Curator of the Month: Karin Walton, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Karin Walton tells us about the challenge of having to move more than 5,000 glass and ceramic items and shares other highlights of her long career.

Name and job title:

Karin Walton, Curator, Applied Art at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

What inspired you to become a curator?

Being given a (modern) Meissen plate sparked an interest in the decorative arts, but the main impulse was a visit to Temple Newsam House in Leeds one cold Sunday morning in February. I was the only person there and it was a revelatory experience. Walking home I just knew I wanted to work somewhere like that. I was lucky enough to spend two years at Temple Newsam doing postgraduate research before coming to Bristol.

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

Believe it or not – more or less the job I’m in now, 43 years later. I had a go at management for a couple of years but it wasn’t for me. At heart, I have only ever wanted to work with the collections and these days, management is a separate career. Bristol is a good place to live and once settled here, I had no desire to move on.

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

There have been many highlights, particularly major exhibitions and acquisitions. The thing I’m most proud of is probably the redisplay and reinterpretation of the Georgian House – opening up more of it to show how a late 18th-century merchant’s house worked.

There are always challenges to be overcome in museums. Probably the biggest was having to move, single-handedly, the contents of the Applied Art store, over 5,000 delicate glass and ceramic items, as part of work to install a new lift and upgrade toilets at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. Each object was wrapped and packed in crates and moved to another store; a huge job, then they were brought back and unpacked once the building work was done. Needless to say this was a daunting task but as I unpacked, I was able to ensure that the cataloguing information, locations and valuations of each object were up to date on our database and we’ve managed to digitise a good proportion of the collection too.

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

It has to be: follow your dream. You won’t get rich and job security is no longer guaranteed but there are so many other rewards. I have never regretted my decision.

What’s special about working at your museum?

I should imagine every curator would say ‘collections and colleagues’. Bristol has a first-rate applied art collection. Even after 40+ years I can still find something new every day. But all museum work is a team effort and I have worked with many supportive and inspirational colleagues – and made many lasting friendships.

What are your favourite objects in your collection and why?

Brislington inkstand – I am particularly fond of this rare Brislington delftware inkstand. I like to picture the potter rolling and twisting the strips of clay to form the balustrade – it’s a direct link with the maker across the centuries.

St Werburgh Ewer – This silver-gilt ewer, or ‘skinker’, was made in 1620 for presentation to St Werburgh’s church in Bristol. There are only half-a-dozen or so similar pieces surviving in British churches and it was one of three pieces of church plate that we had to raise rather a lot of money for some years ago – another challenge!

Red Lodge: Great Oak Room – The number one factor that attracted me to Bristol were the two period houses – the Elizabethan Red Lodge and The Georgian House – which I consider museum objects in their own right. I love watching visitors’ reactions as they walk into this very special room - the only surviving Elizabethan interior in the city.

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

I go to a gym regularly – I wouldn’t say I enjoy it but it gives me thinking time and I feel virtuous afterwards. I enjoy gardening – both at work and at home. I’m learning Italian – admittedly rather slowly, and I relax with embroidery, knitting and lace-making.

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

I do enjoy exhibitions at the Queen’s Gallery for the quality of both exhibits and presentation. I particularly remember ‘Painting Paradise’ as it indulged my love of gardens. But as I get older I am less attracted by ‘blockbusters’. On another level (I can say this because I had little involvement in it) Bristol’s ‘Death: the Human Experience’ was a brave attempt to deal with a difficult issue. I’m sure most visitors found it slightly uncomfortable but museums can have a role to play in challenging taboos subjects.

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