In conversation with Sharon Webb
When Kilmartin Museum reopens in 2023 you can expect to revel in exciting new visitor experiences, enjoy improved learning facilities, and see much more of the museum’s fantastic collections. Founded in 1997, the Museum has served as the window on the internationally famous Kilmartin Glen with distinction, but an overhaul was needed, and two decades on there is plenty of scope to do things differently.
Dr. Sharon Webb is the Director and Curator of Kilmartin Museum and has been working in Kilmartin Glen since 2003. It was a busy enough job, but understandably a wholesale renovation of the museum means she has now become immersed in a major project on a daily basis. She acknowledges that the museum was always popular, but nevertheless feels it was badly in need of an overhaul.
“The museum was open just over 20 years ago,’ Sharon explains, “and it was housed in a domestic sized manse and ancillary farm buildings. Over the years we had developed a collection to the point where we actually are looking after about 44,000 artefacts in total.
“That was never anticipated at the start, so the collection store space was really, really overflowing. The other thing we felt was that the knowledge of the archaeology of Kilmartin Glen has moved on considerably in the intervening 20 years, and we felt we weren’t expressing what the new thinking, new artefacts and finds, or new understandings were in the old exhibition gallery. Neither had the exhibition gallery really woven in natural heritage. Prehistoric people likely didn’t see themselves apart from natural heritage in any way, shape or form, so being able to weave that in to give a fuller picture of the history of Kilmartin Glen and the surrounding area is really important for us. Obviously with the boost of ERDF funding we have been so grateful to receive support that has enabled us to address these issues.”
Education, and engaging with schools, is something that the team at Kilmartin are desperate to improve on. As Sharon suggests, there are firm building blocks in place to establish a stronger foothold. “Our Education Team work with schools around Argyll and beyond, but they only had a classroom facility that could accommodate about 10 children at any one time. When you consider that school class sizes often sit around the 30 mark, we simply didn’t have enough space to develop our educational work as would have liked. It was another compelling reason why we felt a redevelopment was required.”
So what will the visitor to the new facility see? Clearly a slick design is going to catch the eye, but behind the scenes a range of exciting opportunities will open up.
Sharon is understandably upbeat about the potential the new museum will release. “In the new museum we expect to increase our visitor numbers, and we will be able to welcome more people through the door by having purpose built spaces that are much bigger. We were quite often turning people away because the exhibition was completely full.
“That matters, because at the end of the day we are an independent charitable company and we have to generate most of the funds we need to survive ourselves. That has always been challenging where we are based on the west coast of Scotland, and it will remain so. One of the things we really wanted to do was put the museum on a financially sustainable footing, and make it less reliant on our thee year grants. For sure we will always be reliant on our service level partners to some extent or another, but to be able to generate more income ourselves will be a huge boost.
“We will also have the right facilities for our volunteers. That’s important because we have a great bunch of volunteers who run guided walks every week to take visitors out to see the monuments. But we haven’t had the facilities to look after the volunteers properly, or to expand on the opportunities they deliver. Now we should be able to change that.”
Sharon is acutely aware of the strange contradictions and outcomes that the pandemic brought to Kilmartin Museum. “The last couple of years with Covid have been really challenging,” she acknowledges, “although lockdown came at a time when we were already planning to be closed. That said, knowing what the tourism market is going to do post-Covid is a crystal ball that no one has got a handle on.
The pandemic accelerated moves towards virtual experiences. That something keenly felt at Kilmartin.
Sharon notes the lessons learned from delivering so much activity virtually. “Virtual experience will certainly be a big part of our future. We started off doing a little bit of testing here and there with our talk series during the pandemic, and that has been hugely successful. We used to run face-to-face talks, where we might get an audience of 40 people. Now online we are now getting close on 200 people attending talks, and they are coming from all over the world. The last talk we hosted was about the Vikings in Argyll. We were fortunate to have Dr Adrián Maldonado who is from the National Museum of Scotland. He not only gave a fantastic insight on the subject, but was able to linger afterwards answering questions for more than an hour and a half. We couldn’t reasonably have expected that in a face-to-face event.
“Also being able to make our artefacts more accessible on-line is something we are planning to do post-project; we always have projects in the wings waiting to go. Kilmartin’s archaeology is internationally important so we know there is an overseas audience as well as a domestic one. Kilmartin brought in influences from far and wide, and I think people are driven to learn more about the influences and understandings that people had in the past. We’re aiming to bring this to the fore in the new museum.”
Throughout our interview, which took place overlooking lovely Loch Craignish, we were entertained by a stream of noisy bumblebees and serenaded by lively birdsong. Sharon pondered on how a career in the environment sector would have appealed to her. However, Kilmartin, and one of Scotland’s most engaging museums, would surely have been much the poorer.
The Natural & Cultural Heritage Fund is part of the Scottish Government’s current European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programme, which runs through to 2023. This is one of two ERDF Strategic Interventions led by NatureScot – the other is the Green Infrastructure Fund.
You can follow the European Structural Funds blog for ESF activities, news and updates. For twitter updates go to @scotgovESIF or use the hashtags #ERDF and #europeanstructuralfunds