#FLRobert Burns: the Robert Burns MOOC

Update: “comedian, writer and bon vivant” Keara Murphy has been doing a Burns’ secret life special since 2015: sex life | tax life | rock n roll life | after life…and reborn in the TLS…OTH he may have been a “Weinsteinian sex pest”Robert Burns Night 2018 inc Burns Unbroke (Summerhall; map), Red Rose Street…another Rabbie map…In the shadow of Burns

Quick look at Robert Burns: poems, songs and legacy (#FLRobertBurns) from the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow kicked off on 25 Jan, obv, for three weeks.

Who was Robert Burns? What made Robert Burns a poetic genius? And what made Robert Burns a global icon?

You’ll examine archive material, original publications and manuscripts by Burns himself, recordings of Burns songs and examples of objects used to commemorate the poet. You’ll also look at and learn to interpret a selection of Robert Burns’ works in the context of Scottish history and culture.

Setting things in a wider context, you’ll also develop your understanding of Robert Burns’s reputation – from the rise of Burns Clubs and Burns Suppers following his death, to the continuing celebration of the poet today through Burns Night, Hogmanay (New Year) and beyond.

A counterpoint to #FLfairytales and #FLwordsworth, then.

Who was – and is – Robert Burns?

Rabbie wordcloudKicking off by debunking Rabbie related mythology, the first week proper had 21 steps, the sort of thing which makes me groan. Anyway, step 1 invited a one word response on something called AnswerGarden to the question: who was Robert Burns? I went with ‘Scot’. There’s quite a nice wordcloud emerging (see right).

How are we to understand the man and his reputation? What transformed him from the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ first discovered in the 18th century into the instantly recognised celebrity he is today? Burns occupies different roles throughout his life – poet, farmer, exciseman – and has indeed meant different things to different people at different times.

For some he is a ‘national bard’ and Scottish patriot; for others he is a major British poet; while others still might argue that Burns is a citizen of the world. Burns has also been regarded a somewhat contentious figure. His many romantic liasons, for example, have raised controversy, yet they have also provided inspiration for some of the most memorable love poetry ever written. For some Burns is more a radical figure, one who speaks on behalf of the common man (and woman).

Three things from the intro I didn’t know:

  • he brought Scots poetry back into vogue
  • he was an avid collector and editor of Scots songs, as well as writing many new ones himself
  • by the time of his death at the age of 37 he had made at least five women pregnant on at least 13 occasions and sired at least 12 children

Edwin Muir (1887–1959): Burns is ‘to the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious’.

Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978) ‘Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name / Than in ony’s barrin’ liberty and Christ’!

Born in 1759, in April 1783 Burns began a first Commonplace Book (a type of scrapbook or notebook), marking the beginning of his sustained endeavours as a writer. In 1786 that he published his first volume of poetry: Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, printed by John Wilson in Kilmarnock. The success of the Kilmarnock edition put an end to his supposed plans to emigrate to the West Indies. Instead he travelled to Edinburgh to promote his poetry and prepare for the publication of a 2nd edition, the ‘Edinburgh Edition’, in April 1787.

In the years that followed Burns produced several of his most famous works, however in the latter part of his life he moved away from poetry, investing much of his time and creative energy collecting and composing songs.

Burns was a freemason and wrote numerous poems inspired by and for his Masonic brethren. The Freemasons played an important part in the posthumous commemoration of the national bard, securing the tradition of the Burns supper and commissioning and/or contributing to numerous statues and memorials.

Lots of poetry reading and textual analysis!

Poet or songwriter?

We take a closer look at Burns as poet and songwriter…We also take a trip to visit our friends at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway to look at some of the publications and manuscripts held in their extensive collection, and you’ll even try your hand at transcribing a manuscript in Burns’s own handwriting. Together, we’ll examine some of the influences on Burns and his career collecting and reworking traditional songs.

Robert Burns wrote or collected two songs for every poem he produced, and was clearly both a success as a poet and as a songwriter. It is probably true to say, however, that his song-writing is thought of as a subset of his work as ‘a poet’.

