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Helston's muse

Words by Suzie Inman

Annette MacTavish takes us behind the scenes at the Museum of Cornish Life.

A heady mix of local love and the prospect of additional summertime visitors makes Cornwall the perfect place to set up the fond showcases of ephemera that are museums. There are 70 of them here in the Duchy – and none is as homely and welcoming as Helston’s Museum of Cornish Life.

When I arrive to chat with Director Annette MacTavish, I’m welcomed at the entrance by one of the hundred-or-so volunteers who love spending time here. I’m asked if I’ve visited before and invited into a remarkable Aladdin’s cave parading the best of yesterday.

Museum Director, Annette MacTavish

I have, of course, visited before (I live just down the road). In fact, I’ve whiled away many an hour here and find there’s always something new to uncover, discover or experience. The eclectic collections include domestic items and machinery, objects from lost Helston buildings like the fire station and the railway station, and stories of forgotten local heroes like Henry Trengrouse who designed a rocket-based apparatus that saved thousands of sailors from shipwrecks. Far from being a musty, dusty space dedicated to chronicling the lives of entitled people with money, this museum is a refreshing journey through the ordinary and everyday lives of typical and not-so-typical Cornish people.

The Museum of Cornish Life has been here and growing ever-better since 1949, and for the past three years it’s been under the stewardship of Director Annette MacTavish. I’m keen to find out what brought Annette from her wild west Scottish roots all the way down to this Cornish corner — and what keeps her coming back for more every day.

“I was born in Argyll in Scotland, so it’s literally just up the coast and really similar because it’s the west coast,” she says with a delicious Scottish accent and a wry smile. “You just have to keep going up a way!”

Annette studied archaeology at Edinburgh University before moving to London where she started working in museums and completed her postgraduate Museum Studies degree.

“I knew from finishing university that I wanted to work in museums because I wanted to work in something where the past wasn’t just stuck in boxes – where there was a relevancy to it,” she says. “I worked in some difficult areas of London and saw what an absolute impact museums could have on a local community – providing opportunities in places where there weren’t a lot. Just having the arts within a community really does make a difference.”

Knowing the place, I can see that’s an early ethos to which Annette still holds firm, realising it here in Helston by making the space as welcoming and approachable as possible – but more on that later.

After her foray into the world of the capital, Annette returned to her roots in Scotland and worked for a range of places including the National Museums of Scotland. “Because my interests are so varied I try and get experience in everything. So I’ve worked with very mixed collections and I’ve done a lot of projects with contemporary artists, dance companies, theatre companies, scientists. I think it’s really good as a person to expand yourself.”

And that’s an approach that has carried Annette through a remarkably eclectic career working with all different sorts of collections, from mining and railways to costumes and contemporary artists. “There’s not much I haven’t worked with so I’m not scared of any type of collection,” she laughs, “and that’s a perfect fit for this museum!”

After her time in Scotland, Annette spotted an advert for a role at the new Tate St Ives that fitted perfectly with her background working with contemporary artists and historic collections. She moved down to Hayle with her husband and two daughters and took on the part-time role at Tate alongside another at Cornwall Museums Partnership – an organisation she’s still very involved with now. “We have more museums in Cornwall than most places in the UK,” she says, “and we’re really lucky because as a group they were really pro-active in thinking about the future landscape of funding and support and what was needed to keep that really vibrant museum community here going. Cornwall Museums Partnership allows smaller museums to operate in the same way that national museums do because we pool our thinking, we pool our resources, we work collaboratively and learn from each other so we can think bigger — and aim a lot higher.”

So what does a typical working day look like for Annette now? That amused smile appears again, accompanied by a glint in the eye that indicates there is no such thing. “In my role you really have to be good at being able to keep in your mind what the end goals are, while keeping on top of all the small and varied things that need to be done within each day. You need to stay quite flexible and adaptable.” She goes on to explain that the museum operates on an average of two to four staff at any one time, depending on current projects and funding, and that means it’s all hands to the pump. From simple things like making sure there’s enough tea, coffee and milk for everyone who’s coming in to help, to visitor and volunteer safety and comfort, to funding bids and promotion of the museum, it’s a wide-ranging role that she clearly finds invigorating and rewarding.

“We think we’re the best museum in Britain,” Annette tells me, without a hint of irony; I simply have to delve deeper into why. “I think there’s a couple of things. Firstly I think the architecture of places really informs how they feel and the museum was formerly a market building and that gives a generosity and a lovely feel to it. And then secondly within the collection we really embrace the idea of championing the everyday. People come from around the world and they see themselves in the collection. Then I think also we’re not about the grand and the good. It’s domestic and it feels quite homely so I think it extends that feeling of being a place where you can feel like you belong – and I think that’s at the heart of it. And then there’s just lots of really lovely things to look at.” Whilst we’re on lovely things, I want to know if Annette has a favourite item within the collection here. “One of the things I adore is the circus poster,” she says. “When I look at that poster it reminds me of being little. It reminds us all that at different points in everyone’s life unusual and fantastic things happen, that everyone has those moments that add sparkle to our lives. I love the vibrant colours and the fact that there was a ballerina called Madame Spanglettie. We all remember those thrilling moments and we all hope that we’re going to have some more! I think it gives you absolute optimism.”

And that absolute optimism absolutely comes across in the way Annette works. It filters through the Museum: shining from the volunteers I meet and gleaming out from the programme of events. Decisions like creating an honesty café, being generous in sharing the space and keeping the museum free to enter so everyone can enjoy it (including the local teens, who I’m told often pop in after school) stem from that positivity, too. Confession time: it’s an enthusiasm that recently also inspired yours truly to get more involved in the museum. As a writer and storyteller I helped revamp the Helston Heritage Trail in 2018 and, during the process of researching it using the museum’s collection of local books, I became fascinated with the history and stories of this remarkably charming and unsung town. As a result of that, and Annette’s encouragement, I found myself volunteering to join the Citizen Curators programme.

Currently in its second of three years, the programme, supported by Cornwall Museums Partnership and using funding from the Museum Association’s Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, provides an educational grounding in museum and curatorial skills. As a participant, I’m being taught new skills as well as being actively encouraged to get hands-on with historic collections and look at creating and testing new and different in-museum and digital experiences.

Amongst other tasks, our cohort have been briefed with coming up with the criteria for selecting art, artefacts and other items for the Cornish National Collection, a selection of around 70 things that will represent Cornish identity and explore the diversity of Cornish society past and present.

Practically, this means I get to spend a lot of time at the museum, delving into the history of objects and uncovering hidden stories. I’ve become one of the many people in the local community who have found direct relevance and support here. Annette is very aware of the importance of that working across the board and wants the museum to be a beacon within the community that welcomes everyone from near and far: “We always try to look for new ways, new themes, new ideas to work with different people because sometimes people think museums are not for them or they’re not going to find a relevancy,” she says. “It’s our job to give people different ways in. You have to be generous with your spaces because if it doesn’t feel like it’s generous – why would you come?”


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