Behind the Scenes at the Museum

The word ‘curate’ is becoming like the word ‘icon’ – overused and misunderstood. So to meet a proper curator – no inverted commas necessary – was a real treat. Twenty plus West Cornwall DFAS members had that privilege when we went ‘behind the scenes at the museum’ in Penlee House.

Being a gallery or museum curator is a dream job and we were all a little awestruck, not just by the role, but by the astonishing paintings of Ithell Colquhoun which form the current exhibition. Louise Connell the Director of Penlee House Gallery, has, together with her team, put together a fascinating exhibition of paintings by this little known 20th century painter who had strong connections with West Cornwall and who lived variously in the Isles of Scilly, at Paul and eventually in Lamorna. Colquhoun was initially a follower of surrealism and pupil of Salvador Dali. She was a poet and writer as well as a painter of great technical skill and bizarre imagination.


Born in India in 1906, Colquhoun became deeply involved in the various forms of occultism that flourished in the years after the First World War. She studied at the Slade and was widely exhibited in both the UK and in Germany from the 1930s onwards. She moved away from surrealism as her interest in magic and the occult developed and, like many others, she was drawn to the ancient prehistoric sites of Penwith.

Louise gave us a real insight into how the exhibition came about and how she chose the pictures for it. We discovered that chance conversations and keeping your ear to the ground play an important part in what can be a very long lead time before an exhibition is mounted. Making partnerships and friendships with other galleries, art professionals and institutions is an important part of any curator’s job.


We learned about the precarious funding arrangements for small local museums and galleries and how much time and energy goes into thinking about keeping these vital aspects of local history and culture going. The Art Fund is an important source of support for galleries like the Penlee and enables them to continue to add to their collection and keep it relevant to their local community.

Louise showed us round the exhibition and then took us to what we all wanted to see, which was the store cupboards where the items not on display are kept. We saw the impressive racks of paintings, the boxes and boxes of 10,000 photographs and, most excitingly, rows of Crysède dresses and blouses all hung in acid free storage bags.


It was an excellent evening, made even more so by the glass of wine we all enjoyed and the excellent organisation by Jenny Fitton and of course Ray, our bar man for the evening.

Click here to see more photos from our night at the museum.

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