Comment posted on Challenge to local election candidates from Museums and Heritage Forum by Bob Clark
Once again in a personal capacity and not as Manager of Auchindrain, I welcome Louise Glen-Lee’s statement. The basis on which I do so is wholly neutral and not in any way party political, and indeed my hope is that others contesting the election will now make at least comparable commitments. It would be very good indeed to find that on 4th May, whatever other policy issues may divide the new Council there is consensus that a long, hard look needs to be taken at the nature of the authority’s engagement with community heritage and heritage-based tourism.
It is Catherine Gillies, not I, who speaks for the Museums & Heritage Forum, but I am sure most Forum members would join me in arguing that the essential first step is for the issues, potential and options to be given full and in-depth consideration. Thus armed with knowledge and understanding, I then have to subjectively believe that the new Council will of course take the “right” decisions and pursue an enlightened course.
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
- Moving Minds at Auchindrain
Thank you, For Argyll, for publishing this. “Moving Minds” is at Auchindrain every day, 10am to 5pm, through to 20th September. There is no charge for access to the Visitor Centre where the exhibition is to be seen.
We hope that For Argyll readers and their friends will regard this as a “must-do, must-see” sometime within the next seven weeks.
- Challenge to Scottish Government: Change the everyday racist discrimination that asks how civilised is Scotland?
We’re pleased and proud of the way in which For Argyll has reacted to our growing links with the Argyll Travellers.
- Historic Scotland gives Auchindrain two years to prove itself
We look forward to seeing you later this year!
Gaelic represents something of a challenge to us. We are VERY aware of its historical importance, do our best to give the language its place, and where it is realistic for us to do so we support current activities to develop the use of Gaelic in the modern world. However, as a medium for interpretation it is of very little use because so few of our visitors can read Gaelic and none of those who can are also unable to read English. As and when we have funds to develop our interpretation, simply reality indicates that our top priorities for language translations are German, Spanish, French and Italian. We could with relative ease get everything we write translated into Gaelic, but have to date fought shy of something that would be tokenistic rather than adding to understanding of the place. That said, however, it’s an open debate, and we’d welcome differing views on what we ought to do, how, why, and with what outcomes in mind.
- Argyll and the Isles Tourism follows up on Expo
For the first time this year, in conjunction with Expo VisitScotland brought us two groups of tour operators, one from Germany, another from North America. And we now have our first group booking from one of the participants. Good stuff!
- Argyll and the Isles at Scotland’s tourism expo – a good show at a poorly organised event
I am not sure that the organisers of Expo were responsible for the situation you describe, and it may even be that they were fully aware of what things were going to be like and powerless to do anything about it.
A few weeks ago I attended another function at the SECC, which within its own sector was every bit as high profile and important as Expo. This was “The Gathering”, the annual get-together and trade fair for third sector organisations that is put together by SCVO. My experiences of arrival were the same as yours.
Being familiar with the SECC, I expected an easy and well-signposted route into a large open car park on the west side of the centre, followed by a short walk with obvious sightlines to the building’s entrance. Not so. The entrances to that car park were closed off, and deeply inadequate signage directed me to the multistorey. I persevered and used my eyes (there was a complete route but it wasn’t obvious with the last bit particularly obscure) and ultimately found my way to the said structure some considerable way away, well on the east side of the Hydro. Once in the car park, signage towards the SECC was excellent and obvious, and I emerged at the foot of a set of stairs to find a sign inviting me to wait for a lift. Three minutes later a buggy appeared and I was driven past the Hydro to the SECC entrance, with the same in reverse when I left.
Everything actually worked fine, with the sole problem being really atrocious directional signage between where I expected to be parking and where I actually had to go. But those signs had to be on the public roads system, not SECC land. For some reason we don’t know SECC parking arrangements have changed, temporarily or permanently, and whoever was responsible for planning and authorising the re-signage has dropped a massive brick – but I suspect it wasn’t the SECC itself.
Why don’t you put this issue as a direct question to SECC management rather than blasting off at the organisers of Expo? They may have been victims too!
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