We are delighted to welcome Ian Leith, Chair of Wick Heritage Museum, as our guest blogger for this month, writing about the challenges being faced as a volunteer run museum in the midst of a pandemic.
The Wick Society is wholly led and run by Volunteers. The Board of Trustees are all volunteers and each of our services are delivered through a bank of skilled, committed and dedicated volunteers.
The Wick Society has responsibility for the Wick Heritage Museum, the Johnston Photographic Collection, Wick Society Boats and our oral history project, Wick Voices.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent government restrictions the Board, in conjunction, with the volunteers, decided NOT to open Wick Heritage Museum this year, nor has it been possible to launch our flagship, the Isabella Fortuna.
However, the Johnston Photographic Collection and Wick Voices are both online resources and continue to be available.
We are also making use of our websites, social media and more recently YouTube channel. This has allowed a certain public presence to be maintained.
Now, with restrictions being slowly eased and a determination on the part of many to return to a normal situation, guidelines are being issued for museums and other visitor attractions to consider re-opening. The challenges facing the Wick Heritage Museum in terms of social distancing, PPE and hygiene were considered by The Wick Society Board on 25th June 2020 with the decision taken to NOT open during the 2020 Season.
The following considerations and discussions were used to come to the decision.
Consultations and Discussions
A number of virtual meetings and forums have been and continue to be attended. These give an indication of the universal challenges and opportunities that the Wick Society must consider.
Many museums both nationally and regionally are preparing to open at some point over the next few months. Some, depending on their layout will find it relatively easy to implement the necessary controls and restrictions. Others are looking at alternative approaches to their layouts and/or offerings.
One of the major differences between the Wick Heritage Museum and many others, is that we are wholly run by volunteers. Museums that have employees are in the more ‘fortunate’ position of having qualified and on-site staff to plan and put in place the necessary conditions.
As we are wholly voluntary, we have to rely on the goodwill and availability of volunteers to take on considerable tasks. By the very nature of heritage volunteering, many of our teams are in older/vulnerable age categories and possibly more susceptible to health risks.
The basic options we were faced with are:
Open on a limited basis
Remain closed for the season
Look at ways of taking the museum and its stories out-with the Museum walls.
Factors to consider:
Do we have capacity in terms of volunteer availability and desire to engage?
As explained many of our volunteers are older and cannot be put at risk
Can we achieve the necessary social distancing guidelines?
The Wick Heritage Museum is made up of a series of small rooms with narrow corridors and stairways and a one way system is not practical.
The guided tour was a key element of our offering. This would not be possible.
What will the local community expect from us?
From general discussions the community at least understand our decision and welcome our intended approach of taking the ‘Museum Beyond the Walls’
Do we have the resources to make the required social distancing and hygiene rules work?
With the Museum closed there is little income and any major expense in terms of resources threatens our reserves.
What will visitors expect in terms of hygiene and safety?
In this we have no real idea. We know what would be required of us, but it is difficult to predict the expectations of any visitors.
There is a genuine fear in the North of Scotland that visitors will see that we have been relatively free of the virus and therefore may not be overly responsible. Admittedly this is more of a perceived fear than a known reality.
How will our longer-term viability and credibility be affected by opening or not opening?
The Wick Heritage Museum has been a recognised visitor attraction and if visitors are disappointed to find the museum closed, this could affect our reputation.
What can we do ‘outside’ of the Museum to provide a heritage experience for both locals and visitors?
We have always recognised and received great support from the local community and while our ‘Museum Beyond the Walls’ concept is for everyone, we see this period as a new opportunity to engage with local people as well as tourists.
The decisions before us therefore were as follows:
Considerable amount of preparation required
Cost of preventative and protective materials (some small funds may be accessible)
Difficulty in recruiting volunteers
Unable to do guided tours
We provide the service people will/may expect
Opening on a partial basis:
Probable closure of some sections of the Museum
Compliance would still need to be achieved
Provide ‘something’ for visitors
Loss of credibility
Loss of income
Time to properly prepare and make any necessary changes for 2021 Season
Opportunity to approach our heritage from a different perspective.
New Ways – Alternative Approaches
Create a concept of the Museum Beyond the Walls
We already have the Johnston Photographic Collection and Wick Voices, online.
Create a heritage map detailing and exploring the stories behind our local heritage, throughout the town.
Consider the use of the Museum Courtyard and the exterior of the historic Herring Mart as activity/display spaces (weather permitting)
Work with local shops and the Town Centre Development Trust to utilise empty shop windows as display areas
Work with other museums/attractions in the area
Continue to create online and social media content
Wick is classed as a ‘heritage’ town, so this provides an opportunity for visitors and locals to explore and understand the history and heritage of the Royal Burgh of Wick.