Gulbenkian Prize 2005 Readers' Poll: Carn Chearsabhagh, North Uist

By Caroline Lewis | 25 February 2005
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Shows a photo of a white building with several parts to it. Taigh Chearsabhagh is written on the side.

Taigh Chearsabhagh was built in 1741 as a travellers' inn. It now houses two art galleries and a museum. Courtesy Taigh Chearsabhagh.

**Voting for the readers' poll has now closed**

Between now and March, judges will be visiting the museums shortlisted for the UK’s largest arts prize, the third Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year.

Here at the 24 Hour Museum, we want to know who you think should win the prize. Click here to see the full shortlist and vote for the museum you think should receive the £100,000, or read on to find out how Carn Chearsabhagh came to be on the shortlist.

This year is seeing a number of blockbuster exhibitions in the national museums and galleries. The curators number professors and national gallery directors, who have brought together famous artworks and priceless artefacts – a job most people only dream of.

Having the opportunity to choose objects that interest you and have personal resonance would be one thing – attracting thousands of visitors to your exhibition is an even wilder hope. Yet that is what inhabitants of a Scottish isle have done, and the project was so impressive that it placed their museum on the Gulbenkian shortlist for Museum of the Year.

Shows a photo of five children in blue school jumpers. They are all smiling and saluting at the camera, with hands in white gloves. One boy is wearing a First World War helmet.

Children from Iochdar Primary School learning about museum conservation at the museum store. Courtesy Taigh Chearsabhagh.

Carn Chearsabhagh is a three-phase project that involved the community of North Uist in creating special exhibitions at their museum and arts centre, Taigh Chearsabhagh.

“The idea came from the local historical society,” says Caitriona MacCuish, Museum Outreach Officer. “It’s always been themselves who have chosen what exhibitions go on. We thought it would be really nice if the community could decide what they wanted to see on display – have it as their own museum.”

Chearsabhagh is thought to be derived from the Norse name for the town of Lochmaddy, where the museum is situated, on the weather-beaten Western Isle. Carn is Gaelic for cairn: a stone marker in the landscape, built by hand and added to by passers-by. So, Carn Chearsabhagh represents building up knowledge over time, creating a lasting marker for future generations.

For the first two phases of the project (phase two went on show in April 2004) 14 parties ranging from women’s groups to athletics clubs and local businesses chose artefacts from the museum store and researched them, to produce a display that really related to the people of North Uist.

Shows a photo of a museum display with a weaving shuttle in a display case, a legth of tweed draped next to it and black and white photos on the wall.

The social landscape of North Uist changed in the course of the 20th century. Weaving was once a major industry. Courtesy Taigh Chearsabhagh.

The fact that North Uist’s main museum store, the Comann Eachdraidh collection, is based on the neighbouring island, Benbecula, for conservation purposes, makes the need for a museum that really belongs to the residents even more pressing. Fortunately, the project really has made pieces of local heritage tangible for the community. Visitors also get a real insight into life on North Uist, because the exhibition also tells about the groups’ activities.

The curatorial method behind Carn Chearsabhagh has made for a varied selection of artefacts. “It’s very varied,” says Caitriona, “groups chose things from the 1800s to something from 1996, which you might not consider to be museum material.”

A youth group chose a letter about a shipwreck in North Uist and the local agricultural society put a creel on display. People used to use them for carrying peat (for fuel) on their backs.

“Another group chose a shuttle used in weaving tweed. They chose that because in the past it had been one of the main industries – some of them were weavers themselves,” Caitriona explains. “No-one in North Uist has a loom anymore.”

Taigh Chearsabhagh has something in common with several of the other Gulbenkian shortlisted museums, then, in that it is celebrating the heritage of ordinary, working people. This approach is proving popular, with Taigh Chearsabhagh seeing roughly 30,000 people come through its doors each year, despite its size. The project has received support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Scottish Museums Council and the local authority.

Shows a photo of five women and a model horse standing in front of an old stone interior wall. Most of the women are over 60.

Women from Tagsa, one of the 60 groups that Taigh Chearsabagh works with. Courtesy Taigh Chearsabhagh.

The third phase of Carn Chearsabhagh will have school groups choosing and researching the history of sites in North Uist. Caitriona sings the praises of the project’s education programme (offered in Gaelic), which tries to mesh with the school curriculum.

The museum also works with older people and those in long-term care, doing reminiscence work and art based on heritage. Ten other temporary exhibitions encouraging community ownership of heritage have been created through the project.

Caitriona is quite clear about how Carn Chearsabhagh got on to the shortlist. “It’s the community being the curators, the link with the community,” she says, “they’re so involved in it.”

She’s far more apprehensive about winning the prize: “We’re up against huge national museums – I hope the judges will see us as being a bit unique. We do get a huge amount of visitors, local and international, even though we’re a small museum and the community is the main focus.”

“I’m very, very pleased,” Caitriona continues, “but very, very shocked!”

Should Carn Chearsabhagh be the winning ticket, Caitriona says there are no fixed ideas as to what the money will be used for: “We’re not counting our chickens!”

Shows a photograph of a young boy sitting on top of a hill above a museum building. He is sketching on a large white sheet of paper.

A nice day for sketching... Tourists are atracted to the isle of North Uist for its landscape. Courtesy Taigh Chearsabhagh.

“We’d like to do something more permanent with our archaeology. A lot of new sites have been uncovered by storms,” she says, “but a lot of artefacts go to the national museum in Edinburgh. It would be good if there was a permanent place where new artefacts could go.”

Another suggestion is to carry out a project recording what’s happening in North Uist now and what the place is like – an important task given that huge chunks of the physical landscape can change in the course of a storm, as can social history in the course of a few years.

The 24 Hour Museum is conducting a poll to find out who our readers want to win the Gulbenkian Prize 2005.

To vote for Carn Chearsabhagh, click here.

Between now and March 18, we will have features on each of the shortlisted museums, so if you haven’t decided who to vote for yet, make sure to read all about it on the 24 Hour Museum.

To find out more about the Gulbenkian Prize, click on this link to visit the website.

**Voting for the readers' poll has now closed**

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