Auchindrain: achievements and future direction – but is it the right one?

We have acquired a copy of the report into Auchindrain Township and its future, prepared for Historic Scotland by the commissioned Jura Consultants from Midlothian.

Auchindrain’s considerable achievements have brought it to a junction where decisions are being made right now which will influence the direction it takes. Outside agencies are necessarily involved in those decisions and we must all hope that the voice of the Auchindrain Trust, whose support for the site has been unstinting in every way, is heard and respected in the dialogue that must follow this report.

The Mid Argyll site is an accredited museum and the consultants report seems predicated on the recognition of a welcome formal involvement in its future by the national conservation body Historic Scotland, currently proposed to merge with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

The question with which the report is concerned is what the nature of this involvement should be.

Recognition of achievements

The Jura report, following a wide ranging review and consultation process, pays full tribute to the achievements at Auchindrain, noting the following points we consider significant, that:

  • Auchindrain Township is an important and significant historic site and is of national importance.
  • The Conservation Management Plan (CMP) project has gone to great lengths to generate new research, improve the understanding of the site, establish its significance, and provide a direction for future conservation work.
  • In terms of visitor expenditure onsite, Auchindrain Township is able to achieve better than combined average figures for Scottish museums/art galleries, other historic properties, attractions generating 5,000 to 10,000 visitors per year and remote rural attractions.
  • The tearoom at Auchindrain provides a local facility which has attracted some 1,680
    exclusive tearoom visitors in 2011, with 960 visitors recorded to-date for 2012 in addition
    to servicing site visitors.
  • Auchindrain Township has achieved an integration with the community and developed local support through the “Friends of” group, community events, local schools engagement, and volunteering opportunities.
  • The site provides an opportunity to further the priorities set out with regards to… developing Mid-Argyll as a tourist destination, showcasing an important milestone in the area’s history and how society once related to nature, and extending the tourist offer at Inveraray for those looking to spend more than a day in the area.

Vulnerabilities

The report identifies vulnerabilities in the current operation of the site.

These are in addition to its endemic inability to sustain more than a certain number of visitors a year without damage to the essential environmental and physical fabric of the place.

The unavoidable fact is that therefore, whatever it does, the site cannot be expected to achieve financial sustainability from its own revenue generating capacity.

It will always require core funding, with the report noting that: ‘… grant funding is essential in order to undertake any research, development, conservation, or improvement works needed on site and requires constant effort to source and manage.’ Without core funding, the time and effort of endlessly making and justifying grant applications aligned with whatever is on offer at any given moment, distracts from the core jobs that need to be done.

The question is what the sources of core funding should be and what such funding should support?

The vulnerabilities the report additionally identifies include some matters – like location – that are beyond anyone’s control; and some – like inadequate visitor information – that are obviously addressable.

Key issues noted that are in the nature of the place are:

  • Location and Visitor Market Penetration: This centres on the fact that most visitor traffic to Inveraray goes on up Loch Aweside to Oban via the A819, rather than carry on south down the A83, past Auchindrain to Lochgilphgead and Campbeltown. The report notes that southbound traffic is also unlikely to choose to stop so soon to visit a place as close to Inveraray as is Auchindrain.
  • Condition of Buildings: With 23 standing buildings, 5 ruinous buildings and the tearoom, many of which involve a high level of perishable building materials (e.g. thatch), there is a constant requirement for conservation and maintenance.

Key issues noted that are addressable:

  • Conservation Management Plan: while the production of this document has been recognised as a useful research exercise, it is considered, in its present form, not to be efficiently usable as a guide to planning the conservation of the site.
  • Visitor Experience:  The report says that: ‘The current visitor experience on site is not of a high quality.’ This centres on the lack of appropriate information in usable form to guide visitors to the site; and on the lack of actual guidance. The report notes that: ‘Visitors are left to tour the site on their own with little in terms of orientation (if they choose not to purchase the guidebook) and use of static and outdated interpretative techniques.
  • Confused Identity: This is a key issue. It relates back to the statement made earlier in the report that Auchindrain appears unlikely to retain its ‘accredited museum’ status in the coming 2014 review. The report says: ‘Development of Auchindrain Township has been muddled by the objective to run the site as an accredited museum rather than as a historic site… it has fundamentally drawn attention away from key “front of house” priorities of  developing new audiences and the visitor offer, i.e. the interpretive experience, events programme, etc. which would be necessary to attract more visitors and generate
    additional income.’

Options considered

The consultants missed no possible option for the future of Auchindrain, considering: versions of accredited museum status; visitor attraction; managed historic site; working farm; research and training centre; functions and events venue; restaurant with rooms; arts and crafts colony; holiday accommodation; campsite and glamping; activity camp; short term residential; return to nature.

