A week in the life of a museum curator

Dr Kevin McLoughlin is Principal Curator of East and Central Asia at National Museums Scotland. Originally from Dublin, Kevin study of China’s rich history and culture has taken him around the world.

Kevin is curating this summer’s major exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Ming: The Golden Empire tells the extraordinary story of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which became the world’s largest, wealthiest and most populated empire. Supported by investment managers Baillie Gifford, the exhibition features rare Chinese National Treasures on loan from Nanjing Museum and runs from 27 June until 19 October.

As he prepared the exhibition, Kevin kept a diary of a week in the life of a museum curator.

Kevin McLoughlin at Ming The Golden Empire

Monday  

Since January, I have been working on our summer exhibition Ming: The Golden Empire. The exhibition features many beautiful artefacts on loan from Nanjing Museum, one of the oldest and most prestigious museums in China.

For me, a real highlight of the exhibition is a collection of intricate paintings and calligraphy, which were created by the Four Masters of Ming painting. I cannot wait to see these on display when the exhibition opens.

I usually walk to my office at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh but today I am meeting a film crew at the Confucius Institute for Scotland.

Here I am creating a video that will play in the exhibition. The video will give visitors an insight into the complexities and technicalities of Ming literati painting and will help bring this revered Ming art form to life.

 

Tuesday

This morning I have a meeting with a visitor to discuss a treasured family heirloom.

I spent some time studying and travelling in China and so I can read and write Mandarin. During my meeting I’m able to translate text on the porcelain vase that I am shown.

Although I don’t place a financial value on artefacts, I can give advice and hopefully give someone a better idea of the history of the material that they have.

My main priority for the afternoon is writing. National Museums Scotland is producing a catalogue to accompany Ming: The Golden Empire and I am writing a series of essays for it and selecting the perfect images to illustrate the information.

 

Wednesday

Today I have team meeting with my colleagues who are working on our summer exhibition.

We talk about everything from the stories that we want to tell in the exhibition to how best to display the precious objects.

The team in today’s meeting is made up of colleagues from a whole host of departments.

It is a chance to share news and to progress our plans. I can talk about the exhibition from a curatorial point of view of course, and it is interesting to hear what everyone is up to. For example, our digital team is designing an eye-catching online video trailer to promote the exhibition.

 

Thursday

A selection of rare and beautiful Ming objects from National Museums Scotland’s own Chinese collections will also feature within the exhibition. We have more than four million objects in our entire collection, which spans the wonders of the natural world, scientific and technological innovation, cultures of the world and the dramatic history of Scotland.

I meet with the Exhibition Manager and we agree the final list of our own artefacts that will be featured. With so many to choose from, this is a difficult choice!

After months of talking and planning, we have begun to build the exhibition, starting with the display cases. The cases have been made bespoke for our exhibition so we can show the artefacts at their best.

This afternoon I visit the gallery to see the cases for the first time. Until now, I’ve only been able to look at plans on paper and imagine what it will look like. I like how the layout flows.

 

Friday

The artefacts for Ming: The Golden Empire that the Nanjing Museum is kindly loaning us arrive today.

I’m thrilled to see the objects arrive, especially the Chinese National Treasures.

As we unpack the objects, there are silk textiles and embroidery that is so detailed, it looks like the delicate brushstrokes of a painting. Exquisite examples of colourfully enamelled cloisonné, and ornately carved gold, jade and lacquer catch my eye.

Amongst the artefacts are of course some of the finest examples of iconic Ming porcelain.

I cannot wait to install the objects and welcome visitors on 27 June.

My job is extremely varied, and from writing and researching to carrying out fieldwork and curating National Museum Scotland’s internationally important collection, no two days are ever the same.

Kevin McLoughlin Ming The Golden Empire

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