Highland attraction aiming to 'bust romantic myths' up for museum of the year title

A village visitor attraction aiming to "bust" romanticised myths about the Scottish Highlands is in the running to be named the UK's "museum of the year."

By Brian Ferguson
Wednesday, 21st July 2021, 2:14 pm
Timespan has been operating as a museum in Helmsdale since 1987.

Timespan, in Helmsdale, which has a population of around 800, is one of five contenders for the annual Art Fund Prize, the biggest of its kind in the world for museums and galleries.

The attraction, in Sutherland, has recently committed to "reframe" the history of the area by exploring how it has been impacted by colonialism and climate change, and response to “urgent contemporary issues” through its displays of historic artefacts and modern visual art exhibitions.

Its efforts, which included operating as a community hub during the pandemic and an online exhibition of “alternative narratives” which created a new map of Helmsdale, have seen it shortlisted for the £100,099 Art Fund Museum of the Year Award.

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Other contenders include the Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds, the Centre for Contemporary Art Derry~Londonderry, the Firstsite arts centre in Colchester and the Experience Barnsley attraction in Yorkshire.

Timespan, which is aimed at charting Helmsdale’s “remarkable resilience and an intimate enduring relationship with ancient land and sea,” has been running since 1987, now features geology and herb gardens, as well as a shop, bakery and cafe.

Its recent initiatives include tackling the “whitewashing of Scotland’s imperialist past” and “colonial amnesia” over its involvement in the British Empire by exploring links between the Highland Clearances and the Caribbean slave trade, the impact of leisure tourism, the history of Helmsdale’s land ownership and management, and the area’s “environmental exploitation.”

The north east village’s arts centre explores the "boom and bust" of the local herring fishing industry, a "feverish" 19th century gold rush, the "shameful" burning of the last witch in Sutherland, a castle poisoning and the last wolf shot in the area.

Timespan’s website states: “Timespan is a cultural institution with local, global and planetary ambitions to weaponise culture for social change.

"Timespan is a place for art, research, heritage, local history, future propositions and action.

"We believe that cultural institutions are a political and public space which belong to society, and have a responsibility to shape a brighter new world based on principles of equality, emancipation and inclusion.

"Our ambition is to make art and heritage work meaningfully for our community and as tools for global cultural and social change.

“We believe our museum should reconfigure our local history in a global context and imagine a brighter future, and we want to bust the romanticised myth that the Scottish Highlands are sublime empty landscapes of brooding heather and mighty stags and a singular place of leisure.”

Art Fund director Jenny Waldman said: “Speaking on behalf of the judges, Jenny Waldman, director, Art Fund said, Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021 attracted a flood of applications and it has been incredible to see what museums, galleries and historic houses across the UK have achieved, overcoming the challenges of the past year. Their resilience is nothing short of heroic.

"Our five finalists are all deeply embedded in their communities and alive to the possibilities of reaching far beyond their locality digitally. They have each shown extraordinary innovation and resolve.”