‘Triumph of Truth’ Travels to Yale

This week a major work cared for by the University Museums will be packed up and shipped off to the Yale Centre for British Art to be displayed in their upcoming exhibition Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World. The exhibition will explore the impact of three German princesses who married into British royalty and shaped the culture and era in which they lived through their support of philosophers and artists of all varieties.

The impressive portrait Triumph of Truth by Joshua Reynolds will be joining works from Historic Royal Palaces and the Yale Centre for British Art.


Triumph of Truth (1774)

The portrait depicts James Beattie, a prominent philosopher, scholar and poet in the eighteenth century and Professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic at Marischal College. Beattie can be seen holding on of his most notable works; Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth (1770), in which he argued against the institution of slavery. The painter, Joshua Reynolds, was known for his use of the ‘grand style’ of painting which incorporated visual metaphors in order to suggest noble qualities; a technique that is clearly used in Triumph of Truth.

Not only do the University of Aberdeen Museums hold the portrait of James Beattie, but the Special Collections Centre at the University also hold entries from Beattie’s diary during his trip to Edinburgh while the portrait was being painted, which give us further insight into the creation of the piece.


Page of Beattie’s diary from his trip to Edinburgh. Held in University of Aberdeen Special Collections.

Beattie’s writing recount his experience of having his portrait painted by Reynolds, describing him as:

A man not only of excellent taste in painting and poetry, but of an enlarged understanding and truly philosophical mind…it is the truth and simplicity of nature which he is ambitious to imitate’. Beattie later describes Reynolds as ‘the greatest designer of this, or perhaps of any age.





Clearly Beattie was more than happy to have his portrait painted by this talented artist. Throughout his dairy he repeatedly mentions Reynolds and the process of the work being created. He remarks:


Excerpt from Beattie’s diary during his trip to Edinburgh.

I sate to him five hours, in which time he finished my head, and sketched out the rest of my figure: – the likeness is most striking and the execution masterly…though I sate five hours, I was not in the least fatigued; for, by placing a large looking glass opposite to my face, Sir Joshua put it in my power to see every stroke of his pencil; and I was greatly entertained to see the progress of the work; and the easy and masterly manner of the artist, which differs as much from that of all other painters I have seen at work, as the expectation of Giardini differs from that of a common fiddler.

At the University Museums we are lucky to have so many other resources and expertise across the University that allows us to learn so much more about objects in our collections, such as this major work. Thanks to the Special Collections Centre we have the sitter’s account of having his portrait painted alongside the finished product.

The exhibition will be open Thursday, 2 February until 30 April 2017.

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Pacific Project Update – A bit of a puzzle!

Recently our team had the rather difficult but incredibly enjoyable task of sorting out the pacific grass skirts in our collections as part of the recognition project to improve the documentation and storage of our internationally renowned pacific collections. Louise called in help to try and sort out/work out which skirt was which, who donated it and what numbers they had been assigned in the past.

Assistant curator of collections and access, Louise says ‘we decided the only way to work out the documentation muddle of the grass skirts was to lay them all out side by side and work through the list of numbers and descriptions and match the skirts up to the number that matched. Sometimes going from box to box just doesn’t work and you get yourself in a muddle!’

Luckily Marischal College Collections Centre has plenty of gallery space which is big enough for the task. The team took all of the grass skirts they could find in the store and laid them out in the gallery and began their detective work.


Some of the descriptions of the skirts are very basic and very similar. For example 10 entries in the documentation system had the same description of ‘’Skirt fringed in vegetable fibre, dyed reddish brown, with plaited waist band’’. It is hard but crucial to differentiate which skirt is which from this description because they were collected by different donors and are from different areas.pacific-2

By the end of the project these descriptions will be updated with additional information and all the skirts will be packed into better storage. Next time someone wants to study these beautiful skirts they will be organised, accessible and NOT in a muddle!

The next big task is working out the headdresses – stay tuned……


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Couriering Fijian Loan

Our Assistant Curator, Louise recently went on a couriering trip to Norwich to install some of the museums most impressive Fijian objects into the UK’s largest exhibition of Fijian material, created by the Sainsbury Centre. Here’s what she has to say about the journey:

‘Couriering is when a member of the museum, usually the conservator or member of the collections team accompanies objects on loan to another museum. The courier is responsible for making sure the objects arrive safely, are condition checked, installed safely and oversee the closing of the case. They will repeat this journey in reverse for when the object returns.

