Museums without walls
Storm Arwen’s 90mph gales flattened woodlands and caused significant structural damage to buildings when it wreaked havoc through the heart of Aberdeen in November 2021. Amid the chaos, the loss of some much-loved, distinctive trees in the Torry neighbourhood was keenly felt by local people, but help was soon at hand.
“We were contacted by someone who wanted to donate some small saplings – 20 rowans and oaks,” says David Fryer, the chair of the board of trustees of the Torry Ecomuseum Project. “We’re now looking at refreshing some of our coastal areas with indigenous trees, but you need something that can withstand the temperatures, wind and the corrosive nature of the North Sea.”
That gesture showed that the ecomuseum – launched eight months earlier as a virtual arts project during lockdown – had engendered a revitalised sense of place among local people. They have been recording their photos, videos and memories for a website that also serves as a distinctive tourist guide.
The ecomuseum promotes the richness of the riverside and coastal environments but it’s all about a respect for the past, not a worship of it.
“We originally saw it as something positive during the pandemic as we knew there were local folk and visitors walking around the headlands who could share their thoughts or create some artwork,” says Fryer, who continues to learn more about his hometown as the project expands to encompass guided walks and trails.
“A keen birdwatcher from the local university led one of our rambles, which revealed the surprising level of biodiversity in the harbour area. We’re based on one of the most easterly points of Britain, which is a natural landing ground for a huge range of birds, who take a rest while on their travels.”
The ecomuseum provides people with the chance to explore more than just the physical and geographical, he adds. “Our coastline includes a Site of Special Scientific Interest, which is a place of pilgrimage for geology students as it’s one of the few locations that reveals how pressure exerted by two ice ages on the north of Britain means coastal flooding has a greater impact further south.
“I’m not sure you’d appreciate that by looking at a picture, map or sketch in a traditional museum. The ecomuseum promotes the richness of the riverside and coastal environments but it’s all about a respect for the past, not a worship of it.”
Torry’s more recent history saw the cluster of early 20th-century fishing villages along the coast dispersed due to the development of the North Sea oil industry.
“We have always worked the sea as opposed to the land around here,” says Fryer, who is particularly proud of the Torry Ecomuseum Project’s twinning agreement with Yubari in Japan where there is similar local pride for its own river industry heritage. “We have quite a following there, which proves we’re just a part of a much bigger world where folk 11,000 miles away have a comparable relationship with land and water.”
After studying advanced ecology at Durham University, Peter Davis was working at Newcastle’s Hancock Museum in the early 1980s when he became aware of the ecomuseum movement in mainland Europe where it continues to thrive.
“I soon realised how the concept could be moulded into individual situations to meet the needs of local communities,” says Davis, the emeritus professor of museology at the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies at Newcastle University.
“People often say ‘give me an example’ but it’s almost impossible as they are all so varied. Perhaps the term is a little misleading as the word ‘museum’ tends to conjure up images of stuffy buildings, which is the exact opposite of the intention.”
Ecomuseums should, ideally, provide people with the means to realise why their locality is special while visitors should be able to gain a good idea of what used to make an area tick, what makes it tick now and the challenges of making it tick into the future, Davis adds.
Druim nan Linntean (Ridge of Ages), for example, links 12 sites on the Isle of Skye that take in dramatic landscapes and settlements to celebrate traditional lifestyles and ancient culture.
Davis says: “Where else can you experience so much local history and then pop along to see dinosaur footprints in the ground where they were originally formed? That still amazes me to this day.”
In Tayside, an appreciation of the past is a breath of fresh air on the way to a more viable future at the Cateran Ecomuseum, the brainchild of co-founder Clare Cooper who moved there from London in 2012.
“I’d had an idea to produce a cultural project focused on the concept of ‘common wealth’ – the things that belong to all of us – and the Cateran Trail, one of Scotland’s great long-distance footpaths, felt like the perfect stage,” she says.
Invited to speak at a “slow tourism” conference in Italy five years later, Cooper was introduced to the European ecomuseum movement. “I immediately connected to the idea and the grassroots, non-institutional ethos of it. I realised we essentially had one in the part of Scotland where I live – we just didn’t call it that.”
The idea took root for two reasons. “The earlier project had rekindled energies around heritage and, secondly, there had been a long-running conversation about the fact that visitors tended to only travel through this part of Scotland, en route to the Highlands,” says Cooper.
