Museum celebrates 40th anniversary

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To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the Arran Heritage Museum will open its doors to all and sundry with free entrance on its Open Day tomorrow (Sunday).

This is an opportunity for everyone to come along and see for themselves not only the full range of exhibits, but the museum volunteers will be showing off and explaining the areas behind the scenes.

The archives, genealogy,and conservation volunteers will show how their work keeps the museum’s services up-to-date using best practice, and throughout the site there will be people on duty to answer your questions about the museum.

The Isle of Arran Pipe Band will be performing at 2pm and throughout the day the Jazz Café Band will entertain in their inimitable style.

Here John Lauder tells the story of the birth and development of an island institution.

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For a number of years in the 60s and 70s there grew a feeling among some Arran folk, particularly those involved in the island’s Tourist Association, that the island merited and needed a museum to tell its history.

It was eventually in 1976 that Bess Macmillan, one of the prime movers of the idea, chaired the first public meeting of interested parties and the Arran Museum Association and the Arran Museum Trust were formed.

These two bodies were to be run by Arran residents and would be non-profit making charities, with running costs assisted by membership subscriptions and donations.  Fund-raising was begun in earnest to raise sufficient capital to start the project once a suitable site could be found somewhere on the island.

Fortuitously at that time Rosaburn Smiddy on the outskirts of Brodick was put up for sale, and was purchased in 1976, followed a year later by the semi-detached cottage opposite and the adjoining stable block.  It took a couple of years before they could all be prepared for public viewing, during which many supporters donated items for display and toiled with paint-brushes and tools to create an attractive series of displays.  On July 13, 1979  the museum opened to the public albeit only the smiddy and shoeing shed, but this was followed over the next year or so by the stable block and cottage. Entrance to the museum was controlled by a small cabin alongside the main road.

The roadside bothy was acquired in 1981, and quickly the reception and a shop selling souvenirs and gifts. That was followed in 1982 by Rosaburn House which, after substantial renovation, was turned into accommodation for caretakers, a café, a special exhibitions room, and a base for the archives and genealogy departments.

The popularity of the museum was growing rapidly, and by the 1990s the operation was expanding, not least by the volume of artefacts being donated, so work began on planning an extension to the stable block.  This would house an office, an archives department, a genealogy room, a workroom for the conservation team, enlarged storage accommodation for the burgeoning collection of items donated, and a committee room.  It was eventually opened in 2002, and the vacated area in Rosaburn House allowed the cafe to be expanded.

Such was the success of the museum by now that it was decided to create a new shop and reception area at the northern end of the car park, thus releasing the former shop-reception building to be turned in to a specially designed Geology Room to reflect and demonstrate the unique geology of the island. This took place in 2007.  The museum continued to grow and the latest expansion has been a further extension of the stable block, which in 2017 added much-needed extra space for both the Archives Department and the capacity of the storeroom.

The museum was fortunate, in acquiring Rosaburn House, to also have a large lawn leading down to the Rosa Burn, and this has provided a lovely picnic area, a children’s play area, excellent space for a programme of special open air events every year, a workshop and storage shed for the maintenance squad, lovely flower beds, enough space for siting a bathing hut, and the building of an implement shed in which to display some of the large collection of farming machinery.

From the outset, the museum has been dependent on volunteers to run the operation, and over the years many folk have given of their time and expertise to do the mundane and the specialist work involved in keeping the premises and displays up to scratch.  It is impossible to evaluate just how much the volunteers have contributed in so many ways to the museum’s success, and that continues today, when up to 20 folk can be at the museum on Wednesdays each week throughout the year.  Teams and individuals provide essential maintenance to the buildings, deal with membership subscriptions and publicity, work on the attraction’s finances and administration, field visitor enquiries in the archives and genealogy sections, plan and create displays, and so on – the list is almost endless.

Achieving the coveted Scottish Tourist Board four-star status in the early 2000s was a great boost to the museum, whose policy has always been to keep admission charges as affordable as possible, particularly for families.  The museum is totally self-financing, with no outside funding except for the occasional very generous donations or, very rarely, successful grant application for specific projects. It is enlightening to peruse the pages of the visitors’ books and to see the worldwide addresses from which visitors have come, and their very appreciative comments about the museum.

History may be the basis of the museum, but the future is always uppermost in the minds of  those charged with running the organisation, and plans are always being considered for improvements.  In 2018 the museum finances were in such good shape that the toilet block was completely renovated to the highest standards, and the café’s kitchen was refurbished and new catering equipment installed. Another large outlay last year was the purchase of a  complete new nine-station computer network to replace the outdated equipment which had been built up over the years.  With a massive database of all the museum’s holdings in constant use, regular internet access, the popularity of emails as a means of communicating enquiries, etc., the museum, which has become such a successful fixture in the island’s many attractions, is now firmly into the 21st century.

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How you can get involved

The museum is totally independent, financed by entrance money, shop sales, donations, and membership fees. It is run by a group of volunteers, many of whom have been there for a long time, and there are a number of jobs being done which could be shared out better if they had even more volunteers. If you think you could offer your time to help on a regular basis, go along and speak to one of the office-bearers on duty on Sunday. Failing that, call in any Wednesday and have a word with the museum manager, Tom Macleod.

The museum has a substantial membership base, but could do with lots more. Joining is not expensive and entitles you to free access whenever the museum is open. You will also receive a regular newsletter about the museum’s activities. So why not sign up at the shop reception desk on the day, or any time you can fit in a visit, or just give the museum a ring during opening hours.

Remember the museum is a community project, and your support will keep it going and help make it flourish even more successfully.