Brantwood, John Ruskin’s House: Collections

Brantwood, John Ruskin’s House in Coniston, received a Hallmarks Award to help the museum tell new stories about their collection. The project offers new perspectives on Ruskin as a radical thinker through a series of videos which use objects in the collection as a starting point for an exploration of ideas.

The collection at Brantwood had expanded in recent years and while it wasn’t unmanageable, there was a feeling that the story of Ruskin the man was not connecting distinctly with the public.

“Brantwood is blessed but you could also say slightly cursed with a tremendous amount of surviving Ruskin material and the rooms are full of things that were here when he died with more added every year,” says Howard Hull, the Director. “It’s very strong on atmosphere for visitors and very compelling in the feeling that the man has just walked out of the door but it was becoming difficult to put across the story of the man who was one of history’s towering thinkers and writers. The stories of the objects are fantastic and good stories but if you don’t know anything about Ruskin the detail is often overwhelming and complicated. That was the challenge we needed to deal with.”

The Hallmarks programme offered the opportunity to address this deeper question of how to communicate more about Ruskin to the public. It supported the development of a database to record not just the objects in the collection but key Ruskin texts and other elements associated with him.

“We have identified within the collections a representative spread of items that have a story behind them which is not obvious from the object itself but which serves as a starting point to explore much more of the sense of Ruskin as a thinker and radical spirit,” Howard says.

The stories are being told in short videos, created by the museum team and incorporating quotes from Ruskin’s work, biographical information and other materials, as well as objects.

“For example, we have an illustration from a newspaper of a group of men in white cricketing clothes digging a road in Hinksey outside Oxford, watched by peasants. The men are Ruskin’s students and the story links to a whole history of the establishment of the university settlements which is where we get our modern-day gap years from – idea that students would spend time doing labour and social service for people less fortunate. There are a lot of objects, writings and cartoons, as well as parts of Brantwood itself associated with this event. It’s stories like this that we wanted to capture.”

The videos are intended to be viewed on phones and tablets and visitors will be able to access before and after visiting and as they walk around the museum.

Howard says: “Video was a whole new skill-set for us and it was important to develop the skills and retain the knowledge among the staff. We had to learn how to storyboard, identify the pieces of information, data and quotes from Ruskin’s works to use to illustrate the story, then organise volunteers to be our actors to read out texts.”

The Hallmark grant funded an extra day a week for the museum’s collections manager for twelve months to work on the database and Howard hopes to fundraise to carry on the work.

“The database represents the foundation of the project and once that is completed, we will assess what is next. What’s important, however, is that, through the video and other skills developed, we are creating a platform for ideas which is not separate but which we can absorb into our ordinary way of working.”