Coffin Cover

These are verbatim transcripts of interviews, reflecting spoken rather than written language.


INTERVIEWER 1: It’s the 18th of January 2022 and this is a story interview for Out and About: Queering the Museum project at RAMM. My name is Natalie McGrath and I am interviewing Helen Burbage. Hi Helen. 

PARTICIPANT 1: Hi Natalie. 


INTERVIEWER 1: So we are asking everyone to choose an object that they connect to from RAMM’s collections, so can you tell us which object you have chosen and can you describe it to us? 

PARTICIPANT 1: Sure, so the object that I have chosen is a coffin pall from St Mary Arches Church in Exeter and it dates from the late medieval period, so we think from around 1470 to 1510. The coffin pall, which is a cloth to cover a coffin, is made up of decorated embroidered panels, which are called orphreys, and these would originally have been taken from priests’ vestments, and when you look at the object now, you can see that it has orphreys from more than one vestment, because you can see the way the pieces have been cut and then stitched together. In the centre is a cross-shaped fragment, which depicts the crucifixion, so this large segment would have been on the back of a chasuble, which is a vestment worn by a priest, because at the time that mass was said, this is the part that would have been visible to the congregation. There are also lots of other panels that show single figures, or different apostles and saints. Understandably the colours are quite faded now but it would have included some yellows, blues and greens, so quite rich colours, so this object was repurposed from priests’ vestments to a coffin pall during the reformation. The parish wasn’t particularly wealthy so this was a way of being able to afford a richly embroidered pall which was a desirable object, something of a status symbol, and it’s also a way of making the object acceptable again. 


INTERVIEWER 1: That’s fascinating. I’m just going to hold my question, actually, about the reformation. Why this object? What drew you to this object? That’s what we’d really love to know. 

PARTICIPANT 1: So I’ve been drawn to this object ever since I worked here. Firstly because it’s very beautiful. There’s amazing workmanship, craftsmanship, gone into it, and just an incredible amount of work has gone into this very detailed embroidery. I’m a Catholic, so it has always resonated with me as being a part of my faith’s history, but I think I’ve also always really admired the resourcefulness of this parish community, that they had these beautiful vestments and then rather than lose them, they sought to repurpose them and to find another way to keep them as part of the parish community, so they changed the aspects of them that due to the reformation had then become unacceptable so that they could keep them and still be able to use them and I think I’ve always admired that kind of resourcefulness and practical approach to these things that they had in their possession. So that aspect of repurposing I think leads me onto what drew me to it in the context of the Queering the Museum project. So after being asked to participate I was thinking more about various objects in RAMM’s collection, that I had a connection with, and as I thought about this one in particular more, in the context of this project, I think it made me think about the relationship between my own faith and my sexuality. Obviously, it’s often really difficult to be a queer person within church communities. I think we’re all well aware of how hard that can be, but I think for me personally at least, it has sometimes also felt difficult to a person of faith within queer communities, so the way that this parish community repurposed this object and I think you could say almost effectively hid its Catholic identity in order for it to be more acceptable, made me reflect on the ways in which I felt tension between those two aspects of myself and have to a certain extent kind of hid or minimised my own faith or when I was younger, hid or minimised my sexuality in order to move more easily in the world. I’ve been out for a long time so my days of hiding the fact that I’m gay are long gone, but it’s probably fair to say that over time I’ve hidden my faith identity to a certain extent, rather than deal with negotiating the tension that comes from or can come from being fully part of those two communities. Maybe I’ve repurposed myself into something more acceptable but then taking part in this project has made me think again whether I do want to do that anymore and whether just as I get older that maybe I can like live with the tension and do I want to fold away that part of myself? And minimise it. Or do I want to just embrace the complicatedness and the messiness that can come with both? 


INTERVIEWER 1: I mean that’s just a beautiful interweaving of your story and the story of the object. Thank you for sharing that and I think there’s something about those complexities in terms of if you’re a person of faith, you are not just a person of faith, you are many things. If you are a queer person, you are not just a queer person, you are many things. And I think there’s something that I didn’t know and hadn’t thought of in terms of this object and I wondered… that that repurposing in the face of adversity, that they do, that is so illuminating and fascinating historically at that time. I just wondered if you could talk a bit more about that? 

PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, I think I just have always found that quite incredible and obviously I don’t know the extent to which it was driven by different factors. I don’t know the extent to which it was a purely pragmatic thing or if there was a more emotional attachment to it as well. Clearly they would have been beautiful vestments and they would have been in use by the priest of the church all the time, so there would have been an integral part of the life of the parish and they would have been very familiar to the parishioners who worshipped there, so I wonder yeah, I wonder whether the parishioners or the priest at the time felt an emotional connection to them as well, and that there was an aspect of not wanting to lose the beauty of them or not wanting to just discard something that was significant. I guess it could also make you wonder the extent to which they became kind of fully Protestant but obviously I don’t know that for sure, but yeah, I think there’s something really beautiful in the way that they chose to repurpose those objects and to keep them part of the parish community and yeah, whether it was driven by pragmatism or emotion, I just don’t know. As you say I think it’s quite illuminating. I really admire their resourcefulness in the face of this massive change to the way their parish would have to operate and the way their faith would have to be from now on. 


