A walk down memory lane

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
VE day celebrations, ducks on the wall and working down the mines - new approaches to the past are being pioneered under a national museum strategy to widen access to local communities. Douglas Blane reports

A pleasant surprise awaits anyone who hasn't visited one of Scotland's museums for a while. The random, dusty collections of old coins, yellowing paper and mongooses with snakes in their mouths are vanishing. In their place are appearing structured displays that entertain, tell a story and actively engage visitors of all ages and abilities.

This gradual process of widening access to history and cultural heritage has received added impetus from the recent publication by the Scottish Museums Council of A National Learning and Access Strategy for Museums and Galleries in Scotland.

"The challenge is to make our museums into open, welcoming places for all," says council director Joanne Orr. "It's not enough to put things on display. We have to make that extra effort to encourage people to walk through our doors and engage with the objects - and not just our regular visitors and tourists."

Lifelong learning and the "diverse ways and contexts" in which this can occur - many of them involving outreach - are central to the new strategy.

At Dalreoch day care centre, the flags on tables, the bunting hanging from the ceiling, and the Union Jack hats being worn are helping to recreate VE day. But it is the beautiful voices of Scottish trio Song Machine that are bringing memories to mind, as well as one or two surreptitious tears to elderly eyes.

Having played piano with Song Machine before becoming West Dunbartonshire arts development officer, Andrew Salmond has direct experience of the powerful effect of music: "It brings back memories, usually of happy times.

When you're performing, you can see old people uncurl themselves and sit up straight to sing a song they know well that takes them back to their youth.

This kind of street party concert gives older people something to talk about with their friends and families. It lets them reminisce during songs and at the meal afterwards."

Agnes McGregor, who celebrated her 100th birthday in May, worked as a nurse during the Clydebank Blitz and indeed all her working life, she says: "I was in Hardgate hospital and matron was out that night when the bombs started. I was in charge of 36 patients and the hospital took a direct hit.

We had no telephone, no lights, no electricity. Two policemen came up on bikes from Clydebank every hour to make sure we were alright.

"One of the German pilots had to parachute out of his plane, and broke his arm when he landed. They brought him to us and we fixed his arm and looked after him. Then they took him away.

"It was our work, and it didn't make any difference to us that he was a German. He was a young lad fighting for his country, the same as our young lads. I often wonder what happened to him."

Today's Dalreoch concert is the first of many that will be performed in day care centres around West Dunbartonshire, as part of Their Past Your Future - a UK-wide initiative exploring the changes in people and places in the 60 years since the end of the Second World War.

A variety of other events are being organised, says Mr Salmond, led in Scotland by the Scottish Museums Council and using exhibits lent by the Imperial War Museum: "It was launched earlier this year at Clydebank Museum, where we've re-created a 1940s living room - flying ducks and antimacassars. We have had around 2,000 pupils coming to workshops there."

Other intriguingly entitled events include "Pixie Hats and Wet Duffels", "Careless Talk", "Box Clever" and "Coronation Mugs and Jelly".

"Careless Talk will be based in branch libraries, where we'll get war veterans out to talk to children about their experiences. In Pixie Hats and Wet Duffels, we're going to re-create a 1940s classroom in primary schools, and simulate a wartime regime and culture. We'll get actors to play Churchill and Hitler, and we're talking about recreating an evacuation."

Schools have shown a keen interest in using the street party resources that have transformed the Dalreoch centre today, says Mr Salmond. These are lent out in large wickerwork hampers, full of Union Jack hats, flags, mugs, napkins, and a resource book of song lyrics and ration recipes.

Also being lent out to schools and community groups are topic boxes, containing period objects and newspapers, fact sheets and time lines, craft exercises and CDs of popular music.

"We recently held a reunion for people who worked at the Singer sewing machine factory in Clydebank, which produced munitions for the war effort," says Mr Salmond. "We were expecting a couple of dozen people, but 200 turned up and had a great time."

There is, however, more to such events than simple enjoyment, as the Scottish Museum Council's new strategy explains: "Working with those whose stories have not been told can result in learning achievements, as well as positive personal, social, health, welfare and employment outcomes."

The other side of the coin is equally important. Museums "select, shape, define and interpret" our cultural heritage, and the history of many communities has in the past been "systematically excluded or marginalised".

But museums are now recognising that the power to shape history should be "commonly owned", says the strategy, and "the memories, ideas, knowledge and skills of diverse communities should be drawn upon".

Stimulated by the street party concerts and other Their Past Your Future events around West Dunbartonshire, people's memories will be recorded and kept in the museum as part of the history of the 20th century, says Mr Salmond: "It is important that we do not lose these memories."

As well as an agenda of objectives and actions, A National Learning and Access Strategy for Museums and Galleries in Scotland is also aimed at accelerating an "attitude shift" among Scotland's museums that is already underway, says Ms Orr.

Case studies of good practice that widen access and contribute to lifelong learning are especially valuable. "There's the Windmill project in Dumfries and Galloway, where people were asked to come in and choose an object that appealed to them, then write a story about it," she says.

"The object inspired feelings, thoughts, imagination, curiosity and creativity - and this should all be part of a museum experience nowadays.

It is no longer just about facts and figures, although they remain important, and provide a starting point for the imagination."

Another example of good practice is a 1930s miner's home, which went on the road, touring the former Fife coalfields, inside a converted double-decker bus. "It is the only museum and arts coach in Scotland," says Kirkcaldy Museum's outreach officer Iain Clark. "It's been going since 1996 and has its own reputation around Fife now. It's constantly touring with different exhibitions."

At first the coach offered "relatively passive experiences". But 7 Pit Wynd changed that, by using the rich culture from coal mining, held in Kirkcaldy Museum, to stimulate literature, music, drama and art activities, and to encourage former miners and their families to share their experiences with younger generations.

"It was popular all over Fife," says Mr Clark. "Our latest project is about recycling, so we've fitted the bus out like an Aladdin's cave warehouse.

The old bus has done around a million miles and has had most of its parts replaced. So recycling is an appropriate theme for its last exhibition, before we get a new bus next year."

Summerlee Heritage Centre in Coatbridge has been hosting the meetings of a group of adults with special needs, who have been using the museum's exhibits in their photography and artwork.

"The museum people have been really good to us," says social worker Jim McIntosh, who supervises the group. "As well as letting us use the premises and the collections, they've also given us space for two exhibitions.

"David Walker, the photographer, gets the members of the group to participate as much as possible, and to try out different techniques.

Recently, they've been experimenting with pinhole cameras, taking images of the industrial machinery.

"In the past we've had them dressed up in period costume and taking photographs of each other in the old cottages that are part of the museum."

Stephen Gribben, 29, is a keen member of the group and particularly enjoys working in the darkroom, he says: "We make pictures out of stuff from the museum. We put them on photographic paper, then we put it under the enlarger.

"We made a pinhole camera out of cardboard. We had to be careful and cut along straight lines to make it work. I like taking photographs in the museum."

A National Learning and Access Strategy for Museums and Galleries in Scotland, Scottish Museums Council, June 2005. See www.scottishmuseums.org.uk; www.wdcweb.infoheritage; www.scotlandswar.info

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