An Interview with Gairloch Museum, Art Fund Museum of the Year Winner

For our first blog of the year we have chosen to highlight a brilliant news story of two Scottish museums being two of five winners of Art Fund’s Museum of the Year Award 2020. Well done Gairloch Museum and Aberdeen Art Gallery! We asked people in each museum to tell us about their experience of being winners which you will find in our two January Blogs.

In this blog we hear from Karen Buchanan, Curator at Gairloch Museum.

SMF Committee.

How does it feel to be one of the five winners?

We were overjoyed when we were informed we had been shortlisted, as the whole experience of being part of the Museum of the Year sounded brilliant.  Unfortunately, lockdown hit just as the shortlist was to be announced.  However, when Art Fund informed us they would share the prize between the shortlisted museums and we would be a Museum of the Year winner, we were absolutely delighted.  Of course we would have liked to win outright and would have given it our best shot.  However, we are in very distinguished company and the links that have been forged with the other four 2020 winners will hopefully be lasting and have great benefits for us.

Staff at Gairloch Museum holding a Winner of Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020 sign.

Tell us about your journey to becoming a winner?

In 2019 we moved to a new building – a repurposed nuclear bunker.  The innovative transformation of this building from village eyesore to first class visitor attraction was the result of tireless effort, enterprise and determination by the Board, our volunteers and the wider community.  Since opening we had received praise for the originality of our building and the excellence of our permanent displays.  We felt that we had done something very special here in Gairloch.  Firstly, the sheer extent of the community involvement was extraordinary.  And of course we were justifiably proud of the transformation of the building and the new displays. 

The Museum of the Year prize is awarded to museums who have had an exceptional and transformational year.  That was certainly true for us.  The judges commented:

“The story of the rebirth of this truly special museum, nestled on the remote north-westerly coast of Scotland, captivated the judges; a tale of people-power, determination, and local pride. The museum’s move in 2019 to a new home – not a grand new build but a repurposed nuclear bunker – transformed a village eyesore into an important visitor attraction.  It was the culmination of an 8 year, £2.4 million redevelopment project made possible by more than 120 volunteers.  The redisplay of the museum’s collection which encapsulates the history, culture, beauty and character of Gairloch and its new home have reanimated the village’s pride in its heritage, created a buzzing new community hub, and produced a sustainable cultural landmark for generations of visitors to enjoy.”

Visitors engaging with a digital interactive at Gairloch Museum.

How will your museum, community and visitors benefit from being a winner?

The media coverage that we received as a result of our win was phenomenal.  The prize has really put us on the map.  We were been given a generous marketing budget for the year and had access to a PR company in London and a Creative Agency who we worked closely with in the run up to the announcement.  That was an amazing experience.  Our visitor numbers shot up in the immediate aftermath of the announcement.  We had the same number of visitors in October this year as we did last year, despite Covid restrictions.  Our contacts within the museum world have expanded greatly – we have had a lot of professional interest, all very supportive.  Then there is the associated prize fund of £40,000 of unrestricted funding, which is very welcome.  We are also very much enjoying the opportunity to continue working with Art Fund and the opportunities this has brought, such as the chance to (virtually) meet their Art Partners.

What have been your biggest learnings out of this experience?

We have had to really pull our socks up in terms of the digital delivery of events and engagement activities.  In the week in which our award was announced we did three live Facebook streams and one online talk.  This was our first attempt at anything like this, and it was a steep learning curve.  We did not have many of the required skills in house and have benefitted from funding from Art Fund and Museums Galleries Scotland to purchase some equipment and appoint a suitably experienced freelance museum professional.

Visitors at Gairloch Museum

Do you have any advice that our members might benefit from?

We would definitely recommend that museums who think they might qualify should apply for the Art Fund Museum of the Year award.  The application process is not onerous, in fact it was fun.  And the experience has been hugely positive.  If a small, independent museum in a remote Highland community can win, then any museum can!

And finally, what has been your favourite thing about this experience?

Personally, I really enjoyed the experience of talking to Tom Sutcliffe on Front Row about our museum and was absolutely delighted that they played two Gaelic language clips on the programme.  As one of our members wrote to me after hearing the interview, ‘There was a grand flavour of the Highlands… sometimes people forget there are so many different parts in the U.K’.  That brought a smile to my face.  I was also delighted that the press picked up on the ‘people power’ behind our award.  It felt like the whole community had won the award and not just Gairloch Museum.

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