Inspired by Knole Project Curator Emma Slocombe describes her work as curator and what makes 600-year-old Knole such a very special place in our national heritage.
Inspired by Knole Project Curator, 2007-2017
Interviewed by Veronica Walker-Smith and Christine Nevard
Well, curatorial work really deals with the material legacy I suppose, of the places in our care, be it a landscape, a building or a chair in a collection. And part of my job, is to make sure, that particularly in times of change, when a big project is running like this project, that the things that we are working with or the things that we are proposing to change are understood. And that can mean working over in the archives at the Kent History Centre where there are wonderful rich archives relating to this property that go back to the 12th century; or if something is out of my area of expertise, finding the right person to do the job for us, to keep the project moving. And a case in point is Felicity who is with us today, cataloguing the books and they will go on a national database, with full public access. So it’ll be a wonderful thing.
What makes the atmosphere at Knole such an affecting experience?
I think spirit of place at Knole is to do with time depth. And I think it’s as simple as that. It is a place that has been occupied and evolved for centuries and centuries, and you feel it in every stone, paving slab, window of the place. It feels ancient and old, almost like it’s grown out of the earth. When you walk off Sevenoaks High Street into the park, it is the most extraordinarily transformative experience. You’re suddenly in a medieval deer park! When previously you’re in a high street, it almost feels like south London. So that’s what spirit of place for me is, it’s a kind of otherness that exists in current time.
The challenges of writing a huge conservation management plan for Knole and helping the project team to run smoothly
In relation to the project itself, I get involved at all kinds of different levels. So during the Heritage Lottery Fund process, I was responsible for pulling together the conservation management plan which sat alongside the activity plan, in that application. It’s a vast document, cataloguing what is significant about Knole and how we best manage that heritage asset to ensure that its future is secured. I managed the tender process, appointing our consultants, Oxford Archaeology, and managed that process from start to finish. It had quite a lot of input from me, and also from Siobhan Barratt, the conservator, Helen Fawbert, (House & Collections Manager), Robin Mills, the building surveyor, and Nathalie Cohen, our archaeologist, to make sure that all of those different disciplines which are concerned with the historic environment, were happy with the content of the plan and how things were being proposed to be looked after in the future and during a major building project to make sure we get things right.
The enthusiastic support of the Sackvilles, donor family at Knole
I’m really lucky as a curator that we have in Robert Sackville-West, a member of a donor family, as we call them in the Trust, who is so interested in history, in what we’re doing, that the conversations that he and I tend to have are quite sparky and engaged because we’re usually both interested in what the other is doing. And he was really helpful in supporting the conservation management plan process, that, and when we’re commissioning other pieces of research. So I’ve commissioned research into the archives relating to the new spaces that we’re opening, for example. And he’s been very supportive of both the commissioning of that work, allowing access to his private papers here at Knole, most of which are unpublished; providing access to spaces that are within his tenancy agreement. Really very generous. And we always give him copies of the draft reports to comment on, and the finished report when it’s done. And the other person who we all adore working with of course, is his mother, Bridget, and she is so generous with her time, her knowledge and the collections that she has in her own apartments.
Her knowledge must be tremendous.
E.S.: It is tremendous. And she’s so generous, warm and welcoming. She’s an absolute pleasure to work with.