Auckland City Libraries on the Banks of Loch Lomond

By Nick Sherrard

It is not everyday that New Zealand’s collections are opened up for a Royal visit, but this summer Prince Charles has personally inspected a particular object within the collection of Auckland City Libraries. For those of you who are wondering how you missed that happening we should point out a twist. When HRH saw the Rossdhu Book of Hours, the remarkably beautiful treasure of the Libraries’ special collections, it was housed on the banks of Loch Lomond in the highlands of Scotland.

The fact the loan has happened at all, and that the facilities to make its arrival possible have been constructed, is evidence of the passion communities have for connecting to their history. When you visit though you are also pointed to a change that is coming in the way audiences and institutions interact with ideas of heritage, and the exploration of cross-border stories it represents.

Visitors to the Highlands of Scotland can often feel history is as much a part of the landscape as the mountains and lochs which have given inspiration to so many artists in the past. In fact the Rossdhu Book of Hours returns to the village of Luss as the community marks their 1500th anniversary.

The exhibition space, however, which has been constructed ready for the visit of this very special 15th Century text is entirely new. It gives pride of place not only to the object itself but also a digitised version allowing visitors to turn the pages and explore the book through a touch screen. Visitors are engrossed in the intricate details of the object as well as its own fascinating tale as it has traversed the world from first being brought to Luss by the Countess of Moray, 500 years ago, to now being so expertly cared for in Auckland.

New Zealand and Scotland share so much history, but increasingly we can also share in the exploration of that heritage together. The arrival of the Book in Luss all of a sudden turns web resources created for potential visitors to Auckland City Libraries into the pre- and post-visit materials for those making the journey to Loch Lomond. The web streaming and weekly video podcasts seen on Luss Online mean the little Scottish village may be remote to the bustle of central Auckland but they are by no means out of contact. In turn when the book makes the journey back it will have with it a whole range of new content and interpretation – not least that appearance on the Royal Channel. Suffice it to say that as Luss moves into its next 1500 years the experience of a visit to its anniversary exhibition should also point though of us who care about museums to rethink the way we define our audiences, and the means by which we can interact with them.

In future it seems likely different diaspora groups will make more use of digital tools to connect to their ‘heritage of home’ as they themselves define it. Often they may not need established heritage bodies which are rooted in one nationality, location or building. Salidaa, a South East Asian diaspora project  in the UK has shown that a digital platform can be a viable and vibrant base of its own – even without much in the way of resource. The Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail is another example, where the digital portal enables a group’s heritage to be discovered across many national institutions and local sites.

At the same time institutions have much to gain from a more direct relationship with audiences overseas. Homecoming Scotland 2009  is an interesting model, not least in the way much smaller projects rallied to the cause. English Heritage has produced some web resources for an American audience and many UK museums and archives are seeing some of their largest online user groups coming from the USA and elsewhere. So far though there has been little that really reaches across borders to create a genuine community of interest around a particular project.

Plus that surely is the truly exciting feature as community heritage organisations and national institutions alike become more confident and creative in using digital tools. How can we link museums, visitors, and international audiences to explore heritage stories in a spirit of genuine collaboration? The prize in keeping our heritage truly vibrant, as well as more financially sustainable, seems clear.

Visitors to the little village of Luss may be stumbling on a very big idea indeed.

Image 1: Prince Charles inspects the book loaned from Auckland City Galleries

Image 2: The Rossdhu Book of Hours

Image 3: The Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail holdS Lessons for Museums

Nick SherrardNick Sherrard is a founder of Involve and Create, an incubator for new ideas in the way cultural organisations work with audiences. Nick is a passionate advocate for cultural participation and has researched the topic widely both in the UK and New Zealand.  Having worked with many leading arts and heritage organisations ranging from Historic Royal Palaces, to Circus Space, the British Museum, English Heritage, and international new media companies Nick remains a committed believer that any museum’s biggest asset is the people who visit it, support it and care about it.”