Highland Threads…Many a Mickle Maks a Muckle

Dan helping to mount swimming costume from the Highland Museum of Childhood with the George Bain jumper in the foreground

This week Dan Cottam, chair of MHH and manager at Grantown Museum, tells how a small idea led to the development of new projects in a pandemic – both for his own museum and for MHH in the form of Highland Threads.

Over the past couple of years, we (the exceedingly small team at Grantown Museum) have been focussing our work on our collection; catching up on an ever-growing backlog of cataloguing, beginning the process of digitisation and generally sorting and tidying our store which has been sadly neglected in the previous few years when we have been prioritising more ‘front of house’ activity. A chance conversation, about what I now forget, led to me directing a volunteer to have an explore through our costumes which lie neatly packed away in acid free tissue paper, in archival grade boxes (thanks to a previous funded project) but are seldom, if ever, looked at. Many a happy, subsequent hour was spent, alone in the store by our fascinated volunteer, admiring an eclectic mix of Victorian dresses, military uniform, baby clothes, underwear, arisaids, lace shawls, muffs and fox-headed stoles. 

‘To save double handling them,’ I asked her, with a cunning plan coming to mind, ‘….as you go through them, can you take measurements, do a rough condition check, photograph them and compile a spreadsheet of data ready to go onto the digital catalogue?’   (not too much to ask of a dedicated volunteer is it?)

Revisiting this forgotten, yet comparatively organised corner of our store made me wonder about exhibiting some of our costume, and quickly remember the barriers and challenges to doing this. We don’t have many mannequins, costumes are vulnerable to environmental conditions and moreover, while the clothes are nice to look at, they mostly don’t have contextual information or provenance attached from which to make a good story worthy of an interesting exhibition. 

I also thought – ‘I wonder what other costume highland museums have in their collections?’

 So, I found myself in the new style meeting, me at my kitchen table and 12 other people crammed into my laptop, asking my colleagues from the highland museum sector – “ do any of you lot have any interesting costume in your collections? And the rest, as they say, is (literally) history!

That fateful meeting from which Highlands Threads was born and would grow arms and legs was a heritage café, a series of informal meetings organised by Museums and Heritage Highland for the people who run Highland museums at the time when we suddenly all found ourselves cloistered at home running closed museums. They were set up to respond to the isolation, intrepidation and confusion that we all felt in the early days of lockdown (which many of us are still feeling a year later) and while it felt a bit weird to begin with, has proven to be a hugely valuable and engaging fortnightly catch up.  Curiously, I feel that I have got to know my peers in the sector better through this remote medium than at the many ‘old style’, quarterly sector gatherings in Inverness  I have attended where we only really got to chat informally during coffee breaks and lunch. A simple device, that was available to us before (although who’d even heard of zoom before March last year?) has proved revolutionary in many ways, not least in making collaborative working across a geographically disparate group of people considerably easier, more equitable and far less time consuming.  I’m very much looking forward to being in a room full of people again, it will happen one day, but I believe that we are now ,far better equipped to create more wonderful collaborative projects, using ever more clever technologies as the collective energies, skills and knowledge of Highland museums prove the idiom that many a mickle maks a muckle.

 Thanks to Museums Galleries Scotland and that dedicated volunteer, Grantown’s costumes collection can be found here: 
Search object results on eHive

 And Grantown Museum’s new  Adventures in Costume – grown up dressing up can be found here:
adventures in costume – Grantown Museum  

Launching 1 April 2021, Highland Threads exhibition will be found at www.highlandthreads.co.uk, but until then you keep up to date with progress here (on the MHH site) and across social media using #HighlandThreads. Book tickets for the launch here.

Our partner museums are: Glencoe MuseumInverness Museum & Art GalleryGairloch Museum, Ullapool MuseumGrantown MuseumWest Highland MuseumHighland Museum of ChildhoodCastlehill Heritage CentreTain through TimeWick Heritage MuseumHighland Folk MuseumGroam House MuseumStrathnaver Museum and Dornoch Historylinks.

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