6 Apr 2008 in Heritage, Highland, Visual Arts & Crafts

A Meeting Place Between Our Past and Our Future

GEORGINA COBURN outlines the progress made through the latest phase of the refurbishment of the Timepan centre in Helmsdale

LOCATED in the village of Helmsdale in Sutherland, Timespan has established itself as an important cultural centre, providing access to heritage and the arts through a varied programme of exhibitions, screenings, special events, education and outreach.

Easter weekend marked the reopening of the centre following phase two of its redevelopment. The reopening following a series of creative and capital projects is a magnificent achievement for everyone involved and a credit to the local community who have taken such an active role in all phases of the redevelopment.

In addition to a Geology and Community Garden on the riverside designed in 2006, the café and terrace were designed to reclaim space, providing excellent views of Telford Bridge and Helmsdale River, linking to the harbour and strath just beyond.

The redesigned museum, contemporary Art and Crafts Gallery, café and shop are now complimented by a large workshop space, artist’s accommodation, a community archive room, IT suite and storytelling room. The outer building has been decorated with a strong contemporary feel and new iron railings by Adam Booth reflect the importance of the sea in the history of the village.

The emphasis on real people and their stories presents a museum experience that allows the visitor to engage their imagination. Great care has been taken in treatment of each of the major themes and displays of artefacts relating to Helmsdale’s past. Events such as the Highland Clearances and Emigration, the 1869 Goldrush, the boom of the herring industry and records of everyday life through the croft, byre, smithy and local 19th century village shop displays bring the history of the region to life.

Flexible modules that can be reconfigured are an essential part of the main museum displays incorporating image, text and artefacts. With two new large museum-standard cases and climate control it is now possible for the centre to accept loans from national and other collections.

The main access corridor to the downstairs museum rooms is the site of a historical timeline linking the history of Helmsdale to world events. Collaged artworks form part of the timeline and these displays can be altered over time. Also in the corridor space lit niches provide the opportunity for varied groupings of objects from the collection.

The flexibility of all these spaces allows for reinterpretation of artefacts and changing narratives to be presented, keeping the collection fresh and engaging. There are is an exciting range of possibilities here including artists working directly with artefacts from the collection. This type of intervention would be an interesting addition to the centre’s existing visual arts programme.

Primary accounts from people who lived at the time of major events in the area’s history are the foundation of the museum, but it is also the activities taking place within the building and the level of involvement by groups in the local community that link the past to the present in such a compelling way. These links between “culture, heritage, the arts, people and their ideas” are a strong sign of identity but also, one could argue, the key to the future sustainability of many rural communities.

It is inspirational to see how people have worked together to create the new Timespan and all of the elements that make it unique, expanding the capacity for engagement with residents and visitors. For rural communities and urban museums or art centres there are important lessons to be learned here in terms of how a museum or centre represents its location, landscape, people and history.

The Community Archive incorporates documents, photographs and books with open access to the Museum’s database and supplementary information linked to the museum displays. The archive is an important resource developed with the assistance of the local history and genealogy group that may also be developed in the future to include a genealogy research service. The photographic archive is constantly evolving with hundreds of images that can be accessed via computer.

Timespan’s commitment to Visual Arts and Crafts is well represented in the new refurbishment with a Design Showcase featuring works in silver by Lucy Woodley, glass by Nichola Burns and Brodie Nairn, and silver and enamel jewellery from Michael Peckitt. The presentation of these pieces in a series of lit cases flanked by larger scale glass pieces form an impressive core display in the downstairs shop.

Also in this space is an Artist Showcase with paintings by Ullapool-based artist Sheila Robertson. Upstairs in the contemporary gallery and foyer the opening show, ‘Movement Through Light and Space’, presents a fascinating fusion of sculpture, photography and music by Norman Gibson, Liz Treacher and Lucie Treacher.

Timespan’s Outreach Residency Programme has facilitated seven artist residencies in Skerray, Strath of Kildonan, Helmsdale, Brora and Golspie over the last two years, with the most recent appointment of Glasgow-based environmental artist Ruth MacDougall who will be leading a series of developmental projects as part of a two year new youth arts programme, ‘Ours’.

Artist residencies have engaged with all aspects of “local heritage, historic, cultural, natural and built” and were devised in direct response to a preliminary survey in the area revealing that “if offered communities in Sutherland would be very happy to take part in the pilot programme and have artists working in their midst”.

Past programmes have established an excellent foundation of cultural access within the vast county of Sutherland and the new additions of the studio/workshop room and residential space for visiting artists and curators will help build on this success, providing greater capacity and opportunities for arts education in the area.

The large, airy and adaptable studio space equipped with sinks and storage can be converted via a drop down screen to a cinema. A film club for local youth has already started, initiated by the current artist in residence. Roof space has been reclaimed and the large workshop space is now full of light from a long horizontal window linking the interior activity to the street outside.

The artist’s flat is light and surprisingly spacious and proposals are invited from artists wishing to engage with the centre and the local community on a variety of arts projects including talks, workshops and classes. The 2006 Leader Plus Project provided the opportunity for members of the local community to work with artists and storytellers including John Hodkinson, Sean Martin, Inge Smith, John McGeogh and Bob Pegg to create one of the truly unique features of the new museum, its storytelling room.

An intimate and cosy space (with large comfortable soft furnishings handmade by the local knitting group) this is a perfect venue for live and virtual storytelling. Screenings of five animations of local stories can be viewed as in integral part of the heritage displays, each using a different animation technique.

The stories of ‘The Last Wolf’, ‘A Fisherman’s Tale’, ‘Gartymore’, ‘A Tale of Two Dogs’ and ‘Frakkok’s Tale’ are brought vividly to life with the audio tracks recorded by local people at Timespan during the project. The animations employ shadow play, collagraphs, digital and hand drawn, to communicate the magic of the oral tradition of storytelling and engage the audience’s imagination.

Active participation by the community to produce these animations has created a very special space within the museum. Timespan story walks and special events around the town of Helmsdale link land, history and legend in an entertaining and engaging way and this spirit is also evident in the animations.

What is so refreshing about this museum / arts space is the context of heritage and the arts as an essential part of real life with view to the long term sustainability of the whole community. For me it links to a holistic understanding of the land and its people, exploring all that is unique about the northern environment, sharing this with visitors and residents alike.

It represents engagement with culture that is about growth, being absolutely grounded in your location but also looking outwards to the rest of the world. I have no doubt that having successfully built such a foundation, Timespan will continue to grow and evolve as part of an ongoing cultural process of re-visualising the Highlands.

© Georgina Coburn, 2008