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I write in a personal capacity, not as …

Comment posted on Challenge to local election candidates from Museums and Heritage Forum by Bob Clark

I write in a personal capacity, not as Manager of Auchindrain, to echo and endorse Catherine Gillies’ comments made on behalf of organisations and individuals working in heritage within Argyll & Bute.

Over the decades, Argyll & Bute Council and its predecessors have perhaps not always found it easy to recognise the contribution that heritage already makes to the area’s economy and communities, or more importantly the potential contribution that it could make given support, active encouragement and funding.

The great majority of local authorities within the UK are persuaded that investment in heritage delivers worthwhile economic and social returns. If this were not the case, so very many of them would not allocate such considerable resources to heritage, and would certainly not have done so consistently over the decades – in many cases since the 19th century.

The reasons for the relatively disadvantaged position of heritage in Argyll & Bute can through historical reasoning be traced back many years, and thus understood. It is now, however, perhaps time for a change, and for the Council to reappraise its whole policy approach to the heritage sector.

My hope is that the new Council, once elected, will agree by consensus to give full and thorough consideration to the nature and scale of its engagement with the area’s vibrant but resource-starved heritage sector, and in particular to reflect on the possibility that the long-term indirect added value gained through investment might well in net terms outweigh the short-term direct cost.

Bob Clark also commented

  • We can do the same, or better, in Argyll!

    A large proportion of the families who emigrated, and whose descendants are now the target for Homecoming 2014, were displaced from joint tenancy farm townships by the processes of agricultural improvement.

    For this particular market, Argyll has a nationally-unique asset and selling point in the form of Auchindrain. It is the Last Township, and the only place where Homecoming descendants can go that will offer them a real feel for the sort of place their ancestors came from, and left behind.

    Auchindrain is ready to welcome them, but we can’t handle such a big issue alone.

  • We’ll look forward to seeing you at Auchindrain sometime soon.
  • There are a lot of complex issues emerging here! I’ll try to make some sensible responses.

    The first point to make is that since the 19th century responsibility for supporting almost all museums has lain with local authorities. This is not something they MUST do (like, for example, provide schools), but as previously noted almost all of them across the UK do, and do so because they are persuaded that the benefits heritage can bring to communities and the local economy at least equate to the cost of supporting it, and very often more. The point here is that although a Council is entitled to decide not to support a particular museum, or museums in general, it cannot reasonably do so on the basis that someone else ought to be doing so instead. Museums are, and have been for a very long time, in the first instance a local authority function.

    In Scotland, the government in Holyrood provides quite generous funding for project grants through Museums Galleries Scotland, and there are many other agencies that can sometimes be persuaded that a museum or community heritage project meets their criteria. But all of that is only ever short term, and the established norm is that local authorities provide the long-term view and sustained support. So Argyll & Bute Council does not get money specifically to support museums – it is simply anticipated that from their funds they will do so to an “adequate” extent.

    The second point to consider is the question of a “list of assets”. That is actually sensible thinking, because you can’t very easily provide support to something when you don’t have a grasp of what’s out there, or of its strengths and weaknesses. But such an exercise should be able to be undertaken very quickly because the sector is quite well organised in a self-help way through the Forum, and to a large extent the process could be achieved by simply asking the names on a contact list to provide defined factual and statistical information, and then holding a few round-table and one-to-one meetings to get a feel for the issues.

    The third point is Daniel’s question: do we want policy to be top-down or bottom-up? Sadly, the issue isn’t as simple as that. Of course every heritage organisation in Argyll & Bute would love to be able to define the Council’s policy towards it, but that shouldn’t happen and isn’t going to. So we do need to kick off with a strategic vision that comes “from above”, albeit one that has been developed through discussion rather than in isolation. Here, I think the core issue is that Argyll & Bute Council already has a great many policies and objectives that are actually relevant, with the challenge being that historically it has found it hard to see how museums and heritage could contribute to their delivery. In the sector, we know what we can achieve, and there is a huge amount of solid information and precedent out there from other parts of the UK to confirm this. What is needed, however, is for the sector locally to be able to talk to a Council that has a broadly-based and in-depth understanding of issues and potential, and which for example accepts the principle the heritage attractions can be key drivers in building tourism and that achievement needs to be measured more in terms of indirect spend (the B&B, the meal out, the fuel, the High Street shopping) than direct income on site. The ground that arguably needs to be reviewed contains a series of principles about how museums and heritage can contribute to strong communities and economic success, but which to date have not been well understood or much accepted within Argyll & Bute. Perhaps the central point that Catherine and I are variously arguing is to suggest that the new Council should consider these matters very carefully and build its corporate understanding, with this being based on a belief rooted in precedent elsewhere that when they do so they could well see some new ways in which they can take forward existing key objectives in community cohesion, social care, health, education, tourism development, and so on. It isn’t so much about needing a policy for heritage that is new and freestanding as it is about understanding what heritage can do across the board and then letting THAT inform how it in specifics and detail it engages with and decides to support the sector.