The eleven objects on loan to the Sainsbury centre are from Fiji and were mainly collected by two donors, Sir William Macgregor who was Chief Medical Officer and Arthur John Lewis Gordon, the private secretary of Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon the first Governor of Fiji in the late 19th Century. Both gave parts of their collections to the University of Aberdeen Museums in the early 20th Century. Due to their donations Aberdeen has an internationally important collection not only from Fiji but from all areas of the Pacific.
The objects were packed into custom made boxes and placed into secure crates at the Collections Centre. The Conservator created what we call ‘condition reports’. These reports describe the object and set out any conservation concerns including what temperature and humidity is needed to protect the object. Once the objects are packed and the condition reports printed the crates are picked up by a specialist art handling and removal company who take the objects to Norwich.couriering-3

I then travelled to Norwich to the Sainsbury Centre when the exhibition curators were ready to start installing objects into the exhibition. I met with the centre’s conservator on arrival and the first step was to go through each condition report and check each object to make sure we are both happy with the condition of the objects and that nothing was damaged during transport.


For this exhibition I was lucky enough to work with specialist mount makers to make custom mounts for the objects. Again both parties agree on what will work best for both the object and display and mounts are created. Once everything is ready the objects are installed and the case is locked. The cases won’t be re-opened until I return to the pick up the objects for their journey back to Aberdeen.

The exhibition is entitled Fiji: Art & Life in the Pacific and has a wonderful display of beautifully crafted objects from Fiji. It is well worth a look if you get the chance. I was lucky enough to get to view objects from other collections including The British Museum and Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology at Cambridge whose collections are simply beautiful and quite similar to ours in style and history. Couriering is certainly a perk of the job, getting to see wonderful new exhibitions, new objects and meeting new colleagues from other museums. It is however a huge responsibility and hard work…

The exhibition runs from 15 October – 12 February 2017 at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

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Jessica Singer, third year PhD student and curator of our current exhibition ‘Being and Becoming: the creative balance of the artist teacher’, tells us about the exhibition and the process:


Michael Samson, ‘The Desperate Artist Teacher’, showing work in progress

Being and Becoming: the creative balance of the artist teacher is a research- led exhibition currently on display in the MacRobert Artspace. The works on display take the viewer into the personal journey of six artist teachers and how these artist teachers balance creativity in being an artist and a teacher. The exhibition itself is an integral part of the research process and is an innovative method of research.

The artist teacher moves through various identity constructs in the process of learning to be an artist, learning to be a teacher of art, and learning to work within the social environment they are engaged in. My research project explores how individuals learn in and through their experiences and the impact of identity and the relationships they form in different environments.


Jane Hislop, mind-mapping the creative balance of the artist teacher

The six experienced artist teachers presented in this exhibition are based in the North East of Scotland and have worked in both formal and informal education. In coming to know the artist teachers through interviews, it was important to me that the people I interviewed  had an outlet to showcase their feelings and views on being both an artist and a teacher . After discussing with the artist teachers the idea of an exhibition, we collaborated on a title that would best fit within the parameters of the research study. A common buzz word  that kept arising was ‘balance’. It was clear to me throughout the interviews, and as the artist teachers explained their previously generated works to me, that balance was something they viewed as an important part of  being an artist teacher. From this that we agreed upon the title of Being and Becoming: the creative balance of the artist teacher.


Install of the exhibition with assistance from the University of Museums Staff

Participants were asked to create one art piece that best represented how they as artist teachers ‘balance’ being an artist and teacher. Through the creation of artwork, artist teachers explored the ways in which their lived experiences influenced their choices in becoming an artist teacher.


Exhibition Opening, Friday 4th November, 2016

As they created the works, participants were asked to keep a visual journal/photographic log on their choices of mark- making as a means into the research question. These decisions are available for viewing from: www.artistteachersite.wordpress.com


The artist teachers and the PhD student researcher (L to R : Jane Hislop, Anne Marquiss, Michael Samson, Jessica Singer, Susie Hunt, Brian Keeley, and Ian Smart)

This exhibition is not only contributes towards the research study, but also works as a means of unveiling to the public the importance of the creative artistic identity. The exhibition is a means of translating work produced in a written context (the research study) into a visual context (the exhibition). The construction of the exhibition will work as a process of reflexivity for me and the participants involved.

Acknowledgements: With thanks to University Museums staff; to Dr. Elizabeth Curtis and David Johnstone of the School of Education , and to the participants: Jane Hislop, Susie Hunt, Brian Keeley, Anne Marquiss, Michael Samson and Ian Smart for their involvement in the research study.