  1. It is probably Burns’s love of ‘rhyme’ that led him into an increasing interest in song from poetry.
  2. However it might also be noted that his first creative production was the song, ‘O Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass’ (1774), and that among his earliest work is a number of other songs.
  3. Burns selected and adapted tunes for his songs, but he did not write original tunes.
  4. Many of his works such as ‘Auld Lang Syne’ or ‘A Red Rose’ were often published without music in editions of his work as though these were poems.
  5. Burns refers to himself as ‘poet Burns’ and as a ‘rhymester’ rather than as a songwriter.

Among Burns’s most celebrated songs are his Jacobite pieces, such as ‘Charlie He’s My Darling’ (from the mid-1790s), his love songs, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ (1791) and ‘A Red Rose’ (1794), and also ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (1788). As with ‘Charlie He’s My Darling’, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ existed in a number of versions going back to the 16th century, but it is Burns who really popularises the title-phrase, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, reworking its emphasis and the material within the song. Burns made the song into something appropriate to a new age of emigration, a more universal sentiment where friends and families are rendered asunder.

What made Burns an international icon?

Hundreds of biographies, edited collections and critical studies of Burns’s life and works have been published since the bard’s death in 1796, and there are over 3000 translations of Burns’s works into foreign languages, but Burns’s literary works are just one aspect of his legacy.

Since the 19th century Burns has been celebrated at Burns Suppers, in Burns related statuary and memorabilia and at grand centenary celebrations such as those held across the globe in 1859 and 1896. Innumerable composers, artists and performers have been inspired by Burns.

Statues and public memorials to Robert Burns were being erected across the globe as early as the mid-19th century. By 1909 over 40 had been commissioned in the UK, and a minimum of five in Australia, three in Canada, one in New Zealand, and nine in the USA.

Some trivia related to Burns’s reputation:

  • Burns coined the popular phrase ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ in his poem ‘Man Was Made to Mourn’
  • like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the title of JD Salinger’s famous novel Catcher in the Rye comes from one of Burns’s poems – ‘Comin’ Thro’ the Rye’
  • US President Abraham Lincoln was a real fan of Burns and could recite pieces of Burns’s poetry by heart

For dedicated fans only! It may be my heritage but I had no idea yer man was quite that huge, and it’s definitely not my period. Having said that, listening to the songs easily brings a tear to the eye.

Rabbie linkage:

#flmuseums 2: engaging people with museums

Onward…week 2 looks at engaging people with museums: “how museums can consider who does and does not visit the museum and how it is possible to engage with diverse audiences”. Only 13 steps, that’s a relief. Step 1 explores who does or doesn’t visit museums, bringing up questions around what, and who, museums are for, who is currently excluded from them and why. Communities may be excluded through lack of representation in collections and lack of opportunities for cultural participation…the case study looks at how Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery has sought to grow family audiences and engage the young with art.

Who visits museums? Issues highlighted from the DCMS stats (note: digital engagement does not appear to be included here):

  • over three in five adults (60.8%) in the upper socio-economic group visited a museum or gallery in the last year, a significantly higher proportion that the lower socio-economic group (38.6%)
  • 42.3% of ‘black and minority ethnic’ respondents had visited a museum, a difference of over 10 % when compared to ‘white’ respondents, of whom 53.1% had visited

A 1998 (!) survey found that the image of museums among ethnic groups (the image was of old buildings, a quiet and reverential atmosphere and a place for intellectuals or ‘posh people’) formed a major barrier to access.

