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Timespan – Reimagining the Museum

Now is the Time

When it was announced in July that the Helmsdale based Timespan organisation had been shortlisted for the 2021 Art Fund Museum of the Year prize, it was vindication for a venture that in recent times has sought to redefine what a museum can be. With a prize of £100,000 at stake, and £15,000 apiece going to the five nominees, the award gives a significant material boost for the winner, enabling them to develop concrete plans as well as raising their public profile.


As the smallest and arguably most low-key of the nominees, Timespan’s already progressive reputation has developed over the last thirty-five years in a village with a population of less than 800. If Timespan was named as winner of the Art Fund prize, both it and the village would potentially be transformed even more. Not that Timespan has been shy of pushing the envelope, both before and during the tenure of the museum’s current director, Sadie Young.


With Young in post since 2017, the Sutherland based institution set in the very north east of the Scottish Highlands still puts its museum at its heart, alongside a rolling contemporary art programme, a geology and herb gardens, a shop, bakery and café.


It is beyond such physical attributes, however, where any received notions of museum culture are transcended. As outlined on its website, Timespan has adopted a holistic philosophy that talks of ‘local, global and planetary ambitions to weaponise culture for social change’. Timespan’s manifesto goes on to declare how ‘We believe that cultural institutions are a political and public space which belong to society, and as such, have a responsibility to shape a brighter new world based on principles of equality, emancipation and inclusion.’


These ideas have shaped a programme that has existed both physically, and digitally, with the latter coming to the fore over the last eighteen months during assorted Covid-19 induced lockdowns. In pre-pandemic times, temporary exhibitions included No Colour Bar: Highland Remix: Clearances to Colonialism, which brought radical Black publishing to the Highlands in an attempt to reconcile the local history of the Highland Clearances with the colonial framework of Empire. This was done by way of the recreation of the Walter Rodney Bookshop, originally founded in London in 1974 by Guyanese émigrés Jessica and Eric Huntley after establishing radical Black press, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications.


Flagship of Timespan’s ongoing redevelopment is Real Rights, a multi-faceted online exhibition, which draws from philosopher Walter Benjamin’s notion that history cannot be complete or understood in relation only to itself, but as ‘a constellation of past and present with immediate interruptions of revolutionary possibility, not as a progressive trajectory of continuum.’ Led by the slogan ‘Digitising the Past for a Sustainable Future’, Real Rights looks at Highland history in less exceptionalist terms than might normally be presented, and suggests the possibilities might really be endless.


Other initiatives by Timespan include the People’s Mobile Archive, which takes local history into people’s homes by way of archive and research pack and a mobile lending library. There is also the YASS! Club – Youth Action Social Squad – a series of creative activities for groups aged 6 to 12.


Helmsdale itself has acquired a whiff of cool by way of the presence of singer, songwriter, co-founder of Orange Juice and indie-pop national treasure Edwyn Collins, who lives in the village with his wife Grace Maxwell. Collins has a studio in Helmsdale, and has exhibited his drawings of birds at Timespan, as well as playing a gig there, while Maxwell sits on the organisation’s board. All of which makes Timespan a beacon of living history rather than something ossified.


“There’s a bit of framing of us as this sort of cutesy little organisation talking about radical black publishing in a wee village in the Highlands,” says Young. “But I always say that none of what we do is radical. It's all common sense, and is necessary, and I've never ever once posited what we do as radical or political. I just think it's what cultural institutions should be doing. Rather than looking at what we're doing, it’s what other people aren't doing, I guess.”

Given that Helmsdale village was only constructed in the 1800s to house those forcibly evicted from their own land during the Highland Clearances, Timespan’s inherent sense of self-determination probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, either to the public, or those judging the Art Fund award. As Young explains, however, it is important to take things further.


“Helmsdale has very much embraced it's branding as a Highland Clearances village,” she points out, “but it was always told as a very singular politics of victimhood. So the displaced farmers were seen very much as victims, which, during a very violent and disruptive period in history, they were. But then the story stops at them being displaced and having to come inland into what would be a new fishing village, and it doesn't go on to say, actually, they went on to reproduce the same violence in the so called New World.


“In Helmsdale, the flags of some of the most violent regimes in the world are flying very proudly over the village. We've got America, New Zealand, Canada, British, and strangely the EU flag as well. So for me it was about actually opening up that history, which was being portrayed as something very, very narrow, and to think, how does this relate to Scotland's role in Empire, and certainly the Highland Scots in Empire? To reconfigure that history, and to look at the intersection with climate change and colonialism, has been one of the most important things that we've been trying to do.”



