Exhibiting Mary: Challenges and Opportunities

Today’s blog by David Forsyth (Principal Curator, Modern and Contemporary Scottish History, National Museums Scotland) was part of the project’s virtual workshop on ‘Re-presenting Mary: challenges and opportunities’, held on 7 August 2020. David discusses his experience of curating the last major Mary exhibit in Scotland, which also launched the new National Museum of Scotland temporary exhibit space in 2013.

Mary’s autograph signature taken from letter sent form Carlisle to the Laird of Smeaton 25 June 1568. [NMS H.OA 161] 
© National Museums Scotland 

The story of our Mary, Queen of Scots exhibition of 2013 is in part a story of the recent history of the National Museum of Scotland. Between 2008 and 2011 the Victorian wing of the then retitled National Museum of Scotland had been closed as part of the first and second phases of a major redevelopment of the Chambers Street complex. The Museum reopened in the summer of 2011 with huge visitor numbers, including over 21,000 on our first day of opening. Some months after my involvement with this Masterplan to modernise the former Royal Museum, I was asked to take on the role of Lead Curator for an exhibition on Mary, Queen of Scots.

The new special exhibition gallery had been relocated to the first floor of the Museum, part of an overall bid to drive more visitors through the entire Museum. In the recent past, only a tiny proportion of visitors ever found their way to the Museum’s top floor. While prior to our Mary, Queen of Scots exhibition the previous shows had ranged over a variety of topics from Egyptian Mummies, through Catherine the Great to Vikings, the latter being a buy-in exhibition. Mary, Queen of Scots was to be the first home-curated exhibition Scottish history exhibition displaying our own collections in this large new 650 sq. metre gallery space in a multi-million-pound redevelopment of the Museum – no pressure then!

One slight difficulty we encountered was that once our intention to stage a major exhibition on Mary, Queen of Scots had been publicly announced, the next question (with a puzzled look as a course of mental arithmetic took place in the questioner’s head!) invariably was what’s the anniversary? ‘Ah well there really isn’t one’, was our candid reply. Instead, in deciding upon the subject of our inaugural Scottish historical exhibition, we consciously looked to a topic that would attract an audience, and one which, most importantly, would allow the Museum to showcase its own collections. An exhibition on Mary would align perfectly to this brief. The fact that the exhibition was not developed around an anniversary meant that from the outset it was a project based on consideration rather than commemoration.

‘In my beginning  ….. The exhibition began with the end, the iconic Blairs’ Memorial Portrait. 
© National Museums Scotland 

The other key USP was the fact that a pivotal point in Mary’s personal reign the murder of her second husband, Henry, Lord Darnley took place at Kirk o’ Field within such proximity to the Museum. This added a dramatic sense of place to the exhibition. Indeed, the story of Darnley’s violet end became a pivotal and popular interpretive intervention in the exhibition itself, delivered by several objects never previously displayed in Scotland, including the infamous Mermaid and the Hare poster, the drawing of the murder scene at Kirk o’ Field prepared by William Cecil’s spy, and a theatrical wide-screened AV presentation on the murder and its immediate aftermath.

The Kirk o’ Field display and AV, a pivotal point in both the exhibition and Mary’s life. Note the detail form Cecil’s spy drawing on the floor beneath the bench seats. 
© National Museums Scotland 

While we could never have staged an exhibition of this breadth and depth based purely on our own collections, it was gratifying for us that half of the c.200 objects on display were drawn from our own collections. The remainder came from a rich variety of public and private collections both at home and abroad. Several of the private lenders had direct ancestral connections with the personalities and events illustrated through these very personal loans.

The pressure was on and the clock was ticking, not least that having already identified several key overseas loans for which we needed to make our formal request to institutions such as the Bibliothèque nationale de France without delay. From initial concept to opening we only had just over two years to plan, research and develop this challenging exhibition.

We took the decision to structure the exhibition according to the chronology of Mary’s life, because we felt that the story was complicated enough without imposing experiments in curatorial artifice on our visitors. However, as the biographical chronology unfolded, we did extrapolate and explore themes and events in more detail at appropriate junctures. For instance, we considered the nature of Renaissance queenship, examining the other European female monarchs who ruled around the same time that Mary became Queen Consort of France. 

