Museum Curator Clare Ablett (38) from Bangor, talks to Audrey Watson about innovation, flying tractors and putting together an exhibition
QWhat does a museum curator actually do? It sounds fascinating.
A It is very interesting. For almost two years now, I’ve been the curator of transport and industry, and have looked after the collections at the Ulster Transport Museum, which includes maritime, aviation, road and rail objects.
A curator does lots of different things. We answer public inquiries, we plan exhibitions, we do a lot of work with our objects that are behind the scenes, ensuring that they are maintained in case.
And, whenever we’re working on an exhibition, it’s about getting objects assessed and ready for display.
We also go out and about doing oral history interviews, and filming.
Curators are usually the people coming up with the ideas for new exhibitions, but we’ve been very lucky to have had some amazing ‘loaned’ exhibitions, such as Tim Peake’s Soyuz capsule, which was on display in our rail gallery.
The job changes every day. I could be researching for an exhibition in the morning, filming an oral history interview before lunch, working in the stores in the afternoon for example, arranging for a bicycle to be weighed by our collections care team.
The best thing about the job is definitely that I get to work with amazing objects on a daily basis which was my dream. But the worst? I always end up brushing again something mechanical in the workshop, so anytime I wear nice clothes into the office, I usually get oil on them.
Q What about your current exhibition, the Museum of Innovation, where did that idea come from?
A We were working with an external group, looking at the future of the Transport Museum and how we can develop it. And one of their suggested ideas was around the different innovative objects that we have in the collection.
The curatorial team really liked that idea, and from that, a small seed grew and developed. We had most of the exhibits in our in our collection already and we’ve been able to get some very exciting new objects such as the fully restored, red 1960s Massey Ferguson 25 tractor, we acquired specifically for the exhibition.
Of course, it was Harry Ferguson from Dromore in Co Down, who, in 1926, patented the 3-point linkage for tractors that revolutionised farming globally.
The restored tractor is great exhibit because it allows visitors to climb on to the tractor and we have a green screen behind it so they can see themselves flying across the world. The idea is to illustrate the fact that Ferguson tractors have been used on every continent, even the Antarctic.
The tractor itself came from a local guy from Antrim who had recently restored it and he was chuffed that his tractor was going to be in a museum.
We have also been loaned some very interesting objects. Part of the exhibition is dedicated to John Boyd Dunlop, who was living in Belfast when he created his pneumatic tyre which went into mass production from the 1890s onwards.
One of the earliest bicycles fitted with pneumatic tyres ridden by Dunlop himself, along with an Eagle 360 Goodyear concept tyre, on loan from Goodyear, are on display as well as a concept tyre which has come all the way from Germany. Instead of the usual tyre shape it’s actually a sphere — it might be the tyre of the future.
QIs this the career that you always wanted to follow?
A My background is actually archaeology. I did my undergraduate degree in archaeology at Queen’s University and then obtained a Masters in Museum Studies at the University of Ulster.
Following that, I worked as a field archaeologist for a number of years — field archaeologists are the people that are actually onsite doing digs and excavating in the ground.
A lot of the excavations I was involved in were rescue excavations, where prior to building commencing on a site, developers would bring in archaeologists to make sure that there was no important archaeology in the ground before they started building.
I was very lucky also to work on excavations in the centre of Belfast at Custom House Square and St Anne’s Square which was much more modern archaeology than I had been used. I’ve seen quite a variety of periods through my career.
But I always wanted to work in a museum. Transport was not necessarily what I had originally envisioned, but it’s actually worked out brilliantly because there’s so many interesting stories behind our collection and it’s those personal stories which I think, visitors are really connect to.
I joined National Museums Northern Ireland in 2009 as a visitor guide at the Ulster Museum. I was there for eight years before I moved into a curatorial role four years ago.
I had done an 18-month-bursary with the Northern Ireland Museums Council called the Community Engagement Initiative and through that as well as working with community groups, I’d also curated an exhibition at the North Down Museum about the 150th anniversary of the Bangor Railway, so I had experience in curation, and I’d also volunteered for our collections information team — getting more experience in using our collection system.
