An Interview with Gairloch Museum
An Interview by GEM Scotland Reps Sue Healy and Claire Munro
Questions prepared by Scotland Reps Sue Healy and Claire Munro for Mark Macleod.
Sue caught up with Mark, who is Events and Outreach Coordinator (Freelance) at Gairloch Museum
Achtercairn • Gairloch • Ross-shire • IV21 2BH
Hello Mark, firstly thank you for agreeing to do this blog, at what must be a very busy time for you. Congratulations on winning the Museum of the Year Award 2020 (with Aberdeen). We are looking forward to hearing about how the last year has gone with its unexpected challenges and the further development of your learning and engagement programme.
- For those who have not been to Gairloch Museum, can you please tell us three key facts about it for someone planning a visit.
The museum is located on the main road of Gairloch village which is also included on the North Coast 500 route. The new museum opened in July 2019 in a converted bunker building which was originally built to monitor the skies during the Cold War, in case of some form of attack. The new museum was only possible due to huge contributions from volunteer board, village and supporters through time, funding and attending the fundraising activities. I think the exhibition captures this community effort and offers something to spark curiosity in everyone.
- Covid -19 Museum lockdowns started for us all in March 2020. How has your learning and engagement programme changed during this year?
Until relatively recently there was one paid member of staff for the museum, you can imagine they had a full plate running the museum, planning the new building and maintaining the events. Education events were delivered by volunteers and part time staff involved in the redevelopment. As a rural venue the Museum has a large geographical area but only three primary school areas and one high school. Following the award of Museum of the Year in 2020 and some funding from the Art Fund Respond and Reimagine and Museums Galleries Scotland, we have been able to concentrate on digital engagement during the 2021 lockdown and planning school programmes for 2021-22 school year.
- What are your plans for digital access now that museums are opening back up and will this become a permanent feature of your engagement programmes?
The annual winter talk calendar went online in 2020-21 and each new speaker gained a larger audience as word spread. The audience were watching from all over the world which has inspired us to contemplate delivering future talks in the Museum and online simultaneously. There has been great support from the museum’s remote audience, whether it is people who visit every summer, people who have moved away or those who have heard about the topic and wished to find out more from an expert. We want to offer something to everyone who is interested in the Museum and we hope broadcasting more talks will satisfy their interests. Previous talks can be found on the Museum’s YouTube channel.
- You have been involved in a project called ‘Highland Threads’. Can you please tell us a bit of background of this project and how you have found working on a collaborative digital project.
The Highland Threads project is an example of an idea voiced during a Zoom gathering and followed through to deliver a sophisticated website which celebrates one textile object from each of 14 museums in the Highland region. Representatives from these museums would meet regularly to network, build partnerships etc. However, covid restrictions shifted these meetings to a digital platform and it helped generate different ideas.
Highland Threads was led by Museums and Heritage Highland and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. High-quality digital assets were created, which each venue can also use for their own projects. As a result of the Highland Threads website we set-up a closed Facebook Group for supporting knitters wishing to knit the famous Gairloch Pattern seen on the socks, but in a headband. Our curator Dr Karen Buchanan, created the headband pattern and hosted three online knitting sessions to support those knitting. These have been edited and are available on the Museum’s YouTube channel to hopefully generate interest in traditional skills.
- Now that Scottish Museums are open again, what do you think are the biggest challenges for Gairloch Museum and the sector in general?
The online activities of the Museum have been growing during the lockdown and my role was created with funding around resilience and reaction to the needs of the museum. Like other museums, we are anxious to know if visitors will return. The new museum opened in July 2019 so the new displays and building had not been well tested before we had to close due to Covid.
Since opening in April, after the second lockdown, visitor numbers have been growing and as the covid restrictions are relaxed there seems to be demand to visit. In common with other museums, a wet day seems busier than a sunny day and this summer there has been little rain in Gairloch! Our July 2021 figures were 30% down on 2019, and we are happy with that achievement given the circumstances.
Our online talks have been extended from being just winter to be throughout the year and we are piloting charging structures to see what our audience values and inform our options for the 2021-22 winter season. I think having online content from museums is a great opportunity to increase accessibility, build a wider geographic community and generate funding to cover the costs of being online. That said, having ticket prices at £2-5 is an opportunity to tap into the ‘price of a coffee’ mentality but increase the audience size through using existing digital platforms like YouTube, Facebook because that is where people are.
We created an outdoor museum during lockdown, and it has been great to see people stopping to take a look at the objects and interpretation panels on their way past. Those who perhaps would not have stopped to visit the museum have learned a bit about our natural and cultural heritage. And maybe some have been encouraged to visit the museum to find out more.
- The shortlist for Museum of the Year 2021 was announced recently. What would you say have been the biggest benefits of being given the accolade.
It was a huge honour to receive the Award and naturally brings a warm glow of joy every time the award is mentioned, I am an interloper and started here in January. The recognition brings extra visits, more eyeballs to the website and what we do online. The Art Fund team also provide support to help negotiate the extra requests and attention.
Having the Award coincide with the pandemic and the early years of opening the new museum has certainly kept everyone busy and focussed to make the most of the raised profile.
We are delighted to see our Highland neighbours Timespan in the shortlist for Museum of the Year 2021 and we wish them and the other venues the best of luck.
Mark Macleod is the Events and Outreach Coordinator (Freelance) at Gairloch Museum.