As an interpretive and narrative spine throughout the exhibition we used a design device entitled Mary’s Royal Lifeline. This was a chronological sequence of back lit graphics and real objects, providing our visitors with a dramatic but accessible guide to the major events and principal personalities throughout Mary’s 44 years. 
© National Museums Scotland 

Turning now to the contents of the exhibition, it was an important opportunity to showcase our own collections: we can of course number in our collection some Marian treasures with strong links to Mary, particularly the Penicuik Jewels, presented by Mary to one of her lady attendants, Gillies Mowbray. Through marriage these were in turn held by the Clerks of Penicuik until acquired by the then National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, one of the predecessor institutions of National Museums Scotland.

One of the greatest challenges in mounting an exhibition on the life of an historical personality of whom everyone seems to have an opinion is managing expectations. As a museum we display objects, and for Mary there was no embarrassment of riches when it came to extant material culture associated with her. Public anticipation was high, and expectant of a wealth of material belonging to someone who is possibly the world’s most famous Scotswomen. However, there is of course very little surviving material culture whose provenance provides direct links to Mary. There were various reasons for this, 19 years of captivity, an ever diminishing court, and not least that after her execution there was a conscious effort to obliterate her memory, a deliberate attempt to avoid the creation of Marian relics as a focus of opposition to Elizabeth. Clearly a challenging situation for any museum curator!

If I were to be totally honest, attracting visitors to an exhibition featuring Mary, Queen of Scots in the title, would not prove to be the hardest sell that the Museum has ever faced. The ‘face’ of the exhibition was to be found on posters and banners, and even on the sides of buses. This ‘face’ was the iconic Blairs Memorial Portrait, courtesy of Blairs Museum in Aberdeen, a portrait which captures Mary in preparation for her execution and ultimately in her view her Catholic martyrdom.

The principal exhibition marketing poster, which featured a detail from the Blairs’ Memorial Portrait.  
© National Museums Scotland 
Some of the advance publicity did use an image of Mary drawn from our own collection. In this case the delicate detail of the onyx cameo portrait on a gold and enamelled heart-shaped locket. [NMS H.NF 33] 
© National Museums Scotland 

One of our own layers of interpretation was the animated reconstruction of a likeness of Mary representing her personal reign in Scotland between 1561 to 1567, a period when no known portrait record of Mary was made. To attempt to capture the most realistic depiction of Mary we worked with the world-leading craniofacial identification expert Professor Caroline Wilkinson, then of the University of Dundee, and her team, and Janice Aitken from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art.

Professor Wilkinson sought to reconstruct her face as it would have been during her reign in Scotland from the ages of 19 to 26, from existing portraits and from what is known of Mary’s biography. She created a head-and-neck model using the best portraits of Mary from life, including portraits of her nearest relatives, as templates. The model was created using 3D modelling software and craniofacial templates before digital artist Janice Aitken sculpted clothing and hair then added textures and lighting to create the finished image. I often wondered if we had only served to augment the world’s collection of Marian relics, thus adding to the myths, of which Mary needed no more. However, this exercise seemed to provide a useful interpretative insight into how Mary may have looked during this tumultuous personal reign. 

As an anecdotal aside, Janice Aitken revealed to us that she had used the skin palate of the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan as part of the process of creating Mary’s complexion. This was without any knowledge (I was fortunate enough to be on the loop and sworn to secrecy as I had met her and some of the production team) that Saoirse would play the eponymous monarch in the film, eventually released in 2019.  

Mary as created by an animated reconstruction commissioned for the exhibition, envisioning her in her early twenties. 
© National Museums Scotland 

The danger with Mary, as with any exercise in biography, was to avoid the project falling into the trap of becoming a mere exercise in hagiography. While an exhibition is an examination, albeit through material culture, of an historical theme, it should be no different to any academic output, and should be based on rigorous evidence-based research to develop an analytical and accessible narrative.

That Mary is still capable of eliciting strong, feelings, both for and against her was evidenced from visitor’s comments: from those who would seek to have her beatified, to others who opined that the exhibition was an affront to Knox’s legacy. While these rather polarised positions were held by only a tiny minority, it was clear that our dedication to neutrality and historical accuracy was mainly successful. However, we did have to deliver an intelligent, accessible and memorable experience for our visitors. The figures speak for themselves, with a visitor total of over 79,000, and Mary, Queen of Scots remains our second most popular paid exhibition in the history of the Museum. Mary only being eclipsed by an exhibition of computer games! 

David Forsyth 

Principal Curator, Modern and Contemporary Scottish History 

National Museums Scotland 

All images © National Museums Scotland 

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