Many, but not all, Highland Museums close or reduce their hours during the winter season, giving them time to care for their collections, research new exhibitions and take time to plan for the future. As Easter approaches many of our museums are getting ready to welcome visitors once again.
Whether they close completely, reduce their hours or keep on going as normal, Highland museums always see the Easter holidays as a chance for a re-awakening. A chance to encourage you to rediscover their collections, visit a new exhibition, attend some exciting events or just pop in for a chat. Whether you are a local or a visitor to the area, you can be guaranteed a warm and friendly welcome. We have a handy map on this website that can help you see where our museums are located as you plan your visit and their listings have contact details so that you can reach out directly to see what is happening and when they are open. Visit the map here.
Two of our museums have some very exciting events coming up. Clyne Heritage Society are celebrating 25 years in existence and have an extensive and fascinating series of events to mark the occasion. You can view a full list of what’s happening here.
And just a little further north in Castletown, Castlehill Heritage Centre is launching a new exhibition to also celebrate an anniversary. Mucking in for 100 years! will feature themed displays of stories, photographs, tools and implements from CHC’s local Olrig parish farming heritage. The exhibition is being run in conjunction with the Caithness District Young Farmers Association which is celebrating its centenary this year.
When COVID-19 struck, Historylinks Museum was already in the process of preparing to open for the 2020 season. All was suddenly on hold and our Curator and Museum Assistant worked from home before eventually being put on Furlough. During this time the Trustees and Museum Committee began the task of altering the way the museum worked in terms of its digital output. It felt really important to make sure that the local community and potential visitors still had access to the heritage, but in a different way. Funding was granted from MGS to update and enhance our popular Image Archive and make it even more user friendly and accessible. It also enabled us to set up an online ticketing service and pre booked museum tours via our website for when we eventually reopened. We managed to engage more people with our Facebook Page. The local community have been very active in commenting on posts and sharing memories jogged by the images. It has also been possible to set up a digital platform that has enabled us to share film clips from our Archive easily.
By the beginning of July, it was clear that the Scottish Government was going to allow museums to reopen and so it was time for the Historylinks team to make a decision. To reopen or stay closed? It was not a decision that was taken lightly, but consultation with staff and volunteers revealed that everyone wanted to take steps to open the doors of the Museum once again. A few volunteers have not able to return for the time being because they are still shielding but all were supportive of the plan to reopen. Museum staff were back at work on the 8th July and working towards a reopening date of 18th July.
Another grant from MGS allowed us to buy the appropriate equipment such as PPE, hand sanitiser and other items we needed in order to reopen safely.
The staff and committee members then worked together to create as safe a space as possible in order to welcome back visitors. The first thing in place was a Perspex screen at reception and adequate PPE for all staff and volunteers.
With all this in mind we created our ‘7 steps to safety’. The steps are displayed outside the building and again in reception so that people can read and take in the information before entering the museum. A short film about what to expect in terms of safety measures when visiting will be up on our website soon.
One of the most important points in the 7 steps is the requirement for visitors to wear a face covering and sanitise their hands on entering the building. We have automatic hand sanitiser stations on entry and around the building with paper towels and bin provided.
The reception and retail area here at Historylinks can form a bottleneck for visitors because as well as the way in, it is the way out! The answer to this problem is a traffic light system on entry. This means that our staff and volunteers are in complete control of the flow of visitors. They are able to work the traffic lights remotely from the counter to allow only one party of people at reception at a time. This takes the pressure off the volunteer and allows them time to record track and trace details, fill in Gift Aid forms and explain the one-way system around the museum.
Some things have had to change more significantly. We decided to implement a ‘no touch’ policy around the building in order to minimise any cross infection. Our interactive displays were removed and the children’s toys put away into storage. The addition of polite reminders not to touch the glass cases or exhibits ensures that people are aware of our policy as they walk around.
Having to close the children’s room was sad for us as we love having youngsters in the museum. So, instead of toys in the children’s room they have a fantastic animated film to watch made by local children about Dornoch’s mythical fairy bridge ‘The Gizzen Brigs’. In addition to this, they can see the amazing masks created by our Young Curator’s for their Halloween walk last October. Plus, they can enjoy our story labyrinth in the grounds of the museum.
The addition of a new outdoor exhibition called ‘Domestic Life’ featuring objects from the 19th and early 20th Centuries means that we have enhanced our exterior displays, giving visitors even more to enjoy outside.
Despite the restrictions in the museum we have gone ahead with our new exhibition of Katherine Gray’s dress from 1710 and the display of our East Sutherland Longhouse project featuring a scale model of a pre-clearance settlement.
Since reopening we have had a steady stream of visitors. Everyone so far has been compliant with our new rules. Occasionally we might have to prompt someone to use the hand sanitiser on entry but this has not caused a problem. Numbers are running at about 60% of the same time last year.
Visitors have commented that they feel the museum is well organised and volunteers have said that they feel safe with the new safety measures in place. The most difficult thing is having to turn people away when we are at capacity. Especially if it is raining! We do try to encourage people to come back and can generally estimate when we will have room for them.
