Jennifer ReidBy Jennifer Reid, Partnerships Officer

On 19 June I received a phone call from my manager asking whether I “would mind” going to Benbecula for two nights to celebrate the opening of an exhibition?  Would I mind?! Let’s just say it wasn’t a difficult decision.

A week later I joined two colleagues from Learning and Programmes, Christine and Fiona, to board a (tiny!) flight to the Outer Hebrides.  We were on our way to visit Museum nan Eilean, Sgoil Lionacleit, whose exhibition ‘A Reir na h-Aimsir’ was opening the following day.  The exhibition was produced as part of a two year partnership project called Scotland Creates – A Sense of PlaceA Reir na h-Aimsir was curated by young people from across the islands and includes objects from the collections of National Museums Scotland and Museum nan Eilean. It focuses on weather and the effect that changes in weather conditions can have on life on the islands.

Rain gauge.

Rain gauge in the exhibition.

I am ashamed to admit it, but prior to this trip I had never been to the Outer Hebrides before. This trip provided me the perfect opportunity to visit, as well as see the exhibition. Thankfully Fiona and Christine had both visited before, and knew their way around.

I was surprised the next day to pull up to a High School, but Fiona was quick to explain that the museum was in the High School! We had also arrived on the last day of term, and safe to say there was a feeling of” excitement” in the air – and not a great deal of work being done! We made our way through the crowds of school children, and into the exhibition space at the heart of the school building. And wow! What a wonderful job everyone at Museum nan Eilean had done. The team had been working with a group of 16-24-year-olds on the design, layout, text and photography for the exhibition, which has led to a creative and engaging exhibition. I particularly enjoyed the way they had incorporated stories, legends and sayings about the weather, and investigated whether or not any of these had any real basis in meteorology.

Scotland Creates volunteers Peter and Ruiridh

Scotland Creates volunteers Peter and Ruiridh.

Scotland Creates volunteer Peter shows Community Engagement Manager Christine McLean round the exhibition

Scotland Creates volunteer Peter shows Community Engagement Manager Christine McLean round the exhibition.

Jenn chats to staff at the Museum

Jennifer (centre) chats to staff at the Museum. In the background is a Harris Tweed suit designed by Vivienne Westwood, on loan from National Museums Scotland.

At the opening event we were treated to a talk by Dr Eddy Graham, a renowned meteorologist based in Lewis, and a dance performance by pupils from the lower school.  There was also an impressive supply of cake!

Weather inspired dance

Weather inspired dance performed by pupils from the lower school.

The group has also been working with musicians from the band Skerryvore through Live Music Now to compose a piece of music inspired by the changing weather, which will be incorporated into the exhibition.

I would definitely advise checking out the exhibition if you are lucky enough to find yourself in the Outer Hebrides over the summer months, I am keeping my fingers crossed for another phone call…

You can find out more about one of the star objects in the exhibition, a green Harris Tweed suit designed by Dame Vivienne Westwood, in our feature, written by Scotland Creates volunteer Bethany Lane.

Ross IrvingBy Ross Irving, Assistant Curator Oceania, Americas and Africa

This year will mark the bi-centenary of the birth of Arctic explorer and collector Dr John Rae, who was born on 30 September 1813. The John Rae 200 celebrations, organised by the Orkney Natural History Society, include an international conference, community events and an exhibition in Stromness Museum.

Poster for John Rae 200

Poster for the John Rae 200 celebrations.

This exhibition was created in partnership with National Museums Scotland and contains important objects from both collections, focusing on John Rae’s relationship with the indigenous communities he encountered on his journeys.

Born and raised in Orkney, Rae learned how to live on the land and survive as part of a remote community. His legendary physical fitness as well as his love and knowledge of the land undoubtedly contributed to his success as an explorer. This exhibition focuses on his early career in the 1840s-50s, when he was largely engaged with the Hudson Bay Company and in searches to discover the fate of the Franklin Expedition.

Objects on display include Cree/Metis, Arctic and Northwest Coast material collected by John Rae alongside material collected by others to contextualise Rae’s collection and give a fuller sense of the peoples he encountered.

Woman’s comb of walrus ivory, Inuit, collected by John Rae, likely 1848 or 1851.

