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The New Year’s Resolutions of a Collections Assistant

I’m Struan Watson, a Collections Assistant at the University of St Andrews Museums. I started working here in June 2021 as a Visitor Services Facilitator at the Wardlaw Museum. Since then, I have taken on various roles and projects across our collections. Whether that’s Fine Art, Geology, or Natural History, projects within these collections require diverse approaches to care, management, and development.

With the year 2023 coming to a close, it is a time to reflect on work that has been completed, projects finished, and deadlines met. Looking forward to 2024, there are a number of New Year’s resolutions that are coming to mind. Here are some New Year’s Resolutions of a Collections Assistant at the University of St Andrews.

A young man standing on the right, wearing rubber gloves. He is pointing at a painting representing a person at a breakfast table, with a sleeping cat in the foreground.
Struan looking at one of his favourite artworks in the store.

Our Natural History collection in the Bell Pettigrew Museum has many specimens that have dried up over the years, require treatment, and need a top-up of preservative fluid. The fluid we use is anywhere between 60-80% alcohol. So while I’m raising a toast to welcome 2024 with a whisky, specimens in the museum will have their own festive ‘spirit’ as well.

Alongside this preservation work, a project is underway to clean all the cases, dust the shelves, and update species labels to be accurate and accessible. Just as many people have New Year’s resolutions to look and feel better about themselves, the Bell Pettigrew Museum will go through its own restorative process.

My first resolution of 2024 is to refresh, enliven, and restore the Bell Pettigrew Museum’s cases, shelves, and specimens for next year’s visitors, researchers, and all those passionate about natural history.

Before and after photos of a common trout, one of the wet specimens Struan worked on last year.

Some of us will see the New Year as an opportunity to learn a new skill or pick up a new language. This could be learning how to paint or impress the locals with your new language skills when on holiday. Being passionate about art and artists, and sharing this with audiences in person and online, I would really like to improve and develop my digital skills going into 2024. There are many online courses for museum professionals hosted by National Museums Scotland, as well as here at the University of St Andrews, that I hope to take advantage of. Digitisation, image hosting, and online exhibition software are central to a modern museum art collection.

With this in mind, 2023 has seen a great development in the accessibility of the Boswell Collection of Scottish Contemporary Fine Art. Partnering with ArtUK, our collection can now be seen on our ArtUK profile. Now that these artworks have been digitised and uploaded I hope that 2024 will bring more stories, online curations, and digital engagement with the Boswell Collection. Keep an eye out on our ArtUK profile for future content!

A screenshot from the Museums Art UK page, with a photo of the Wardlaw Museum and the text 'open to the public.'
A screenshot of the ArtUK ‘Venue’ page of the Wardlaw Museum.

We hold many valuable artefacts, priceless artworks, and incomparable objects that highlight St Andrews University’s distinct history and heritage. For museum collections, there exists another priceless commodity: space. The shelving, packing, and storage of objects is part of the day-to-day of a Collections Assistant.

When deciding whether new acquisitions are to enter the museum collection, I must ask questions about the provenance, condition, size, hazards, materials, and relevance to the collection. There could be potential duplicates, additional costs and stipulations, and environmental conditions for display and storage. However, even after all that, none of this can be facilitated if there isn’t enough space!

Trying to find space for objects can be very challenging. For example, we hold a significant amount of scientific equipment that takes up many rows of shelving with inefficient methods of storage. The majority of these objects are difficult to identify, awkward to handle, and demanding of space. These objects range from microscopes and monitors to test tubes and typewriters.

So when the New Year arrives, you might want to clean out that cupboard, change your wardrobe, or rearrange your room. I want to do the same with our shelving! I hope in 2024 to use efficient and safe means of storage for the scientific equipment, in turn creating more space to store and expand upon our collection.

An open drawer with flints of different sizes and shapes. Two gloved hands are holding a flint.
Flints are really difficult to store! Here Struan shows us one of our new drawers, where each flint has its especially carved place.

Post written by Struan Watson, Collections Assistant.

What are your New Year’s Resolutions? Let us know on social media or by leaving a comment below.

Editor’s note: Talking about New Year’s Resolutions… as a Communications Officer, I can but remind you that we have some very exciting exhibitions coming up this year. Is your New Year’s Resolution to be kinder to yourself and spend more time in nature? Look no further. Our upcoming exhibition Iran: Wonders of Nature is just what you need – and more.

That’s it, editor’s note over. Keep your eyes on our socials, and Happy New Year!