Curator of the Month: Jasmine Allen, Stained Glass Museum

This month's curator tells us about her varied role at a specialist museum, and researching and documenting the museum's history to celebrate its 40th birthday.

How did you start out as a curator?

By a happy accident! I saw the vacancy for curator at the Stained Glass Museum when I was completing my PhD in the History of Art department at the University of York. The medium of stained glass was my area of interest and developing specialism, so I knew the museum’s significant collection and I had worked there previously on a temporary contract.

Studying for my doctorate, I was also involved in some public engagement projects and really enjoyed finding ways to interpret new research for and engage with wider audiences.

What was your first job in the museum world, and what did you learn from your role that helped you secure your next one?

Before starting my PhD, I worked as a researcher for a project at Yorkshire Museum, cataloguing and researching its medieval stained-glass collection, and also at the Stained Glass Museum, where I spent a year researching the architectural contexts of the windows in the collection – many of which were rescued from redundant buildings.

Both jobs helped develop my curatorial eye and approach to interpretation.

What is a typical working day like for you?

No day is the same working in a small specialist museum, and that’s the joy of it. My daily tasks might include updating the website, writing a small grant application or a press release, giving guided tours, writing a funding application, through to cataloguing or corresponding about a new acquisition, preparing text and marketing material for an exhibition or event, or responding to enquiries we receive from members of the public.

What do you think are the most important skills a curator needs to have?

Being discerning and taking opportunities when they arise is important. You never know where an enquiry might lead and if you’re keen to acquire a new contemporary piece you need to be proactive.

Being responsive and having a good knowledge base is also helpful. It’s important to have a sense of the bigger picture – how things relate to one another, and what is particularly interesting, typical or unusual about an object or collection – and being able to explain or interpret this to different groups.

You should also stay in touch with what’s happening in the world around you, to ensure that the curation and interpretation of collections is engaging and relevant.

Can you tell us about a highlight of your career?

Acquiring significant new works is always exciting, and many of my highlights have been recent acquisitions to develop the museum’s collection.

These include four highly unusual modern artworks by British sculptor and stained glass artist Geoffrey Clarke (1924-2014) and, even more recently, the acquisition of two 15th-century panels depicting the Order of the Angels – in excellent condition. Our medieval collection is relatively small so these panels have significantly enhanced the collection.

Neither of these acquisitions would have been possible without the Art Fund’s support, so thank you!

Have there been any particularly challenging moments as a curator, and what are the challenges that a museum curator faces more generally?

The challenges for me have mostly revolved around external work out of the museum’s control, including recent repair works to the south nave aisle roof of Ely Cathedral, directly above the museum gallery.

This was very nerve-racking because all the glass on display had to be protected before scaffolding was brought into and erected in the gallery. The scaffolding design was complicated as it worked around our permanent display cases. It was up for more than a year in the end and we lived with a temporary roof during the very cold winter of 2018!

More generally, I think all curators will suffer from lack of funds for new acquisitions or exhibitions, time restraints and the increasingly commercial pressures on curators to generate a profit or produce blockbuster exhibitions, which can result in permanent collections being a little sidelined, under-researched or under-represented.

Can you tell us a bit about the project you’re undertaking supported by a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant?

On 30 March 2019 the Stained Glass Museum will celebrate 40 years of opening to the public. This is a landmark event, and I applied for a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant to make some time to research and document the history of the museum.

I have undertaken some oral history, interviewing people associated with the museum in its early days (including its first curator), as well as spent time looking through our own archives, photo albums and reading minutes of old board meetings!

It has been illuminating and from 30 March onwards we will have a small temporary exhibition, #SGM40, of the museum’s history in our gallery.

What’s special about working at your museum?

The most special thing about working at the Stained Glass Museum is every day being surrounded by marvellous artworks. Stained glass is an uplifting medium to be around and I see something new every day.

My job is also special because of the range of things I am responsible for. Beyond the collections I have overall responsibility for the whole organisation, its finances, staffing, events and activities – I don’t think there’s another job quite like it.

The exhibition SGM40: Celebrating 40 years of the Stained Glass Museum runs 30 March – 26 September at the Stained Glass Museum, Ely.

Our Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grants provide funding for travel and other practical costs, to help curators undertake collections and exhibition research projects in the UK or internationally.

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