People and Places


Describing itself as ‘the world’s largest museum prize’, the Art Fund Museum of the Year website outlines how the award ‘champions what museums do, encourages more people to visit and gets to the heart of what makes a truly outstanding museum’. The winner of the award will be the museum or gallery that ‘has shown how their achievements of the preceding year stand out, what makes their work innovative, and the impact it has had on audiences’.


Alongside Timespan, the four other nominees for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021 are Experience Barnsley; Firstsite, in Colchester, Essex; the Centre for Contemporary Art in Derry-Londonderry; and the Leeds based Thackray Museum of Medicine. Like Timespan, they are all rooted in their individual brands of localism, which looks out onto a wider world as well as inviting it in.


Such reimaginings of the institutionalisation of history are in keeping with the evolution of the award itself, which was set up in 1973 as the National Heritage Museum of the Year, before being rebranded in 2003 as the Gulbenkian Prize. With the Art Fund coming on board as sponsor, it became the Art Fund Prize in 2008, before being reimagined in 2013 in its current guise as the Art Fund Museum of the Year.


In its near half-century existence, prior to 2020, the award has come to Scotland twice, with the Burrell Collection in Glasgow winning in 1985, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh in 2004. Other institutions in Scotland nominated have included Discovery Point, Dundee, in 2003, and Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, in 2007 and 2013, with a further nomination for Kelvingrove’s Centre of New Enlightenment in 2009.


Shetland Museum and Archives was nominated for the award in 2008, as were the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway, in 2011, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, in 2012. More recently, nominations have included Jupiter Artland sculpture park in Edinburgh in 2016, Glasgow Women’s Library in 2018, and V&A Dundee in 2019.


In 2020, with the pandemic forcing museums across the world to remain closed for much of the year, the prize money was increased to £200,000, and shared equally between five centres. These included Aberdeen Art Gallery, and Gairloch Museum in Wester Ross, who were nominated along with the Science Museum, London, South London Gallery, and the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne.


Judges for the 2021 Award include director of the Common Guild, Glasgow, Katrina Brown, and Fife born broadcaster Edith Bowman. The panel also features Tate director Maria Balshaw, artist Thomas J. Price, Google tech, design and culture strategist Suhair Khan, and Art Fund director Jenny Waldman.


Timespan’s nomination comes at a time when museums are beginning to reassess their presentation of history in relation to colonialism and climate change.


“Yeah, but we've been doing this for four years,” Young says, bluntly. “I don't want to just be critical and big ourselves up, but there's a lot of gestural politics coming from the cultural sector, certainly in response to Black Lives Matter. We're not posting out black squares with statements. For us, an analysis of race, class and gender has to run through everything we do. That’s done through our programme, through our museum redevelopment, the YASS! Club, even our cafe and our shop. It has to be embedded in everything that we do.”


Young points to No Colour Bar, run in collaboration with Friends of Huntly Archives at LMA Foundation as a key moment in Timespan’s own history.


“That was a big transformative project for us as an organisation and the village,” she says. “We had a cultural solidarity weekend, and we had Eric Huntley, who is a militant anti -imperialist organiser, and he was ninety when he came up, and we had some of the biggest influences on my thinking and organising.”


Alongside Huntly, participants included founder member of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, Stella Dadzie, writer, activist and educationalist Gus John, and filmmaker and writer Imruh Bakari.


“All of them came up, and did not edit what they said. They spoke as if they were on a platform in London. It wasn't like they were addressing a different audience up here, and it was incredibly well received in the village.”


Young also points to the presence of what she affectionately calls her ‘old woman crew’ – a group of seniors from the village – attending a gig at the village social club by rapper Kareem Dennis, better known as Lowkey.


“He did a hip hop show, and my old woman crew were dancing along, singing Free, Free Palestine. It was just one of these moments that your heart can’t quite cope with.”


Futures and Pasts


The roots of Timespan date back to 1982, when local doyen and chair of the Helmsdale Heritage Society Mary Dudgeon led a charge to create a new museum on the now derelict site of a former tollhouse and fish-curing yard. With a committee in place, Dudgeon and co commissioned a development plan to lay the foundations of what would become Timespan Museum and Arts Centre. As outlined in the plans, ‘Timespan will be a new type of heritage centre. A place that will be shared, rather than just visited. A dynamic living history of the Northern Highlands, from prehistoric times to the present day.’


The resulting development now occupies a site that extends from the side of the River Helmsdale uphill towards the village. One side of the centre is bounded by the approach road to Thomas Telford’s Old Helmsdale Bridge, and the other by the road from the harbour back into the village.

With Dudgeon and her committee initially in charge of the centre, initiatives included a replica of the Pictish brochs originally built 2000 years earlier. These were thought to be used as defence towers to protect the area from Roman ships, which sailed around Britain prior to Julius Caesar’s invasion.


