Obituary: Rona Cole

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The Independent Online
Helen Rona MacCalman, museum curator: born Aberdeen 6 October 1938; Curator, Guernsey Museum & Art Gallery / Director, Guernsey Museums & Galleries 1973-94; married Glen Cole (one daughter); died Guernsey 24 July 1994.

RONA COLE, Director of Guernsey Museums & Galleries, was a visionary and a crusader of considerable intellect. She was happiest when planning a new museum development or one of the regular temporary exhibitions held by the museum service. Through these exhibitions she strove to expose locals and tourists alike to fresh insights into their culture and heritage.

Some, like an exhibition of Renoir's Guernsey paintings, were traditional, yet hugely successful. Others, like an exhibition of historic dog collars, were innovative and thought-provoking. The standard was high, constantly regulated by her close attention to detail. Cole never seemed to tire of the political struggle to bring her ideas to fruition and she was an indomitable opponent in any debate.

She was born Rona MacCalman, in Aberdeen in 1938, into an academic family. Her father, Douglas MacCalman, was a distinguished research psychiatrist and later Professor of Psychiatry at Leeds University.

Rona also followed the academic path. After an education at Badminton School, Bristol, she read anthropology and graduated from Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1960. She began her career as an archaeologist at the State Museum in Windhoek, South West Africa (now Namibia). Her activities included field-work and research, resulting in the publication of academic papers on prehistory and a fund of anecdotes about camping in the bush and skinning antelope with flint scrapers. Her studies in prehistory are still quoted by workers in the field.

She met her husband Glen Cole, an archaeologist from the Field Museum, Chicago, at a conference in Senegal. In 1971, Rona and her four-year-old daughter, Cassandra, returned to England, where she undertook a postgraduate certificate in Museum Studies at Leicester University, under the direction of H. Raymond Singleton. He was a key influence on her forthcoming museum career. After a spell at the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh, she was persuaded to apply for the newly created post of Curator in Guernsey, where a decision to build a new museum had already been taken. She moved to the island at the end of 1973, as their first full-time professional curator.

Working under difficult conditions with her small staff, in a plastic tent inside a leaky Victorian church, she supervised the planning and construction of the new Guernsey Museum & Art Gallery. When it opened in 1978, it was one of the first completely new postwar museum developments in Britain. Among many other accolades, it won the Museum of the Year Award in 1979.

Cole's professional achievements were many and varied: she was instrumental in reviving the fortunes of archaeology in Guernsey and also launched the museum's Education Service; she was also responsible for the Fort Grey Shipwreck Museum, housed in one of the island's many coastal forts, and the various museums within Castle Cornet. These include the highly regarded Maritime Museum, opened in 1991 and would shortly have included the extensive refurbishment of another of the museums in the castle.

Her most recent project, completed in June this year, was the extension and re-display of Guernsey Museum & Art Gallery, though even before this was finished she was turning to her next brainchild. This involves converting the Victorian church where she had begun (still with a leaky roof and long since disused) into a Victor Hugo centre - the exiled novelist spent some years in Guernsey. With Cole lobbying for the project and a well argued rationale backing it, the scheme had reached the feasibility-study stage.

Cole was a Fellow of the Museums Association and had served on the association's Council. She was also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. At the time of her death she was the Chairman of the Group of Museum Directors. To her immediate colleagues she was also a kind and supportive friend, for which they could easily forgive her sometimes infuriating preoccupation with work.

(Photograph omitted)