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West Highland Museum

When COVID-19 struck, the West Highland Museum in Fort William knew it would need to adapt in order to survive.

people outside the West Highland Museum, Fort William

Adapting to the new world

An inspiring aspect of the COVID-19 movement restrictions has been the ability of organisations to adapt. The heritage sector faces a particular set of challenges when it comes to moving physical experiences online. Museums often employ low numbers of permanent staff or are entirely staffed by volunteers, have very restricted budgets, and, by nature, rely on providing immersive experiences which sometimes includes sharing smells, textures, or physical spaces with visitors.

Heritage tourism has been a growth driver for Scottish visitor numbers over the last few years. An increasing interest in Scottish history, culture and folklore has been partly driven by series such as Outlander, as well as the prevalence of sites of global significance such as Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, St Kilda and The Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

When COVID-19 struck, the West Highland Museum in Fort William knew it would need to adapt in order to survive. Its staff members jumped at the chance to get specialist support through XpoNorth Digital, a programme of personalised support for the creative industries. They attended online group and one-to-one sessions on website development, blogging, podcasting, and the creation of digital heritage trails on Google Maps. Within a few days, they had created a blog, and within a few weeks, they started a podcast.

Our online work will set us up for a future where people possibly travel less frequently. We’re growing our local audience, giving them reasons to make repeat visits to the museum, and showcasing our unique artefacts to increase our visibility to researchers and historians.
Vanessa Martin, Curator, West Highland Museum

Exterior view of the West Highland Museum, Fort William

Focusing on digital engagement

Curator Vanessa Martin says that while they knew they wanted to do more online, they didn’t know where to start and struggled to find the time to focus on it. The downtime created by COVID-19 gave them a window of opportunity. “We wouldn’t have got our blog or podcast off the ground without the excellent one-to-one support”, she says. “Our adviser gave us practical advice on inexpensive ways to get started.”

West Highland Museum’s initial focus was on their social media channels. By working with a digital specialist to increase engagement, they grew their audiences on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as starting a YouTube channel and a Pinterest page. Vanessa says the goal is to raise the profile of the museum and get a two-way conversation going. This means that when the museum does open, they have a captive audience, and people will be more aware of the unique artefacts that they hold. The plan has worked so far: their Facebook page grew organically by 1,000 followers during lockdown, and a Facebook Live event at the Commando Memorial in Spean Bridge attracted over 10,000 viewers.

Their online activity has brought unexpected benefits, too. One of the museum’s guest bloggers wrote a feature on the St Kilda mailboat, which was picked up for a feature by the Herald. The Times then included the accompanying image in their picture library, further widening the museum’s reach.

St Kilda Mail Carrier first used in 1876 from the West Highland Museum collection

Working with the team at XpoNorth Digital

Through XpoNorth Digital, West Highland Museum connected with the University of St Andrews, which has led to some exciting projects on the horizon if funding allows. These include the digitalisation of a planned book showcasing 100 objects for 100 years of the museum, making it interactive via the use of photography, video and virtual reality. Another idea is the virtual reconstruction of the fort in Fort William - a room of which was used in the world-renowned historical drama series Outlander.

It’s a prospect that Vanessa thinks will prove extremely popular with the museum’s growing online audience. “The digital reconstruction of the fort - using virtual reality technology - will bring back to life an historic building which now lies largely in ruins. We think the technology could be used to recreate the building in a meaningful way that will really engage audiences online.”

While COVID-19 may have disrupted the heritage sector in the short-term, organisations such as West Highland Museum have grabbed the opportunity to diversify in the face of adversity. As Vanessa points out, it’s something that will stand them in good stead as people’s approach to travel adapts in response to other global pressures such as climate change. “Our online work will set us up for a future where people possibly travel less frequently. We’re growing our local audience, giving them reasons to make repeat visits to the museum, and showcasing our unique artefacts to increase our visibility to researchers and historians.” With new projects on the horizon, it can be safely said that West Highland Museum really has made the best out of a bad situation.

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About the Northern Innovation Hub

Pathfinder Accelerator is a programme delivered by the Northern Innovation Hub. This is part of the Inverness and Highland City-Region Deal - a joint initiative supported by £315m investment from the UK and Scottish governments, The Highland Council, HIE and University of the Highlands and Islands. This programme also receives financial support from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) through the Innovation strategic intervention.