I'm Desperate Dan - By Duncan Harley

A local history conference hosted by Aberdeen City Library Service at the Beach Ballroom in early 2017 featured a talk by George Adam, the then Lord Provost. An eloquent man and a humorous speaker he spoke about the triumphs and tribulations of the Granite City before moving on to what seemed like a diatribe regarding the cultural and artistic state of the city. 

Using a fictional foreign civic dignitary as an anchor point, he advised attendees that the city offered a multitude of cultural attractions. “First of all,” he said “I would take the visitor to the Music Hall. Such a splendid place with such a splendid history. Oh, wait it’s closed for renovation. Then perhaps we could visit the Art Gallery. Oh, wait it’s closed also. Well, maybe Provost Skene’s House. Oh, wait it’s temporarily closed to the Public.”

Obviously said attractions will eventually re-open for public gaze, although it beggar’s belief that the funding was never put in place before the various renovations began. That aside, today we learn that Dundee’s V &A initiative poses a cultural challenge to Aberdeen.  Seemingly, according to a front-page leader in a local daily “Bosses at groups such as Aberdeen Inspired said the Granite City and the rest of the north-east will be able to rival Dundee’s offerings in the near future.”

Well perhaps, but to date the areas scattered museums offer the visitor nothing much to boast about. A couple of museum stores, one in the city and one over at Mintlaw offer little apart from occasional access. And aside from a few, sometimes remarkably dismal, local collections the north-east has nothing much to shout about apart from the notable exception of Grampian Transport Museum over at Alford.

Even the local libraries have seemingly abandoned the practice of exhibiting glass-cased artefacts from the shire’s past and a couple of the privately-run local museums are only open during the period of Lent and then only if there is a Z in the month.

Dundee however has kind of got its act together. Alongside the V & A triumph, the harbourside boasts a collection of historic ships. The SS Discovery is well known as is the accompanying Discovery Point Museum. Then there is the hulk of HMS Unicorn, a de-masted 46-gun wooden warship it’s seemingly the oldest wooden ship still afloat – well they would say that wouldn’t they. Last time I visited the Dundee waterfront there was a lightship docked alongside the Unicorn and the streets in the town boasted a multitude of civic art. Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx inhabited the main shopping drag alongside a quite splendid piazza alongside the Caird Hall.

In contrast, the harbour at Aberdeen can boast a fine Fittie, a couple of splendidly carved war memorials and some fairly low-quay pavement art commemorating a few locally built ships including Spartan gems such as the Thermoplae. A few plaques litter the waterfront and there are of course lots of supply boats whishing in and out of the harbour entrance. A sad car park, noted for dogging, looks onto the harbour mouth and even the Torry Coo has been silenced in favour of maritime Sat-Nav.

The Beach Ballroom conference came courtesy of Aberdeen City Library Service and was full of surprises. For starters we were welcomed with a bacon butty and a choice of tea or strong coffee. Then there was a speech by Bruce Mann, the Regional Archaeologist at Aberdeenshire Council. Alongside describing the archaeological history of the county, Bruce made clear the dilemma which faces those who look into the past. Historians are well aware of the pitfalls facing them – revisionist takes on history are mandatory.

Today’s take on history may not stand the test of time and seemingly the same applies to archaeology. With over twenty-nine thousand recorded historic sites in the North-east of Scotland to oversee the council Indiana Jones team are constantly having to re-evaluate the archaeological record of the county in the light of a torrent of new finds.

I suppose that’s the point I wish to make. With such a multitude of finds and such a huge choice as to what to highlight, Aberdeenshire’s scattered museum collections have yet to find direction and the conflicted guardians of our heritage have yet to find some real focus.

A book published by Aberdeen University in far off 1930 may hold a key. Titled ‘The North-East, The Land and its People’ it was published in the wake of a conference, come exhibition, held to discuss the idea of a ‘proposed Regional Museum.”

Attended by the great and the good including then Lord Provost Andrew Lewis and The Marquis of Aberdeen, a foreword eerily reflects the current Aberdonian museum conundrum.

“It has often been pointed out that a city of the size and importance of Aberdeen should have a museum to illustrate the resources and interest of the region … every effort should be made to secure the co-operation of such towns as Peterhead, Banff, Elgin, Forres and Stonehaven.”

The editorial committee went to argue the case for the establishment of a Regional Museum in Aberdeen. Of course it never happened, and almost 90 years on the notion of joined-up museum thinking remains a step too far.

Times have of course changed and public interest in things past has maybe waned. But, in the big scheme of things, Aberdeen has perhaps been less than focused in its approach to the gentle art of gathering bums on seats within museums.

Words and images © Duncan Harley – Inverurie September 13th 2018

There are more such tales in my The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire and in my forthcoming title: The Little History of Aberdeenshire.


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