Duration: An isolated museum in the Scottish Highlands that supports its vulnerable village through Covid


• Find out more about the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award 2021 here

The 800 inhabitants of Helmsdale live near Timespan, a long gray and mustard-yellow shed sloping down to the river under the shadow of Thomas Telford’s elegant 19th-century two-arched bridge. It was a disaster for the small village in the Scottish Highlands when Covid-19 closed the doors of the museum in March 2020.

Timespan opened in 1987 as a Highland Heritage Center, but has grown into a museum, archive, contemporary art gallery and workshop, herb garden, cafe, shop and bakery . The village has artists, musicians, lawyers, accountants, and a taekwondo master, but the nearest high school, sports center, cinema, and library are a long drive or bus ride away. expensive buses. It didn’t matter much about losing the attraction of visitors in the absence of tourists, but the residents of Helmsdale immediately missed home to a myriad of activities, from the kids’ garden club to Tuesday afternoon knitters.

Sadie Young, Director of Timepan
Photo: Anyuta Gillespie

Sadie Young, the Glasgow Timespan director who has spent almost half of her tenure behind closed doors, says: “We took a deep, deep breath. From day one, the imperative was to protect our community – we knew how vulnerable many were. The village looks charming, but is high on all deprivation indices: 150 households were classified as extremely vulnerable.

Most of the 12 full-time and part-time staff were put on leave with full pay, but the way Young, the remaining staff and volunteers filled the void during the pandemic earned their place on the museum’s shortlist. of the year. They transferred materials online, but also delivered weekly activity kits to local children’s doors, encouraged teens to exchange analog letters, and sent a van with loaner books from the archives.

Their efforts have borne fruit: new research projects, clubs and activities have been launched. A redevelopment plan for the museum has been completed, requests for funding are underway, and construction is expected to begin in the winter when Timespan moves to open on weekends only. Even the scarlet-wrapped Christmas presents, hand-delivered to isolated elderly people 80 miles away at a care home in Inverness, rocked landlines and added information to the records.

Timespan, a long gray and mustard yellow shed descending towards the river
© Marc Atkins / 2021 Art Fund

Although Timespan continued to receive its base funding of £ 95,000 from Creative Scotland, it lost £ 60,000 in earned income per year and only survived by advocating for emergency grants from Museums Galleries Scotland, from the Scottish Government and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Now, being shortlisted for Museum of the Year with a guaranteed prize of £ 15,000 will secure two key positions for staff currently funded by the project: heritage curator Jacquie Aitken and youth leader Fenella Gabrysch.

The team barely dared to imagine winning the £ 100,000 jackpot, but Young says they could use it to develop more ambitious loan, acquisition and partnership programs, including a dream program for linking Tuesday knitters with Zapatista embroiderers in Mexico, women using traditional clothing skills to spread a radical political message.

In any case, the future redevelopment should restore the original theatrical quality of Timespan screens to the current, rather bland design. It will include a celebration of an unlikely friend of the village, the late romantic novelist Barbara Cartland, who opened the museum wearing a royal pink coat and hat. She donated dresses and books to the fondly remembered Cartland Hall, and the main exhibit still features an impressive salmon she caught. Young now hopes to return Cartlandia to its only available empty space, the washroom.

Originally a heritage center, the museum was opened in 1987 by romantic novelist Barbara Cartland
Courtesy of Timepan

Traditional museum exhibits include a crofter’s house and blacksmith’s shop, as well as a threadbare taxidermy wolf that was nearly destroyed by visiting children. (Jean Sargent, retired scientist and board chair, believes she is descended from the local man who killed Scotland’s last wolf in 1700.) But in recent years, Timespan has taken a new direction striking, tackling complex issues including climate change, land allocation and postcolonial history, and forging links with international social justice groups.

Helmsdale looks idyllic but the winters are long, jobs scarce and poorly paid, and its history lasts. In 1814, the Duchess of Sutherland created the village to house sharecroppers evicted from her land to make way for sheep – clearings called “improvements.” Farmers were expected to make new alien lives as fishermen; many chose emigration instead.

Timespan examines this story by Real rights, a gallery exhibit for years that instead went live during the pandemic, gleefully attacking ‘the Scottish ancestry industry and its role in promoting a mono-economic tourism strategy for the Highlands’ – an industry on which the village is almost entirely dependent economically. The mixture of controversies, archival documents and artefacts, including a 19th-century ploughshare and part of a North Sea oil rig drill, has achieved success around the world.

Much of the museum’s current research and programming is serious and political, but it’s also fun. A series of online videos, Recipes for disaster, featured renowned local cooks in their own kitchens. Created as a lockdown diversion, it was so popular that it is being revived. Coming soon: meringues from Don Sinclair, another Helmsdale legend.

“We’re looking at some really big ideas,†Young says, “but there has to be a feeling of joy running through everything we do. “

Herring basket
Photographer Anyuta Gillespie. Model Ann MacDonald.

Must-see show at Timespan, according to director Sadie Young: Herring creel basket

“The Hardy Highland fishmongers used to carry the creel basket on their backs to sell the newly caught ‘silver scrunchies’ across the townships. Expert traveling basket weavers wove dried willow branches into wicker baskets, which had to endure many years of heavy hauling labor. Helmsdale was a fishing village planned in 1814 by the architects of the local Highland Clearances, the Sutherland Estate, to employ displaced tenants and exploit the herring boom. The Highland herring industry followed the transatlantic slave trade routes and exploited the former West Indian colonies, selling substandard herring to slave plantations. After the abolition of slavery in 1833, herring were exported to the Baltic and Europe, and at the beginning of the 20th century and the beginning of the war, the market collapsed and never recovered. .

• Discover the other shortlisted museums here


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