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Destination Scotland

The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum archtect's drawing
Architect's drawing of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (RBBM) in Alloway, near Ayr, opened its doors to visitors for the first time on 1st December.

It is the first museum to use the Scots language in its main exhibition text.

Original manuscript of Tam o' Shanter in Burns's hand. RBBM will house the largest and most significant Burns collection in the world

Consider the following extract from a letter from Dr Moore to Robert Burns, 23 May 1787:

It is evident that you already possess a great variety of expression and Command of the English Language, you ought therefore to deal more sparingly for the future in the Provincial Dialect why should you by using that limit the number of your admirers to those who understand the Scotish, when you can extend it to all persons of Taste who understand the English language.

Robert Burns's use of Scots in his poems and songs singles him out from many of his contemporary writers. It arguably accounts for his popularity during his lifetime. They demonstrate the genius and novelty of the 'heaven-taught' ploughman and this, combined with his ability to transcend social boundaries and his use of his vernacular language to explore elevated themes struck the hearts and minds of his readers both great and small. Burns's mastery of the Scots language is arguably as important as the message his works convey; it is a living artefact in itself.

Robert Burns, his language, his literary genius and his enduring popularity are all closely interwoven. One of RBBM's main aims, and the main focus of its learning outcomes, is to celebrate the life and works of one of the most popular writers in the world. The museum, which is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, is therefore as much about language as it is about the man who used that language to communicate and to create the poems and songs for which he is famed today. This led the museum's project team to ask the question, should a museum celebrating the life and work of Scotland's national bard use the same language that he did?

Story panel with Scots as main language
In the development of a project with visitors at its heart, it is always dangerous to make assumptions and therefore a programme of evaluation was devised to gauge opinion amongst Scots language experts, museum professionals and potential visitors from various locations within the UK and abroad. The overall message received from participants was that it would be appropriate to use Scots, the language of Burns, but that the museum would need to make sure the text is accessible to a broad range of visitors. The project team was also advised to provide an introductory panel to explain the museum's approach to language and to use Scots in audio recordings wherever possible.

Based on this feedback, the decision was taken to present the main interpretive panels within the exhibition in Scots, with glossing to maximise access and to reflect Burns's writing. Writer James Robertson worked with the museum to develop its Scots text. Scots is also presented in audio recordings, a number of interactives, graphics and artworks across the site. The introductory 'beacons' to each themed area of the museum, including an introductory panel on language, object labels and explanatory text for interactives, are presented in English. Further programmes of evaluation are planned for January and summer 2011 to assess how successful this approach is with visitors. The feedback received will inform how the museum develops its approach to the use of language in the future.

For more information please contact Mary Stones, Interpretation Project Manager with the National Trust for Scotland at mstones@nts.org.uk.

SLD would like to thank Mary Stones of the National Trust for Scotland for kindly providing this article and the photographs.