Elgin Museum

by Robin McKelvie

I knew Elgin Museum was special after visiting a few years ago, but I didn’t realise just how special. On my fleeting stop I didn’t learn that it is Scotland's oldest continuously independent museum, nor that it is brilliantly run by a diverse and dynamic talent of volunteers, nor just how dynamic and forward-thinking this valuable community asset is for Elgin, Moray and beyond. 

Two Centuries and 36000 Objects

Grand Elgin Museum has stood proudly on the town’s High Street since it first opened to the public in 1843, celebrating its 180-year anniversary in September 2023. Alison Wright, Convenor of Elgin Museum Management Committee, proudly tells me their origin story: “Back in the nineteenth century a group of local men had started a pioneering fundraising to create a new museum for the town, but it was not until the local ladies came onboard that things started to happen and they managed to raise enough money so it could take shape.”

Elgin Museum is unusual compared to many of the community-run museums I come across as a travel writer who has visited over 100 countries. It is not an conversion from an old school or church – Elgin Museum was quite simply built as Elgin Museum. As Wright explains, “Our museum was built as a museum. But even then they knew it needed continued revenue to survive so adjoining it was the Elginshire Bank, which we now use as an office. We still have the original 1840s safe here, which we now use as a key safe. You can still see door into the bank from the museum.”

For almost two centuries Elgin Museum (which now has a collection of over 36,000  objects) has shone. “We give visitors from home and abroad an opportunity to see objects from all over the world,” continues Wright. “There is a special focus on Moray, with items ranging from fish fossils dating back over 450 million years, through to a 21st-century energy saving light bulb, and we cover everything in between. The fossil collection is recognised as being of national importance, and we have a significant collection of Pictish stones amongst our archaeological treasures.”

Pictish Stone Display

One of the aspects that really keeps the Elgin Museum relevant and interesting to all is that it refuses to draw its boundaries at Elgin’s perimeter: “We offer visitors a chance to explore the development and history of life in Moray, Scotland, Britain and its connections with the wider world. This provides a strong sense of place, identity, and understanding, which remain important values in an often complex world.”

Men of Vision Display

Wright tells me about some objects that demonstrate this wider focus – “ We have items from the wife of a Lossiemouth sea captain - some fine fabrics and exquisite artefacts. As a woman she would not have had that opportunity if not married. In that time she could not really have travelled alone and she was probably groundbreaking in wanting to go and discover the world. I like to think of her gaining her experiences and acquiring these items with real verve.”

Another item of wider scope is a recently acquired autograph book from two sisters who had been nursing during World War One in France. Their collection had military items such as badges, as well as notes of soldiers they had nursed. Then there is the grandfather clock made by William Ferguson of Elgin that travelled across to the US, but got caught up in an earthquake in 1994. The current descendant of is owner was a film producer who paid to have the clock shipped back to Elgin. It is now on display and strikes on the hour by a portrait of Ferguson.

This is no staid old school museum dragged down in cobwebs. It is very much an  active collection, as Wright explains: “Our old things are still objects of active research. We have a lioness skull from India, which has been here since 1844. It is now at the National Museum of Scotland, whose project is trying to determine when lions moved out of Africa and into Asia. It has exemplar DNA, so they are using it to construct the entire genome of the lions. Our fossils are also being scanned using new techniques, with a paper just published this year. You never know when things are going to be of interest. Our forebearers could never have imagined the information we are getting from their items now. We realise the same will happen in future and we have a key role in literally preserving the past for future generations.”

Passionate, Positive Volunteers

Japanese Trinket Box

Behind the museum today is the Moray Society, who have been known as such for decades, with a direct lineage to the groups who have run the museum since the 1840s. Lineage and continuity are important here. The part time member of staff at the museum has been there for 25 years and this year the volunteers have also been joined by a seasonal visitor experience steward at weekends. Wright says, “We are always looking for new things to try. As a museum we always have to be looking forward.” 

The Moray Society is a membership society that offers free entry to its Category A listed building and collections, which are managed by a strong cadre of volunteers. Stephanie Horner, a ‘Meet and Greet’ volunteer is one such passionate, positive volunteer – “I moved up to the area during Covid, and wanted to do something to help the community. I wished to volunteer and felt able to offer the museum help. I have always been interested in history and local history. The museum is such a special place, when you walk in you get that feeling. Partly the architecture and then the friendliness. It is just such a nice place to be.”

Horner sees families as crucial to the museum: “History doesn’t stop in the 1800s - it just keeps evolving and we are keen to show that. Everyone has different ideas and different things that they like. Everyone picks up on different things and the children who visit constantly surprise. Children – both from local schools and beyond – are a key focus for Elgin Museum. Some children are very knowledgeable as we find with the local school groups. We quite often learn from the children. Children engaging with me and the museum makes my day.”

Temporary Locals Welcome

Horner is also keen to see SCOTO’s ‘temporary locals’ welcomed: “We welcome everyone as ‘temporary locals’, with a real range of visitors. We have people from Elgin and then ‘temporary locals’ from Moray, the UK and beyond these isles. People come in and interact with the community and ask questions and we’re here to help educate, We’ve had people for example from Denmark, who were keen to explore the differences with life in the UK.”

Since Covid, Wright has noticed a change amongst the volunteers welcoming those ‘temporary locals’ – “We are getting more younger people. We’ve become a way of generations in Elgin meeting each other and then breaking down any boundaries between different age groups. They support each other. The museum is a safe space where people open up to each other.”

Triassic Dispay

One challenge with all independent museums is funding. Elgin Museum relies heavily on donations (you can make them through their website) and grants. The future looks bright with a £2m project slated to start in 2024. It aims to make the Category A listed building more accessible and upgrade its power system towards a target of Net Zero. Ever conscious of financial pressures, the plans also include redeveloping No 3 High Street next door to create more commercial income for the museums and to add two, one bedroom flats.

What strikes me most about Eglin Museum, talking to two of the people who help make it tick, is the passion to make it work for everyone and awareness of their responsibility to the past and the community. Wright says, “There is an awful lot that goes on behind the scenes - so many aspects, so many bits need sorted. All our volunteers from the community are essential in that. They give so much time and energy, as a museum doesn’t exist in isolation and is not an enterprise to be taken on likely. We have a real sense of continuity here in our people and their enthusiasm, as well as our exhibits and responsibility to our forebearers. We cannot ever afford to lose sight of any of that.”


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