Musselburgh Museum/John Gray Centre, East Lothian

Simon Stephens on two very different museums that have opened recently in East Lothian
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Simon Stephens
With some small museums up and down the UK under threat of closure, it’s good to see new ones opening up.

Musselburgh Museum was unveiled last year following investment from East Lothian Council, which followed it up this year by opening the John Gray Centre in Haddington, which brings together its archaeology, museum, archive and local history services.

Musselburgh Museum is a partnership between the council, which put in the money to develop it, and the Musselburgh Museum and Heritage Group, a volunteer-run organisation that manages the venue on a day-to-day basis.

The group was set up in the late 1980s with the specific aim of creating a museum in Musselburgh, which is on the coast of the Firth of Forth, about six miles from the centre of Edinburgh.

While looking for a permanent home for their planned museum, the volunteers staged a series of temporary exhibitions in Musselburgh’s Old Town Hall, with subjects ranging from schooling to fishing. The area’s archaeology was also covered, specifically its role in Roman Britain.

One of the plans was to open the permanent museum in the Old Town Hall, but this was dismissed as too costly. Instead, the council found a more suitable property that it owned nearby and this was converted into the museum.

Key themes

So what is the result? The budget was not huge, but sensibly the council and the Musselburgh Museum and Heritage Group decided to appoint an exhibition design firm, Hamilton Design.

There was only 75 sq metres to play with, so there was a danger that the displays would be cluttered, confusing and therefore difficult for visitors to navigate. But this is not the case as the designers have gone for a few key themes rather than trying to do too much.

The space features large graphic panels covering topics such as people, work, the town, major events and so on. There are some wall cabinets containing objects and underneath these are cabinets with pull-out drawers that feature graphics encouraging visitors to look inside. If they take up the offer, more objects can be seen.

There are also freestanding display cabinets that can hold larger objects. This area of the museum has been used for small temporary exhibitions, including a recent one that looked at the town’s Roman history and included loans from National Museums Scotland.

Artefacts from this period have been found in the area since the 16th century. These included a large fort that was discovered below Inveresk cemetery, a site investigated from the 1940s onwards.

Being able to borrow objects from a national museum is obviously a major coup for a museum of this size and reflects well on the professionalism of the staff and the suitability of the building. In the Footsteps of the Romans was followed by an exhibition looking at Musselburgh’s royal connections.

Local interest

Other areas of the museum focus on subjects of particular local interest, such as fishing, golf and the mills. There is also a section on schools, where visitors are invited to look at a series of photo albums to see if they can spot their class.

It’s all solid local history museum stuff. Some of the object captions are on the long side, but they are generally well written and easy to understand. There are also a few simple interactives for children, such as a brass rubbing and a jigsaw.

I wasn’t a fan of the huge timeline that snakes around the top of the walls. It’s a timeline to end all timelines and it has so many entries, all with the same look, that it’s not easy to make much sense out of it. I can see that it frames the top of the displays nicely, but a few less entries and maybe some images might help.

The displays were designed so they can be easily and cheaply updated by the volunteers who work in the museum. This has obvious advantages, particularly as members of the public have started to bring objects to donate to the museum now it’s up and running. But in making changes to the displays, staff will need to be careful that they don’t dilute the clarity of the designers’ original vision.

Hopefully this won’t happen, as the volunteers are still working with museum staff at East Lothian Council, which continues to provide professional support, as well as to pay utility costs.

And it’s important this support is there, as running a museum entirely with volunteers can be a precarious business. It’s interesting that East Lothian Council Museums Service’s website recently had a news piece calling for volunteers to help manage Musselburgh Museum.

The John Gray Centre in Haddington, some 20 miles outside Edinburgh, cost £6.6m to develop. The site includes a museum space covering 250 sq metres, which houses a temporary exhibition space. The centre is also home to the council’s archaeology, archive and local history services.

The museum tells the history of the whole of East Lothian. Like, Musselburgh, it has been grouped into themes, in this case the Land, the Sea and the People; Communities; Life and Work; and a Personal View.

The displays are designed to appeal to the museum’s existing regional audiences, but also to tourists. The council museum service wants to attract families with younger children as well.

A range of interests

As a result, there are plenty of activities such as dressing up, handling objects, and even a “smell” activity. Overall, the interpretation is designed to have several levels to appeal to the different interests that the museum is trying to attract.

The Personal View section, which is being curated by members of the public with assistance from the museum service, is proving popular. The first stories include ones related to a Red Cross nurse and Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The opening of Musselburgh Museum and the John Gray Centre show that even during these tough financial times, some museum services are managing to invest in attracting new audiences and getting their collections out on display.

Long may it continue.

Project data

Musselburgh Museum

  • Cost £235,000 (including £80,000 for the fit-out)
  • Main funder East Lothian Council
  • Exhibition design and fit-out Hamilton Design

John Gray Centre, East Lothian

  • Cost £6.6m
  • Funders East Lothian Council, £5.3m; Heritage Lottery Fund, £1.2m; Historic Scotland £186,000
  • Exhibition design, fit-out and signage StudioArc
  • Website Orangeleaf

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