I’ve lived in Bangor, my whole life, because I’m a complete homebird, but my mum, Sandra, is really into history so I think she sparked an interest in me from an early age. And my late dad, Tony, who had been in the Merchant Navy, was always into cars and sailing, so my present job is actually a really nice combination of their passions.
QDo you have to be really passionate about the theme of an exhibition to curate it?
AI think if you just looked at the collection that you’re exhibiting purely and simply as inanimate objects, then it might be really difficult to be enthusiastic.
But through the research, you find out so much about the personal stories behind the objects and the social history around the period they were made or used, and that brings them to life.
Then they become more than just an object, and certainly with the Museum of Innovation there were so many fascinating stories.
Every time I learned something more, it just really highlighted to me how fascinating the collection is.
QWhat’s your favourite exhibit. What have you found most interesting?
AThat’s a toughie for a curator. Picking their favourite exhibit is like picking their favourite child, but for me it’s our cardiac ambulance display, because it was the first of its kind in the world when it went out to patients in Belfast in 1966.
Through it we get to highlight the work of Professor Frank Pantridge and Professor John Anderson who created the portable defibrillator.
With recent incidents such as footballer Christian Eriksen at the Euros, you can see again how relevant these machines are and the global impact that their work has had and how many lives have been saved thanks to them.
Professor Pantridge, who worked as a cardiac consultant at the Royal Victoria Hospital came up with the idea because so many heart attacks were happening at home and outside of the hospital.
The first versions of the defibrillator were very large and heavy and back in 1960s, not everybody had electrical sockets upstairs, so you needed long extension leads as well.
Professor Anderson was a biomedical engineer and alongside Professor Pantridge, created the compact portable defibrillator that is still used today.
QThe Museum of Innovation showcases objects that celebrate local pioneers male and female. What women are represented?
A We have a temporary exhibition space within the Museum of Innovation called Innovator Focus. That’s going to be used to highlight, women in history and also women today who are pioneers in their field of science and engineering.
Our first innovator in this space will be Lillian Bland, who was the first woman in the world to design, build and fly her own aeroplane (The Bland Mayfly), and she did this in Carnmoney, Co Antrim in August 1910.
Unfortunately, very little in the way of objects survive from Lillian’s exploits into aviation, but we do have a short film about her life including interviews with historians, and images from Lillian’s own photo albums and notebooks, which the website (www.lilianbland.ie) very kindly let us use so that we can tell her story.
However, the nature of collecting means that you do see a real gender imbalance. A lot of men were ‘collected’ and their stories were remembered to the detriment of women — there were an amazing number of female pioneers, who don’t get remembered and collected in the same way.
We also have an oral history interview with Professor Jennifer Adjey, who worked alongside Professor Pantridge and was one of the first doctors to go out in a cardiac ambulance.
And we have a short interview that plays behind the cardiac ambulance when visitors come around to look at it, as a way of highlighting that there were women involved in these fields of science and engineering and technology, but unfortunately their story hasn’t been told to the same degree.
Back then in the late 19th and the 20th centuries, women weren’t really expected to do that sort of thing and quite a lot weren’t able to work in areas of innovation.
Lillian Bland is a perfect example of that. She was part of the gentry and lived in Edwardian Ulster and she had so many challenges to overcome but she did not conform in any way.
She did what she wanted to do — she smoked, she shot, she refused to ride side-saddle on a horse. She even rode a bicycle which was considered scandalous at the time.
The fact that she was building and designing her own aeroplane from notes that she taken from air shows, is quite staggering.
I think she is a real inspiration for young girls today — showing that you can be anything you want to be.
QHas anyone expressed surprise that an innovation exhibition is curated by a young woman?
ANot at all, and I really hope that that reflects the fact that we’re moving away from the idea that the area of science and engineering and transport is only for men.
There are some amazing women working in those fields, and they serve as an inspiration to the future generations of innovators out there and will hopefully encourage young girls to get into STEM and become the innovators of the future.
Tickets for The Museum of Innovation at Ulster Transport Museum should be booked online in advance. For opening times, to book time slots and for further details visit www.nmni.com