Updated: Dec 2, 2021
Art Fund Prize for Museums of the Year 202
From Nuclear Bunker to Museum of the Year
Karen Buchanan Curator, Gairloch Museum
Gairloch IV21 2BH United Kingdom
Gairloch Heritage Museum opened in 1977, its mission to “promote and encourage interest in, and care for, the history, culture, beauty and character of the Parish of Gairloch”. Renowned for its social history collection, the acclaimed displays also include the first Pictish stone found on the west coast mainland and the enormous Fresnel lens of Rubh Re lighthouse. In 2009 Gairloch Museum achieved Museum Accreditation status. The Museum is the centre for historical and genealogical study in Wester Ross and offers events and activities all-year-round for visitors, residents, schools and community groups including the disadvantaged and socially isolated.
In 2019 Gairloch Museum moved to a new building – a repurposed nuclear bunker. This was the culmination of eight years of sustained effort, enterprise and determination by the Board, volunteers and wider community to create a new home for Gairloch Museum. The project, entitled Our Land, our People, our Story, raised £2.4million to accomplish Gairloch Museum’s inspirational plans to transform a local eyesore into a 5* visitor attraction.
Major project funders were National Lottery Heritage Fund (Scotland), Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Highland Council, Museums Galleries Scotland and the Scottish Government. More than twenty public and private funders provided grants towards the £2.4M cost of the conversion and an amazing £200,000 was raised by the local communities of Gairloch and surrounding area.
Since opening in July 2019, Gairloch Museum has received praise for the originality of the building and the excellence of the permanent displays. The audacious redisplay of the collection in a repurposed, once derelict, Cold War building has met with universal approval and admiration, described as the ‘Best use of a military bunker ever – fact!’. The exceptional level of commitment of volunteers and staff, with extensive community support, has created a highly-valued and sustainable cultural heritage resource in an area of rural deprivation. ‘The ugliest and most neglected building in Gairloch has been transformed into its greatest attraction.’ The new Museum has successfully won the support of its community, raised its profile to the national stage and attracted enthusiastic new visitor audiences. In October 2020, Gairloch Museum was announced as winner of Art Fund Museum of the Year.
The Art Fund Museum of the Year award is the largest and most prestigious museum prize in the world. The prize champions what museums do, encourages more people to visit and gets to the heart of what makes a truly outstanding museum. The judges present the prize to the museum or gallery that has shown how their achievements of the preceding year stand out, demonstrated what makes their work innovative, and the impact it has had on audiences. In a normal year, five museums are shortlisted and one winner takes the prize of £100,000. In 2020, in recognition of the unprecedented challenges that all museums faced, the five shortlisted museums were named as join winners. They equally shared an enhanced award of £200,000 - a 40% rise over previous years.
A walk through time ©Mark Appleton
The story of the rebirth of Gairloch Museum, nestled on the remote north-westerly coast of Scotland, captivated the judges who loved the tale of people-power, determination, and local pride. The judges described the new Museum as ‘truly special’. They felt that the redisplay of its collection encapsulated the history, culture, beauty and character of Gairloch and that the Museum’s new home had 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.
Gairloch Museum is managed by volunteers and they are integral to everything the Museum does. The Museum took full advantage of the redevelopment project to expand its volunteer base and extend the range of skills of both existing and new volunteers. Volunteers were involved at every stage of creating the new Museum. More than 120 volunteers were involved in the project, some day in, day out, some for a particular fund-raising activity or one-off event. Each and every one played a critical part in achieving the project’s ambitions.
Karen Buchanan was appointed as curator in May 2013. She played a major part in the relocation and led on the design and layout of the collection, library and archive spaces. Her previous experience in the tourism marketing sector was invaluable. During the project period, Gairloch Museum was able to employ two project curators at different times. Rosalyn Goulding and Katie Pilcher were young professionals near the start of their careers who brought energy and enthusiasm to the project. Conservator Rachel Thomas provided expertise in all matters regarding the conservation of objects during the move, both as a freelance consultant and giving generously of her own time. She helped to train and supervise the volunteers who helped with the decant and was always available for help and consultation on conservation matters.
Gairloch Museum’s collections have been safeguarded for the future and the area has gained a new landmark heritage attraction. Between July and Dec 2019, after opening in its new home, the Museum welcomed 10,200 visitors, an enormous increase compared to an annual average of 5,000-6,000 previously. Many represented new audiences. Now able to open year-round instead of only seasonally, the Museum has a target of 15,000 visitors per year for the post-Covid era. Large audiences are also being reached further afield by the online events and exhibitions that have been introduced during lockdown.
Lower floor gallery ©Mark Appleton
Looking back over the project, major challenges were overcome. The first application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for the new Gairloch Museum was unsuccessful. Although this was disappointing, the persistence of the museum board in maintaining a dialogue with NLHF and acting on feedback paid off when the second application was successful. With the benefit of hindsight, a project manager role, responsible for the installation of the displays during the project build, should have been included in the project plan and budget. The absence of such created a lot of pressure on the Museum’s curator, who was at the same time coordinating the decant and proofing interpretation panels and labels. A major stumbling block to an earlier opening date was the difficulty in getting a mains electricity supply organised. This was frustrating and lead to a delay in opening of almost one month in the peak, summer visitor season.
Gairloch Museum encourages other small museums in the same position to think big and go for it. Independent museums are doing a fantastic job within their communities and deserve recognition. The experience of winning Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020 was fantastic for Gairloch Museum, even though there was no award ceremony in London because of the Covid restrictions.
The board and of Gairloch Museum is proud of their achievements and the outcomes of the redevelopment project. There is very little that cannot be achieved by a determined group of hard working volunteers!