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Changing Rooms

Slideshow Shim

The Russell-Cotes is a Victorian cabinet of curiosities – a villa full of sumptuous rooms, bedecked with Victorian paintings, stunning sculptures and objects collected by Merton and Annie from around the world.

The historic house is abundant with stories and we are currently working on a project to redevelop three of the upstairs rooms in order to better tell some of these stories. You can find out more by clicking on this link.

Our Interpretation and Audience Development Officer, Jolif Guest, has been project managing this initiative. Read on for an interview that our Marketing Volunteer Iuliia Moldavska conducted with Jolif about the project:

As far as I know, you’ve been managing the re-display of the upstairs spaces in the Russell-Cotes, but before discussing the rooms, let’s talk about how it all started for you.

In a nutshell, I started working at the museum in May 2019, like you said, to lead the re-display of three rooms, the Mikado’s Room, the Red Room and the Yellow Room. After this I will work on refreshing interpretation in other parts of the house.

I would assume each room has its own distinct story to tell. What are these stories?

Well, the Mikado’s Room will showcase the museum’s fantastic Japanese collection, predominantly collected by Annie and Merton when they visited the country in 1885. The Red Room, which was originally Merton’s bedroom, will tell his story – you’ll be able to find out more about his background and motivations, what makes him tick. As for the Yellow Room, it used to be Annie’s bedroom, and so it will shine a light on her and her interests, particularly her fascination for New Zealand.

Detail of Māori Canoe, on display in the Yellow Room

Māori Mere

Was there anything specifically relevant to you in these rooms?

I applied for this job because it merged two of my passions – Japanese art and culture, and museums and heritage. I studied for a year in Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan, and since then I’ve been learning the language and returning to visit as much as I can. My background is in exhibitions and interpretation, which I love, so, as you can imagine, when this opportunity turned up, I jumped at it straightaway!

Could you describe the Japanese collection in more detail? What period does it represent?

A lot of what will be displayed in the Mikado’s Room was collected by Annie and Merton during their visit to Japan in 1885. This was a particularly interesting moment in Japanese history because the country had only recently resumed trade with the West and so there was a huge interest in Japanese artefacts.

Annie and Merton in Japan

Sounds very interesting! Will you please shed a light on some of those things?

Annie and Merton brought home a huge range of things, everything from high quality metalwork items made specifically for tourists like our fabulous Komai dish to everyday objects such as chopsticks and hotel slippers.

Dish by Komai of Kyoto

Sorry, did you say slippers?

Yes, what is so wonderful about this collection is that you can really see yourself in it. We all want to bring home sentimental objects, the ones which conjure up memories of a specific place and moment in time and that’s exactly what Annie and Merton did too. Not much has changed in that regard since Annie’s and Merton’s time – people are still doing this today.

People are, though modern slippers might not be displayed in museums.

Not yet (laughing).

Presumably there were some challenges while interpreting these objects, can you tell me a bit about this?

Yes, we did come up against some challenges in deciding how to present some of the objects. For instance, there is a Buddhist altar in the collection which Merton brought back from Japan. This is a difficult object to approach because these altars are usually found in family homes and are used for paying respects to ancestors and so the fact that Merton took it out of Japan is difficult to comprehend. And so, deciding how best to interpret this object was difficult. By working collaboratively with our Japanese steering group we were able to discuss how best to display it and this resulted in one of the team writing an explanation of how a similar altar in her family home in Japan is used today. This will be shown next to Merton’s explanation of how he acquired the altar.

Who were the members of the Japanese steering group you mentioned?

For this project we’ve done an amazing amount of collaboration with both local Japanese people and specialists, like Greg Irvine, who is the Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Asian Department at the V&A and really the most respected authority on Japanese art of this period in the country. We’ve also worked with local community groups such as IAAC (It’s All About Culture) and taken museum objects out into the community, for example to schools and to events such as the World of Love Festival. It’s been really interesting and of course, lots of fun!

Visit to St Thomas Garnet’s School

Can you please say what stage the redisplay is at now and what should visitors to the Russell-Cotes expect to see in the near future?

The Mikado’s Room is nearly finished and I’m currently working on preparations for the new displays in the Red and Yellow Rooms. Overall, the aim of the project is to display the rooms in the best possible way featuring stories from Annie and Merton’s travel accounts and of course, showcasing amazing objects from our collection. That’s the plan!

Sounds like a great plan! Hope to be able to see the results of your great work very soon!

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