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Meet the new museum director of the Burton at Bideford

PUBLISHED: 12:07 01 May 2018 | UPDATED: 12:07 01 May 2018

The Burtons new executive director, Chris Kirby

The Burtons new executive director, Chris Kirby

image copyright © guy harrop

From the deserts of Egypt to the beaches of North Devon, there’s a new face at the helm of a Devon art gallery and museum, as CATHERINE COURTENAY discovers

It’s hard not to think about mummies’ curses or Indiana Jones adventure films when meeting the new executive director of the Burton at Bideford.

Why? Because Chris Kirby is an Egyptologist; he spent 20 years visiting the country and can recount tales of long lost tombs and mysterious legends of healing serpents.

Yet Chris is now firmly ensconced in the heart of North Devon, leading Bideford’s art gallery and museum into a major new phase of its development.

The Burton has become an Arts Council National Partner Organisation, which gives it secured funding of around £80,000 pa for four years.

It’s a major boost for what is recognised as a regional cultural centre.

“I was excited to come here,” says Chris. “I felt that it was at a pivotal point and had earned its stripes to get here.”

The Burton stands in a prime position in BidefordThe Burton stands in a prime position in Bideford

Having the extra funding means: “We can go beyond being safe and experiment more.”

Sitting in his office, looking out at the sleeting rain, he comments on how wet the winter has been. “I now know why Devon has so much lush vegetation!” Moving from Coventry to Devon last September, he and his wife are living near the beach at Instow where they both revel in watching “the ongoing seasons, the skies and hills and wonderful wildlife”.

He reflects: “I get a sense that people are a lot more outdoorsy here than in the Midlands. It is such a beautiful place to be.”

The Burton has a great position, on the edge of the town’s Victoria Park, close to the waterside. The museum is on the upper floor with the gallery rooms downstairs along with a shop and craft gallery and popular French bistro, Café du Parc.

Visitor numbers have been rising in recent years, no doubt due in part to the programme which includes national shows by major artists like Antony Gormley and popular ‘family shows’, like The Clangers, the BFG in Pictures show and the forthcoming Peter Rabbit show.

Ceramics are a major feature at the BurtonCeramics are a major feature at the Burton

“We can bring in the big name artists that people would have to go to London to see otherwise,” says Chris. “But we also need to create a local response to connect to it.”

He wants exhibitions to become a catalyst in the community. “Will there be a legacy; will it resonate with people?”

Forging links with the 13 to 25-year-old age group, at the same time as keeping its loyal older support base, is crucial says Chris.

Art and culture has an important part to play. “It gives confidence and the ‘soft’ skills that are integral to society, the ability to communicate is the most important tool in all parts of our economy,” he says, before highlighting the annual schools’ exhibition.

“The confidence that comes with seeing your work displayed here and seen by so many people, that must stay with you for life.”

The seeds of Chris’ own career were sown at an early age.

The craft shop at the BurtonThe craft shop at the Burton

“I was brainwashed by my mother who was, and is even to this day, obsessed with Egypt. Her father used to take her to auctions. When she was about seven there was a mummy case which she wanted for her bedroom.”

He adds: “I grew up wanting to be an Egyptologist and dig in Egypt – and I did!”

After researching notebooks written in the 1830s, Chris found the site mentioned by the author and eventually spotted something sticking out of the sand…he’d found a tomb.

On another occasion he tracked down the place where up to the 1850s there were countless traveller reports of a famous snake with healing powers which came out of a hole in the cliff near where a sheik was buried. No-one had mentioned it since, no-one living locally would speak of it, until Chris met an elderly man who pointed to the place.

“It was the first time in 120 years that the story of the haridi snake was heard. I love the way the whole folklore thing mixes in with archaeology.”

These days, Chris has swapped the sands of Egypt for that of North Devon’s beaches – but the discoveries haven’t stopped, as is revealed on his low-tide rambles.

“As an archaeologist you’re always looking down. I’ve found bits of pottery and got very excited about it. People don’t think of Bideford as Medieval, but there it is, in the ground.

“The thing that sends a shiver down my spine is when I find fingerprints in the clay. That for me is quite something,” he says.

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