For Cushla by Dorota Rychlik

Cushla Bretton, Chair of the Shetland Textile Museum sadly passed away on the 23rd of December 2016. Cushla was the heart and soul of the museum and was the real driving force behind many events and exhibitions which have taken place here at the museum. The Shetland Textile Museum Trustees are all devastated and have Cushla in their thoughts. Her spirit, bravery and determination will always live on in the böd and with us all. Dorota, a Shetland Textile Museum Trustee writes...

I first met Cushla when she came into my shop, and happily chatted while we looked at paintings. She was youthfully interested in everything in equal measure, and that made her interesting. She wanted to hear about each artist and also about nice houses for sale, good framer and fishmonger, my personal plans and dreams and how long I had lived in the country. Talking to her was enjoyable and memorable. And it remained true over the years. What is more, Cushla was a good listener, effortlessly storing new information more efficiently than a computer back up. After talking to Cushla even casually about nothing in particular, you felt more original and gracious and oddly encouraged in

Cushla with her husband David.Cushla with her husband David.

your endeavours. There were many social occasions when I bumped into her. One image of her which makes me particularly happy to recall is of her and David jiving at a friend’s retirement party, between tables. Nobody else was dancing. And while they were dancing they were sharing a funny story, and only laughter stopped them jiving. It was joy personified.

Years later, when the late Bess Jamieson recruited me to join the Shetland Textile Museum Trust, I was delighted to find Cushla sitting next to our then Chairman, Frank Robertson; she was taking minutes. She was warm, welcoming and had a most luminous smile. The meeting was subsequently referred to as the Crisis Meeting. Cushla’s very presence made it more lightsome. So few people can transform a hard slog with a tedious agenda into almost fun. In fact, we used to refer to our subsequent meetings as Serious Fun. Serious Fun at the Böd of Gremista consisted of Cushla taking over Chairmanship after Frank had retired, and, with the help of Trustees, one (self-employed) employee, and volunteers, running the Shetland Textile Museum. I am one of the Trustees, my role is best described as “backing vocals.” Cushla and I had been corresponding and enjoying frequently unscheduled meetings, mostly in car parks or in the street. I got accustomed to her extraordinary, stream of consciousness, way of expressing herself in emails, peppered with multiple fullstops and hesitant, meaningful pauses. Since her illness, I have missed those emails acutely. David called some of these exchanges “the daily Böd”. One of her more memorable statements about museums was “I don’t think anyone should be charged entry fee, museums should be all free, but of course we are going to be charging 2 or 3 dollars or pounds”. This was in her mind not a contradiction at all. You had to be there to understand what she meant. We have to charge entry fee and we will, but, really, nobody should pay for museums. It made perfect sense if you had heard how Cushla communicated the complex issue of paying for access to culture and heritage. Similarly, she was once very indignant about “funding? Back in NZ I never heard people talk about funding. If something is important, you just do it and find the money.” Again, pure Cushla speak. I hope our Treasurer is present here? Cushla once confessed that years ago, in London, in the 1970s possibly, she was utterly in love with the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, and often regretted not plucking up her courage to offer her services as volunteer. Their loss, I thought, but also, thank goodness her courage remained unplucked, because I am sure any grand institution would have happily employed her, and her life might have turned out very differently. And it would have been our loss. Mind you, it is really hard to think of Cushla lacking confidence to achieve anything.

You may remember the time when the management of busy Amenity Trust did not instantly respond to her alert about some slates flying off the roof of the Böd? Having waited for a long while Cushla simply collected the fallen slates and placed them on the desk of the person responsible for building maintenance. Point well made, we all thought. It worked, too. During her hands-on Chairmanship of the Trust, Cushla developed considerable knowledge of the collection, principles of conservation and handling, laws of museum accreditation, various policies of access and acquisition, and recruitment of Trustees and volunteers. Cushla gave encouragement and advice to students exhibiting at the Böd. We commissioned a very modern website for the museum. She was a great believer in giving visitors a personal guided tour, whether they liked it or not. Next, we were going to look into putting the collection online. But the really big next step she dreamt about was the idea of extending the premises to create the New Shetland Textile Museum. In fact it was Dr Carol Christiansen, Cushla and I who arrived at this idea simultaneously and independently during the Memorial for Bess Jamieson at the Walls Hall earlier this year. I have a strong feeling that Serious Fun has only just begun. I am personally heartbroken that we have to carry on without Cushla’s physical presence, although she will always be with us in spirit. We will never forget her enthusiasm for people and craft, her love of fine art, her generosity, her finely tuned instinct, her luminous smile and her way of making people she liked around her feel happier.

Dorota Rychlik