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Museum and Archives Welcome Millionth Visitor

by Alastair Hamilton -

On Thursday 21 March, staff at the Shetland Museum and Archives greeted their millionth visitor, Dr David Malcolm, who was accompanied by his grandson, Oliver. Ruth Mackenzie, Chair of the Shetland Amenity Trust, which runs the museum and archives on behalf of Shetland Islands Council, welcomed them and presented flowers, a celebratory cake and a gift voucher for the museum shop.

Dr Malcolm and Oliver are regular visitors to the building. Oliver particularly enjoys seeing the otter and the cow, and they play hide and seek in the galleries.

Popular with visitors and residents alike, the museum tells the story of Shetland from its geological origins through to the present day. The archives contain a wealth of documents, for example books, newspapers, court records, council minutes and estate papers, that collectively record the development of the islands over the centuries.

Although the desire for a museum had been expressed in the middle of the 19th century, and had been strengthened by discoveries such as the St Ninian’s Isle treasure and the remains of the Gunnister Man, Shetland didn’t have a purpose-built museum until 1966. In June that year, a new, combined museum and library opened on Lerwick’s Lower Hillhead. Ever since, the building has overlooked the town’s Up Helly Aa procession.

Hugely welcome though it was, the museum space – which was on the first floor – didn’t allow for the display of anything other than relatively small exhibits, so it wasn’t possible to display, say, even the smallest traditional Shetland fishing vessel, the fourareen (a four-oared boat). Large areas of glass presented problems, too, in displaying anything vulnerable to ultra-violet light or large temperature variations. By the early 1980s, with more and more donations being made to the museum’s collections, space limitations were becoming critical.

Around that time, there was also growing interest in conserving the islands’ heritage, partly in response to the pace of change brought about by the arrival of the oil industry. Many local history groups emerged, anxious to preserve the artefacts and stories in their districts.

In 1983, a discussion paper on the interpretation of Shetland’s history recognised that the existing museum and archive accommodation was inadequate and that a new museum in Lerwick was needed to consolidate the service and to complement the emerging network of local museums.

there was clear evidence of widespread interest in conserving the islands’ heritage

Many years were spent in developing proposals for a replacement. An initial feasibility study looked at provision for both museum and arts activities and recommended that a combined museum and arts centre be developed, allowing for the sharing of common services and flexibility in the use of auditoria. In later studies, the arts function was removed; that part of the jigsaw was eventually put in place with the construction of Mareel.

For most of those who were involved at the time, including this writer, the best location was unquestionably at Hay’s Dock, the oldest intact dock in Lerwick, dating from 1830. It wasn’t just historically appropriate; it would also support the wider plans for the regeneration of what was, at that time, a decaying section of the town’s waterfront.

However, there was some support for an alternative option, which would have seen the late 18th century buildings at Fort Charlotte adapted for the purpose. The fort was originally constructed in the 1660s to protect Bressay Sound during the second Anglo-Dutch war. A further study demonstrated that the constraints of that site, an A-listed building with very limited space and no real potential for extension or adaptation, were insurmountable.

With the feasibility studies completed, and with site acquisition greatly assisted by the intervention of the local enterprise company, the project was handed over to the Shetland Amenity Trust, then managed by Jimmy Moncrieff. He, the then museum curator, Tommy Watt and the Archivist, Brian Smith, pursued the project with vision and a determination to make it the best it could be. Sadly, both Jimmy and Tommy are no longer with us.

The museum was opened on 31 May 2007 by HM Queen Sonja of Norway and the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay (Charles and Camilla). It was immediately clear that the local team and the architects (BDP) had, together, created an outstanding museum and archives, quickly recognised in many awards and commendations.

These have included runner-up in the Coast Awards 2007 (best new building by the sea); winner, Glasgow Institute of Architects Design Award (2007); finalist in the Guardian Family Friendly Award and the Art Fund Prize, both in 2008; winner in the Wood Awards and the BURA Best Practice in Regeneration Award 2008; a nomination for European Museum of the Year 2009; and semi-finalist in the National Lottery Awards 2009.

