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Marie McMillan

Marie McMillan Interior Stylest & Owner/Director

Be Inspired Series

Kim Mawhinney

Head of Art
National Museums Northern Ireland

What does your job entail?

I am head of Art for National Museums Northern Ireland, based at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum at Cultra. For the most part, my job consists of the day-to-day running of the art department and managing the curatorial staff that curate the National Museum's art collections. As the art department, we are responsible for the art collections, their research and interpretation, usually through exhibitions.

How did you get into this line of work?

When I was about nine or 10 my cousin Elaine, who was studying at Queen's University, took to me to the Ulster Museum for the first time. I was completely blown away by the exhibits, seeing real historical objects really amazed me. I always remember a costume exhibition that was on display and how I was fascinated by why the museum collects what it does. I left the Ulster Museum that day knowing that museums were where I wanted to work.

So did you always work in this sector?

I have been extremely fortunate in my career. As a student I had some really bizarre jobs including working in one of the first punk/alternative clothes shops in Belfast and an amazing window display wholesalers in London. When I started my second degree, which I studied part-time, I was working as a computer software trainer in Belfast.

I was always interested in curatorial work and had done some voluntary work at the Ulster Museum in applied art. When the curator of Applied Art at the time retired, I applied for the job and got it. Now fifteen years later, I have been appointed Head of Art.

How has your previous experience helped you in your current role?

I loved art in school and thankfully had enough talent to make it to Art College at York Street in Belfast. I did my foundation course before a degree in Combined Studies in Art & Design. During my degree, I focused my practical work on photography and my theoretical work on the study of exhibition design and museum theory.

Getting jobs in museums can be extremely difficult. I worked as a volunteer several times while at college but I spent an entire year, between degrees, as a volunteer at the Ulster Museum cataloguing the ceramics and glass collections. I went back to Art college to study for a Master of Philosophy degree based on research into the history of museums and in particular the Ulster Museum itself.

What qualities are essential for your position?

Organisational skills are extremely helpful both on a personal and professional level. Working for a museum means that you are more often than not working on many different types and scales of projects at the same time. It is a huge balancing act to get everything working together smoothly.
For example, we have just taken down the hugely important international Sean Scully retrospective exhibition and we are now hanging the art galleries with a series of seven new art exhibitions showcasing the best of our own art collections. This is a huge team effort that includes the art curators working with specialist conservators and art handlers, designers, learning staff and our front-of-house team. These people all need to be co-ordinated so the doors open to the public on schedule.

What do you do day-to-day?

As a curator my job was extremely varied including organising exhibitions, lecturing, researching the collection, dealing with public inquiries about the objects that they own or our collections and acquiring new art for the collection. The art we collect today is a legacy and hopefully an inspiration for the people of Northern Ireland.

As head of Art I continue to do my curatorial work and also manage the four curators who look after all the different types of art we have in the collections. I am also involved in forward planning for exhibitions and key development projects.

One of the great aspects of my job is its variety. Opportunities are always arising such as new partnerships and potential acquisitions for the collection.

What makes working in your industry challenging?

Many challenges face the museum sector in regard to accountability and funding. National Museums Northern Ireland cares for and preserves all the collections which ultimately belong to and can be enjoyed by the public.

I was very fortunate to work directly on some large-scale projects for National Museums Northern Ireland including the Ulster Museum's major rejuvenation project. I managed several aspects of the gallery refurbishment including the new and stunning George and Angela Moore Gallery of Applied Art.

Being part of this important project made me feel, in some way, that I was contributing to the rejuvenation of Belfast.

What kind of personality do you need to operate successfully within the industry?

Although I work in the art department, I do think being creative helps in lots of areas of museum work. Thinking up new exhibitions, projects and partnerships that excite and motivate visitors to come to our museums is a very creative process.

Flexibility is another attribute that is much needed as plans often change and being able to think on your feet when unforeseen situations arise is definitely beneficial.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Travelling as much as possible. It usually is a busman's holiday for me as art galleries, museums and historical sites are always on the agenda. Thankfully my family are interested as well and are happy to tag along. I have also been very lucky to travel to fantastic places with work such as Japan and the US. I also like to cook and entertain friends and family as often as possible.

Who has inspired you most in your life?

Many people have inspired me throughout my life including members of my family, previous members of the art department and tutors at Art college.

Someone whom I continue to reflect back on is Arthur Deane who was one of the first curators of the original Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. He was groundbreaking and revolutionary in his ideas about how museums should be seen by society. In 1910, he published a paper entitled 'The Educational Efficiency of Art Galleries and Museums' which was lauded throughout the museum world at that time.

Deane believed very strongly in the educational value of the collections held in museums, something I try to remember every time we plan the future of the collections.

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