Shetland Museum and Archives, Lerwick - Museums Association

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Shetland Museum and Archives, Lerwick

The Shetland Museum and Archives take a bit of getting to for non-islanders, but the newly opened building is worth the journey, says Sharon Heal
While unseasonal floods submerged the rest of the country there was one small far-northerly corner of the UK that was enjoying sunshine and bright blue skies. Surprisingly it was the Shetland Islands, where a new museum and archive recently opened.

Although the museum has to compete with Shetland's sometimes-breathtaking scenery, it does have one distinct advantage over the rest of its locality: its architecture. Squat granite buildings and throwback pebble-dashed architecture blight the island and by contrast the museum's bold, modern exterior is a delight to the eye. It rises above Hay's Dock and the adjacent working port, showing itself off to both the sea and the town of Lerwick behind.

According to Tommy Watt, the curator, this was deliberate - they didn't just want a swanky new facade visible only from the sea and to tourists who might trip along the water's edge. They wanted the museum to be a symbol to the whole town.

The good first impressions carry through into the reception area. Subtle design touches are everywhere: the reclaimed paving stones lead visitors into the main orientation area and give the feeling of bringing the quayside inside. This is complemented by the stunning reception desk, a long, curling hunk of wood from the hulk of the Elenor von Flotow. Salvaged from the adjoining dock and now polished to within an inch of its life and inset with copper bolts, it is a collaboration between a local artist and the museum staff.

In the lower gallery visitors are brought straight into the meat and bones of the story: Early Beginnings takes us through the geological story of the islands and its first people. A pyramid display of local rock types provides an eye-pleasing solution for what can be an uninspiring subject. Here you get a sense of the story that is to come, of how the islands were carved by the sea and of the islanders that are reliant on its unpredictable charm.

Throughout the museum the sea is present, whether in the narrative of island life or through cleverly designed glimpses of its grey mass outside: a stuffed otter is set behind glass into the wall, with glass behind it allowing a view over the dock and out to sea.

The collection is vast and the displays are object rich: it would be easy to get wrapped up and lost in the tiniest of artefacts but good design means you rarely lose sight of the bigger picture. Many of the cases are glazed front and back, which allows visitors not only to have 360-degree views of the objects, but also gives glimpses of the treasures to come. Within the cases the objects are precisely and strikingly arranged. For example in one case a Stone Age arrowhead and shaft are suspended on a clear Perspex mount cut into the shape of an arrow so it appears to be whizzing through the air, giving an immediate sense of its power and use.

The display of the St Ninian's treasure causes more than a moment's pause for thought. The objects are arresting in and of themselves, but closer inspection reveals the majority are replicas, with the originals resting in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Next year is the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the collection of Pictish silver; it would be nice if the national museum made a long loan of the treasure to mark the occasion.

Getting the public interacting with the story and the collection is clearly important to the museum. Small open boxes are built into displays to house handling objects and there are plenty of simple interactives such as the replica quern, a hand-powered stone mill that visitors can turn to grind corn.

The Boat Hall at the end of the lower gallery is the show stopper. The double-height wood-panelled interior holds six boats, a sixareen fishing boat on the floor and five boats suspended in the air above it. Most are surprisingly small considering they would have worked the open sea in often-treacherous conditions.

By climbing the stairs visitors can get a look at the boats at eye level and above from the viewing deck - the surprise is to find a couple of mannequins sitting in the suspended boats, a rather kitsch and unnecessary addition. Narrow window slits running vertically down the sides of the boat hall allow a peek at the working boatyard beyond.

The upper gallery tells the story of the past 2,000 years. Here, the displays are more densely packed in, with objects popping up everywhere - from drawers underneath the showcases to the space on top of cases that is used for street signs, mastheads and other larger objects. Interactivity is strong on this floor so visitors can put on headphones and listen to local music or design their own Shetland cardie via a touchscreen in the section on knitting.

The gallery space ends with an impressive eye-level view of the Bressay Lighthouse (which was removed when it was automated in 1989), and from here you can look out, as it once did, over the sea.

After all this, visitors will be delighted to find they have arrived at the restaurant which, as well as serving good wholesome, local fare, also has great views over the dock.

There are only about 21,000 people living in the Shetland Islands, so what will keep the locals coming back? The programme of events, lectures and films - all free and covering everything from storytelling to creative writing will help, as will the eight focus displays, spread throughout the permanent collections, that will concentrate on particular objects and will change regularly.

In addition, the large temporary exhibition space, De Gadderie - the Shetland phrase means a large collection of things - will host exhibitions and is already booked until 2009. Glass display cases are used in the alcoves on the dividing wall so that there is no artificial barrier between the gallery and the main museum.

Among other reasons to go back are: the archive; the shop; the auditorium, which provides space for debates, live entertainment and film shows; the learning room; and the boat shed, which will be used to conserve and restore boats.

The strong design of the museum is a winning element. The emblematic shape of the Boat Hall is the museum's brand and it appears everywhere: the text panels are cut to resemble its shape; it is on all the signage and even appears on a set of colouring pencils from the shop, which when lined up corectly, take on the shape.

Touches like this make you think the museum has thought of everything - maybe it was the very long planning process (the museum was 20 years in the waiting); perhaps it is the young and diverse staff who have been given every opportunity to take part in the decision-making; it could be the leadership of the curator, who has clearly lived and breathed the project for a long time. It's probably a combination of all of the above, but either way, this is a fantastic museum that deserves, and is already winning, an international audience.
Project data

Cost: £11.6m

Main funders: Shetland Charitable Trust, Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland, Shetland Enterprise, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Arts Council, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Shetland Islands Council, Shetland Development Trust, Lerwick Port Authority

Exhibition design: GBDM

Architect: BDP

Quantity surveyor: Turner & Townsend

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