Thursday, 1 March 2012

Tracking Down Treasures

Last Sunday the team made their way through beautifully snowy glens to Fort William to carry out a significant piece of work for the project. Fort William is home to the West Highland Museum, where the majority of the artefacts collected by Alexander Carmichael are held. Indeed, the museum has looked after the collection for a long time, first taking it in as a loan from Michael Carmichael, one of Alexander's grandsons, in 1948 before it was gifted to the museum in 1992.

Domhnall Uilleam placing a winnowing riddle for Carsten to photograph


In addition to research, this phase of the project aims to catalogue all the objects collected by Carmichael. In order to make a useful online catalogue photographs are required, so we hired Highland photographer Carsten Flieger to work with us. Now, the collection is complicated enough, with Uist plaids, Jacobite tartans, bronze brooches, bone pins, fossils, wool carders, sea bean charms, oil lamps and swords to contend with without adding in the fact that a large proportion of the collection is on display. Luckily for us museum volunteer and former curator Sally Archibald had given up her time to help us identify objects in storage and carefully remove and replace objects on display. No mean feat given the weight of some of the display cases - it's not just the tango that takes two.

Guinevere proving the worth of a porridge breakfast with the charms display case


The variety of objects, their dispersal throughout the museum and the need to consult different lists compiled over the years made the task quite complicated, however we soon had a production line of sorts going. Working from the largest objects to the smallest, prioritising items on display and trying to keep things made of similar materials together were key. Over the five days we were in Fort William, of the 200 or so items which were produced Carsten took over 300 photographs. What we've seen so far is first-class and we can hardly wait to see them all properly: ruddy-red tartans, shiny sea beans, ferocious flax combs. However, we're going to have to wait as we still have some objects to to photograph, which, now we have some experience, we know will probably take another two days.

Carsten and the bright lights making sure everything looks as it should

We are grateful to the West Highland Museum, especially manager Colleen Foggo for letting us work for as long as possible each day to get through the material and for being patient with us as we roved the different floors and rooms of the museum seeking out Carmichael-collected objects. We are indebted to Sally Archibald for the extraordinary energy and work she put into locating and identifying items.

Sally and Kirsty try to identify a brooch

The museum re-opens following its winter closure next week, so if you're in Fort William, do go in as it's well worth the time.

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [© carstenflieger.com]