An Interview with Russell-Cotes Curator Duncan Walker & How Covid Has Impacted Art Galleries In The UK
The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum:
The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum is located on top of the East Cliff in Bournemouth, overlooking the beach, sea, and the pier. Originally intended as a gift from Sir Merton Russell-Cotes (1835-1921) to his wife Lady Annie Nelson Clark (1835-1920), the family house was built next to the Bath Hotel, which the couple operated. It would be one of the last Victorian houses to be built in England, being completed in 1902. With an Art Nouveau interior, the house was furnished with an extensive collection of souvenirs and artworks obtained from the couple’s travels across the globe.
Sir Merton Russell-Cotes’ years in Glasgow would shape him greatly; cultivating an interest in the arts, collecting, and literature. It is here that Sir Merton met and married Lady Annie Nelson Clarke. Once wedded, the couple would relocate to the fledgling town Bournemouth in search of a more suitable climate for Sir Merton’s health.
The purchase of the Bath Hotel provided them with a stable income and enough revenue to reinvest into both of their properties and art collections. Sir Merton, who came from a low middle-class family, became the mayor of Bournemouth (1894-1895) and was a prominent character within the city, being an advocate for education within the arts and the safeguarding of cultural heritage.
Sir Merton’s and Lady Annie’s lifelong passion for collecting led to an impressive and extensive collection of artworks. While many items were acquired simply for private enjoyment, others fulfilled a practical role by pleasing the eyes of their Royal Bath Hotel clientele. Once the hotel ran out of space for housing the Victorian collections, it was decided that the Russell-Cotes would be built as a family home and as an extension for their artistic pursuits. The varied nature of the collections is reflected in the house itself, being an architectural mix of Renaissance, Italian and old Scottish baronial styles with contemporary Victorian, Japanese, French and Moorish influences.
Annie and Merton went on to donate the house and art collections to the town in 1907. Fifteen-years-later the house was opened as the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, allowing its visitors to view the internationally renowned diverse collection of paintings, artefacts, sculptures, and furnishings in an authentic context of a Grade II* listed building.
Curator Duncan Walker:
As the curator, Duncan Walker oversees the collections at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. A self-titled ‘object accountant’, his role primarily involves managing, cataloguing, researching, and displaying the collections – no small task considering the number of objects within the house, which exceeds 30,000 items. Such a responsibility requires a great deal of expertise of the house and its contents. Interested in both the history of Russell-Cotes and how curators are managing to deal with the rules and regulations that have sprung from the calamities of the pandemic, we sat down with Duncan (shortly after the first lockdown) to discuss how the museum was coping with this situation.
Gaining an interest in the museum sector during his last year of completing a history degree, Duncan went on to complete his master’s in Heritage Studies (Nottingham Trent University) and became the curator of Russell-Cotes in 2007 after working in several other museums. His efforts extend beyond the confines of Russell-Cotes, providing occasional lectures at the West Dean College (Chichester) in collections management. In his curating approach, Duncan values interdisciplinary collaboration and places an emphasis on engaging with people and open-mindedness.
The Fate of Galleries and Museums After Covid:
The Russell-Cotes Museum prides itself on the proximity by which the viewer can experience artworks and objects within the house. Unlike many gallery spaces, it offers very little obstruction, with few glass cabinets, barricades, or restricted areas. Instead, visitors can move around the house and inspect its artworks in a similar fashion to how its original inhabitants might have done.
However, the pandemic has had a significant impact on this. The effects of Covid-19 are evident upon entering the building, in which signs are placed throughout the rooms to enforce a one-way system and masks are mandatory for all visitors. While the museum was slowly opening to people once again, it would be stopped in its tracks by a second lockdown.
This situation has not only added a great financial burden to Russell-Cotes but the entire museum sector, which already suffers from a severe lack of funding. Museums are having to spend more money than ever before on a miscellany of health and safety items and protocols, while their revenue stream (which is often tight, even under normal circumstances) has been severely reduced by lockdowns and strict tier systems.
Recent events have led Russell-Cotes’ curatorial team to begin the process of digitising their collection, in an effort to reduce paper-based systems, which have not only become an outdated form of conveying information but are now considered a safety hazard for visitors.
The gallery has previously struggled to obtain relevant collection items due to lack of funds and with this increased level of spending and less visitors than ever before, one has to wonder how long it will be before not only Russell-Cotes, but other art galleries and museums across the country, find their coffers empty, with little where to turn.
Although funding has been provided for some art galleries (see our article: Under The Mask Of The British Art Gallery: Will You Feel Safe To Venture Out Into The Art World?), the continuous interruptions of lockdowns, restrictions and tier systems will ultimately leave many questioning what the future holds for art galleries and their place in society.
As the Highstreet begins to collapse, in which Debenhams, Topshop, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, and Peacocks have gone into liquidation, one must ask: is the art gallery next? With each passing week another piece of British culture appears to be slipping away, and it seems that the worst is yet to come. While we stay in the safety of our homes with hopeful thoughts about the future, the museum and art gallery, which house the tangible essence of our past, may become the next victim.
Written by Rebekka Katajisto. Illustrated by Andrea Miranda.