With refurbishment and expansion of Aberdeen Art Gallery looking like a real prospect and questions over the future use of the ARI buildings at Woolmanhill this is a good time to look at where the city’s museum service might be going.
Aberdeen can boast its vibrant oil industry and its remarkable granite architecture. Sadly, despite its long history, it lacks what most other major cities in Scotland can boast: a museum dedicated to the story of the burgh. Yes there are museums: the Maritime Museum, Provost Skene’s House and the seasonal Tolbooth, which all in one way or another display and explain Aberdeen’s history and on the odd occasion even the Art Gallery holds exhibitions dedicated to local history. Over time they have provided something of the social, archaeological and technological histories of the city and its hinterland but only fleeting moments which betrays on the one hand a very peculiar evolution of Aberdeen’s museum service and on the other diffidence on the part of North Easters to blow their own trumpet. But the fact is if Aberdonians don’t do no one else will.
With individuals such as Kenneth Webster and Diane Morgan now looking at the possibility of the Woolmanhill site becoming a museum we should try and be clear about what is required and how this might integrate with existing facilities.
It is widely accepted in the museum world that historical interpretation is best managed when material, political and intellectual currents are seen to be intertwined; that human forces are located within possibilities and constraints of particular landscapes. Probably the nearest Aberdeen got to such an institution was the now vanished Regional Museum which occupied the basement of the Cowdray Hall. This museum operated from the 1930s to the 1970s and sought to explore many aspects of the cultural-material life of the North East. In a very small area it covered subjects as diverse as the flora and fauna of Aberdeenshire, archaeological finds and the lives of ancient people, industrial papermaking and the granite industry. The physical space might well have been limited but the intellectual sweep was capacious; it opened up history and gave visitors a sense of the North East as the product of forces, both natural and human.
That the Regional Museum was lodged in the basement probably tells us something of how local history has been regarded in the cultural hierarchy: literally and symbolically below that of the fine and decorative arts. Nonetheless, we should not underestimate the bold move in establishing the museum. It was shut in the 1970s when the Maritime Museum project got under way and the old museum space became a much needed store for the Art Gallery and Museums. Of course the paradox being it became a store for artefacts so enabling improved displays elsewhere but so doing closed an important and popular public resource.
Once again there is a debate over the possibility and value of developing a new museum site in the city, specifically the Royal Infirmary Simpson building and the pavilions at Woolmanhill. These buildings have been mooted off and on as ideal for museums for at least the past twenty years and now that the NHS contemplates (again) removal from the site they are back in the reckoning.
This location would indeed make a splendid centre for cultural and material history. It stands alongside HMT, adjacent to the Central Library, to the east is the Art Gallery and no great distance beyond it there is the Tolbooth and Maritime Museum. Woolmanill also has easy access to Union Street and the railway station. The buildings there are architecturally significant and the area is such that it could usefully accommodate an extension to the City’s museum provision.
I would, however, ask that those who are advocating development of Woolmanhill to extend their imaginations beyond the museum world. They could do worse than take as a starting model the best that the old Regional Museum offered. Whilst it was object- centred and depended upon the use of display cases, it was however greater than a cabinet of curiosities; it hinted at a broader and deeper way of approaching history, one which opened pathways beyond the constricting limitations of the academic categories so often associated with intellectual life. That Woolmanhill is associated with the history of nursing and medicine need not confine those buildings for using to tell that story only. No doubt the Simpson building and the old theatre area would make a splendid and appropriate places for showing the extensive medical collections held by the Art Gallery and Museums (although we could also argue a case that its very building material and high standard of architectural design make it ideally suitable as an interpretation centre for the granite trade).
We should go beyond single issue thinking. Any proposals for the site should see it not so much a window into the city’s past, with all its connotations of a passive conjunction of history and culture, but a place for active participation in meanings of the past.
History and culture are too important to be left to experts. Most of our lives revolve around the power of the market place with the consumption of commodities as a core activity, a world of large seemingly impersonal forces over which we have virtually no control. This might be a legitimate way to organise the allocation of resources on a daily basis but it is not a model to follow for any new cultural institution. Humans have potentials which beg to be extended; beg to be allowed to flower. At the heart of the human experience are the powers of creativity, knowledge and understanding. To know how we arrived at where we are and how things might have been otherwise or might be different in the future comes from historical knowledge and understanding. This applies to individual as well as collective experience. The historical sense is an active force which empowers those who seek to understand.
I am not asking that the notion of a museum be given up. Within a critical and creative community there is a legitimate place for material displays and interpretation, but if we want to promote greater creative confrontation with users there must be opportunities for active participation. This means access to the resources to enable greater historical understanding and creative involvement. To use a favourite term of the museum world we need to create a hub, a point at which many cultural and historical assets meet and in the best of all possible worlds will provide an interplay that generates a dynamic sense of place and time.
Aberdeen City Council’s cultural services include the Art Gallery & Museums, Libraries, Archives and other facilities. As things stand these professional areas exist within their own watertight compartments; discrete institutions each of which has responsibility for aspects of the historical and aesthetic collections held by the Council. For those outside the service knowing the extent of the City’s rich collections and where to find material can be mystifying.
At the moment the City’s Archives are dispersed over a number of sites. So too are the Libraries. It is worth pointing out that unlike the museum service, which has just gained a custom built store, the Library service has soldiered on for many years with shrinking space – its Reserve Stock and historically important manuscripts coming under increasing stress. Bringing both these archival resources together, including their thousands of photographs, into a shared resource with museums could create a great asset for the City.
On a more ambitious level a shared centre might include facilities to explore dramatic, literary and other aspects of the arts which taken together could stimulate opportunities for learning and understanding of both past and present.
Integrating collections would provide greater opportunities to connect artefacts and objects currently held by the different parts of the City’s heritage sector: what might a sanitary inspector’s report reveal about life in a 19th century tenement and how much more sense would reading it make if some paraphernalia from the time stored by the museums could be viewed and handled at the same time? Then where could the visitor take their newly found information to enhance their understanding – to pursue oral history and recording or create a dramatic or artistic interpretation of his or her findings? Of course any of these explorations might be adult centred, led by children, individual or collective. What is important is that they have available resources to extend understanding and so achieve some kind of control in a way that does not happen currently.