Obituary | Susan Bourne, 1950-2020 - Museums Association

Obituary | Susan Bourne, 1950-2020

Sue Bourne was known for her energy, infectious enthusiasm and sense of fun
Alan Robinson and Moira Stevenson

Sue was brought up in Littleborough outside Rochdale. Her school years were spent at Yorkshire boarding schools located in country houses where she developed a lifelong interest in architecture and a love of the countryside, while avoiding the sports field.

Graduating in English Literature from Lancaster in 1971 she gained a place on the newly established Art Gallery and Museum Studies postgraduate course at the University of Manchester. Following student attachments at Temple Newsam and Abbot Hall she obtained her first job in 1972 as assistant curator at Towneley Hall, Burnley, under curator John Blundell, who left shortly afterwards to go to Lancashire County Museums Services. He was succeeded at Towneley by Hubert Rigg and it was on Hubert’s retirement in 1988 that Sue became the curator, a post she held until her retirement in 2010.

In her 38 years at Towneley, Sue’s main achievement will probably be seen as the extension to the hall, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, on the footprint of the demolished service wing. She steered the project from conception to completion.

The development provided a shop, lecture theatre, library, exhibition preparation space and new staff offices. This freed up spaces in the hall for new displays from the collections.

Sue achieved the delicate balance of respecting the architecture while installing new services, overseeing the sensitive installation of electric lighting in the long gallery, air conditioning in the art galleries and security systems that enabled the museum to meet insurance requirements and achieve the necessary standards for Accreditation.

Sue, who was always keen to promote the collections, supported the loan of key works from the collection to major exhibitions. The 18th-century painting Charles Towneley and his Friends in His Library at Park Street by Johann Zoffany was frequently in demand. 

In 2009 Sue was also responsible for raising the funds for the acquisition of the bust of Charles Towneley to enhance the collections related to the Towneley family who owned the hall prior to its purchase by Burnley Corporation in 1936.

The art galleries and the natural history centre at Towneley saw a full programme of exhibitions sourced from the collections. Loans were often secured from other institutions. Sue trusted her staff to suggest projects and supported them to carry them through, understanding that at times family life takes precedence over museum life.


In addition to being the public face of Towneley, Sue was responsible for collections management, producing the first true inventory. This was originally card based but later involved digital technology. She also developed the collections, especially regional furniture, of which she was an expert, by accessing funding from the National Art Collections Fund (now the Art Fund), Victoria & Albert Museum, Towneley Hall Society and the Edward Stocks Massey Bequest.

Sue was also an active member of the profession in the region, serving on the North West Arts Panel, the National Trust Regional Advisory Board and the North West Museum Service Board. On a national level she was a founder member of the Regional Furniture Society and an active member of the Furniture Society.

It is unlikely that such a career, spent in one museum for an entire working life, thereby accruing an encyclopaedic knowledge of its collections, would be possible in the current museum world.

In retirement Sue avoided meetings and organisational commitments to concentrate on her private passions - art, books and developing her gardens in Cheshire and the Lake District.

She remained an enthusiastic visitor of exhibitions, cathedrals, churches, country houses and gardens in Britain and Europe with former colleagues, family and friends.

She will be much missed for her energy, infectious enthusiasm and sense of fun.

Compiled by Alan Robinson and Moira Stevenson with information from Sue’s former colleagues, family and friends

Comments (2)

  1. Adrienne Wallman says:

    I was very sorry to hear of Sue’s death. I worked with her in the late 80s/early 90s as part of the Lancashire Exhibitions Group, when I was at Blackburn Art Gallery. As Alan and Moira say, she was great fun to work with. I last saw her a few years ago when I bumped into her and Moira somewhere south of Kendal and I know she had been ill then. Very sad news.
    Adrienne Wallman

  2. Michael Taylor says:

    Very sad to hear this. I worked with Susan at Towneley 1974-1978 as a very wet behind the ears ‘Trainee – Natural History’. Susan made me welcome, filled me in on local history and gave me my basic grounding in museum work. I have fond memories of Towneley and of Susan’s qualities.

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