Mary Guyatt, Curator of Jane Austen's House Museum took up her post in September 2013. Here she looks back on her first year.
For the first time in my museum career, people seem to get what I do for a living. Admittedly I receive the odd email addressed to the ‘Creator of Jane Austen's House Museum’ but the fame of Austen is so great, and the house itself such a part of our literary heritage, that people seem to comprehend what the Curator’s day to day responsibilities might be.
I hadn't in fact run a house museum before. Instead of being a functional gallery space to be filled with choice objects, here the site is the exhibition, and much of what we all appreciate are its most intangible and ephemeral features. Parts of the experience of being here are the views from the windows, the smell of floor polish, the stirrings of people and the light streaming in on an autumn afternoon. I'm seeing that maintaining this very special atmosphere is more important than worrying whether we all agree on the choice of wallpaper.
Another aspect that I am continually struck by is the scale and diversity of our audience. Visitors range from real Jane Austen experts to those for whom Chawton provides the introduction. I smile when I see the coaches and vehicles with foreign number plates in the village car park, and it is humbling to read the Comments Book and to know that people have made such an effort to be here. It’s also a very friendly place to work. Since its foundation the museum has been run by a few dedicated staff and volunteers and is well connected with the local community. In fact, on certain days it feels as if I've walked into an episode of The Archers!
Looking after a place people already love doesn't mean that we can afford to let things sit still. I was not surprised to find that there is the usual work to be done to update our collections documentation and to ensure that every object receives adequate care and attention. Whilst managing a small museum means some involvement in all its operations, continuing to work on the collection is what justifies my job title. Cutting mount-board and vacuuming stores are also good for a curator’s soul.
Do I have any secrets? While I have not been at all tempted to try on Jane Austen's gold ring, I do covet a riding habit on display in one of the rooms.
The most sensible advice I have received? To remember that this is the countryside and that the Austens would have had their fair share of swallows’ mess and fallen leaves.
One suggestion I won’t be taking up? Staff in Regency clothes.
Mary Guyatt - Curator