Set across 1,000 square kilometres of the beautiful and dramatic landscapes of eastern Perthshire & western Angus, the Cateran Ecomuseum is a museum without walls – all its sites are outside. Created in 2018 and launched in November 2019, it tells the story of this part of Tayside across 6,000 years of human history and 400 million years of geological history.
Diarmuid’s Grave, Spittal of Glenshee, photo Clare Cooper
Can you talk a bit about yourself or your group, what you do and the journey you have been on to get to where you are today?
A group of us involved in a major community led heritage project in eastern Perthshire called Cateran’s Common Wealth, got introduced to the concept of ecomuseums in 2017. Originating in France in the 1970’s, ecomuseums, like bioregions focus on the identity of a place (with the term “eco” being a shortened form for “ecologie”). Still a relatively new concept, there are around 300 worldwide and only one other in Scotland, on Skye. Set in specific landscapes, they are a unique combination of three things:
- an opportunity for local people to share the distinctive heritage of where they live in a way that is meaningful to them
- a much more holistic nature and culture frame for the interpretation of heritage, quite different to the focus on specific items and objects performed by traditional building based museums
- and a focus for the development of what is being called ‘regenerative tourism’
Once we heard about the idea of an ecomuseum, and with the success of Cateran’s Common Wealth under our belts, we thought “well we’ve got one of those, we just don’t call it that” so we set out to create one!
What has been the inspiration or motivation to do what you do?
The landscape, the sense of deep time, the strong sense of place people have around here, the power of the common wealth of our culture to bring people together and most importantly the idea that a museum doesn’t have to be inside 4 walls! In fact being inside a building is actually quite limiting, being outside offers boundless possibilities for interpreting and sharing our natural and cultural heritage.
What kinds of expertise or skills do you have or have learned that help you in what you do?
Our local Director group and the members of our community who have been helping us put all the content and experiences of the Ecomuseum together have all sorts of expertise and skills. Geology, history, archaeology, ecology, community activism, fundraising, large and small scale event production and creativity of all kinds – artists, designers, film makers, singers, musicians, poets – we have our very own Poet in Residence, Jim Mackintosh.
Portrait of Hamish Henderson by Martin McGuinness, photo Clare Cooper
How would you describe your relationship to your place and to the natural world around you that you live and operate in?
All of us involved in the day to day operations of the Ecomuseum live locally and have a very strong sense of and care for place. There’s a wonderful quote by systems thinker Pamela Mang that sums up the importance of place up beautifully: “What makes a shift to true sustainability possible is the power of the connection between people and place. Place is a doorway into caring. Love of place unleashes the personal and political will needed to make profound change. It can also unite people across diverse ideological spectra because place is what we all share: it is the commons that allows people to call themselves a community.”
We are still enduring this terrible Covid crisis – could talk a bit about the other crises that are now front and centre in all our lives – the climate and biodiversity crises. How are they informing what you do? How are they impacting you or the way you think about what you do?
In the short period of time since the creation of the first phase of the Ecomuseum and its launch in late 2019, global heating and biodiversity loss have continued to escalate and there is now worldwide recognition that widespread behaviour change to regenerative lifestyles is necessary if we are to live within planetary ecological boundaries. Given these crises, we’ve agreed that our priority is to focus plans for our second phase on helping our local communities and their visitors take rapid climate action and transition to more regenerative ways of living. With this front and centre, we’ve just launched our plans to become Scotland’s first ‘Museum of Rapid Transition‘ – in a nutshell, we’ll show how the story of our past can help guide the story of our future.
Are there top priorities around these crises that you think everyone should be focusing on?
Yes, we’ve got to move very fast to reduce carbon emissions and enhance and maintain biodiversity and there are lots of ways we can do that. We need to drive froward land use changes that support healthy ecosystems, strengthen local supply chains, especially around food and energy and design new social and economic infrastructure that supports the emergence of a green recovery and a wellbeing economy. Very importantly we need to find ways of doing all this in ways that are positive and motivating for people. That’s where the Ecomuseum’s work, we hope, comes in. As the inspiring Andrew Simms has said “Museums are physical manifestations of civilisations’ collective memories, inventories of the traces left in us by the past. They are also vital stories of change: in our behaviour, culture, economy and technology. And, by showing us how much we have changed before, museums remind us of our ability to change now and help us learn the lessons of the past to illuminate the paths ahead.”
Reekie Linn Waterfall, photo George Logan
How do you feel about the future in the light of these crises?
Right now, pretty positive. There’s a huge increase in recognition across the world about what we’re facing and what we need to do about it.
Who do you draw inspiration and guidance from? Are there people showing great leadership in your field?
Our communities area constant source of inspiration and guidance. Our ‘Museum of Rapid Transition’ idea came from Andrew Simms of the Rapid Transition Alliance.
What does “community” mean for you and what you do?
Ecomuseum’s are community-led initiatives. We would not exist without the engagement and support of our communities.
Can you talk a little about the networks that you are part of that support you in what you do?
Most of our networks are on our doorstep – local heritage groups, local community organisations of various kinds, local arts and cultural networks – especially in Dundee who have helped enable a lot of what we have achieved so far. Our main local partner in our Museum of Rapid Transition is the Alyth Development Trust.
Are there aspects of any of those networks which you think need changing or developing? Do you see a need for more cooperation between networks? What might that look like?
There’s definitely a lot more possibility for joining up, especially across different sectors – that’s what makes this Bioregioning Tayside initiative so valuable. But good co-operation and collaboration needs to be properly resourced.
The Baldowrie Symbol Stone, Photo Clare Cooper
Is anything you do affected by local or national political policies?
Not specifically in relation to the Ecomuseum, but of course we exist within a much bigger context which is totally affected by local, national and international politics.
Are there things you would develop or love to do if resources were unconstrained or managed differently?
Yes! we’d like to accelerate our Museum of Rapid Transition plans and deepen the experiences we can offer through that to local people and visitors. You can read more about what that might look like here!
In your journey to where you are now has there been a particular ‘OMG’ or ‘aha’ moment that really shifted your thinking or energised you to take action in some way?
It was definitely the idea that there was such a thing as a ‘Museum without Walls’ that was very releasing and created huge energy amongst the founding group. I think reframing things has a huge power, it offers the opportunity to ‘see with new eyes’.
Bioregioning Tayside was talking to Clare Cooper, one of the founding Directors of the Cateran Ecomuseum.