A little over a year ago I went to see Sandy Richardson, head of development at the National Museum of Scotland, to tell him about the 26 Treasures project and to ask if he might be interested in helping us repeat the formula we had developed so successfully with the V&A in London.
This involved pairing 26 writers with 26 objects and inviting them to write a personal response in 62 words, as a new and different way of connecting visitors with objects in the collection. (A sestude was the word newly minted for the 62-word form by 26 founder, John Simmons). Our plan was to take 26 Treasures not only to Scotland, but also, simultaneously, to the Ulster Museum and the National Library of Wales.
Sandy put me in touch with the museum’s Learning Department and I went along to our first meeting, taking with me 26 Scotland’s new secret weapon: historical novelist, Sara Sheridan. Sara combines ferocious energy, intelligence and organisational skills with irresistible charm and determination. She and the museum’s learning officer, Claire Allan, picked up the project and together headed for the horizon, leaving me to offer the occasional cheer from the stands. (And in a nice completing of the circle, Sandy Richardson has since moved on to a new development job –where else but at the new V&A Dundee.)
Last Saturday, in a long gallery at the museum, 26 Treasures Scotland came together: 26 objects, 26 writers, 1,612 words, a virtuoso jazz saxophonist, a recording of pipe marches and a number of intrigued, if slightly baffled passers-by– the culmination of a year of hard work that was more, much more, than the sum of the parts.
Writer Aimee Chalmers and her jazz accompanist Richard Ingham opened the proceedings with a spellbinding performance, 26 minutes long, in Scots, in the voice of Westlothiana Lizziae, a 340-million-year-old fossil lizard. Then, at intervals over the next three hours, everyone in turn spoke briefly about their object and read their 62 words.
We heard the rattle of shipyard drag chains, the words of piper Daniel Laidlaw VC on the Battle of Loos, a catalogue of medieval cattle diseases, the clattering descent of the Maiden’s blade onto its inventor’s neck, the wry observations of a gilded 18th century teapot, the anguish of rejected would-be Highland emigrants – a chorus of voices as varied as the objects that mark a trail through Scottish history from the Big Bang to the present day. It was a wonderful afternoon, touching, funny and profoundly moving by turns.
Now the exhibition runs through till the end of January. The trail is marked throughout the National Museum of Scotland’s Scottish collection, the words appear beside the exhibits, there’s a beautiful little brochure, and a programme of events will bring museum visitors together with the writers and their objects.
Then there’s Unbound, a new publishing company which invites interested readers to buy subscriptions for a book and publishes it only if, within 90 days, it reaches its funding target. In doing so, Unbound creates stronger links between the books that writers want to see published and that readers want to read.
Just as Robert Burns persuaded friends to finance his first collection of verse all those years ago, so now we’re hoping to raise the money for the world’s first collection of sestudes – over 100 in all from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It will be a beautiful reminder not only of a wonderful project but also of how history can be brought alive through the story an object has to tell.
Please visit Unbound and support us if you possibly can.