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Double act celebrates museum and archives

Archivist Brian Smith and museum curator Ian Tait after their talk on Tuesday night - Photo: Chris Cope/ShetNews

THERE were no birthday cakes or colourful party poppers at the Shetland Museum on Tuesday night as it celebrated its 50th anniversary. Instead, in perhaps apt fashion, curator Ian Tait gave an illuminating lecture in the museum’s auditorium about its history and collections.

He was joined by archivist Brian Smith to reflect on 40 years of documenting current affairs in Shetland.

Shetland Museum opened in its original premises at Lerwick’s Hillhead on 28 June 1966, when Tait was just one month old.

However, the first calls for a museum were heard as early as the 1860s when “learned gents” sought premises to show off Shetland artefacts, Tait said. A space was created at Lerwick’s Tollbooth, but it ultimately failed.

The discovery of the peat-bogged Gunnister Man and the St Ninian’s Isle treasure in the 1950s reignited a desire for a Shetland museum.

Tait’s black and white photos of the original museum in its youth sparked memories even for this writer, who frequented the building as a child in the 1990s.

The Old library and museum - Photo: Dennis Coutts

It seemed somewhat rudimentary compared to the relatively glitzy current Shetland Museum and Archives at Hay’s Dock, which opened in 2007.

Restoration of items was popular back then, Tait said, while conservation is the “buzzword” today.

The museum enjoyed sizeable donations when long-standing Shetland companies shut up shop, with the likes of Delting business TM Adies providing items.

In the 1980s clamour for a new museum building was growing, but the new influx of oil money didn’t extend to funding museums or libraries.

Nevertheless, the current museum got the green light in the mid-2000s when Shetland Amenity Trust and the local authority conjoined.

Brian Smith followed Tait as he regaled the 70-odd people in the audience with tales of how Shetland’s archives has evolved since opening on 6 May 1976.

A reform of local government in Scotland from 1975 put the wheels in motion, with councils encouraged to appoint archivists.

The key players locally were the former convener of Zetland County Council, Edward Thomason, as well as councillor and Anderson High School head teacher John Graham. Both endured a battle to convince the council to open an archives building.

Smith has worked in the archives since the year it opened and has witnessed it being housed in a number of Lerwick locations.

It spent its first two weeks under the stairs in the old museum before heading to 92 St Olaf Street and then Harbour Street.

Due to space concerns, it relocated to King Harald Street, where it remained for around 25 years.

So what is held in the archives? Everything from council records and valuation rolls to newspapers and diaries, Smith said.

Members of the museum and the archives services along with admin staff from Shetland Amenity Trust and trustees came together for an official anniversary photo on Tuesday - Photo: Malcolm Younger

The archives found its current home inside the new museum building, and its extensive collection is growing. There’s 28,000 items relating to the word ‘Lerwick’ alone, Smith said.

However, the archivist feels there is a growing reliance on digitalisation from the younger generation when it comes to accessing the material.

“I fear people think it’s all online. You must expect to read,” he insisted. “Again and again I’ve seen the refusal to read.”

The floor was then opened for questions, with the old museum’s opening day and family genealogy on the agenda.

Smith was asked what items he would save first if the archives went on fire – but he wasn’t playing along with the imaginative disaster scenario.

The self-contained boxes protecting the files would take three hours to be affected by flames, he said, so it shouldn’t be an issue.

Tait meanwhile said the museum will have to be “more strict in collecting” items as the years roll by due to space and duplication.

Who knows what the next 50 years will hold, but you hope the museum and archives will still be going strong in 2066.

  • Shetland Library is holding an open day on Saturday (2 July) to give folk a chance to share their memories of the old Library and Museum building, take a short tour of the space, and feed in ideas for Shetland Islands Council’s plans to upgrade the building.