Museum of… Scottish Submarine Centre, Helensburgh

Louise Gray, Issue 118/09, p39, 01.09.2018
Louise Gray dives below the surface to discover this fledgling venue’s high-tech plans
Where The Scottish Submarine Centre (SSC) in Helensburgh, western Scotland, is just 36 minutes by train from Glasgow. It is close to Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, known as Faslane, where the British submarine service is based. The SSC is in a former Victorian church complex, which also has a hall that Oscar Wilde spoke in on two occasions in 1888.

What The SSC is a charity that was set up in 2014 by Brian Keating, who has a background in technology and computing. Keating, the chairman of the centre, says that when he moved to the area 15 years ago he was astonished to find that, despite Faslane’s naval significance, there was nothing to honour the submarines in Scotland.

Opened 2 April.

Collection A 1955, 55-foot X-51 submarine, HMS Stickleback, which is on long-term loan from the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth. The submarine has its story video-mapped onto its surface via 360-degree video. At 50 metres, it is the longest screen in the UK, Keating says. The submarine is raised on stilts so it floats 1.5 metres off the floor.

The screen that surrounds it creates a watery atmosphere using immersive video, alongside audio that tells stories about the warship. Additional information in the form of newsreels, photographs and a 35-minute presentation, which includes footage of the Stickleback’s arrival in Helensburgh, are also part of the show.

Highlights The centre’s high-tech presentation is the undoubted highlight. Eighteen projectors linked to a computer are used to create images on the submarine. “As it is not possible for visitors to step inside the sub, the centre digitised the engineering plans for it and we use these in the projection,” Keating says.

In addition, Keating and his team catalogued 1,700 items inside the submarine, such as periscopes and wheels. Animators then created 3D animations of each object and joined them together. This means visitors can digitally turn the wheel or perform an “up, periscope” command. “We can show the inside on the outside,” Keating says. “One reason we can do this is because the cost of projection has plummeted.”

Keating’s background in digital technology gave the museum a huge advantage. “I knew how to explain what we wanted to the companies we spoke to,” he says. One of these, NEC, a Japanese firm that is a world leader in projectors, provided the SSC with £1m worth of equipment for less than a third of the cost.

Help at hand The centre has three full-time content creators and eight volunteers. Keating says the centre recently launched its Friends scheme: 70 people joined in the SSC’s opening week, each contributing £100 a year.

Budget The nascent trust behind the SSC raised £190,000 to buy the church hall and a further £1.2m to create the exhibition. The lottery, the local council and the treasury (through the Libor fund – money collected from bank fines) contributed to costs.

Admission is £5. Between October and Easter, the centre is open from Thursday to Sunday. For the rest of the year, it is also open on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sticky moment “When we were building an entrance to bring in the 38-tonne submarine, the wall of the building developed a crack,” says Keating. “Our engineers stopped everything and within a week had come up with an ingenious plan that involved a lot of concrete. Thankfully, it worked and the building has never been stronger.”

Survival tip Keating has succinct advice: “If you’re building a new museum, raise more money than you need.”

Visitors In the first month, before press activity took off, 1,600 people visited.

Future plans The SSC is working on two more exhibitions, one including actors narrating the submarine’s workings from a virtual-reality interior. The centre is also fundraising to build a kitchen. “Then we can hold dinners under the submarine and add to our revenue,” Keating says.

Louise Gray is a freelance writer