Woman’s comb of walrus ivory, Inuit, collected by John Rae, likely 1848 or 1851. On loan courtesy of the University of Edinburgh Collections.

Model canoe of birchbark, Mi’kmaq, collected by John Rae, possibly 1860s. On loan courtesy of the University of Edinburgh Collections.

Model canoe of birchbark, Mi’kmaq, collected by John Rae, possibly 1860s. On loan courtesy of the University of Edinburgh Collections.

The team at National Museums Scotland, including loans, conservation and curatorial staff, worked closely with the Orkney Natural History Society to arrange the exhibition.

After months of hard work the exhibition opening loomed and a date was set for installation. As intrepid explorers ourselves, Conservator Charles Stable and I set off northwards one frosty Sunday morning, with over six hours of driving ahead of us.  The collections were securely packed into crates by our conservation team, using layers of plastazote and tyvek cushions. With the long drive as well as the notoriously turbulent ferry crossing ahead, it was especially important that the objects were well packed.

Objects for the Rae exhibition securely packed

Objects for the Rae exhibition securely packed up.

We made good time on the way up, feeling fortunate that the difficult conditions caused by snow a few days earlier had cleared. Thankfully the ferry crossing was almost smooth, getting us into Stromness on time at 8pm. Stromness Museum was only a short drive away, through the narrow winding streets (thank goodness we didn’t meet a car coming in the other direction), where we were greeted by Honorary Curator Janette Park, husband John (the local butcher, who kindly agreed to help us lift crates!) and Technical Manager Bart.

The morning revealed the spectacular views from our accommodation over to the island of Hoy and along the coast up the Mainland. Stromness Museum was only a ten minute walk away and with such fantastic scenery one of the nicest commutes I have ever had.

Spectacular views of Hoy

Spectacular views of Hoy.

Stromness Museum

Stromness Museum.

At Stromness Museum, Exhibition Curator Tom Muir and committee member Bryce Wilson were on hand to help with installation. With around 30 objects to install we hoped to be finished in one day.

Each object was unpacked and checked against a condition report written by our conservation team. This is done to make sure that nothing was damaged in transit, and also gives us a reference point to ensure that any change to an object’s condition while on display can be identified. After each object was checked it was placed in position under Tom’s direction.

As with all the best laid plans, we inevitably had to make a few changes on the day. After putting our heads together and doing a bit of re-arranging we managed to fit everything in. A few last minute (and very creative) mounting solutions helped to really show the objects off.

Display of Inuit material with items from the Stromness Museum’s collection

Display of Inuit material with items from the Stromness Museum’s collection.

Display of Northwest Coast material and a leister John Rae made himself to demonstrate his lectures

Display of Northwest Coast material and a leister (on the bottom shelf) John Rae made himself to demonstrate his lectures.

Charles preparing a mount

Charles preparing a mount.

Installation in progress (from left Charles, Bryce, Janette and Tom)

Installation in progress (from left: Charles, Bryce, Janette and Tom).

Cree/Metis bag collected by Rae and Cree/Metis coat collected by Andrew Graham

Cree/Metis bag collected by Rae and Cree/Metis coat collected by Andrew Graham.

On Tuesday we moved the empty crates into storage. Janette Park gave Charles and me a tour of Stromness Museum which surveyed its wonderful natural history, maritime and ethnographic collections. This also left some time for some sightseeing. The Orkney Islands are rich with sites of archaeological and historical significance, so one afternoon was definitely not enough!

Ring of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar, one of the many sights of Orkney.

We also had time to visit the memorial to John Rae in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. This memorial is prominently positioned within the cathedral, sitting opposite a memorial to William Balfour Baikie, a fellow Orcadian and explorer.

Memorial to John Rae in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

Memorial to John Rae in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. Photo by Rebecca Marr.

It is a touching tribute to an individual whose achievements were not fully recognised during his lifetime. It is hoped that 2013 will be a moment in which to re-evaluate the legacy of John Rae, his role in Arctic collecting as well as his historical significance in Arctic exploration.

To find out more about Rae’s bi-centenary,visit the John Rae 200 website. You can also download a pdf file detailing the bi-centenary events.