Written by Jessica Singer, PhD student curator for Being and Becoming: the creative balance of the artist teacher


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University of Aberdeen Museums does Explorathon

One of our museum volunteers assistants tells us about her recent involvement in a pub quiz event held by the museums as part of Explorathon 2016:

download‘Recently, Aberdeen museum took part in Explorathon Scotland, a celebration of European Researcher’s held all across Scotland. The University of Aberdeen is one of the universities which help to co-ordinate these series of events, and have done for the past three years and this year the University Museums took part in an exciting pub quiz as part of the researchers’ night.

You might think that a pub quiz would be easy to write, but unfortunately not! Wording is a key component and trying to make sure that the question is clear but not giving the answer away is somewhat difficult, as all involved with the questions for the quiz soon found out.

First there was a University round, followed by a picture round and finally we had an object investigation round. We also created a Scottish general knowledge round which ended up as the tie breaker.

I was involved in helping with researching the museums’ collections for the quiz and creating questions, particularly for the Scottish history round. The thought processes behind this round was to try and keep it general for everyone involved in the quiz yet create questions inspired by the museums’ collections.

The object round had lots of interesting and different artefacts from around the world.  Some of the objects included were linked to different TV shows such as obsidian, which is also known as Dragon glass on the hit HBO show ‘Game of Thrones’. We also saw some Icelandic spar, which is shown on the History Channel show ‘Vikings’ where it is referred to as a sunstone. Some objects used in the quiz also linked to the current exhibition in King’s Museum ‘The Land Endures: Bringing Sunset Song to Life’ including a Quaich and a 19th century iron stand that displays symbols of Glasgow’s coat of arms.

The pub quiz was a successful night for all involved, and it was a close call between the winners. Underdog were very generous with their prizes and we are sure that the rest of the Exploraton events were as successful and fun!’

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Coffin Conservation


Last week a painted ancient Egyptian coffin in the University’s museums’ collection left Aberdeen for conservation in Hildesheim near Hannover in Germany.

The wooden coffin dates to the Middle Kingdom (2000-1700BC) and was discovered in Beni Hasan, Middle Egypt, by Professor John Garstang in 1903-4. It was made for a royal official, Nekht, whose name means ‘strong’. We hope to find out more about him, but this was a fairly common name in Egypt. The site has some Old Kingdom burials but most, like this coffin, date to the Middle Kingdom. There are over 800 rock-cut tombs at Beni Hasan, with most consisting of a shaft with a chamber at the bottom in which the coffin was placed. A photograph from the Garstang Museum in University of Liverpool shows another coffin (now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge) as it was found in its chamber.

Another archive photograph shows Garstang and an assistant with a coffin and other finds in a larger chamber in which the excavators lived! The excavations were funded by subscription, so the finds are now spread between many museums across the world including the Aberdeen, Liverpool and Cambridge.

The coffin is being conserved by a specialist conservator, Jens Klocke, who is based in Hildesheim.  Having been damaged by wet rot, it is very fragile, Jens came to Aberdeen to stabilise the coffin before it was transported in a specially made crate complete with Nekht’s name in hieroglyphics added by Jens! Preparation included covered the coffin in a waxy seal of cyclododecane spray, which offers protection to the artefact while it is being transported but will completely vanish by evaporation after a few days. In the conservation lab, Jens will remove all of the temporary consolidant and gently clean it. He will then consolidating the painted areas the cracking of the wood, before strengthening the coffin by replacing missing dowels and then re-attaching the base of the coffin.

This conservation has been made possible by our partnership with the Lokschuppen exhibition centre in Rosenheim near Munich, and the generous support of an anonymous donor to the Aberdeen Humanities Fund. Once conserved, the coffin will be on display in Rosenheim as part of a large exhibition on Ancient Egypt which is based on Aberdeen’s collection.


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Objects on Loan for Fijian Art Exhibition

At the University of Aberdeen Museums we look after vast and impressive collections from the Pacific, some of which are now going to be on display in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.

The exhibition, ‘Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific‘ will be the largest and most comprehensive exhibition about Fiji ever assembled and explores the art and cultural history of Fiji since the late 18th Century.

Alongside the Fiji Museum, The British Museum, The Pitt Rivers Museum and many more, the University Museums will be lending some of our more spectacular Fijian items to the exhibition including jewellery, weapons, household objects and works of art.

Last week out team in the collections centre were working hard preparing the objects for the loan; packing the objects safely for transportation to Norwich.

We’re excited for these objects to go on display and join the other impressive collections from around the world that will be on display in this important exhibition.

The exhibition will be open from 15 October 2016 – 12 February 2017

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