We do keep a stock of disposable facemasks for people who have lost for forgotten to bring their own.
The main thing we have learned is not to rush entry to the museum. People are always eager to get into the museum but we do have to take quite a lot of information, especially if visitors are Gift Aiding their entrance fee. Taking time to make sure that all the information is accurate is imperative for track and trace and our traffic light system has been very valuable in allowing that to happen.
Our opening times have changed slightly to 10.30am – 4pm but we are still open 7 days a week.
Almost exactly one year ago, staff and volunteers at Gairloch Museum were putting the final touches to their new museum before its official opening. Scroll forward a year and the picture is a similar one. After a very successful first nine months, during which it welcomed more than 10,000 visitors, the museum was forced to close for almost four months due to coronavirus. Staff were furloughed and only returned to work at the beginning of July, after the Scottish Government announced its accelerated timetable for restarting tourism. Since then it has been all hands on deck to get the museum open. It has taken three weeks but we are almost there.
The first stage of the process was to set up a task force for reopening. This has been led by Curator Karen Buchanan and includes front of house staff and volunteers with responsibility for retail and maintenance. A risk assessment identified that the museum could reopen subject to some changes, the majority of which were in the areas of ticketing and cleaning. It was also necessary to review display areas taking into consideration the risk of spreading Covid-19 through touch.
In order to reduce contact between visitors, it was decided to assign groups of visitors (e.g. families or couples) to slots and to introduce a one-way system for their circulation. The display areas can accommodate a maximum of one group in each of the five galleries at any one time. Using this system, groups should not come into contact with one another other than at pinch points such as the entrance and staircase. Here barriers and passing places have been used to separate two directional traffic. Consideration was also given to how to ensure only one group is using the toilet and shop at a time.
It was decided to use the Art Fund’s ‘Art Tickets’ booking facility for advance booking of slots. This option was chosen as it is free for museums to use, and was a system we had already considered being involved with. Art Fund have been overwhelmed with new users of Art Tickets, but have done a fantastic job getting us onto the system quickly and signing us up for training webinars. As we open, we will be taking telephone and email bookings, but hope to transition soon to Art Tickets when we are more confident in using it. We will try to accommodate those who have not pre-booked and turn up on spec and they will need to supply the details required for Test and Protect. From 9-10am we will only allow 2 groups in and reserve these slots for members and vulnerable people.
We have gone for a two prong approach as regards touching objects. We have signed just about everything. Either it is OK to touch a display (this applies to interactives), or it is not (e.g. open display objects). We have made it clear that touching interactives is at visitors’ own risk, and provided sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer and bins next to them. We feel that the signage we have used is user friendly and well designed in communicating the rationale to the visitors. In one area where there are a lot of open display objects, barriers have been placed in front of the displays and new labels attached to the barriers.
We will not be able to allow visitors to use the film theatre in the museum. This is a great shame, as our film is so popular. But it is 25 minutes long and the room it is shown in is poorly ventilated. We have obtained permission from the film maker to publish clips from the film on Vimeo and we aim to do this, though it is unlikely to be achieved before we reopen. We will also produce a large poster to go into the doorway of the film theatre that will advertise the film and have QR codes linking to the Vimeo clips. We have also considered using QR clips to link to an area on our website which would house the sound clips from our listening posts. This will take longer to produce and we will work on it once we are open.
Quite a few of our front of house volunteers have chosen not to return to help out at the museum for the time being. However, we have managed to get enough volunteers to open 4 days a week 9-5. In fact, it has been a good opportunity to recruit and train new volunteers. We will have one volunteer on the desk and one upstairs stewarding groups. Our FOH supervisor will meet and greet.
One of the significant hurdles to reopening was getting hold of the materials we needed such as barriers and hand sanitiser dispensers. We eventually got the latter after about a 4 week wait but one of our volunteers eventually had to go to Inverness to pick it up. Barriers could not be obtained in time so they have been borrowed from a local contractor in the meantime. We have installed a wall mounted or free standing hand sanitiser in every gallery, at the entrance, in the stairwell and outside the toilets. We have also placed one on the way into the shop and are grappling with instructions to visitors on touching shop produce.
It has been time consuming producing the information that we need to get out to visitors in its various formats and for different distribution channels. We have had to change our opening hours on all the platforms that people use (e.g. Google Business, Visit Scotland etc.) as well as our own website. We have dedicated a special page on our website to provide advance information for visitors and have also tried to get this out through social media. We managed to recruit a volunteer to produce a film for us to guide visitors through the new systems in the museum. This required storyboarding and recruiting people to take part in the film.
With hopefully everything in place now, we are looking forward to reopening and to seeing how visitors behave in the museum under these changed circumstances. We are well aware that we need to be flexible and respond to visitor feedback. We will use our museum stewards to assess the effectiveness of the measures we have put in place and to feed back to us. Wish us luck!