With no date yet for when we might be able to welcome you back into John Muir’s Birthplace, we are working hard behind the scenes to give you new ways of enjoying our experience.
We are very excited that we have new pages where we can continue to show exhibitions we have planned but are unable to show this year. We also hope to be able to keep adding to this offer to show past exhibitions, so make sure you bookmark the pages so you can keep returning as the content grows!
To begin with we are bringing information on John Muir, Earth, Planet, Universe, our summer exhibition that should have opened on 1 April. Curated by Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace, the exhibition focuses on John Muir’s legacy and his role as an environmental activist and successful campaigner and his relevance for our situation today in addressing the climate crisis. However, we have paused to reflect on the content of the exhibition in the light of the current COVID-19 crisis.
Following on from a successful run online and in the Museum before we closed, we are also delighted to bring you Sheila Sim’s Gardens of East Lothian. The beautiful photos are an oasis of calm, reminding us of nature continuing to thrive even although we are unable to spend time enjoying it at the current time. East Lothian has a long and proud heritage of gardening, and has produced several horticultural pioneers. With its good climate and fertile soil, the county has often been called ‘the garden of Scotland’. Featuring private and public gardens, parks and designed landscapes from across the county, this exhibition showcases East Lothian in all its horticultural glory.
2020 is the ‘Year of Pilgrimage’. This got us thinking about John Muir as a pilgrim and about those who make a pilgrimage to come to John Muir’s Birthplace.
“Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently“ (John Muir)
John Muir was an out-and-out pilgrim all his life. Not in the traditional sense but, as Collins Dictionary defines, in the sense that throughout his life he made journeys to places that were important to him. Muir had no use for Man’s constructions or the relics of Saints but instead he tweaked the idea of pilgrimage until it suited him. He early hit on the notion of ‘sauntering’, which he took to be a term derived from Medieval pilgrimage, and made it his own. Sauntering slowly through wilderness, mountains and forests he took the time to observe and record, saturated in the spirit of nature he felt all about.
Even his last major journey in 1913 can be regarded as pilgrimage. In a sense he began that journey in 1868 when he determined to follow in the footsteps of his hero Humboldt. On this last trip he finally reached the Amazon, ascended into the Chilean Andes to saturate himself with the experience of the Monkey Puzzle tree forests, and ventured to Africa to view the remarkable Baobab tree in its natural environment.
Several years earlier he undertook an even more explicit act of pilgrimage in venturing to Concord, Massachusetts and nearby Walden Pond, the haunts of one of his never-met heroes, Henry David Thoreau the Transcendentalist philosopher, whose works had great influence on Muir.
Now John Muir’s Birthplace is a similar place of pilgrimage to some. In part it is because of the renown in which Muir is held, not only in the United States but also across the globe. But also because the Birthplace is now the terminus of a 130 mile walking route from west coast to east through the central valley of Scotland (https://johnmuirway.org/ ).
It’s only at a period such as this, that we ourselves can begin to look more deeply at what we do and how we and the Birthplace appear to our visitors. Thanks to the indefatigable work of one of our trustees our visitor books have been transcribed and converted into word-clouds. Within the mass, several words point directly to the concept of pilgrimage – awesome, thought-provoking, inspiring and inspiration and inspirational, wonderful experience, humbling, healing, enthralling, and more. It is probably fair to say that these are possibly not often concepts written in the visitor books of small town museums! Sometimes it is even more explicit, as these two (anonymous) comments from within the past year reveal:
We are closed just now, as the whole world adjusts to unprecedented times, but we will be back. And when we reopen, we’d be delighted to see you. You don’t have to hurry – take time – saunter – through John’s home town, explore the coast, the castle ruins, the harbours, streets and wynds that were there when John was a boy. And then drop into the Birthplace and tell us what you think! And like the pilgrims of old, perhaps take home a memento of a journey well made.
Usually we would spend John’s Birthday (and most other days) encouraging people to go outside and spend a bit of time appreciating the ‘infinite beauty’ of nature. That’s not quite so easy this year! Along with our colleagues East Lothian Council Countryside Rangers, we are co-hosting a ‘Mindfulness in Nature’ event that you can practise during your daily exercise, in your garden or even standing at your front door, and more on that can be found here Mindfulness in Nature.
Also – to turn things on their head this year, we want to show you inside our building. We would like to share this short video of a tour of John Muir’s Birthplace, filmed last summer by filmmaker Michael Conti, and presented by our very own Chair of John Muir’s Birthplace Charitable Trust, Duncan Smeed. This will give you a short insight into the Museum until we are able to open again. East Lothian Council Museum Service and John Muir Birthplace Trust would like to thank Michael Conti for giving us permission to show this film.
