WHEN her teacher asked her if she would like to work in archives when she left school, a young Fiona Cairns was horrified.

“I thought it would just involve sitting behind a desk all day,” she says, with a laugh. “I had no idea so much fascinating work goes on behind the scenes.”

Fiona is now an archivist at Glasgow’s museum-of-the-moment – since re-opening in March following a multi-million-pound refurbishment, all eyes have been on The Burrell Collection and its vast array of priceless artworks and artefacts.

Glasgow Times:

However, Fiona is responsible for the “other” Burrell Collection – the records archive of around 6000 letters, 27 purchase books, Sir William’s personal library of 1400 titles, and more…

“Working on the Burrell archive has been a great treat,” says Fiona. “The records the Burrells left behind are as important as the objects in the collection – they tell us so much about what the objects are, where they came from and how the Burrells acquired them.

Glasgow Times: View of the Burrell Collection taken at dusk. The Burrell Collection in Pollok Country park, Glasgow will re-open on the 29th March 2022 after a six year refurbishment...Photograph by Colin Mearns.15 March 2022.For The Herald Magazine.

“The purchase books are paper jotters Sir William used to record every single object he bought between 1911 and 1953. I’m always really interested to see the small sketches, notes and annotations that Burrell makes in his letters and his books – you can almost see him thinking. For example, totting up figures in margins - clearly deciding what offer to make, or making notes in the books as he teaches himself about new subjects, such as trying out hieroglyphics in a book on Egypt.”

Before the Burrell refurbishment, most of the records were stored in the Pollok Park museum’s strong room, only accessible to a handful of staff and researchers. Now, everything has been catalogued, scanned and moved into a temperature and climate-controlled archive.

“We are in a good position to be able to make this part of the archive accessible online in the future, which would be great,” says Fiona. “The archive is bursting with lots of ‘mini-stories’ and Sir William Burrell’s meticulous care for his collection really shines through. We have been known to gasp aloud when cataloguing some of the letters – there are some big personalities involved….”

She adds: “Enhancing our records is as important as improving the environment, display and storage of the collection. It helps to ensure its legacy for the very long term. Our department has been really pleased and proud to be part of that. “

Fiona is “half-Highlander and half-Geordie and moved about a bit as a child”, she says.

“I’ve lived in Glasgow on and off since 1994 when I came to study here,” she adds. “I don’t want to do the maths – time just flies. Glasgow has felt like home for a long time. I have always absolutely loved visiting archives and looking at primary sources. I remember my first trip to the local history centre at school – it was like a light switched on. I’d always been really interested in history, but hadn’t realised you could read bits of it first-hand and make your own mind up.”

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She has worked at the V&A in London, Glasgow University Archives and the Mitchell Library.

“That’s another fascinating collection, and lots of steps,” she smiles. “It did my fitness a world of good working there…After that I got my post at the Burrell Archive, and doing a bit of museums, libraries and archives work combined – which really suits me. I feel very lucky.”