Materialising Mary in the time of COVID: a summary of our first online project workshop

In today’s blog, Anne Dulau Beveridge, Curator at The Hunterian, reviews the successful workshop on Materialising Mary, which took place online at the beginning of August, gives a run down of some of the main challenges of presenting objects associated with Mary in historical institutions and shares some fantastic resources on Mary.

Workshop 5, on the challenges of presenting objects associated with Mary, was originally due to take place at the National Museum of Scotland on June 4th. As lockdown descended upon us, it had to be cancelled in its existing format, and finally took place on the 6 and 7th of August, on Zoom! Its new format involved blogs circulated in advance by contributors and two online sessions over two days, with short contributors’ presentations followed by attendees’ questions. It worked surprisingly well.

Deborah Clarke, Senior Curator at Royal Collection Trust, chaired the first session, kickstarted by Alison Rosie, Senior Archivist at the National Record Office, on the wardrobe inventories of Mary Queen of Scots. Anna Groundwater, Principal Curator of Renaissance and Early Modern History at the National Museums of Scotland, bravely took on the challenge of a google-street virtual tour of the Renaissance gallery at the National Museum of Scotland. All three provided a wonderful insight into their experiences of dealing with objects associated with Mary. They were followed the next day by David Forsyth, Principal Curator for the Mary Queen of Scots 2013 exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland. Julie Holder, PhD student at University of Glasgow, then used the example of Mary’s harp to consider how the interpretation of this beautiful musical instrument changed when it entered the National Museum of Scotland in the early 20th century on long term loan.

The session on the first day was attended by 56 people, and another 50 people attended the second session the next day, an unexpectedly rich consequence of moving online, as a physical gathering would have been limited to 20. For 4 hours, academics, representatives of cultural institutions, and members of the general public shared thoughts and information on the challenges of presenting Mary-relevant objects at the heart of the workshops. The opportunity for members of the research network to interact directly with members of the general public and to ask how they would like to see the narratives around Mary Queen of Scots evolve in the 21st century was another precious bonus.

Questions touching on truth, authenticity and dubiety of provenance grabbed attendees’ attention, prompting one of the first questions for the panel about the absence of objects firmly associated with Mary: ‘How do you display absence?!’ popped up in the chat box. This led the panel to questions about the practical and material construction of objects as some artefacts would have been repurposed (particularly the valuable, such as jewellery and clothing unpicked and refashioned or furniture ‘upcycled’) as well as the importance of Mary as a concept.

Over the century, objects associated with Mary, rightly or wrongly, have become precious to their owners, because of that very association. They have become part of her story, and all present agreed that this is part of the story we have to tell now.

Others felt the displaying of authentic objects was not the only way to present the queen to a museum audience: the context in which she lived is equally fascinating and should be part of the telling.

Some of the contributors and attendees shared useful further resources:

Objects associated with Mary in the National Museum of Scotland:

Previous studies of Mary’s jewels:

It was fascinating to learn that more inventories of Mary’s belongings have survived than for any other contemporary monarchs. All be found in the collections of the National Record Office in Edinburgh:

Pendant, part of the Penicuik jewels, said to have been given to one of Mary’s supporters during her captivity, jewels being useful gifts to bind supporters to the Crown. National Museums Scotland

One attendee’s comment, modestly presented as not directly related to the topic, concerned the heart with a ‘kick’ shape in the National Museum of Scotland collection, once belonging to Queen Mary. Seeing it in Croatian folk museums, she’d tried unsuccessfully to discover its origins and finding it again in Mary’s locket piqued her curiosity. This was fascinating to Anna, whose colleague Lindsay McGill, Curator, Medieval and Early Modern collections, had been investigating a possible eastern European connection for the locket.

Questions around authenticity and provenance brought up Mary’s Prayer book, which recently went expensively through auction:

Museum professionals all agreed that, as they are rarely able to compete at auctions, they rely on schemes such as the Acceptance in Lieu (of tax) scheme institutions to acquire such objects as Mary’s Prayer Book that recently came up at Christies.

The following was recommended as an interesting read: Rosalind Smith, ‘Reading Mary Stuart’s Casket Sonnets: Reception, Authorship, and Early Modern Women’s Writing’, Parergon, 29:2 (2012), 149-73

Mary’s European identity prompted this link for those interested in renaissance fashion in Europe, led by the King’s College, which features Mary:

This panel of an animal skin is 26.6 cm x 26.6 cm. It was embroidered by either Mary, Queen of Scots, or Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, using a linen canvas with silk threads between 1570 and 1585. Victoria & Albert Museum

This panel of an animal skin is 26.6 cm x 26.6 cm. It was embroidered by either Mary, Queen of Scots, or Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, using a linen canvas with silk threads between 1570 and 1585. Victoria & Albert Museum

The session ended on the potential of technical analysis of objects, which could open a glimpse into Mary’s time.

On Day 2, Julie Holder, PhD student at the University of Glasgow, used the example of Mary’s harp to show how people’s engagement with objects can be influenced by fashion and changing attitudes, and how Queen Mary’s name has always been used to attract interest.

One particularly striking example showed how the scanning of Queen Mary Harp allowed Simon Chadwick ( to adjust the replica he was working on.

Simon Chadwick and his replica of Queen Mary Harp (



Transforming the sound emanating from the instrument, it brings to life the context in which Mary lived in a unique manner, illustrating technology’s ability to reanimate her world.

This session also dealt with courtier gifts, discussed by Alison Rosie, Senior Archivist at the National Record Office, when talking about inventories of the Queen’s possessions, and her intention to gift some to her faithful followers in the event of her death. The idea of objects moving from collection to collection, having started as a gift, appealed to many among the attendees.

David Forsyth’s account of the challenges and opportunities behind exhibiting Mary in the 2013 Mary Queen of Scots exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, revealed what it takes to tackle so complex a story, and such an iconic character. Anna Groundwater, Principal Curator of Renaissance and Early Modern History, followed up with a summary of what technological advantages, particularly in the digital domain, might allow when tackling Mary and her story in the 21st century. One avenue for new interpretation may lie in a digital fly through of Edinburgh. This fantastic example of was brought to the table and gives a good sense of the possibilities!

Medieval Dublin fly through

History Pin was Anna’s next terrain of investigation. She noted how little information it included on Mary Queen of Scots, and stressed how it would provide a very good (and cheap) way of mapping the Queen then and now:,-3.94345,17/bounds/56.118744,-3.949501,56.122404,-3.937399/search/tag:mary%20queen%20of%20scots/sort/popular/paging/1/state/map

Ensuing discussions focused on Mary as a subject for primary schools, and the suggestion to investigate 19th century children’s history books.

One attendee remembered that waitresses dressed as Mary in cafes in Edinburgh during the run of the 2013 exhibition prompted mention of Sir John Lavery’s rendition of the Edinburgh International Exhibition of 1886, featuring ‘waiting Maries’:

Sir John Lavery’s A ‘Mary Stuart’ Waitress (Thoughts Afar):
Sir John Lavery’s Portrait of a Young Woman. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums.–actor:lavery-john-18561941/page/1

Other topics broached included:

  • A witty analysis of the latest movie on Mary Queen of Scots (the Scots and English courts are visualised very differently!)
  • Ways in which historic sites and collections connected to Mary could share resources in their common endeavour to bring the Queen to life through their exhibits/venues
  • The need to investigate French cultural institutions’ presentation of Mary in recent exhibitions
  • The impact of paternalist tendencies in historians of previous centuries on narratives around the Queen’s life
  • The opportunities offered by temporary exhibitions in new ways of looking at Mary

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