We expected to be hosting Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace – Membership exhibition just now – John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 closure, we have been unable to bring you this, however starting next week we will be posting parts of the exhibition on here.
The exhibition focuses on John Muir’s legacy and his role as an environmental activist and successful campaigner and his relevance for our situation today in addressing the climate crisis. However, we have paused to reflect on the content of the exhibition in the light of the current COVID-19 crisis. There are certain parallels between what are both global existential crises. Perhaps the pandemic may help us to understand the ties that bind us on a global scale, the fragility of our economic systems and how vulnerable they leave so many people and the inadequacy of our response to the even greater threat of climate crisis? Even though climate change presents a slower, more long-term health threat, an equally dramatic and much more sustained shift in ways of life and economic, political and social structures will be needed to prevent irreversible damage. Information can also be found on the Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace website.
Something we are really missing at the moment are our lovely visitors. Our museum assistants love the varied and sometimes challenging questions we often get. So we are going to start a weekly question and answer session on Facebook @JMBirthplace and Twitter @JM_Birthplace, where you can ask us anything about how the museum is run or about our collections. Have you a burning question you always wanted to know about John Muir, or about the history of Dunbar? Now is your chance. If we don’t know the answer there and then, we’ll find out and get back to you.
Sitting at home with nothing to do – then it’s the ideal time to find out more about John Muir, his life and adventures. But where to start?
We’ve pulled together some of our favourite websites – they cover the gamut of ‘John Muir online’.
The first is us, of course: https://www.jmbt.org.uk/learn/factsheets/. Our factsheets cover many aspects of John Muir’s time in Dunbar, his family and other people in his life. We’re looking on the temporary closure of the Birthplace as an opportunity to refresh the factsheets, and add to them – watch this space for updates.Why not use the feedback section of this site to let us know if there’s a topic you would like covered in our factsheets?
Your next port of call could be the John Muir Exhibit, curated by Harold Wood: https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/. Harold has spent years putting together themed collections of Muiriana – it is, literally, all here! There are sections on Muir’s writing (https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/books.aspx ) and directions to the Internet Archive where many different formats can be found – for Kindle, iPad, and more; just use the search box and scroll thru’ the results. Elsewhere there are Meditations (https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/quotes.aspx ), and links to Film and Documentaries (https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/bibliographic_resources/john_muir_bibliography/film_and_video.aspx ). Just note that many are off-site links and some may be behind firewalls or ask for a membership or a fee to access.
Muir’s role is often mentioned on the US National Park Service Website (https://www.nps.gov/index.htm ); it ought be, as it is John’s Legacy to us all!
Now, of course, we have our own National Parks (https://www.gov.scot/policies/landscape-and-outdoor-access/national-parks/; https://www.nationalparksengland.org.uk/) and the John Muir Trust (https://www.johnmuirtrust.org/ ) and even if we can’t go to these places at present, perhaps the information will be useful for planning ahead.
Finally, we can’t miss out the Special Collections at the Holt Atherton Library, University of the Pacific. They hold virtually all of John’s surviving manuscripts, letters and journals; and they’re all digitised; and most of them are transcribed and keyword searchable. Find it all here: https://www.pacific.edu/university-libraries/find/holt-atherton-special-collections/john-muir-papers.html. There’s even a transcription project underway – you could help: https://www.pacific.edu/university-libraries/find/holt-atherton-special-collections/online-transcription-project.html.
We hope that this selection will inspire readers to find out more about the life and legacy of John Muir. And, once we’re open again, we’d be delighted to see you in person, at the Birthplace, where the staff are always keen to answer questions and supply information.
Some more photos from Sheila Sim Photography’s ‘Gardens of East Lothian’.
The garden at Humbie Dean is the work of one man, Frank Kirwan, who has almost single-handedly created an ornamental and woodland oasis out of dense thicket and challenging terrain. Pictured here is the daffodil meadow, sandwiched between steep slopes leading down to two burns. The garden is planted for interest throughout the year and is open to the public on various dates from April through to August.
The Backlands Garden in Dunbar, just behind the High Street, is part of social enterprise The Ridge. The Ridge have developed it as an employability training project, and the trainees have transformed this abandoned space into something beautiful. Last year it expanded to include a new Sanctuary Garden (pictured here), a project that has involved the Dunbar Dementia Carers Support Group and Dunbar Grammar School.