“We needed more of an identity to change that behaviour and attract people to stay longer. Since the pandemic and the acceleration of the climate and biodiversity crises, the attraction of low-impact, outdoor experiences that reconnect us to nature has also grown exponentially. We’ve got almost 140 points of interest now, linked by a series of 24 itineraries designed primarily for walkers and cyclists. And we’ve only just started to scratch the surface.”
These range from old churches, stone circles and bridges to places associated with the legend of King Arthur, Blairgowrie’s Victorian textile mills and the preserved town centre of Alyth where the local museum has become a starting point for people exploring the ecomuseum area.
The landscapes have also provided a picturesque canvas for large-scale public artworks, Cooper adds. On a hillside in the Spittal of Glenshee, a giant portrait of the Scots poet Hamish Henderson made from jute – the material that had changed the fortunes of his home town of Blairgowrie during the industrial revolution – was created to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his birth.
The Cateran vision of the future, meanwhile, is firmly fixed on regenerative tourism, Cooper says. “The current concept of sustainability tends to focus on reducing the negative impacts of tourism, whereas a regenerative approach aims to replenish and restore what we have lost by helping to build communities that thrive, while allowing the planet to thrive, too.”
The ecomusuem’s Travel for All Our Tomorrows initiative promotes the region as one of Scotland’s best car-free leisure destinations while programmes are being planned around the concept of “voluntourism” where travellers are offered the opportunity to give back to host communities.
A revitalised community spirit based on a partnership of heritage, arts and academic organisations is the driving force behind the Ecoamgueddfa project, established in 2014 on the Pen Llyn (Llyn Peninsula) in Gwynedd, north Wales. Back then, project manager Arwel Jones worked in the oldest arts centre in Wales at Llanbedrog when a Heritage Lottery Fund environmental scheme developed some outside space as an amphitheatre and parkland.
“The Wales Coast Path was diverted through woodland and past the gallery from its original steep route straight to the beach and that brought in an extra 30,000 people,” says Jones. “We realised there was a chance to encourage people to leave their cars and walk the path, which links all the heritage sites around the peninsula.”
The ecomuseum’s sites include the Maritime Museum, based in St Mary’s Church in Nefyn, which houses a collection charting the story of local ship building.
There is also the Welsh Language and Heritage Centre at Nant Gwrtheyrn, as well as National Trust houses, traditional farms and centres housing green business initiatives and rural enterprises.
The nature of the ecomuseum calls for a new brand of visitor practising what Jones describes as “living room tourism”.
“This means that if you invite people into your home, they wouldn’t throw rubbish on the floor or switch the TV on without asking you, but they would ask about the pictures on your walls and inquire what was for tea,” he says.
“In the school holidays this place is crammed, but during Covid a lot of people were perplexed about what they could do so they just headed for the beach,” says Jones. “This highlighted the need to provide out-of-season visitors with some idea of what’s really going on in the environment and why it matters so much.”
To that end, Jones is coordinating Llyn Iveragh Ecomuseums (Live), a project designed to pass on the experience gained in Wales to the Iveragh Peninsula in Kerry, a similar coastal community across the Irish Sea looking to introduce its own educational tourism scheme.
Live aims to create a new breed of young “citizen scientists”, says Jones, who’s keen to ensure local Llyn schoolchildren fully appreciate their surroundings.
“We have an idea called the Big 5 Safari, which involves young people identifying the important species in the locality and working with local artists to develop a map showcasing the flora and fauna,” he says. “Experts tell them how the landscape was managed, how food used to be produced and why these things are important. All this stuff fits well with the new national curriculum in Wales, which has a much wider spectrum of subjects based around climate change.”
The programme also emphasises the use of the Welsh language. “Everything we do online and in our literature is bilingual; it’s something that’s truly relevant rather than simply old,” says Jones.
There is a strong fishing industry heritage in the community, but Jones noticed that younger generations were not interested. “There seemed to be little understanding of the marine environment, so we targeted outdoor activities for younger people,” he says.
“Now, we have a surfing club for children with 100 members and the older ones are teaching the kids how to surf. It’s a huge opportunity to encourage them and their parents to understand the waves, the dangers of the water and importance of the environment.”
With their focus on empowering and engaging communities and helping them to develop and manage their own heritage, ecomuseums should have a bright future, particularly with the growing emphasis on sustainable tourism.
John Holt is a freelance journalist