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Digital Subscriptions > iScot Magazine > May 2018 > Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

In conversation with Dr Elspeth King

“Here it is! Here! Look! Look! The oldest football in the world!” Two small boys, their excitement palpable, rushed forward to look at the 500-year-old leather ball sitting in pride of place in its display case. The oldest football in the world and there it was, right in front of them. Found in Stirling, their home town, to boot! It was theirs and part of their history. What could be more important to two young Scots?

The Oldest Football in the World

Their reaction raises the fascinating question of just what are the objects that we value, and why? Why do some things mean so much to us? In what way do they reflect who we are as individuals and as communities? How do we select, display and, most importantly, how do we interpret the tangible objects that make up our heritage? Does it even matter if we do? And who decides which aspects of our country’s history are deemed important enough to be preserved? Who decides what our culture should be?

The so-called ‘civilising mission’ of empires was being seen for what it really was: theft on an international scale

I’ve come to ask these questions of Dr Elspeth King, the director of the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum, and former Curator of the People’s Palace Museum in Glasgow. Born into a mining family in the village of Lochore in Fife, Elspeth grew up with a deep interest in history, in particular the artefacts that relate to the past, and from a young age knew she wanted to work in museums. Unusually for someone of her background, she not only took her first degree in Medieval History at St Andrews University, but also went on to be one of the first through the new post-graduate Museum Studies course at Leicester University. From the outset she aimed for Glasgow museums, “There was no social history aspect in Glasgow museums at all. The People’s Palace looked so neglected, unloved, underdeveloped, that I aimed to work there. I arrived in 1974 and was there for eighteen years.”

But first of all a question. What is a museum for? The answer to that ties in to our understanding of both history and society. As these evolve and change, so do museums. The first museums were little more than collections of ‘curiosities’, but by the 18th century a growing sense of history, and attempts to understand the past, saw the foundation of many major European museums.

By the end of the 19th century the educational aspect of museums grew, coupled with the idea of interpretation to explain the significance of each object. But here great care is needed, for in the more powerful states, national museums were often full of antiquities looted from poorer but older parts of the world. These museums were very much a symbol of imperial status. And as interpretation reflects the dominant attitudes of any society, objects from ‘inferior races’ were often presented as evidence of the ‘simplicity,’ or the bizarre notions, of those races; people in need of ‘civilising’ by Europeans. But equally, national museums were a way of defining nationality and nationhood at home, and here again they tended to reflect the ruling class’ version of the country’s past: who were its heroes, who were its traitors, what events were worth remembering and why?

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iScot Magazine May 2018 The one with the Thistle front cover 116 jam packed pages of the best craic in Scotland from the only truly independent pro Scottish magazine.