Digging deep

Simon Stephens meets Sharon Webb to hear about the challenges of running an archaeology museum in a remote area of Scotland
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Simon Stephens
Archaeology has always been a passion for Sharon Webb, who started her career at a university museum in Cambridge.

Nine years ago she swapped the comforts of academic life for the west of Scotland when she became the curator at Kilmartin House Museum in Argyll.

Cambridge was a very stimulating environment for an archaeologist and the university’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has one of the best collections in world archaeology.

“I have to say, it was quite a wrench leaving that collection and that museum,” Webb says. “In a community that intellectualises the subject so much, there were lots of ideas flying about and it was quite a difference coming to a place like Kilmartin.”

But Kilmartin, while not having the learned surroundings of Cambridge, has a remarkable archaeological legacy. There are more than 800 ancient monuments within a six-mile radius of the village, many of them prehistoric.

This extraordinary concentration and diversity makes it an area of outstanding archaeological importance. Kilmartin House Museum was set up in 1997 to showcase this heritage.

Despite this rich material, it is a challenging place to run a museum. The small village of Kilmartin is in a relatively remote rural area of Argyll, but the location was one of the attractions for Webb, who had been inspired by her earlier studies of a group of Sami (indigenous people of the Arctic area of Scandinavia) museums in Norway, Finland and Sweden.

Dual role

“That gave me a real insight into how much benefit a small community museum can bring to a community in terms of economic impact, but also social impact,” Webb says. “That was one of the things that really interested me about coming to Kilmartin.”

Small community museums often face difficult times though and that was the situation when Webb joined Kilmartin House Museum. The museum was in deep financial trouble and she had to help sort it out.

Those who founded the museum hoped that the costs of running the centre would eventually be covered by self-generated revenue. But by the time Webb arrived it was becoming clear that this model was not sustainable and some form of permanent public funding was vital for the museum’s future.

“We had a huge amount of help from George Lyon, who was our MSP at the time,” says Webb.

“I chatted with him and said we needed to get all the agencies to sit around the table and say to them: ‘Look, Kilmartin is a good thing but it will never be totally self-sustaining. If you want this place to survive and to continue to draw tourists to the area and to have an economic, social and cultural impact, we need to get some funding in here.’

It was a painful period of uncertainty and job losses, but there was also an encouraging show of public support for the museum. In early 2005, a three-year funding package was agreed with Argyll and Bute Council, Historic Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage.

The Scottish Executive also made a contribution for two years. At the same time, the trust worked hard to achieve a realistic increase in self-generated income.

As part of the process, Webb became the museum’s director as well its curator. It has been a steep learning curve, as she has had to add a whole range of other skills to her archaeological expertise.

Learning on the job

“That’s one of the things about working in a place like this,” says Webb. “You’ve got to think about tourists, marketing, archaeology, interpretation, business development – you really do need to be a jack-of-all-trades.

“When I think back to sitting in this office on my first day nine years ago I would have run screaming to the hills if I knew what it was going to be like,” she continues. “But you just learn and when you make mistakes or things don’t quite work out as expected, you pick yourself up and get on with it.”

Webb had little experience of fundraising before she arrived, for example, or in dealing with politicians and other stakeholders.

“I sometimes joke, and I don’t really mean it, that I went into archaeology to deal with dead people,” says Webb. “But actually, most of the time it is about developing relationships with living people.”

Webb is also supported by a small but committed team and she gets time to do the work she really loves. The museum encourages lots of volunteers to take part in digs, which is the kind of active archaeology that she says makes Kilmartin really special.

She is now seeing people who used to be in the museum’s young archaeologists club as children thinking about going into the profession.

And because part of the way that the organisation earns income is to offer its services to other museums, Webb also gets to work with a range of other communities outside Kilmartin. Her organisation is responsible for the archaeology at Argyll and Bute Council’s Campbeltown Museum and Webb is curatorial adviser to a number of other museums.

Love of archaeology

Webb talks with fondness about sitting in a village hall chatting about archaeology as part of the Scotland’s Islands Festival. She also tries to make time to stay involved with Kilmartin’s collection.

“Sometimes, what’s really nice is just to say I’m going to spend the day working with the collection. A lot of museum curators don’t like accessioning but I love it because I hardly ever get the chance to do it these days.”

Even though Webb has to get involved in all areas of the museum’s work, her enjoyment of the job is underpinned by her long-standing love of archaeology. So when it’s cold and wet in Argyll, and she’s filling out yet another complicated funding application, she still has this to drive her on.

“I knew I wanted to do archaeology from a very early age and used to drag my parents round castles,” says Webb, who left school aged 16 in an environment where going to university was rare.

She eventually took a degree in archaeology and prehistory at Sheffield and then did a master’s in museums and heritage management at Cambridge followed by a PHD.

Her passion for archaeology is something that she feels the public increasingly shares, partly down to its high profile on television.

“The public awareness of archaeology on a national level has never been as high as it is now and I think a large part of that is down to Channel 4’s Time Team,” says Webb.

“On a local level and regional level it is down to archaeologists engaging the public a lot more than they ever used to, with community digs and things like that and allowing people to see excavations. That is what did it for me, when I was kid, going to York and watching the Jorvik digs from the top of the scaffold that was open to the public, and thinking, I want to do that.”

Working with the community

Webb is now looking forward to redeveloping the Kilmartin House Museum, much of which has remained unchanged since it opened in 1997. A recent feasibility study pointed to its awkward visitor flow, the fact that it is not DDA compliant and the huge heat loss of the main building.

Webb is keen to get more of the collection out on view and for the displays to be updated to reflect recent research. She also wants covered access to the store and a better temporary exhibition space.

In the meantime, she is having to cope with the usual challenges of a small museum. The trust’s income has remained stable, but costs are rocketing, something that is a problem for remote places such as Kilmartin.

Despite these challenges, there is still a lot to enjoy about the job, particularly engaging with the public in the galleries or outside in the beautiful Argyll countryside.

“One of the most enjoyable parts of the job is working on community archaeology and taking people on guided walks and showing people the objects and telling stories about them and seeing the spark of understanding. That is magic really.

“And watching the sun rise over frosty Temple Wood [an ancient stone circle in Kilmartin Glen] on a December morning, you could not be anywhere that is more beautiful on a day like that.”

Sharon Webb at a glance

Sharon Webb became the curator of Kilmartin House Museum, Argyll, in 2003 and later was appointed director.

She is also the curator of archaeology and natural sciences for Campbeltown Museum, and curatorial adviser for Lismore Museum, Easdale Museum, and the Oban War and Peace Museum.

Webb started her career at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, part of Cambridge University, where she took a master’s in museums and heritage management and in 2002 completed a PHD.

She was at the University of Sheffield in the 1990s where she took an undergraduate degree in archaeology and prehistory.

She has just written In the Footsteps of Kings, a guide to walks in and around Kilmartin Glen.

Kilmartin House at a glance

Kilmartin House Trust was founded in 1994 and the museum opened three years later. In 1998 it won the Scottish Museum of the Year award and the Gulbenkian Prize for museums and galleries.

The museum has two full-time members of staff and three part-timers, plus volunteers and those who work in the reception, shop and cafe.

Kilmartin House Museum raises just under half of its running costs from ticket sales, the cafe and shop. It also has service-level agreements with Argyll and Bute Council and Historic Scotland and receives core funding in exchange for the work that it does for these organisations. Highlands and Islands Enterprise also gives advice and funding.

Its education service is funded by a number of different cultural and heritage bodies.

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