In sharp contrast, one of Timespan’s most famous attributes during its early years was the Barbara Cartland Room, set up in 1988 in honour of the flamboyant romantic novelist, who took up residence in Helmsdale during the summer months, and was a big supporter of Timespan.


As Young explains, “Helmsdale is famous for Barbara Cartland, Edwyn Collins has a studio here, and there was Nancy Sinclair’s chippy, La Mirage, where Barbara Cartland would write her novels. Mary Dudgeon came from a theatrical background, and was a good friend of Barbara. The museum was incredibly theatrical when it first opened. It had top of the range AV stuff at the time. It had The Last Witch of Sutherland on a zip-wire, and a Barbara Cartland mannequin. There were lots of mannequins, and it was incredible.”


Timespan’s contemporary art gallery space opened in 1996, and was one of the first purpose-built contemporary art facilities in the Highlands. The gallery was developed under the centre’s first director, Lucy Todd, and her successors, Kari Moodie, and Sarah Egan. Moodie was Timespan’s Centre Manager from 2000 to 2002, and regards her highest achievement during her tenure as attaining full Museum Registration status for Timespan.


“This meant we became part of a national scheme, now called Museum Accreditation,” she recalls, “which provides assurance to the public and funders that the museum adheres to professional and ethical standards.”


Highlights from the exhibition programme for Moodie during that time include a retrospective of paintings by Neil MacPherson, and Whether, a sculpture by Diane McLean inspired by the weather and bell-wether sheep. The work included a life-sized carving of a sheep “which was so heavy it required logistical assistance from our neighbours at Rapson’s garage.”


Egan worked alongside Moodie as Exhibitions Officer, before continuing her role following Moodie’s departure. This was followed by the appointment of Rachel Skene as Timespan director in 2005. Raised in Sutherland, Skene still lives in Helmsdale. Her roots in the area helped bring what she describes as “my embodied and deeper knowledge of the North to midwife this ever evolving organisation into its next form.”


During this pivotal time, “The organisation was being pushed to grow,” Skene explains. “Physically, the space was to shift, to bring forward plans for more functionality. Out with the community created dioramas, somewhat controversially, and in with the architect designed modules.”


The results of this were a redeveloped museum, a new workshop space, a new storytelling room and a new geology garden, “all produced by 2007 in time for the Highland Year of Culture.”


While Timespan was broadening its horizons towards a national and international profile, it was vital for Skene that a focus on the local was retained.


“To me,” she says, “local wasn’t pejorative. Nay it was the, hopefully, noisy Doppler that would keep us true to mission and not lost in self-generated white noise.”


As Skene points out, “it is that beat and vitality and connection that stops the arts being othered, performative and perceived as for ‘outsiders’/tourists. It’s got to be a genuinely two way process.”


Under Skene, Timespan supported its first artists in residence programme, led by Skerray based artist Meg Telfer; its first youth arts programme, run by Ruth Macdougall; and a virtual storytelling programme that took the experience beyond the museum and into the landscape.


Skene looks back at her period with Timespan “with pride and legitimacy in what I/we strived to sustain. I stand with fellow directors past and present as part of a continuum,” she stresses. “And I will forever stand for the fundamental principle of ‘Nothing about us, without us’ in keeping the stream flowing; in recognising and celebrating that which is, and that which has gone before, while moving on in the always evolving, shape-shifting and contemporary current that creativity can and should bring all of us. I will always remain hopeful, optimistic and curious even when it might seem quite far out of reach.”


With Timespan’s redevelopment in place, Nicola Henderson took over from Skene as director in 2008. Henderson joined Timespan during what she describes as “a period of immense change.”


One of her key objectives was to investigate what adopting a contemporary art policy could mean for the organisation and wider community, “and also to look how we could use digital to reach out to audience beyond Timespan.”


With public funding on board, “Timespan developed digital means to interpret its heritage and to reach global audiences, creating an online artist community, training volunteers and staff in different platforms and applications, and designing an app to take our museum outside to tell the story of the Kildonan Clearances.”


Other key projects included a series of 'bridging' seasons, which invited contemporary artists such as Graham Fagen, Jo Roberts, Julia Douglas and Corin Sworn to work with community partners on developing new work and contemporary responses to local heritage. Other artists programmed included Dalziel and Scullion, while Hide was an exhibition featuring work by Alec Finlay, Edward Summerton and Edwyn Collins.


“The over-riding philosophy was community,” says Henderson, “be it our volunteers, staff, local visitors or even those who didn't really connect with the centre and our wider community of artists and historians… to consider how what we did helped the well-being and prosperity of our place and those who connect with it.”


