Curator of the Month: Alice Sage

The Collections Engagement Officer at Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh talks us through her latest exhibition, working at the dog collar museum, and the challenges facing museums.

Name and job title:

Alice Sage, Collections Engagement Officer, Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh. I have just curated the exhibition 'It’s Alive: Mechanical Marvels from the House of Automata'.

What inspired you to become a curator?

As a child my annual treat was to visit the Egyptian mummies at the British Museum. In 2010, I 'd started to work in museum education when I saw the Quilts exhibition at the V&A. Immediately, I knew I needed to change path and make exhibitions. The combination of beautiful objects, captivating design and personal stories showed me how well it could be done.

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

I volunteered at the Museum of Kent Life during my undergraduate Art History degree, though my first paid job was in the dog collar museum at Leeds Castle. Yes, dog collars – it wasn’t a huge collection! A few years later I worked at the Cuming Museum in South London, where I had the opportunity to do exhibitions as well as education work, including a fantastic filmmaking project with young people.

In 2012, I started at the V&A Museum of Childhood. Over a few years as assistant curator and then curator, I did lots of exciting projects. We made many exhibitions including the intricate ‘Small Stories: at Home in a Dolls’ House', which is now touring internationally, and I was also able to develop the collection through new acquisitions and research.

Since 2016, I have been at the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh. In the collections engagement job I get to bring people and objects together through exhibitions, volunteering programmes and public projects, combining the best of all worlds.

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

The highlight has to be the whole magical process of curating ‘Clangers, Bagpuss & Co’ in 2016 at the V&A. In the first visit to puppet-maker Peter Firmin’s ramshackle barn in the Kent countryside, we unwrapped the Clangers from their newspaper and I had that shock of recognition as I was transported back to afternoons sat in front of the telly, absorbed in the adventures of Tiny Clanger and the Soup Dragon. For the exhibition, we built a barn in the middle of the museum, so visitors could experience that same delight. Incredible objects enter the conservation studios at the V&A every day, but I have never seen such excitement as when we turned up with the real Bagpuss!

My biggest challenge is the same one faced by the whole museum sector. Ongoing funding cuts mean fewer staff and increasingly limited resources. Museums and galleries are closing and jobs have become more precarious - as in every industry. As curators, it is getting harder to balance the demands for immediate and visible outcomes, with the long-term care and understanding of our collections.

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

Rather than advice, I think I would give encouragement. Keep going with the things that interest and inspire you, look for opportunities and make the most of them when they come.

What’s special about working at your museum?

The Museum of Childhood’s collection is so rewarding to work with. The theme of childhood is universal, and every visitor can find a personal connection. This empathy and identification with others means it’s a powerful place to explore big questions of identity, creativity and what makes us who we are. It is great to work with artists, writers and performers to develop work that goes beyond simple nostalgia.

I also love the variety of things we collect and display: from delicate toy theatres and miniature dolls’ house furniture to Game Boy cartridges and nipple shields, we really get to see it all.

What are your favourite objects in your current exhibition and why?

The current exhibition It’s Alive! was a collaboration with the artist Robert Powell, and combines remarkable historical automata with a new series of hand-painted etchings entitled 'Pneuma: The Mechanical Egg'. Powell’s prints explore the cultural complexities of automata and the sometimes uncomfortable relationship between man and machine.

My favourite is a scene of an infinite mechanical menagerie, called 'At Dusk we use the Serinette to Teach the Birds to Sing'. We look onto a city of caged clockwork animals, piled high on all sides, and stretching onwards so far into the distance they start to curve up and line the heavens. There are fantastical animals in the cages: a drinking bear, the monkey dentists, a pig playing jazz. These were all real automata made in French workshops at the end of the 1800s.

In the middle, two figures stand under a tree of golden birds (like those from the throne of King Solomon), holding a serinette. For centuries, these wind-up music boxes were used to teach real baby canaries to sing popular tunes. In 'Pneuma', Powell presents these moments where the line is blurred between nature and technology, making us question our assumptions about both.

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

I’m studying for a PhD, so reading and thinking are often my main activities outside of work. Of course I go to museums and galleries, and I make the most of living in a city as beautiful and historical as Edinburgh.

What is the best exhibition that you've been to recently?

One that surprised me was 'Frank Quitely: The Art of Comics' at Kelvingrove in Glasgow. I didn’t know anything about Quitely before, and I enjoyed seeing his whole collaborative working process from script, through sketches, to publication. The curators had found the perfect balance between a fun, colourful show for families and a serious study of comic art, which did justice to its subject as well as creating new comic book fans (like me). I was there for hours, watching the excellent video interviews and poring over the drawings.

'It's Alive: Mechanical marvels from the House of Automata' is on display until 18 September 2017.

Alice was a receipent of Art Fund's Jonathan Ruffer grant. She used her grant to visit the House of Automata.

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