Barriers to access Issues and solutions
Physical Is our museum building physically accessible? Is it open at times which suit different audiences? – Installation of ramps, handrails and seats.
Sensory Can our exhibitions, events, and facilities be used by people with hearing or sight impairments? – Objects which can be touched. Varied means of interpretation, such as taped guides, subtitled audiovisual programmes.
Intellectual Do our displays exclude people with limited prior knowledge of the collections or artists on show? Can people with learning disabilities access our services? – Consult and involve new audiences in the production of exhibitions. Evaluate levels of understanding amongst a range of audiences when developing exhibitions.
Financial Does our admission fee deter people on low incomes? Do our shop and café sell items that families can afford? – Offer free admission on certain days and publicise it widely. Take the museum into the community. Provide free transport. Admit schools and community groups free of charge.
Emotional or attitudinal Is our museum environment welcoming to new visitors? Do our staff have open attitudes to diversity? Is the style of our publicity inclusive or exclusive? – Staff training. Special events and ­activities to build confidence among new audiences.
Lack of involvement in decision making Does our museum consult potential new audiences and value the input of external stakeholders? – Develop projects in partnership with audiences. Establish a consultative panel.
Lack of access to information Does our publicity effectively reach and communicate with new audiences? – Develop new and accessible marketing networks and methods to information of communication. Publicity and orientation in large print/tape/ Braille/different languages, etc.
Cultural Do our collections, displays and events reflect the interests and life experiences of our target audience? – Proactive collecting, special exhibitions and events, redisplays with appropriate interpretation.
Technological Does our use of new media facilitate rather than hinder access for our audiences? Do we exploit new advances in technology to enable access? – Use of assistive technologies.

Are there any problems with listing the ‘barriers to access’ and their potential solutions in this way? Is it useful to segment the population in this way? Many frameworks can be used to understand why people do not engage with museums. Research from Leicester’s School of Museum Studies in 2002 explored other models for understanding what barriers there are, including lack of motivation. What motivates people to visit a museum? Even when barriers to access are identified and dismantled, people may still choose not to attend – some individuals do not believe museums will meet their specific needs.

The Walker Art Gallery

The Walker has had a turbulent relationship with its audiences since it was opened in 1877. When the gallery reopened after WW2 it focused on a local audience, believing that access to art was important to the people of Liverpool in the difficult post-war era. However, as the years passed, the Walker focused more and more on its success in engaging with national art galleries and organisations rather than focusing on Liverpool audiences. How might this affect people’s perception of the Walker today? And, shall we watch the vid?


the addition of time management tips is a good idea – another advises that 15 mins per discussion task will help keep to the estimated 2 hours

Up until about 2006 the Walker Art Gallery in was seen as a rather traditional art gallery with a typical audience of older visitors, tourists and well informed art enthusiasts. Over recent years a targeted programme of audience development initiatives and improvements to the gallery has gradually reversed this image, and the Walker Art Gallery is now a vibrant family friendly venue. Not only do more people visit the gallery, but audiences have also grown more diverse and more and more visitors engage with the gallery in many different ways.

What’s wrong with ‘just’ being a museum? I still need a better way into the discussions, it’s way too much and feels to random as a stream, but there seemed to be a certain amount re passing fads and fashions, babies and bathwater, what ‘culture’, high or otherwise, is about….

  • How might museums and galleries respond to this debate?
  • Is it possible to meet everyone’s demands and needs?
  • What strategies might be used to achieve a balance between the needs of different audiences? What ethical issues might such strategies pose?

Should all museums be family friendly? See the Kids in Museums Manifesto. For some, all these activities, dressing up, cartoons etc can be offputting rather than engaging.

Actually, children and families are well catered for at most museums, and indeed many museums seem to think they’re the only audience that matters, which doesn’t help the fact that a significant proportion of the public thinks that museums are _only_ for children. So, how to reach more older people? How to attract those who feel museums aren’t for them because they’re “not middle class”? How to reach ethnic minorities, who may see museums, especially ones like the British Museum, as bastions of Empire? What about people who are put off by civic pomp, which most museums are more than happy to engage with, despite any social history credentials they may have?

Think of a museum, gallery, or heritage site that you have visited. How would you approach making it more engaging and accessible to a wider audience? Why does it have to? If you can’t be all things to all men…Can’t a museum have a target group? For example, I’m not interested in our local circus museum – although there is something in the old adage that everything is interesting if you get into it enough.

The answer may be in the trend we looked at last week, ie address niche segments digitally – this is largely how I interact with Forstadsmuseet, which is targeted at local residents. Otherwise museums may be in danger of losing sight of their key mission.