Home Arts the small museum which records Orkney’s pivotal role in both world wars

the small museum which records Orkney’s pivotal role in both world wars

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• Find out more about the museums shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2023 here

When Nick Hewitt takes people to visit the Scapa Flow Museum, he likes to say “the history of the world was made here”. A naval historian and head of the Orkney Islands Council’s cultural team, Hewitt says, “The role of sea power, in the Second World War in particular, was absolutely crucial. And the fleets that did this work in the wars in Europe were based here. After a five-year, £4.4million redevelopment, the museum’s determined commemoration of this naval heritage – and all the associated social impact – has earned it a place on the Fund’s shortlist of Museums of the Year. of art.

Named after the body of water sheltered by the islands, the museum traces the history of Orkney during the two world wars. This story is told through more than 250 artifacts, both military and civilian. “You have war finds — signal lamps, equipment — and then you have personal memorabilia,” says Ellen Pesci, the museum’s social history curator. “We have objects that belonged to the soldiers stationed here. From uniforms to letters, autograph books, mugs and cups. Daily essentials. »

The museum was opened in 1990 as a private entity, having been purchased by the Orkney Islands Council from the Ministry of Defense in 1980, but later came under the umbrella of the Orkney Museums Service. Today it is housed in the former oil pumping station on the Isle of Hoy, which was built in 1937 to service waiting ships. “My grandfather was a site manager at the pumping station,” says Pesci. “He once looked after the equipment that I would look after some 70 years later, albeit in a different capacity.”

However, the pumping station was not the ideal place for a museum: it was very cold, damp and had far exceeded its “expected lifespan”, says Pesci. In 2017 it closed and the museum began a major overhaul of the existing Grade A listed structure, the construction of a new exhibition and cafe extension, and the careful conservation of objects and artefacts. A wartime Romney hut on the site has also been restored, leaving room for monumental items, such as a cannon from the German High Seas Fleet of SMS Bremse.

When it reopens in 2022, the museum has also restructured its exhibition to focus on key stories: the Royal Navy fleet in action, the range of servicemen and women stationed at Orkney (over 12,000 servicemen and civilians at one point), the experience of 550 Italian prisoners of war interned on the islands in the 1940s and how island life changed as a result of these events.

Visitors looking at a model of the SMS Baden, a German battleship of the First World War © Janie Airey, 2023 Art Fund

Scapa Flow Naval Base, chosen for its strategic position against aggressive Germany, played a crucial role in both the D-Day landings and the Arctic convoys, and “its wartime legacy can be seen across the islands says Hewitt. After World War II, it was not imperative to demolish its various casemates (fortifications from which machine guns are fired) and bunkers relative to the mainland, where post-war accommodation was needed. The museum provides context for these landmarks and explains how these structures had a second life, in times of peace, as “playgrounds or stores or agricultural sheds”.

The role of sea power, during World War II in particular, was absolutely crucial

Nick Hewitt, naval historian

The museum’s collection also includes objects recovered from the waves. At the end of the First World War, the German High Seas Fleet was interned in these waters; in captivity, the ships were deliberately sunk by the crews. Seven German ships and the British battleships HMS Royal Oak and HMS Vanguard are still on the seabed, Pesci notes. “Every time you take a boat over Scapa Flow, you pass through these wrecks. You are sailing above this story. The museum contains items discovered by divers as well as items that were washed up and ended up in the homes of the islanders.

The Scapa Flow Museum plays a crucial role, not only in explaining Orkney’s past, but also in preserving its current economy – through increased visitor numbers, retail revenue and donations – as well as its spirit . Much loved by islanders, the site has become a community hub as much as a working museum.

The museum’s remote location off the coast of Scotland presents some challenges, says Pesci. “We were chosen for good reason during both world wars, but once that strategic importance passes, you become a very rural island community again.” Being shortlisted for the Museum of the Year award, she notes, sprinkled “gold dust” on Scapa Flow’s profile. “We are remote, but we are accessible.” As Hewitt notes, the museum is worth the ferry ride: “It’s a local version of an international story. »

How do you bring your local community into the museum?

Ellen Pesci, curator of social history at the Scapa Flow Museum: “We engage with children from the local primary school and run workshops based on interpreting objects. One is focused on a painting by my father Jim Baikie, a former student from the same school who was born to Hoy. As the painting looks at how the island changed after the end of the Second World War, it provides a catalyst for investigating and discussing the history of Orkney and its context within the museum’s wider collection, and most importantly, understanding how art has been interpreted by students in interpretive projects throughout the museum, providing them with an important sense of ownership of their own heritage.”

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