What heritage means to me: Dr Robert Whan

Dr Robert Whan, Keeper of Armagh Robinson Library
Dr Robert Whan is Keeper of Armagh Robinson Library, the oldest public library in Northern Ireland and an accredited museum. He told us about his love of history.

How do you define “heritage”?

Heritage is the physical objects (such as artefacts, buildings and monuments) and intangible practices (like folklore, languages, music and traditions) that we inherit as a legacy from past generations. It helps us to understand where we come from and who we are in the present. That's why it's worth preserving for the future.

Can you tell us more about your job?

‘Keeper’ is the title given to the library’s chief executive officer. The role involves providing leadership, managing a team, fundraising, caring for and interpreting the collections, and audience development. I was appointed as the library’s first lay Keeper earlier this year. Previously the Keepers were always Church of Ireland clergymen.

What is going on at Armagh Robinson Library & [nearby museum] No 5 at the moment?

Excitingly, the BBC have been filming at the adjoining Keeper’s Residence for their upcoming period drama Death and Nightingales, starring Jamie Dornan.

We're carrying out a project to improve our online catalogue, funded by the Apollo Foundation and Pilgrim Trust. An HLF grant is also helping us match all donations up to £1million which is really helping our work here.

What inspired you to choose a career in heritage?

At school my favourite subject was history, which I then went on to study to doctorate level. Initially I taught history at Queen’s University, Belfast and also Ulster University, but over the last six years I have become more involved in museum projects.

Do you have a favourite piece of local heritage?

This is a difficult question to answer because I like so many! I like visiting the Ulster American Folk Park in County Tyrone. It brings to life the story of emigration from Ulster to America in the 18th and 19th centuries, from a full-size replica sailing ship to the smell of turf fires and freshly baked soda bread.

What is the last piece of heritage you visited?

Last week I was privileged to have a tour of Killyleagh Castle in County Down by the owner Gawn Rowan Hamilton. It has been home to the Hamilton family for 400 years.

Do you have a favourite historical figure?

When I was at school I enjoyed learning about the Tudors, so I’d probably say Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. My own historical research has often, though, focused on trying to uncover the history of the everyday life and experiences of ‘ordinary’ people rather than privileged elites.

What’s your favourite film?

The last film I saw on the big screen was Dawn, a black-and-white silent film from 1928 about the trial and execution of Edith Cavell. During the last year I have been involved in 14–18 NOW’s “They Shall Not Grow Old” project. This involved production of learning resources to accompany a film by the Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson. I am currently looking forward to seeing the finished version.

Do you have a favourite meal?

A traditional roast dinner, followed by strawberry pavlova or raspberry ruffle cheesecake.

Robert took part in the HLF-supported Collections Skills Initiative in 2012 and completed a one-year placement at Newry & Mourne Museum.

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