From these they drew up a short list of option which they explored in detail. These were:

  • Option 1: ‘Do Minimum’ – Accredited Museum: The conclusion here was – as quoted above as a key indicator, that: ‘There is a very serious and high risk that the museum will potentially lose accreditation when it comes time for renewal in 2014, so it seems impractical to invest in an option that would try to maintain it.’
  • Option 2: Living History Visitor Attraction: The conclusion here was that: ‘This option does not generate sufficient visitor numbers or surplus to warrant the level of investment required to develop, implement and operate such an undertaking.’
  • Option 3: Managed Historic Site: There were two overt sub-options here – running a preserved site without managed visitor access (Option 3A); or running the site with a limited visitor experience but with a tenant custodian living onsite to manage conservation and take admission (Option 3B). The conclusion was that ‘as a “dead” site without an active visitor offer this option would really be looking at managing the decline of the site in the long-term’. So a informal third option, later called 3C but unreferenced as such in this section, emerged in the conclusion, appearing to suggest that Option 3B: ‘becomes significantly more appealing under a partnership agreement’.
  • Option 4A and 4B: Full Use as Holiday Accommodation OR Mixed Use Holiday Accommodation and Visitor Attraction: These focus on providing ‘authentic experience’ holidays, with the conclusion being that: ‘Auchindrain may be located too close to the main road to provide the desired experience for holiday makers’  and would cost too much to ready for such use.

The critical position statement quoted above in the report’s evaluation of Option 1 above – ‘Do minimum – Accredited Museum’ ['There is a very serious and high risk that the museum will potentially lose accreditation when it comes time for renewal in 2014, so it seems impractical to invest in an option that would try to maintain it.']  requires a public response.

We consider that this statement is damaging to Auchindrain – and casually so, since it is undefended. We are therefore asking Auchindrain for clarification of this specific issue.

Funding is more easily attracted to accredited museums than to heritage sites – so if there is significant risk around Auchindrain’s retention of its accredited museum status,  the Auchindrain Trust will need to address this promptly, if it can.

Management options

The above options are usage options. The Jura report then goes on to consider management options for each and all of these.

It rules out management by Auchindrain Trust of anything except Options 1 and 2  – yet Option 1 is for an Accredited Museum, whose management could not be assumed to be within the skillset of a general Trust.

Also oddly, the report rules out Historic Scotland Guardianship for all but the Option 3 variations. This removes its specific and relevant expertise from two options – 1 [Accredited Museum] and 2 [Living History Visitor attraction] – where one would have expected its greatest management strengths to lie.

The report noted that Historic Scotland guardianship for Option 3 was appropriate because: ‘A managed historic site with no or limited managed visitor access would fit in with the existing portfolio of properties in the area such as Castle Sween or Bonawe Iron Furnace’. [This is an issue to which we return below.]

A partnership management agreement between Auchindrain Trust and Historic Scotland was considered for Options 1, 2 and ’3C’. The strengths of a partnership in these options are said to be that it: ‘works well to alleviate the Trust of any responsibility for conservation management and allows them to focus their efforts on developing and running a quality visitor experience on site’.

This alleviation of the Trust from any responsibility for conservation management begs the question we raise above, of why Historic Scotland Guardianship was so easily and unexplainedly removed from consideration of Options 1 and 2?

Partnership with other organisations was considered for all of the short listed options but centred on partnership with another hypothetical museum. Argyll and Bute Council supports Auchindrain with funding of around £13,000 per annum and also supports Kilmartin and Campbeltown museums.

Given this support, we wondered why the consultants did not at least float the notion of an umbrella partnership for Argyll sites like Kilmartin Glen, Kilmartin House Museum and Auchindrain with Historic Scotland, Argyll and Bute Council and the various Trusts involved? Given Argyll’s astonishingly rich archaeological inheritance and its plethora of castles and other significant elements of the built environment, this might be a partnership of strategic worth to all concerned.

The preferred option

The consultants finally opt to recommend a variation on an option to which they admit the Auchindrain Trust is overtly opposed.

It says of ‘Option 3: Managed Historic Site’: ‘This is not an option that appeals to the Auchindrain Trust or the Friends of [Ed 'Aucbindrain'] group and therefore would have little support from the community going forward.’

The recommendation is for the previously unidentified Option 3C: ‘a managed historic site where responsibility for management and conservation were given to a site manager employed and financially supported by Historic Scotland, and responsibility for visitor operations, such as interpreting and animating the site, were given to the Auchindrain Trust to fund through income generated by agreed activities and public funding sources.’