INTERVIEWER 1: And there’s something isn’t there just symbolically about the idea of embroidery and how something is made in terms of there are parallels for me when I think about embroidery and those beautiful objects and how we kind of weave our lives, all the different strands and stories of our lives, and I wondered about the proximity of the object, because this is a, am I right in saying, a local object? 

PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, it’s from St Mary Arches which is a parish from the centre of Exeter, so yeah, it’s an incredibly local object. I didn’t grow up here. I moved to Exeter when I started work at RAMM, but I’ve been here for 11 years so far so I feel like I have made it my home so although it’s not where I grew up, I feel like I do have a connection to the city and to the area and yeah, it does feel like my home now. Yeah, so it’s quite lovely that it’s an object from here and it’s an object that’s from the lives of ordinary people. Like I said, it wasn’t a massively wealthy parish. They were just normal everyday people who had just normal complicated brilliant lives like all of us do, so yeah, I like that aspect of it as well. I think. 


INTERVIEWER 1: Thank you. That’s really illuminating and do you think other LGBTQ people might connect with an object like this? 

PARTICIPANT 1: So to a certain extent it’s difficult to say because obviously I chose it because of the personal connection and kind of personal resonances that I felt and there’s a multiplicity of experiences and opinions and yeah, worldview and everything among queer people, so I don’t want to speak for everyone, but yeah, maybe for any kind of queer person of faith who has felt a tension between those two parts of themselves or anyone who’s felt that they’ve had to remodel any part of themselves in order to feel that they fit more easily in the world, then certainly I feel like there could be a point of connection there, definitely. 


INTERVIEWER 1: That’s fantastic, thank you. And how do you feel about having your voice represented in the museum? I think you’ve talked a little bit about the importance of this project already, actually, so- 

PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, it’s been really great to take part. It’s been really nice to reflect on – nice, that’s not the right word – it’s been really interesting to reflect on objects that I’m quite familiar with in a different way and to think about things more differently than objects that for the most part I interact with on a more practical level, because I’m working with them all the time, but it’s been nice to think about and reflect more deeply on the kind of emotional resonance that some of them have with me. And in terms of the project as a whole, it’s been so brilliant to have this project looking at the collection as a whole through this like queer lens and yeah, to see the breadth of artistic responses that we’ve had to RAMM’s collection has been really inspiring, I think. Yeah, and it’s, I’m just really interested to hear everybody else’s stories and to have them out there as well and to start hearing the public’s responses to them as well and I hope that people find, I’m sure that people will find at least one that they connect with on some level. 


INTERVIEWER 1: Yeah and I’m also sort of, you’ve touched on the importance of the project for you and I wonder, you know, you’ve started to talk soon the installation is going to be very public and the public will be able to reach the project in a way that is new for the project because we’ve been in a pandemic, there hasn’t been the same kind of visibility that we might have had and so you know, as someone who works in the museum, you get a sort of a sense and a feel of those collections in a way that others might not, so the value and the importance or just even the physical presence of a new object, structure, installation, what do you think people might take away from that? 

PARTICIPANT 1: I think people will be really excited because the installation is going in one of our permanent galleries, so it’s obvious to me, but it’s not always obvious to people, it’s a lot of work to change what’s on display in the permanent galleries, so it’s great that the installation is coming into a place where it’s difficult to do large-scale changeovers of objects that are on display. When you think about the conservation work that would need to go into something, photography, research, interpretation panels written, it’s not a case of just bringing new things out of the store and popping them on the shelf, so something new and very different in a space that doesn’t change as frequently as temporary exhibition galleries, I think will really grab people’s interests and people love a bit of interactivity so I am sure that they will be keen to listen to lots of stories and find out all the things that people have got to say about them, so my object is on display and some other objects in the installation are on display as well, so I am interested to see whether people then try and spot them during the rest of their visit, if they listen to stories and then kind of go and see if they can find them in the galleries, so yeah, I think people will respond to it really positively, so I am looking forward to hearing their feedback, really. 


INTERVIEWER 1: Yeah, it’s very exciting and I think that one of the overarching themes of the project has been about faith and religion in the collections, it has been an aspect of it so it’s really exciting to have your voice in the collection, so thank you, and I just wondered if there’s anything that you haven’t said that you think, I wish I’d say that, that you’d like to- 

PARTICIPANT 1: [laughs] [missed] [00:17:11]- 


INTERVIEWER 1: That you would like to say. I mean you’ve said so much and so beautifully. 

PARTICIPANT 1: I don’t know. I think I’ve pretty much covered everything. I hope in a way that also if people come and listen to the stories and hear about the objects that I and other people have chosen and the way they resonated with us just, I don’t know, maybe on that visit or on their next visit to RAMM, that maybe they try and search out the object that speaks to them as well, because I feel like there’s probably something that most people can find a connection with on some level so yeah, I hope that people get to find that kind of spark with their own object when they next come. 


INTERVIEWER 1: Brilliant. Thank you so much. 

PARTICIPANT 1: That’s okay. Thank you. Yeah. 

[00:18:16] End of transcript