    Finally, to come to Daniel’s point about impact over 5-10 years, the issue here is that this depends on where the Council decides its priorities lie. Some local authorities focus on economic development and don’t expect their area’s museums to make a massive contribution to community development: for others, it is the opposite way round. Some authorities choose to target investment at areas of social disadvantage, others opt to build good day-visit and tourism destinations into excellent ones. The available mix of options is almost infinite, with the key issue perhaps being that no matter where you turn the heritage sector will have answers ready to illustrate how it can help. So whilst maybe now the drums need to be banged to get people’s attention, once the core points have been accepted the sector needs to move into listening and thinking mode whilst it hears what the Council wishes to achieve and then individually or collectively presents its ideas.

    The sector’s byeword in this respect is generally to think not what others can do for us but what we can do for them: my objective, as the manager of a museum that could given half a chance of its nature absorb almost infinite resources, is always to persuade YOU that by supporting us you can fulfill YOUR objectives. It all looks very different with the telescope turned around that way!

  • Daniel, the heritage sector can very easily identify its priorities – that’s not a problem. However, this is chicken-and-egg: it’s much better to set objectives and priorities when you are talking to a body that is able to understand the issues and ready to discuss options.
  • We DO need a strong and clear Council policy towards heritage. Although most of the activity should and will continue to be lead and managed by independent, often community-based, organisations, the Council should have a key enabling role.

    In other areas, these things generally work as a partnership. The local authority sets out a strategic policy framework for economic and community development that acknowledges the direct and indirect contributions that can be made by museums, heritage attractions and local history groups. On the back of that, it provides funding to develop and improve things, and to support running costs, which it recognises will not in reality be available from any other source. It uses its statutory position and influence to lever in investment from other agencies. Often, also, it will take a central role in marketing the cultural tourism offer within its area to day-visitors and tourists. There is an argument that the present relatively weak state of heritage in Argyll & Bute is because over the years the Council has never felt confident about taking on these roles to any significant extent.

    As noted before, there is a specific point to make in relation to funding. Properly planned local authority financial support for heritage is NOT a “handout” to organisations that do not have the wits and creativity to thrive in the marketplace. Rather, it overtly recognises that in terms of both community and economic development heritage can deliver net added value which over time is greater than the direct cost.

    It is a matter of fact, on the public record, that Argyll & Bute stands almost alone in the very limited extent to which the local authority has ever actively engaged with, or supported, museums and heritage. I do not say this in a way that is intended to be critical or to stray into politics, but how can it be that most other local authorities ARE persuaded by the arguments and provide often very considerable support? You can be sure, for example, that an authority like Glasgow does not spend that much money on heritage because it has a soft heart or a few Councillors and senior officers like visiting museums! No, there is a hard economic and community case underlying everything.

    Over recent decades, the community has responded as best it can to the situation. In Auchindrain, Kilmartin House Museum and Dunollie, Argyll now has three sites of genuine national importance operating as museums and heritage attractions. Beyond this, almost every mainland settlement of any size – Campbeltown, Oban, Strachur, Dunoon, Helensburgh – and many of the islands – Bute, Islay, Mull, Lismore, Easdale – has onr or more community-run heritage organisations that between them pretty much represents a full network. But, as has been noted, these bodies are generally resource-poor and struggling to achieve and maintain standards to an extent that is untypical of the sector elsewhere in Scotland and the UK.

    Everyone in the heritage sector in Argyll & Bute and beyond has seen the elephant in the room for years: the missing element in this area is policy-driven, active, local authority engagement. That is why, with elections on the horizon, it is so very welcome to see one of the political parties making commitments in this respect, and why it would be even more welcome to see those at least matched by every other party and individual candidate.

Recent comments by Bob Clark

  • Loch Fyne Oysters’ shortlisted for major award – with three Argyll restaurants
    Congratulations to Loch Fyne on this nomination: very well deserved.
  • Tobermory RNLI lifeboat station mourns President Dr William [Bill] Clegg
    This is very sad news indeed. It may not be widely known outside those that encountered him in this role that after his retirement as the local GP, Bill Clegg developed a new role within Mull Museum, where he cared for the artifacts and their associated records. Auchindrain encountered him in this role, which he undertook in a careful, thoughtful and very distinguished way.

    The world is poorer for Bill Clegg’s passing, and our thoughts and sympathies are with his family and all those who knew and worked with him in Mull and beyond. Requiescat.

  • The phantom wallpaper-picker of Dunoon Burgh Hall
    Builders’ and decorators’ graffiti of this nature are not that uncommon, and women are often their subject. Indeed, in our collections at Auchindrain we have a rather striking pencil-sketch “naked lady” on a piece of plasterboard, which we can date to the alteration works carried out to one of our buildings in 1967 to prepare it for occupation by the museum’s first manager. I believe it is something of a tradition, with part of the point of drawing the picture being that it will in due course be hidden under paper or within a structure, where it may be found and enjoyed by later generations.

    I have emailed the people at Dunoon Burgh Hall to offer assistance with this, and hope they reply because there probably is a way forward that could allow the image to be preserved and indeed seen by hall users. But if this is to be, it needs expert, scientific, intervention.

  • The phantom wallpaper-picker of Dunoon Burgh Hall
    And now THREE dislikes! Please, whoever you are, will you explain what you dislike about my post?
  • The phantom wallpaper-picker of Dunoon Burgh Hall
    For Argyll’s correspondents sometimes have me shaking my head in disbelief. I see this post has picked up two “dislikes”. Please, if you are one of the people who have done this, will you write to say what you dislike about something so obviously innocuous and intended to be helpful?

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