This article comes from volunteer and guest blogger Charlie Trzeciak, who attended one of our recent ‘Objects Unpacked’ talks at the Museum Collections Centre.
The Museum of the University of St Andrews (MUSA), in a similar way to many other museums, is like an iceberg. As many of you may know, only a small part of these great floating blocks of ice is visible above the water, with the rest lying out of sight below the surface. When visiting MUSA it is important to remember that, in a similar way, only a small number of objects entrusted to care of the Museum Collections Unit are on display at a time. There is not enough space to display all of the University’s 112,000 artefacts, so many extraordinary pieces, from ethnographic artefacts to wonderful works of art, are kept the museum’s Collections Centre. Fortunately, there are themed tours of the Collection Centre once a month, so on Wednesday 9 April, I was lucky enough to get a snapshot of the wide range of objects held by the Museum Collections Unit. This month’s themed talk was on the University’s Furniture Collection, and was held by Collections Curators, Jessica Burdge.
This was a voyage of discovery for me as I know very little about furniture aside, of course, from the insights I have gained by watching Bargain Hunt on a weekday morning. However, I went away from the talk feeling like an expert on a range of different pieces, all of which varied in their chronology, purpose and style.
One of the highlights was this chair. It dates from the early seventeenth-century and its metal plaque, which was likely added at a later date, claims it was owned by James Sharp, who was Archbishop of St Andrews from 1661-1679. Whilst it is a magnificent object in itself, my favourite details are the two unicorns which decorate it. Unicorns are considered to have been representations of purity and faithfulness, and the symbol was adopted by the kings of Scotland from the 1450’s onwards. In this sense, therefore, they represent Sharp’s ‘Scottishness’ and also reflect that he had been made Archbishop by King Charles II.
The most eye-catching of the artefacts we were shown was undoubtedly this elegant, mahogany fire screen, which dates from the 1860’s. The embroidery in the centre is a cross stitch of dyed wool onto a canvas. Needlework was a popular pastime in the Victorian period, as it was a craft that was considered to be ‘suited to women’.
The image itself seems to have been a common pattern which one could easily purchase. The subject matter of the picture is particularly intriguing due to the fact that, as of yet, it has not been firmly identified. The subject matter of embroidery images sold during the period was often literary or religious, and it has been tentatively suggested that this particular example, depicts a scene from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this anti-slavery novel, one of the central protagonists, a young girl named Eva, befriends her family’s slaves, and this is potentially what we can see going on here.
Overall this was an informative and enjoyable event. I would definitely encourage you to book a place on the ‘If Objects Could Talk…’ session on Wednesday 7 May, to find out more about the University of St Andrews’ fabulous collections.
You can find out more about the Museum Collection’s Centre here https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/museum/musacollectionscentre/.