The museum, which also serves as a heritage centre, celebrates the area's natural and social history, and remembers the 1982 conflict

International opening: Historic Dockyard Museum, Stanley, Falkland Islands

Simon Stephens, Issue 112/05, p34-35, 02.02.2015
The Falkland Islands are best known for the 1982 conflict with Argentina but a new museum shows there is much more to the country. By Simon Stephens
A relatively small budget, short timescale and a limited number of staff were among the challenges that had to be overcome to create a new museum in Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands.

Logistics are also difficult in the Falklands, which sit in the South Atlantic Ocean, and consist of two main islands a(East and West Falkland) and 778 smaller ones. Stanley is home to more than 75% of the 3,000-strong population.

The Historic Dockyard Museum was completed last year and replaced a museum at Britannia House that had opened in 1989. The project included the demolition of five buildings, the construction of a new one, the refurbishment and refitting of three others, and the relocation of a listed building.

There are five main themes in the new museum: social history, maritime history, the 1982 conflict, natural history and an exhibition on the Antarctic.

The idea for a museum on the dockyard site was first suggested by Neil Cossons, an industrial heritage expert and former director of the Science Museum, when he visited the Falkland Islands in the mid-1980s. Cossons was invited to open the new Historic Dockyard Museum.

What was the main aim of the new museum?

Leona Roberts:
The old museum at Britannia House was too small and too far from the centre of the town, where our cruise ship passengers come ashore, which created a lot of issues for us.

Also, the dockyard is really where the founding of the town began back in the mid-1840s. As the historic heart of Stanley, with the highest concentration of listed buildings in the Falklands, developing the site as a heritage area has been the Falkland Islands Museum & National Trust’s key objective for many years.

In terms of the aims of the exhibitions, my hope has always been that we make this a museum of the people of the Falklands.

We have a relatively short history – with no indigenous peoples, settlement only attempted in the late 1700s and even then no permanent population until the 1830s – and so it is the people, the settlers old and new, who make the islands what they are.

Our aim was that the exhibitions should tell the story of the islands as far as possible through the families that have built them. At its heart, this is a social history museum.

What were the main challenges of developing the museum?

There were so many challenges that I’m not sure where to start.

The Falkland Islands Museum & National Trust is a very small organisation with only four full-time staff. None of us are trained museum professionals. It was always the intention that as much of the work as possible would be done in-house, so that was challenging for us.

Along with that, we were still operating the old museum at Britannia House and were only able to close it at the beginning of April last year, after the last cruise ship visit.

Logistics are always an issue in the Falklands as everything has to come from Britain and there are limited shipping options. It’s the “Falklands factor” and everyone worked around it brilliantly.

When it came to exhibitions, with the exception of the 1982 and Antarctic galleries, we put the rest together ourselves with a lot of planning but no detailed design.

We were determined that in the process of updating and improving our exhibitions we did not lose the feel that we had at Britannia House – a warm, welcoming place, a little bit quirky, and very true to the Falklands. I think we have achieved that.

What type of visitors do you expect to attract?

The majority are from cruise ships that call into Stanley. They only have a short time in the town (rarely more than seven hours) and they want to see as much as possible in that time. We are expecting between 40,000-50,000 cruise ship visitors in Stanley this summer.

How does the museum tackle the Falklands war?

The war in 1982 was a watershed moment in the history of the Falklands – everything here tends to be referred to as before or after the war. Visitors often mistakenly believe it is all there is to our history and so we have deliberately aimed to put it in context, so it is a relatively small room in the new museum.

The story of the war is told through the memories of islanders who were children
in 1982. It does not try to go into all the events or explain everything that these children experienced – instead it gives an impression of the impact that those awful days had on the community.

What is the most innovative element of the project?

Probably our Antarctic Gallery. This includes the Reclus Hut – an Antarctic refuge used in the 1950s. This little building was prefabricated in Stanley and shipped to the peninsula to serve as a shelter for the men exploring the region.

It was returned to Stanley in the 1990s and sat in our grounds for years. We couldn’t keep the weather out and the only way to ensure its preservation was to bring it indoors. The new building was designed around the hut.

The two surviving hut “boys” came to the islands for the official opening of the museum, which was particularly wonderful and very moving.

Leona Roberts is the manager of the Historic Dockyard Museum

Project data

  • Cost £2m
  • Main funders Falkland Islands government £1.8m; private sponsorship £200,000
  • 1982 and Antarctic exhibition design Imagemakers Interpretive Design & Consulting
  • Audiovisuals Fatcalf Media