The ‘Centre of the Universe’
It’s the second day of the Lewis community archives conference, and we’re leaving Lews Castle in Stornoway and the traditional format of formal paper presentations behind. Instead the day is to encompass a bus tour around the central and northern parts of Lewis. Everyone is eager to explore, we’re like school kids.
Our first destination, Ness Historical Society archive and museum, is located at the northern tip of the island of Lewis, itself the most northerly of the Outer Hebrides. Despite its geographic isolation, the area is fairly evenly populated. We speed by several traditional croft farmers dispersed across the territory, with peat turf stacks and the odd sheep but no sign of Donald Trump’s mother’s cottage. The community spirit is fierce, and proudly Gaelic.
The museum and archive are located together with a cosy visitor shop. The Comunn Eachdraidh Nis (Ness Historical Society) holds a large range of archival resources, from newspapers to school records and family history surveys complete with genealogical trees. The reading room differs a bit from traditional archive reading rooms in its treatment of primary and secondary material, but what strikes me is its presentation of living history.
Each of the paintings on the reading room wall tell us a story; like that of the local soldier who lost an eye. These lead to other stories, such as of the boat returning in war with just one of the men it had departed with previously. They are a visual representation of a point made at the conference regarding the value of great stories in raising the profile of archives. The story-paintings are the result of a recent artist-in-residence project to create an outdoor mural. It’s a vibrant palette to the otherwise grey or white-walled houses surrounding the museum and archive and a striking beacon to passing travellers to the resources within.
The museum itself holds a range of artefacts reflecting the working lives of the Ness community, with some material relating to the Celtic monastic past (don’t ask about the fertility stone), and other material from 20th century school tablets (‘the iPad of their day’) to personal artefacts.
“Museums illustrate the archive. In small communities they need to be together. [However] Museums and archives are not works of art”. Annie MacSween, Ness Historical Society.
For me, I’ve worked in traditional archives separate from museums, and in mixed-collection services. The conference in Lewis showed how valuable a holistic approach can be. But the outcome: archives becoming art, is an interesting concept I plan to chew over later with lunch.
In creating an archive and calling for papers, the Ness Historical Society was surprised when people insisted on gifting artefacts as well as papers. The museum was created as a sort of by-product of the archive.
In Ness, photographs form an important and prominent part of the building; they weave a story of the history of the island. I think I recognised a few Lewis noses! The important aspect to the archive was not, however, the collection, or the artistic value of the holdings, but the stories of the people as creators.
We continued the tour onwards to the Ness Lighthouse, the Blackhouse village at Carloway, with a final stop at the ancient standing stones of Callanish. A demo was given of Harris Tweed making, an important part of the local economy and significant collection held by the Hebridean Archive.
The importance on context – on the people and groups producing the records – is difficult to emphasise. The noise of the tweed making, the explanation of how it operates, other small details suited to oral history projects but unlikely to feature in company minute books. In an island community like Lewis there is a strong sense of knowledge, context, and visual or physical link between creators and collections. This got me thinking: how can this be achieved in larger communities on the mainland? And is there a danger in creating ‘art’ in attempting to visualise archives?
The overall impact of our conference on Lewis was to build solidarity with one particular community. We learned from Chambers’ presentation about the £830 million spent across the UK by the Heritage Lottery Fund since 1994, and we were able to observe the impact of the portion allocated for the museum and archive in Stornoway. I personally learned about the resources available to community archive groups, and am better placed now in providing support within my own network of historical societies.
The restored castle, with its museum and archive is spectacular. There can be little doubt the success of the service. The community aspect however was not lost: £15 million from the HLF was allocated to improve the townscape of Stornoway itself. Connections between the castle and the town were strengthened, creating a cultural venue that aims to open the island and its heritage up to the world.
As we departed the Ness museum and archive on our second day to tour the island, Annie MacSween had remarked:
“We’re leaving behind the dead museum and archive to see the living communities”.
I don’t think we need to leave anything behind. There was, however, maybe a slight sense of division, whether imagined or perceived, between the spectacular new museum and archive in Stornoway, and the communities and historical groups dotted around the island in places including Ness. This is a challenge for archivists to overcome, and one I had not previously reflected on in a deep manner. I now have lots of new ideas to try out myself to rise to the challenge! These I carry on with me as I return to Ireland, with the Gaelic porridge song we sang at the end of our bus journey gently playing in my ears. Brochan lom, tana lom…
Sincere thank you to the ARA Section for New Professionals for the travel bursary to attend this conference, and to the Scottish Council on Archives, for co-organising an inspiring two days on Lewis.
Steven Skeldon, Deputy Archivist, Cork City & County Archives