Lyn WallBy Lyn Wall, Loans Manager

This year I visited the South Eastern Anatolian region of Turkey as part of a cultural exchange organised by Arch Network, which is a Scottish Non Government Organisation (NGO) promoting learning and development in natural and cultural heritage between Scotland and other European countries. The exchange programme receives European funding from the Leonardo Agency and is available for professionals working in the heritage and cultural sector.

The visit lasted a week and we were based in the city of Gaziantep, one of the oldest settlements in this region, but also visited the towns of Kilis, Sanliurfa and Kahramanmaraş. The area serves as a bridge between East and West and is located near the Syrian border. It is an area rich in archaeological and historical sites and represents a varied mix of cultures and religions.

Eastern Turkey has not been widely promoted as a tourist destination in the past, but the local authorities are keen to promote it as such both for economic reasons and also as a means to promote their culture and traditions. As our guide Filiz Hosukoglu explained “When we share our heritage it gets bigger, if we hide it, no one will know”. Hydroelectric developments in the area over the last decade have revealed some of the more important archaeological sites and as the need to protect and then promote these sites was realised, government agencies have been established, providing funding for community and cultural projects.

The Gaziantep Training & Youth Association and Arch Network Exchange Participants

The Gaziantep Training & Youth Association and Arch Network Exchange Participants.

The exchange programme offered the participants cultural experiences such as visits to museums, archaeological sites, historic buildings, cooking demonstrations, craft demonstrations and food markets. Interspersed with these were meetings with partner NGOs, academics, museum professionals and local government to discuss and exchange ideas on how to promote the region through traditional cuisine, crafts, community involvement, partnerships, loans and sustainable tourism.

A very productive morning of workshops was had with GEGED, the Gaziantep Training & Youth Association, and colleagues from Gaziantep University, discussing how tourism can be developed in the area without compromising cultural traditions, agriculture and communities. Ideas for promoting culture through food, engaging with communities and confirming ownership were explored, not just within the context of Turkey, but also for Scotland and other European countries. GEGED had representatives from Germany, Spain, Italy, Tunisia, Belgium, the Netherlands and France, so we had a variety of perspectives and experiences to draw upon.

The week we were visiting, Gaziantep opened a new Mosaic Museum to showcase the Zeugma mosaics salvaged as part for the hydroelectric project in the region. The mosaics would now be submerged under water if they had not been removed, and a large project excavating over 1,000 square metres of mosaics has led to this new museum development, with restoration of the many mosaics still underway. They date from the 1st and 2nd centuries BC from the twin cities of Zeugma on either side of the banks of the Euphrates River, about 45 miles from Gaziantep.

Conservator working on the rescued Zeugma mosaics

Conservator working on the rescued Zeugma mosaics.

An afternoon was spent in Sanliurfa to visit the site of Abraham’s lake: it is told that King Nimrod flung Abraham from the cliff tops into a and he had miraculously been saved by the flames turning into a sacred lake of fishes. The site is important to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike and is now a busy destination for tourists. One can feed the sacred fish and visit Abraham’s cave, whilst also admiring the Islamic architecture and scenic cliffs. During our visit to this historic city we also met with the Director of the GAP Project, a regional development agency, which looks at infrastructure, economic and social issues, including the role of cultural activities and tourism.

Mosque and site of Abraham's lake in Sanliurfa

Mosque and site of Abraham’s lake in Sanliurfa.

Throughout the week we were fortunate to be shown many cooking demonstrations and were invited to two private houses where we could get hands on experience of making local dishes. We also visited small and large museums where we could offer advice, or contact details for our UK colleagues for such things as how to mount an elephant skeleton or how to organise loans, amongst other things. Many possible projects were explored that might involve future loans or partnerships and our visits were met with much enthusiasm and professional knowledge.

Traditional lunch with Mrs Belgin Yetkin

Traditional lunch with Mrs Belgin Yetkin.

For more information on the exchange programme and how to apply go to:

By Lyn Wall, Loans Manager at National Museums Scotland

What exactly goes on behind the scenes of a project like the touring Chessmen exhibition?  There are many teams in many departments working hard to make sure the exhibition is of the highest quality in terms of design, activities, publications, choosing what objects will be on display and what is written about them.  Here in the Loans section we have the job of making sure that everything is in place both at National Museums Scotland and at the receiving venue to ensure the objects are safe and well cared for once they start their journey on tour. For the chessmen, this involves liaising with venues in Aberdeen, Shetland and Stornoway.

