Former nuclear bunker in Highlands crowned UK 'museum of the year'

A former Cold war nuclear bunker which now showcases the local history, cultural and natural heritage of a remote corner of the Highlands has been crowned one of the UK’s best museums.

Monday, 12th October 2020, 7:30 pm
The former nuclear bunker in Gairloch was transformed in a £2.4 million development which took eight years to complete.
The former nuclear bunker in Gairloch was transformed in a £2.4 million development which took eight years to complete.

The new attraction in Gairloch, in Wester Ross, has been recognised just over a year after it opened following a £2.4 million project which took eight years to bring to fruition.

Located on the North Coast 500 driving route around the Highlands, the museum was created at a site of what had long been branded Gairloch’s most notorious eyesore.

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It features displays on an Iron Age bronze hoard and a Pictish stone which were found locally, as well as Gairloch’s historic lighthouse, the Gaelic language, a replica croft house and the midges which descend on the area in the summer.

More than 120 volunteers were involved in the project to transform the former bunker in Gairloch into a new home for the village museum.

The library at the museum features an archive of more than 4000 photographs depicting life in and around the north-west Highland village.

It is one of five UK museums which will secure a £200,000 prize pot, after the cultural charity decided to share its annual “Museum of the Year” title for the first time due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the sector.

Aberdeen Art Gallery was also recognised in the wake of acclaim for its £34.6 million refurbishment, which took four years to complete.

Outlander star Sam Heughan, who supported an appeal to help raise the final £60,000 for the project, will be taking part in a special online event to celebrate Gairloch Museum’s title, bringing to life a folktale inspired by its collections.

The new home for Gairloch Museum has been rated one of the UK's leading attractions. Picture: Marc Atkins/Art Fund

More than 120 volunteers were involved in the project to transform a semi-derelict eyesore overlooking Loch Gairloch and the Minch.

Built in the 1950s, during the early years of the Cold War, the Anti-aircraft Operations Room (AAOR) was part of the UK’s defence system against the anticipation of nuclear attack from Russia and was maintained as a civil defence centre until 1990.

It was later used as a roads depot until it relocated, but was revived after a campaign to find a new home for a heritage museum created at a steading in 1977.

The Art Fund judges hailed the restoration project as “a tale of people-power, determination, and local pride.”

Artefacts collected since 1977 are on display in Gairloch Museum. Picture: Marc Atkins/Art Fund.

They added: “The museum’s move in 2019 to a new home – not a grand new build but a repurposed nuclear bunker – transformed a village eyesore into an important visitor attraction.

"The redisplay of its collection, which encapsulates the history, culture, beauty and character of Gairloch, and its new home have reanimated the village’s pride in its heritage, created a buzzing new community hub, and produced a sustainable cultural landmark for generations of visitors to enjoy.”

Museum curator Karen Buchanan said: “The recognition that comes with this award brings our small, independent museum to the national stage.

"With the prize money, we will be able to invest in our planned outdoor museum space and procure expertise and equipment to redesign our events and outreach programme for a sustainable, digital future.

"We rely on visitors to our small community and expect our ‘Museum of the Year’ status to boost visitor numbers.

"Our must-see event for 2021 will be an exhibition of the art of Alison Dunlop, celebrating the rugged beauty of the Shiants – the enchanted isles of the Minch.”

Meanwhile the Art Fund judges praised Aberdeen Art Gallery’s transformation for its showcases of “an exceptional collection of art and heritage, rightly celebrated as among the finest in the UK.”

The judges said: “Last year marked the culmination of the most ambitious redevelopment project in the museum’s 135 year history, completely re-imagining the gallery so its extraordinary treasures, and the stories they tell can be celebrated, shared and better understood.

“We were impressed with the scale and ambition of this project, which increased the number of works on show from 370 to 1080, the beautifully executed restoration, and the commitment to involve the people of the city in the future of this rediscovered jewel on their doorstep.”

The three other winners were the Science Museum in London and two art galleries – London South Gallery and Towner Eastbourne.

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