Interview with Worthing Museum and Art Gallery Curator Gerry Connolly

Interview with Worthing Museum and Art Gallery Curator Gerry Connolly

Can you tell us a bit about your background before you became Museum Curator of WMA?

I graduated from Limerick University, Ireland in 1987 with a degree in fashion design; I then worked with a knitwear design company for a year. I moved to the UK, working in retail I managed the Cartier boutique in Harrods for a number of years. In 2005 I decided to go back to University to study a design degree at Brighton University and I simultaneously volunteered at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery. I got my first role here through maternity cover in 2008, and from there I took my Masters in Museum Studies. I had a good grounding in management from my retail experience, and I developed my Curatorial and collection management skills in my various roles at Worthing Museum.

That’s an amazing way of showing how volunteering is the gateway to earning a prestigious role in Heritage

Volunteering is an interesting subject; I think for the heritage sector in particular you do need to have done some volunteering to get a job. However on the other side of that coin the heritage sector is one of the few areas that recognises volunteering in a job application process, which is really great. I think a lot of other sectors struggle to give volunteering its place as valid work experience.

So you’ve been here for… 12 years, what is it about WMA for you that makes it so distinctive?

From my first visit, and then starting as a volunteer, I got to know the museum, working behind the scenes and getting to know the amazing collections, which even 12 years on surprise me. I still open a box and say “Wow, I didn’t know we had that” and the element and depth of the collections, not just the costumes but all collections that we’ve got in the museum. Also the fact that they have been donated, I know it is true for museums across the country but they have been donated by local residents, pretty much all of the collection is by donation. Then just the building itself, to have a purpose built museum to display those items in is quite fantastic, a really beautiful building right in the heart of the town. I think it’s quite unique to have a purpose build museum in what was a small town in the early 20th century. Most small town museums were housed in existing buildings and purpose built museums were the preserve of larger cities.

One of the favourite things you said to me previously is that the collection is so big that even when you go through it rigorously you only put on display a very small fraction of what we actually have…

It is the tip of the iceberg that you see on display, and that’s not because we’re keeping it to ourselves and wanting to hide it away, it’s just practicalities of displaying. The cases for example in our costume gallery are as full as they can be and we try and change them. I introduced a program of changing the costumes back in 2011 when I took over the role as curator of the costume collection so that there was always something new to view. It might only be one dress every couple of months but there is always something new and fresh in the permanent display cases. We like to show as much as possible, and we do that though our permanent displays as well as our temporary exhibitions, we also loan to other museums for their exhibitions. We do get the collections out there, Worthing Museum and by default the town as a name travels quite widely throughout the world through our collections, which is quite something for a small seaside town/museum.

What I’d love to touch on actually is the art loan to the national museum of Scotland, can you give us some insight on that?

We have some amazing pieces in our art collection, some quite big names in British schools of art. When there’s an exhibition or other institutes are holding exhibitions, sometimes retrospectives of certain artists work, then we will loan to them. Currently we’ve got two paintings on loan to the National Museum of Scotland. It’s quite an honour to be contacted and to be on the list of national institutions that they would contact us to borrow paintings from for their major exhibitions. We are also loaning, Bianca, a pre-Raphaelite by Holman Hunt which is one of our more well-known paintings to a gallery in San Francisco next year. Worthing Museum will be credited on all loans so our name is spread around little by little which is amazing, we do our bit to promote the town!

How did the idea of the costume trail come to be and how has that developed over time?

In the time I’ve been here the idea of taking the costumes out of the museum and displaying around the town has come up quite a few times. We are very conscious of the fact that we have this amazing collection and limited display space. It has been muted over the years to maybe put displays in empty shops and places like that. This has its problems, we are simple custodians of the collections and we have to protect the costumes for future generations, and putting them into a shop front that didn’t have environmental control and didn’t have security would have effectually been neglect on our behalf and we just wouldn’t have been able to do it. Then in more recent years there was a conversation with our Head of Culture Amanda O’Reilly about taking the collections out into non-museum spaces. Costume is such an engaging collection because everyone can relate to it irrespective of whether they’re usually interested in art. So we looked into what we could do and with the support of the culture team we put together a bid to the heritage lottery. It was a difficult bid because the concept was strong, but to deliver it meant quite a large capital cost, and it’s hard to get capital funding for cases, and a big part of the project was new cases, they were the key to getting the costumes out. So we put it together, did some work with our museum development service and we got a grant from them to buy some cases which we were able to incorporate into the costume trail and that brought down the capital spend for the HLF bid quite considerably, so all in all it made it a very viable project and the HLF funded it.

What are the most recent developments with the costume trail?