Lewis Chessmen Berserker, King and Warder from National Museums Scotland

When a venue asks to borrow from our collections it sets in motion many activities.  The job of the Loans section is to co-ordinate all of the many people involved in making a loan happen.  Firstly we must ensure the borrowing venue is safe both in terms of security and environmentally.  Many of our collections are sensitive to light, temperature or relative humidity and would be damaged if not kept in the correct conditions.

Once a venue is approved and the objects requested are not required elsewhere, we ask our colleagues in Conservation to assess if the objects need any conservation work before they are packed.  Condition reports are written too so that the objects can be checked regularly for any damage or changes in condition.  Then the objects are packed according to how they will travel – for the Chessmen this means their very own nice cosy travelling case.

Chessmen ready to travel

Some of the Lewis Chessmen ready to travel!

Once packed and all the paperwork for insurance and loan agreements has been organised the transport must be arranged.  Depending on the loan this could be a large truck or small van, or for overseas travel, a boat or an aeroplane.

Vicky EvansBy Vicky Evans, Loans Officer

At the end of June, I took part in an Innovation in Cultural Heritage Interpretation (ICHI) exchange in East Iceland funded annually by the European Leonardo da Vinci Programme. Designed for Scottish heritage professionals to gain a better understanding of international developments and working practices in their field, the exchange provided a unique opportunity to discuss project working and partnerships with international colleagues in a spectacular location.

The trip itself was centred around Skálanes, a remote nature reserve in East Iceland which experiments in sustainability and educates visitors on the important connection between nature and people in Icelandic culture. Run from a restored traditional Nordic farmhouse and fairly unique in Iceland, Skálanes is involved in a diverse range of ongoing projects, providing access and facilitating current thinking on ecology, natural history, geology, archaeology, conservation, traditional skills and Icelandic history.

Hands on work at an excavation site

Hands on work at Þórarinsstaðir excavation site.

From this base, the exchange group visited regional museums and reconstructed buildings, exhibitions and local art institutes, as well as meeting a variety of people responsible for the preservation and interpretation of Icelandic heritage and collections. Meeting the exhibition development team at the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik was particularly interesting and an opportunity to discuss their capital redevelopment project, which concluded in 2004.

National Museum of Iceland

National Museum of Iceland.

Learning about Icelandic culture was naturally a major part of this exchange. Through handling collections at the East Iceland Heritage Museum, learning about turf wall construction, discussing the very real possibility of the existence of mountain trolls, and tentatively sampling dried salt fish, we got a pretty rounded experience of Icelandic life, past and present!

Detail from a reconstructed turf church

View across the fjord at Skálanes with duck houses in the foreground.

We also got stuck into plenty of hands-on work, consolidating and interpreting the excavation site of an early Christian church at Þórarinsstaðir, and assessing interpretation methods with the archaeological team at Skriðuklaustur (the excavation site of a pre-Reformation monastery). Volunteer groups such as ours are, we discovered, an invaluable resource in Iceland, where domestic volunteer working is virtually non-existent and the Archaeological Heritage Agency of Iceland significantly under-resourced. Working at the practical face of their heritage sector demonstrated how well funded the UK is by comparison, and encouraged much discussion about how we can all work more efficiently and effectively.

Icelandic scenery

View across the fjord at Skálanes with duck houses in the foreground.

The overwhelming response at the end of the exchange was acclaim for the willingness of the Icelandic heritage sector to work in partnership in order to drive projects forward. Despite the lack of volunteer support and central funding, we experienced a culture of initiatives ‘coming from below’, the result of which is a creative and dynamic sector in terms of project working and problem solving; where communities continue the work once ‘the professionals’ are gone. Although community engagement is admittedly new in many areas, local involvement is the key success factor in the completion and continuation of many of their projects.

I have taken away many ideas for future partnership working in Scotland and the UK, and have genuinely been inspired by the proactivity, pragmatism and unique culture I experienced in East Iceland.

Photos courtesy of Sheena Irving AV.