varied responsibilities are combined.
So, in a nutshell, I have responsibility for the built heritage of the Abbotsford estate (from the house itself to the other historic structures that survive on its footprint) and the natural heritage of the site, a designed landscape of exceptional significance. Within that framework I care for our exceptional interiors and substantial historic collections. This includes the family archive and library as well as the object and furniture collections. In total, we have well over 100,000 items in our care.
It is also my role (alongside my amazing Collections Officer) to manage the house and the visitor experience as Scott’s self-styled ‘museum for living in’. Between us, we head up a team of around seventy volunteers who orientate, guide, and share so much with our visitors.
Given the above, it won’t be particularly surprising to read that the challenges almost always amount to resource and that is not a situation unique to Abbotsford. Naturally, looking after our visitors becomes paramount whilst the house is open and trumps every other priority, so it’s often the case that collections management aspirations, research and strategic developments have to move to the back of the queue. This is an age-old problem – to strive for the future, you always need to find the space, and this can prove elusive. Above all, we want to ensure that over the next ten years, the experience we offer and the stories we tell are better and more resonant than ever before. But the great thing about Abbotsford is that even during these incredibly difficult twelve months, we have achieved great things and continue to do so. And for an organisation that is only thirteen years old, I think that’s remarkable.
What does a typical day at Abbotsford look like for you? What are you working on at the moment?
A dizzying array of things! Alongside all of the ongoing work we have to do, what is very much on my mind at the moment is of course the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our plans. It is still far from certain whether we will be able to open to visitors on March 1st as scheduled. The winter period up until then is critical as we have all of the behind-the-scenes conservation work in the house to complete. Think of it a bit like servicing a car – this is a programme of deep housekeeping and assessment that helps see the interiors through an open season.
I will then be turning my attention to new display items for our Visitor Centre exhibition space – to scoping potential items, assessing their condition, and then providing curatorial oversight as to how they help to tell our story about Scott’s life and legacy.
On the conservation front, we are gearing up to begin major works on a special structure in Scott’s historic gardens that has been in need of restoration for a number of years now. This is a big project that will offer the potential for us to tell a new story about Scott’s investment in and use of technologies and inventions like sub-floor heating and garden hot walls.
And to top it all off I’ll shortly have a team of stonemasons abseiling down the building completing works on our windows!
What is the best or most unique thing about being curator at Abbotsford?
For me, it is that breadth. My brain enjoys a workout and I consider myself fairly capable practically as well as creatively. I could walk in one morning and find an issue with a plumbing circuit and on one memorable occasion that this happened, I remember the slightly smug feeling I had when I used our hideously complicated schematics to fix a problem that our plumbers could not fathom. I enjoy fixing and problem-solving and Abbotsford is generous with her glitches and quirks!
In the same day, I can be using equations to recalibrate environmental equipment, filming for a TV programme, instructing a contractor standing on the roof, training a new volunteer, writing interpretation for new exhibition items, and trying to round up a rogue cow! No day is EVER the same. The other thing I love, is that after being here for a while, you get to know the house in a way that perhaps many people will never know a building. It’s like a good friend. From the insect populations in each and every space to the views from the roof; the tiny decorative details hidden away and the sighs, creaks and groans – you really begin to appreciate that buildings are living, breathing things in their own way. And the better you know Abbotsford, the better you understand Scott.
What is your favourite item in the house’s collection and why?
This has never been a constant for me. I get romanced by stories as I go along, and I have so many favourites now that I can never answer this question very effectively! But, at the moment, it’s a beautiful portrait of Scott’s youngest daughter, Anne, dressed in a Spanish dress of crimson and gold. It is such a beautiful painting with the most haunting eyes. Anne is a particular favourite of mine – her letters are full of sardonic wit and playfulness. She pushes boundaries, does not suffer fools and ultimately, she sacrificed her future prospects to care for her dying father.
It’s a big year at Abbotsford this year! Can you tell us a little bit about the upcoming celebrations and how people (particularly those further afield e.g. America) can get involved?
Yes, 2021 marks 250 years since the birth of Sir Walter Scott and we intend to throw him the party he deserves! In the spring, we will be launching a special anniversary website including a national events calendar, so that you can browse listings and sign up for special activities and events celebrating Scotland’s greatest storyteller. American audiences can rest assured that given the challenges of the present, online events and virtual exhibitions will be a key feature of the programme.
If you’re part of an organisation with links to Scott’s life, literature or legacy and would like to host your own public event to commemorate the anniversary, please do get in touch with us so that we can share it with UK audiences.
For the latest news and updates, do follow Abbotsford’s social media channels.
We can’t wait to celebrate with our literary friends!
Interviewed by Amy Wilcockson, K-SAA Communications Fellow.