The report then described the specific responsibilities attaching to each partner, Historic Scotland and Auchindrain Trust, which would require to be written into a partnership agreement.

Interrogating the preferred option

In a country like Scotland, rich in history and heritage but with a small and ageing population and employment heavily reliant on the public sector, there is simply not enough money for all museums and heritage sites – which the report implies is a more appropriate classification for Auchindrain than ‘museum’ – to be conserved and enlivened.

It is Auchindrain’s intrinsic value, so strongly brought to the surface over recent years, which now has it at a position where Historic Scotland and conservation will definitely be a part of its future. As we said at the outset above, the question is what sort of relationship this would best be.

The consultants recommendation of what it has created as Option 3c has the strengths of providing the certainty of conservation management and actual conservation’ with the presence of a paid for onsite manager and caretaker.

However, it requires Auchindrain Trust to take sole responsible for the development and implementation of interpretation techniques to ‘animate the site’. These are very specific skills which would also require the training of volunteers to deliver them. We feel that this asks more of the Trust than it may reasonably be expected to be able to do.

We feel that there is a degree of misidentification and a missing link in this prescription.

The single post described and to be maintained by Historic Scotland stretches unwisely the spectrum of responsibilities from conservation management to looking after the lavatories.

Fundamentally it is a job which would not provide the necessary job satisfaction if the site is to succeed under the proposed arrangement.

It is a lonely posting and cabin fever is an accelerant to moving on. It would be no use to Auchindrain if it were to see a series of short term holders of an unsatisfactory position.

This would also be a maintenance position rather than the generative one to which Auchindrain has been shown to respond. There is no job satisfaction in ticking the boxes on a conservation schedule performed by others and in working alone to do so.

There would be no one to bounce ideas off because this job does not require the generation of initiatives. Yet the application of a creative imagination is what differentiates between a caretaker and an engine.

If heritage of any kind is worth bothering about, it requires engines.

The notion of maintained sites which are not or are only modestly open to the public begs the big question of who exactly they are being conserved to benefit? If people cannot see them and be helped resourcefully to understand and engage with them, why not simply return them to nature or bulldoze them and free up the space?

Tweaking the future

The execution of a conservation programme can comfortably be left in the competent professional hands of Historic Scotland, as proposed.

It is the interpretation of the site to visitors, the development of interaction with them and the amassing of more information about its history  – which adds real value to the experience of being there.

Defining differently the post to be funded by Historic Scotland would allow for the management of a conservation programme and a curatorial role would add significant value to the post and to the post holder.

If Argyll and Bute Council were to raise its support by a modest amount – say to £15,000 – another, rather more sophisticated version of the proposed model might be arrived at, were Historic Scotland so minded.

This would see a part time employee responsible for site interpretation and animation development, working alongside a site manager/curator rather than a site manager/caretaker.

The Jura report has been conscientiously carried out  There is much of interest in it – including a section looking at comparative sites across the UK. Its conclusions and recommendation simply need to be tweaked to accommodate and support the unique and growing vitality of Auchindrain, which is the real point of its conservation.

We agree with the report’s identification of the limitations of the current visitor experience at Auchindrain. Good information appropriately delivered matters, as does the useful suggestion the report makes of a smartphone app; and as do good, interactive guided tours.

The report itself accounts for the genesis of this undeveloped aspect of the site’s operations – the constant need to identify sources of project funding, prepare and submit applications. With a move to an achievable core funding scenario, time and energy would be freed to focus on this key interface.

If this tweaking means a modest increase in funding from both Historic Scotland and Argyll and Bute Council., this would not be a particularly material amount but would be highly enabling.

Staff, Trust, Friends and community have committed to Auchindrain and together have driven the notable successes to which the report pays due tribute in its opening paragraphs. Now these contributors need to see corporate belief in the proven value of the site match their own.

Note: We apologise for being unable to offer access to the full Jura report – which is worth reading. We have acquired it in hard copy format in advance of its appearance in the public domain, so no digital version is available to us.

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2 Responses to Auchindrain: achievements and future direction – but is it the right one?

    • Perhaps there’s a bloated banker or tax exempt fat cat somewhere, with Argyll connections, who’ll have an attack of conscience in their dotage and attempt redemption in the after-life by ‘doing good’ through setting up a trust fund to assure the future of Auchindrain.
      Much like the Russian post communist gangster ‘businessmen’ who’ve attempted salvation by financing reconstruction of some of the Russian monasteries on Athos.
      On second thoughts, it probably wouldn’t work – a lifetime of selfish greed would prevail.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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