Although the Romantic poets lived two hundred years ago, a remarkable number of their manuscripts, belongings, and other assorted ephemera still survive and are preserved in archives and collections across the globe. Most of the time, these artefacts are tucked away in museum collections, or specially stored in boxes to preserve the delicate paper or materials used to make them. Generally only a select few are allowed access to these items, predominantly the archivists, curators and custodians of these wonderful remnants and the researchers who are lucky enough to be working on them. Therefore, the aim of this exciting series on the K-SAA Blog is to bring to the fore the hidden and hidden-in-plain-sight artefacts of the Romantic poets, particularly those belonging to the Shelleys, Keats, Byron and their circles. We also aim to provide you, the reader, with behind-the-scenes access to these collections, along with insider knowledge from archivists, curators and scholars.
This exciting edition of the ‘Uncovering the Archive’ blog series is an insight into the home of the hellraising poet, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron. We spoke to Simon Brown, Newstead Abbey’s curator on all things Byron, huge paintings, and how Newstead is a space that makes everyone welcome.
Hi Simon! How long have you worked at Newstead Abbey for, and what was your experience before starting the role?
I’ve had the great honour of being curator at Newstead for around three and a half years. The house is operated by Nottingham City Council – I’d been working as a curator for social history and world cultures as maternity cover when my predecessor at Newstead retired, so I moved here then.
I’ve worked in museums for around ten years, in pretty much every department there is – front of house, education, as an install technician, community engagement, collections documentation and others.
My post at Newstead is part-time, so I spend the other half of my week as a project curator at the National Justice Museum in Nottingham. I am also on the board of the Museums Association. I love working in museums, it’s a great vocation.
What is your aim as curator at Newstead Abbey, and what have you changed since working there?
There are many ways to answer that question! My biggest motivation is the opportunity to make Newstead open, accessible and welcoming for everyone. We have an amazing place here, with equally amazing stories to tell – so it’s my task to interpret all of that for the public. What I want is for everyone to feel that they can bring their whole selves to Newstead and be a part of an ever changing story.
There are of course many ways to achieve this, but every detail is important. The biggest changes I’ve made to the displays is in writing new interpretation that moves away from detailed academic labels, to more active and accessible language.
The room settings are the same. I wanted to bring more life to them and make them feel lived in. We’re gradually working our way through the house to do this. We’ve gathered historic photographs, sketches and written descriptions of each room, and made these a starting point for how they’re displayed. The approach is more like theatre and film than curating!
I was also very lucky that we received funding from the Wolfson Foundation to install a new gallery in the Becket and Plantagenet rooms when I first started in the job. This allowed us to explore the principles of real access while bringing out objects that never been on display before. This was about physical access, as well as conceptual/emotional access to our history.
Another aspect of this work is in making new relationships with organisations that can be a part of this change with us. There are a huge number of people with an interest in Newstead- I want to harness this passion and expertise to be a part of what people can experience here.
What challenges do you face as curator?
I was once told that ideas are everywhere – what is valuable in an organisation is the ability and will to turn those ideas in concrete action. Finding that ability in myself and people around us is a real skill, but one I’ve been very fortunate to have in my colleagues here.
Another huge challenge for museums in general is diminishing resources, in terms of time and funding. It takes a long time to take an idea and gather the necessary resources to make it a reality. We’re really lucky to be well supported at Newstead by Nottingham City Council, as well as various funding bodies, so I’m well supported in the changes we want to make. It just takes more time than I’d like!
What does a typical day at Newstead Abbey look like for you? What are you working on at the moment?
A lot of my time is spent on the routine work related to managing a collection – checking the light and temperature levels in the house, and managing location data for example. We also receive many requests to view different parts of the collection from researchers and writers from all over the world. Anyone is welcome to come and view objects that are in store by making an appointment, so a lot of time is spent preparing for and facilitating this work.
As well as this, there are ongoing projects to change what we do here. I am in the process of writing a digital strategy, to share more of our collection online through social media and film. So there is a lot of photography and writing happening for that. I am also planning the next stage of the redisplays of the house, in the east gallery and Edward III Room. This involves a lot of research and writing.
Of course it’s impossible to describe a typical day in microcosm – every day brings really interesting, rewarding work.
What is the best thing about being curator at Newstead Abbey?
I know it’s my job to say this, but Newstead really is a unique place! There’s nowhere else like it: the combination of the stunning natural surroundings, the majestic built environment, and the knowledge of the place’s amazing history all combine in a way that is unlike anywhere else. The sense of place that comes from that combination is incredible. It’s a privilege to be a part of that, and it’s something that is felt by everyone that comes here.
What is your favourite item in the collection and why?
Ah that’s every curator’s nightmare question! We have some really significant personal objects of Lord Byron’s (even a lock of his hair!), and equally significant portraits that are known all over the world- not least the famous Thomas Phillips portrait hanging in the grand drawing room.
But if I were to choose one, it would be the view of Newstead in 1866 by John Bell, that hangs on the south stair. It is absolutely huge, about 3 x 2 metres, and shows the house from the far side of the upper lake. It’s the painting that comes closest to depicting that very unique beauty of Newstead – the instantly recognisable house, taking its place in the wild, wooded landscape. Each is made more beautiful for the presence of the other.
I wish I could move it somewhere more prominent- but it won’t fit through any of the doorways!
What are your plans for the future at Newstead Abbey?
There is much that we’re planning. Clearly the disruption of this year has meant that we’ve lost many events, but we are looking forward to having these back when we are able. We will also be rolling out the digital strategy over the coming year, and I hope to have more content and events online in the spring.
We continue to move through our wider reinterpretation of the house, bringing new voices and perspectives to our interpretation. I’m working on the East Gallery and Edward III rooms at the moment, with a focus on the wider Byron family and William, the 5th Lord.
The bicentenary of Lord Byron’s death is in 2024, so we are planning much work for then. We want Newstead to be the hub for all of the commemorations that will happen all over the world. We’ve already made some very exciting relationships with partners in Greece and Italy, so I look forward to getting those plans into action.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d reiterate our intention to make Newstead open and welcome for everyone. When I was growing up, I didn’t feel like places like this were for people like me – however you would define that. I’m determined that no one will feel like that about Newstead.
I have been asked a lot over the past year how people can support us. You can support us online through donating, or supporting our online shop. And of course we are welcoming visitors to the gardens even if the house is currently closed – so come and see us! All the up to date information is at www.newsteadabbey.org.uk.