Letter from Sue Giles, former Senior Curator, World Cultures

Sue Giles retired in March 2020 after 40 years as a curator, latterly as Senior Curator, World Cultures at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and sent us this letter.

To the Friends of Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

I was 11 or 12 when I decided that I wanted to work in a museum, although at that stage I had no idea what that meant or even what a curator was. I just loved the museums I was taken to every school holiday.
I came to Bristol in 1973, as an undergraduate studying history. At some point I visited the museum next door and wrote to my boyfriend in Durham that it was a very strange place. That didn’t stop me writing to the Director to ask about work possibilities. As I was studying history and had been on a couple of archaeological digs the previous summer, I was passed to the archaeology department and invited in to discuss further. David Dawson, then Curator of Archaeology, met me at the front door and I almost lost him crossing the front hall, he moved so fast.
David took me on and I started as a volunteer in my second summer vacation, then on Wednesday afternoons during term. It was in the basement of the museum that I discovered the ethnography collections and found what I wanted to do in museums – work with collections from around the world.
There were so many people there. Archaeology had a curator, assistant curator, field work curator, about six excavators and three part-time museum assistants. I started with the latter, Mary, Judy and Gilly. They were working on the storage project, moving the collections back into the refurbished stores, cleaning and cataloguing as they went. So I learned how to clean objects of surface dirt using cotton buds and 10% ammonia solutions and catalogued onto cards using one of several old manual typewriters.
After graduating, I continued volunteering, and got paid employment as an archaeological illustrator. Then, when one of the museum assistants left, I applied for their job and got it. In January 1977 I was employed by the museum on the curatorial staff, at a pay rate of £1.01 per hour. As the others left I took on their hours until finally I was working full-time as a museum assistant.
I forget which year it was when we started using computers for cataloguing. At first we used the MDA cards: we typed up the cards and sent them to the MDA in Cambridge, who inputted the data into their big mainframe computer. Then, say, if I wanted to know how many wooden objects from the 21st Dynasty we had in the Egypt collection I would ask the MDA to check our catalogues and they would send me a print out of the results. Quick and easy! Then we moved, led by Charlie Copp in Natural History, to work with the University of Bristol and get time in their computer centre on a pc linked to their mainframe. And one day, we got two pcs in the Natural History office and had to book hour-long time slots to use them. How things change…
In time I became Assistant Curator, then Curator of Archaeology, then Curator of Ethnography, and Senior Curator Ethnography, ending up as Senior Curator British Empire & Commonwealth Collection, possibly the longest job title in the museum. I have worked through 11, perhaps more, directors, you lose count after a while. I’m not going to discuss the qualities of each here, sorry!
The museum has obviously changed: we watch ideas and fashions circulate, some work and some don’t. Maybe there will be a point when collections come back to the fore, as collections are what make a museum after all. It will happen one day, then learning or participation or something else will rise back to the top for a while. Finances also circulate: the museum has survived both famine and plenty, cutting staff at times and taking on staff at others. The days of Renaissance in the Regions were a golden age for funding and I look forward to the point when the end of austerity works through to museums.
Being an ethnography curator was much easier in the 1970s and ‘80s. To my shame now, we put the M?ori preserved heads on display for Cook’s bicentenary – something that I would never do now and couldn’t as the museum repatriated the M?ori human remains in 2007. Decolonisation is what everyone talks about now: and it is making people think about privilege, power relations and diversity. Museum ethnographers have been thinking about these ideas for some years, but changes were not always visible in the museum. You can’t always get different perspectives into a 50 word label, or change an institution from the bottom up.
I can’t reflect on my time here without again thanking the Friends, and before them the Magpies and the Friends of Bristol Art Gallery, for the support given to the collections. I asked for money so many times and I think you always gave it, to the enrichment of the Numismatics, Ethnography, Egyptology, Historic Maps and Militaria collections. Thank you for that help.
I’ve worked on countless exhibitions and projects here with hundreds of colleagues and volunteers, created a website, met researchers from around the world, linked into a network of colleagues and made friends. I’ve also done filthy jobs, cleaned more glass than I care to think about and cried in frustration sometimes (like when the designer hasn’t started on the graphics panels for an exhibition opening in three days and takes the morning off …). Impossible to pick the best bits: even the worst have some merit, but I still think the Egypt gallery looks good and works (classic design, doesn’t date) and I am proud of the work we’ve done on Bristol and slavery, although we also need (as I said 20 years ago) to build a world gallery that shows the knowledge, artistry and cultures of Africa and not just focus on the negatives of the slave trade.
After 42 years (44 counting the voluntary work) it will be strange not to be employed here. But I plan to come full circle and return as a volunteer, to catch up with the work on the collections I haven’t done over the decades, as e-mails, meetings, exhibitions and the like took up the time. It will be a luxury to have nothing but the database and the objects, and to finish what I started in 1975.

Best wishes,
Sue Giles