The costume trail officially launched in September 2016, a lot of work was done in the summer of 2016 to prepare the project for launch. We got the funding in April, but it took a lot of time to order cases, mannequins, get the marketing in place, choose garments works with groups to develop art work for cases etc, so that we were ready to launch the trail. We’d always felt that because we had such great engagement from the participating organisations that host the cases, that the public would engage with it. It is how the public have engaged with the trail that I think has surprised us. We’ve had some beautiful comments come in, one lady contacted us to let us know she had just moved to Worthing and had used the trail map to get to know her new town, WI groups coming in to the museum for a short talk on the costume collection and then just doing the trail, people are engaging with it in very different ways. We’ve had an amazing reaction from staff in all the venues and the demographic that has engaged with it has been fantastic. It has led to an increase footfall in the museum, which was of course one of the main aims of the trail. The trail is about community engagement, increasing engagement within the museum and getting people more interested in culture and history, I feel that the trail has delivered this which is very encouraging. The trail is running for two years and to keep the interest alive we’ve just launched the second phase of the trail (mid-July 2017). We’ve refreshed all of the cases with new displays; we’ve changed one of the venues adding Northbrook College to the trail, so still very keen to involve the wider Worthing community as much as possible. The trail will run into the summer of 2018. Supporting the trail as part of the second phase is a V&A dress in the museum which is currently on loan, and will be on display until January 2018.

This costume trail is believed to be the first of its kind… are there any references/record of other museums doing this or is it very unique to WMA?

I haven’t seen anything that quite does what we’re doing which is taking the collection out into non-museum venues and entrusting them to those organisations around the town. There has been some work done where museums have taken their collections out as a pop up museum in shopping centres, where curators are there talking about some of the collections. I’ve not heard of anything that’s absolutely this permanent and with museum collections. So I’ll put my neck on the line and say we are a bit of a trail blazer on that one! Somebody can come back and contradict me on that, but I’ve certainly not until now heard of anybody who has done anything as bold as this. It’s been done with great care and consideration for the collections, from the selection of the items on display, to the positions of costumes cases and the types of cases that will protect the collection.

What’s on the horizon for people to look out for at WMA?

We are constantly changing our permanent displays so that there is always something new and fresh for the public to visit the museum and see. We have a series of talks and workshops for people to engage with, and of course as we have always delivered a program of amazing exhibitions, which both challenge and engage the public, so that’s ongoing and will continue. In regards to the costume trail cases, at the end of it we’re hoping that some will stay on display to highlight other parts of the collection at the museum. The big project going forward which is absolutely our aspiration is to develop the museum building and just make it a museum fit for the 21st century and our local community. In doing so one of our great aims is to open the museum to have more space for the public to engage with the items, which in turn should allow us to display even more of the collection which ultimately is always our aim to do.

Can you tell me about one of the most exciting projects you have worked on at the museum or a story you would like to share?

Oh, there’s many and I do love this museum. The collections, the people that work in it, the way the public engage with us and the museum itself, but for me personally, one of the greatest pleasures I’ve had since I’ve been here was when I secured funding back in 2009 for a two year research project through Esmée Fairbairn on the research of the costume collection, I spent an unbelievable two years researching. So the knowledge and the depth that I have about the costume collections is extensive. The museum displays and engagement with the costume trail are strengthened by that knowledge of knowing what was there and what was displayable, things that haven’t been displayed for quite some time that possibly the public had never seen before from our collection. So that was a really nice project to work on and gave us huge knowledge around the collections. We’d always noted that we had an important collection and the funding from the Esmée Fairbairn funding gave us the opportunity to research and gather the evidence to prove that. The collection is amazing on many levels and we have fantastic 18
th century collection and an amazing Regency collection, but one of the strengths which I think is an interesting one, people often get surprised that I mention it, is that we at some point in the 70s, decided that here at Worthing would collect homemade and shop bought garments and Brighton would collect couture garments from the 20th century. I think at the time we probably thought we got the short end of the stick but as history has unfolded, it’s the shop bought and the homemade that is the real interest story. It’s how everyday people engaged with fashion, and telling the stories of how high end couture trickles down through to the high street, to the paper pattern and to the home made is just really fascinating. It’s something that we take for granted today as things are displayed on the catwalk and then they’re on display on the high street within a week, it’s so quick! Even stories of things that appear at the Oscars are at the shops the next morning; it’s just much quicker now. To highlight the two thirties dresses that we’ve got in the museum foyer, one is from the V&A which is a Chanel dress, and we’ve got one from about five to six years later also in the foyer from our own collection, which shows how something that was very high end fashion in the early thirties, by the late thirties had become mainstream.