The regeneration of Lerwick’s waterfront, of which the museum and archives is a key part, also picked up the top award in the Scottish Awards for Quality in Planning in 2008.

So, what’s to be seen? Inside the ground floor entrance, there’s a spacious reception hall, also housing the museum shop; this space is frequently used for various kinds of function. On one side of that, there’s an excellent auditorium, which hosts lectures and conferences.

Beyond that, a door leads to the historic boat shed, brilliantly incorporated into the project, where many Shetland fishing vessels were built, including the now-restored Swan, launched here in 1900. Here, specialists restore and maintain boats and – occasionally – build them from scratch.

On the other side of the reception hall, we enter the museum collections. Shetland’s story begins here with an account of the islands' geological origins. We learn that our rocks go back almost three billion years and that, originally, the islands were close to the South Pole. They lingered in the tropics and around the equator on their long drift to 60° north. Shetland’s geology became so complicated during that journey that the islands are now a UNESCO Geopark.

A little further on, we encounter Shetland’s first humans, who began to leave clues to their presence – such as polished stone knives – during the Neolithic period. The archaeological collection is substantial and has, since 2014, been recognised as of national significance. It includes everything excavated in the islands since the 1960s. Finds from later periods include such treasures as Roman glass, Celtic altars, coins, a Norse millstone and material from shipwrecks. Looking on is a prehistoric woman, whose head has been expertly reconstructed from a skull.

The period from around 1500 to 1800 is represented by the folklife collection. Here, you can see all kinds of items connected with life at home and work in the fields or at sea. Classic artefacts from that period include traditional baskets (‘kishies’), peat spades (‘tushkars’) and chairs made from driftwood. There’s a reconstruction of a typical rural dwelling, with a Shetland pig and cured fish and meat hanging from the rafters, and that cow admired by Oliver is just around the corner. There’s also a reconstruction of the Gunnister Man, whose clothes – astonishingly well preserved – were found in a peat bog in 1951; an interesting blog explores the work involved.

Before we leave the ground floor, we find the boat hall, a dramatic space that normally houses an example of the kind of six-oared boat (or sixareen) that used to be the mainstay of Shetland line-fishing. Above it are suspended representative examples of other Shetland boats.

On the first floor, we move from an era when most of what Shetland folk needed was home made to the time when manufactured items and commercial services came to dominate life. There are many domestic items, but we also find artefacts from business, the medical profession and education. There is an extensive display of knitwear and lace, part of a collection that’s also recognised as being of national significance.

Towards the end of the displays, we catch up with the latter part of the 20th century, with a reminder of the oil industry’s arrival in the islands and the extraordinary scale of its activities in the 1970s.

Also on the first floor, the archives is host to that wealth of documentary material, stored in huge, movable racks; and there’s a comfortable reading room with helpful staff who are experts in tracking down material needed by researchers. Also on this level, an attractive space houses a café-restaurant.

Returning downstairs, there’s a gallery space, Da Gadderie, which hosts all kinds of locally-based or visiting exhibitions, for example the recent one tracing the history of Shetland weddings, another displaying local taatit rugs, or the painting by Hans Holbein that was lent, last year, by London’s National Gallery.

Outside, on the historic dockside, there are more examples of Shetland boats. Also here are ‘the receivers’, four specially-designed units which constantly emit sounds from Shetland’s past, including recorded voices and music. The sounds we hear are selected automatically, being governed by wind direction and speed.

It’s a remarkable place, the Shetland Museum and Archives, giving us all sorts of insights into how the Shetland of today was created. For local people, it captures the essence of the islands’ rich heritage; and it enables us to share that heritage with visitors. In another dozen or so years, it will no doubt welcome the two millionth.

Posted in: Heritage

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