Curator of the Month: Emma Roodhouse, Colchester and Ipswich Museums

From curating Constable to installing art in 10 Downing Street, in this month's interview, Emma Roodhouse talks about her career so far and offers advice to aspiring curators.

Name and job title

Emma Roodhouse, Collections & Learning Curator (Art)

What inspired you to become a curator?

I was always interested in stories, art and history as a child. I liked to create my own collections whether it was fans, glass bottles, fossils or postcards. And when we were at school there was a chance to visit the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and I found that an inspirational place; but I don’t think at that point I really knew what being a curator was about. When I realised you could get a job that involved all of these interests and enabled me to communicate that to others, then I was determined to work in that sector.

What was your first job in the art/museum world – and how did you get to where you are now?

My first job was working at the Public Art Commissions Agency (PACA) in Birmingham as a general administrator and assistant on projects. I was always interested in public art as a way to make art accessible to a wide audience and PACA had been involved in lots of interesting commissions, such as the Anthony Gormley statue in the city centre. With that job I opened post, sorted artist files, placed poems in jewellery boxes around the city for people to find and generally helped out. But the charity eventually closed down and my short time there led on to working in London at Constantine.

The commercial sector was very different but a great learning curve to working with lots of artists, galleries and museums. After that I worked for the Government Art Collection and their wonderful collection of British art. It was a great opportunity to install artworks in No.10 Downing Street, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and many other government buildings. I certainly learnt the art of diplomacy through dealing with all sorts of people.

Since those days I have also curated collections at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, Falkirk Museums, and now Colchester and Ipswich Museums.

What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?

Curating an exhibition on John Constable’s Flower and Kitchen Garden paintings to mark their 200th anniversary at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich in 2015. This was a passion project I'd wanted to do for a while, as the two paintings given by Art Fund in 1955 are such personal depictions of Constable’s life. I had the opportunity through a Mellon fellowship to spend time researching them at the Yale Center for British Art.

It also fed into Ipswich’s involvement with the Aspire project, which saw Constable's Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows saved for the nation through a unique partnership between Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, the National Galleries of Scotland, Colchester and Ipswich Museums, The Salisbury Museum, and Tate Britain. The exhibition was opened on teh anniversary of Constable’s birthday on 11 June 2015 and we even had the painting depicted in cake. Who doesn’t love art and cake? I was on maternity leave that year but it didn’t stop me installing the exhibition with my five month old, who slept through most of it.

Another highlight was hearing 60 schoolchildren belting out We’re Going on a Bear Hunt during the exhibition I put on about children’s book illustrators. I managed to get Helen Oxenbury’s fantastic artworks from the ‘Bear Hunt’ book on loan for display; and it was pure joy to hear all those children singing out Michael Rosen’s verse.

As for challenges, I think now that I have two small children the juggling act of career and family really presents the biggest challenge. I’m not sure I’ve found the solution yet but the boys love visiting museums and galleries, so that’s a bonus.

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?

Network and talk to as many people as possible. Go out and view as much art, exhibitions and events as you can. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for something. At least three of my jobs I got through approaching people directly. Patience and perseverance is still my mantra and it works for parenting as well.

What’s special about working at your organisation?

How often do you get to handle an Anglo Saxon brooch? Or drive around with Constable’s paintbox in your car? Or organise a gin festival that ties in with 18th-century hairstyles? Only in the museum world. It is such a varied role and the special part is we then get to enthuse other people about our collections. It’s about communicating that passion.

What are your favourite objects in your collection and why?

Mrs Kilderbee, 1758, by Thomas Gainsborough. This portrait has always been a favourite in the collection because of the wonderful story about how Mrs Kilderbee asked Gainsborough, 10 years after he had painted this portrait, if he could re-paint her hairstyle to show a more fashionable look. We recently had the painting x-rayed and can now reveal what her 1758 hairstyle really looked like. The painting will be the main focus of our exhibition on hairstyles in art.

Twists and Turns: Hairstyles in Art opens on 25 February at Christchurch Mansion and runs until 24 September 2017. It is a free display and we'll be holding a celebration of 18th-century hairstyles and gin drinking on 29 April. I’m very excited about this display, as when I moved to Ipswich I couldn’t believe how many hairdressers were in the town and so I thought if you could get them talking about the local museums it would be great word-of-mouth advertising.

Then there's Golding Constable’s Flower and Kitchen Garden, 1815, by John Constable. These paintings were never sold by Constable and show the view from the house he was born in. Painted at a time when his father was very ill and his mother had just died they capture the family landscape before it was to change. Constable wrote ‘for me painting is another word for feeling’ and that idea comes across so clearly in these two intimate views.

The archive related to Anne Grahame Johnstone, 1928-1998, and Janet Grahame Johnstone, 1928-1979. The illustrators were twin sisters and lived in Suffolk with their mother Doris Zinkeisen, also a well-known artist. They are best known for illustrating Dodie Smith's classic book The Hundred and One Dalmatians. We were very fortunate to receive a donation of illustrations, books, puzzles and cards from an individual who had been collecting the twins' work for a number of years. The donation inspired the children’s book illustration exhibition in Ipswich and meant that such important work by women artists was represented in the collection. It is always a joy to show this work as it triggers a lot of memories for people.

Away from work, how do you spend your free time?

Running around after two small boys and pretending to be Catwoman, Batgirl, or occasionally Boudicca. When I get the chance, walking the Suffolk coast and enjoying that special light. And sampling the delights of many glorious teashops. A lot of my passions revolve around tea, cake and art.

What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?

Paul Nash at Tate Britain. It was a great overview of this very important artist and so interesting to see the early work influenced by William Blake. It will also be travelling to the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, so I look forward to seeing it again.

Also, Life Through the Eyes of East Anglian Artists at the Museum of East Anglian Life is a fascinating selection of artworks from the Day Collection focused on the region and shows some real favourites, including Thomas and Edward Robert Smythe, John Moore, Arthur James Stark, Harry Becker and Anna Airy. What is interesting about the exhibition is that the curators have displayed objects that are depicted in the paintings alongside. So you can look at a picture of a shepherd boy and then see an actual smock or a shepherd’s apple corer. It was also great to have hands on activities for my children so that we could all enjoy the art.

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