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15 Feb 2019

Can I touch that?

Written by Antonia Laurence-Allen, Curator, Edinburgh and East
The Reveal team working at Culross in 2018
The Reveal team working at Culross in 2018
The Edinburgh and East Project Reveal teams started photographing and documenting the Trust’s collections a year and a half ago. Their work is allowing us to understand the significance of our collections and to make better decisions about how they can be used.

Project Reveal teams check every object in each room of a property, update and verify historical facts, note their basic condition and photograph all their inscriptions and angles. This work has proved especially helpful in assessing the significance of items and making smarter decisions about what elements of a collection can be handled.

A pewter plate from Culross
A pewter plate from Culross, which shows the hallmarks of Robert Kinniborough William Scott who worked in Edinburgh at the beginning of the 19th century
Detail of the stamps (a thistle, RK, WS and a rose) on the underside of a pewter plate from Culross
Detail of the stamps (a thistle, RK, WS and a rose) on the underside of a pewter plate from Culross – inscriptions can help date and rate the significance of objects

After the Reveal teams complete a property, the curatorial team follow up with a significance review of the collection. This involves using a matrix that helps us assess each object against a variety of criteria, including to what degree an object is linked to the family (or families) who lived at the property. An ‘original’ object has a high value, whether or not it’s of great artistic merit or financial worth. This is because the places we care for are valuable for their unique stories. A small plastic ornament or the soap a family used can tell us just as much about who they were as the bed they slept in or the suite of chairs they inherited.

The Dining Room at Kellie Castle
The Dining Room at Kellie Castle – the table and chairs, tapestry and refectory table were left by the family who lived in the house; the carpet was installed by the Trust in the 1980s

Some properties have no objects left by previous owners. In these cases, it’s often the building itself or the interiors that are highly significant, while the decorative arts and furniture have been bought in by the Trust to dress the rooms. These objects can still be important or valuable, as they may be excellent examples or rare survivors from a historical period. Often, however, objects used as ‘set’ dressing are replicas or common types that carry less historical or artistic weight. This is what the Trust’s curatorial significance matrix can determine – and it’s this work that has helped free up some of our collections from the bounds of a static display.

Two examples where our collections have been used in the last few months are at the early 17th-century ‘palace’ of Culross in Fife and at the Georgian House in the heart of Edinburgh’s 18th-century New Town. These are both properties where the building fabric and interiors are vastly more significant than the objects on display in the rooms.

The North Wing at Culross Palace, Fife
The North Wing at Culross Palace, Fife was built in 1611 as an extension to the main house, probably to accommodate guests

In November 2018 Culross Palace was used by the American PBS channel for a documentary on the Scottish economist and philosopher, Adam Smith. The film manager wanted to know if the actors could sit on some of the chairs and whether they could film a scene with an actor eating at the dining table.

An actor in the Withdrawing Room at Culross
An actor in the Withdrawing Room at Culross

Culross Palace isn’t a royal property; it’s a merchant’s house. The original title deeds refer to the main building in Culross as the ‘Great Lodging’, which had been translated into the phrase ‘palatial lodging’ by the 19th century. When it was constructed at the end of the 16th century, the building was the most impressive in the town. There was space for a courtyard, stable block and garden, as well as room to expand. It was the property of George Bruce, who designed and installed one of the earliest known underwater coal mines in the River Forth, from which he built his fortune.

For us in the 21st century, what’s significant about Bruce’s home are the painted ceiling and wall schemes, which date from c1597–1611. They are rare, surviving the whims of changing tastes in interior design. The collection, however, is not original, having been purchased from antique shops and donated in the 1980s.

The painted ceilings in the Painted Chamber at Culross Palace are outstanding examples of 16th-century decorative wall schemes
The painted ceilings in the Painted Chamber at Culross Palace are outstanding examples of 16th-century decorative wall schemes; the furniture is mostly 19th-century replica

Thanks to the excellent photographs, basic condition checks and detailed descriptions provided by the Reveal teams, we’ve discovered that there are a range of objects at Culross that have significant historical value, being quite old, fairly unique or well crafted. And we have clearly identified the objects that are not so rare and could be carefully handled. Knowing this meant we could quickly provide the American film crew with a list of items that could be used by the actors.

Filming in the High Hall at Culross
Filming in the High Hall at Culross – some chairs weren’t safe to sit on due to their condition, and this table couldn’t be leaned on because of its age and awkward design

Similarly, the Georgian House in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square was used over the Christmas and New Year period as a stage set for a drama based in the Enlightenment period.

Looking up the stairs at the Georgian House during the filming
The play filled the house with light and life, revitalising visitors’ experience of the Georgian House

At a location meeting the production manager asked whether the actors could use the bed, the dining room table, as well as some occasional tables and chairs in the parlour. The collection had been ‘revealed’ and the follow-up significance review completed. This meant that a definitive list of what could and should not be used was relatively easy to generate.

The Bedroom at the Georgian House
The Bedroom at the Georgian House
The bed being used for the Enlightenment drama
The bed being used for the Enlightenment drama

The Georgian House is a special place because of its association with James Craig’s design of the New Town in Edinburgh. Craig’s plan introduced formal and expansive streets in a grid pattern with a central street ending in two squares. Charlotte Square was the last section to be completed and Robert Adam was given the commission. The north side was completed first (although Adam died in 1792, the year the first house was being built), and it’s therefore the closest thing we have to a pure rendition of a Robert Adam design.

The north side of Charlotte Square – the Georgian House at No. 7 (blue door), along with Nos 5 and 6, is part of the central block which was built almost strictly according to the architect’s drawings
The north side of Charlotte Square – the Georgian House at No. 7 (blue door), along with Nos 5 and 6, is part of the central block which was built almost strictly according to the architect’s drawings

The collection is not original; no items belonged to anyone who lived at No. 7 Charlotte Square. But there are some fine examples of 18th-century Scottish furniture that wouldn’t be appropriate for use, as replacing or restoring them would be prohibitively expensive. Alongside these fine pieces are many robust replicas from the 19th century, which aren’t especially rare or valuable and remain in good condition. Using due diligence, the actors were able to greet visitors from the bed, debate politics sitting in front of the fire and share a joke around the dining room table – all of which reminds us that houses are spaces to be lived in.

Actors using the parlour at the Georgian House
Actors using the parlour at the Georgian House
Actors using the dining room at the Georgian House
Actors using the dining room at the Georgian House

Historic houses have a key advantage over museum spaces in that the former are real places, lived in by real people. The objects in our mansion houses, castles and merchant’s homes can help people relate to history by illustrating exactly how people lived; how they ate, slept, socialised and stayed safe. Thanks to Project Reveal we’re gaining a better understanding of the range and value of our collections. This enables us to engage with filming projects, while also allowing us to explore new ways of creating interactive and immersive experiences for our visitors.

Project Reveal is a Trust-wide collections digitisation project. It will result in an updated database with high-quality images and unique object numbers for every item in the National Trust for Scotland material culture collections. Six regionally based project teams, supported by experienced project managers, will work across all our properties with collections to complete the inventory in 24 months from July 2017 until July 2019.

Project Reveal

Find out more about this Trust-wide collections digitisation project.

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