Anna Vermehren succeeded Henderson as Timespan director in 2012, and developed a significant shift in Timespan’s programming that focused on the concept of North. Initiatives included the Translocation Festival, a two-week programme of events and activities marking the centenary of the Highland Clearances, while artist Anthony Schrag explored the contemporary understanding and impact of the Clearances during his residency, Riot Act.


Vermehren played a pivotal role in helping Helmsdale achieve a Creative Place Award in 2014, and in raising Timespan’s profile as a Creative Scotland Portfolio Organisation. Artists shown during Vermehren’s tenure included Rachel Maclean and Christine Borland. Timespan continued to put community at its core by way of a Year of Making, and a True North conference that looked at recording the past, present and future.



The Time is Now


The passing of Mary Dudgeon in August aged 94 marked the end of an era for Timespan.


“She got the send off that she deserved,” Young says, speaking the day after an event to honour Timespan’s founder. “She was a remarkable and pretty outrageous woman. But it was good. There was lots of laughter. She was outrageous, but her and I, we instantly fell in love. I like strong women, and it was her way or the highway, but that's the sort of force that is needed to get things done up here. We owe her a lot.”

Young joined Timespan after running Lanchester Gallery Projects, a contemporary art programme within Coventry University, and was involved in artists’ collectives. Applying this experience to her new role in the Highlands was a unique opportunity.


“There’s such an endlessly rich context up here,” she says, “and that is very much against how it’s sold by the Scottish ancestry industry, which is a big sort of purple economic body up here. So the Highlands are sold as this empty sublime landscape, when actually it's an incredibly tough place to survive and exist, and it is a real place of working people.


“For me, what was really appealing was the scale of the organisation, and the fact that there was the museum, the arts programme, the shop, the cafe, the archive - they where all these very disparate power institutions. For me, the big project that we've been working on with the team together is to fully integrate everything that we do, so it's a much more holistic approach. I tend to see everything as a creative or artistic project, and that includes the shop, the café and the archive as well.”


With Young departing Timespan in January 2022 to take up a new post as director of Leicester Print Workshop, she nevertheless hopes the assorted initiatives set up during her tenure will continue.


“I'd like it to stay embedded within the community,” she says. “Since I started, I’ve been wanting to set up a community heating system, because fuel poverty is so high up here, and Helmsdale is vulnerable. In terms of the poverty indices, we hit really high, so it’s a very fragile community. To do these big projects for the community is the stuff that I hope will be taken forward.”


Young expresses a desire for the research on the relationship between the Highlands and Empire to continue.


“It’s so important to what we do,” she says. “I'd like that continued at a serious level, and to develop the big things.”


Other big things include formalising international networks between Timespan and artists in Palestine, the Zapatistas and North Columbia in order to develop more community exchange. Young would also like to build an observatory in response to proposals to build the first spaceport in Sutherland in what she describes as, “very dubious circumstances. The original contract went to the arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin, so I wanted to build an observatory with an alternative view of what the spaceport could do to improve civilian life.”


Lockheed Martin is no longer involved in the project.

“That’s because of some of the noise that was made,” Young affirms. “We programmed a lot around it, so that maybe helped.”


Young’s highest hopes remain with the YASS Club!


“It's completely diversified who uses us and how we're seen,” she says. “Prior to that, we were seen as a very a middle class, retiree sort of thing, and that just does not represent our village in Helmsdale at all. So the YASS! Club have got everyone in, and every Friday it’s chaos, with kids running riot, and we can't imagine Timespan without the youth club. The kids had nothing else to do, and were crying out for it. We've now got about eighty per cent of the village kids coming every Friday.”

Moving up a demographic, there are even plans for a Barbara Cartland revival.


“We’re bringing her back to the museum,” says a gleeful sounding Young. “We want much more of a cacophony of local voices, because it’s a very singular narrative at the moment, and it is contested history. There's a historical and still present beef between the crofters and the fisherman as well, so it's about presenting all these ideas.


Young’s belief in Timespan will hopefully impress the Art Fund judges, who visited the centre in early September.


“I think we know our community,” says Young, “and we know the problems they were facing during lockdown. In Helmsdale, there's a very unimaginative mono-economy for tourism, so a lot of our community are in precariously paid employment. They’ve not necessarily got access to the furlough scheme, so there’s a bit of a black market economy.


“So instead of just opening up and feeding people, we're doing it in creative ways. For the YASS! Club, we're telling people about the genesis of the ingredients as well as providing ingredients and cooking together. I think we responded in the best way we do, putting community at the heart of everything, and in creative and imaginative ways.”


The Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021 Award will be announced on September 21st.


Scottish Art News, September 2021





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