Almond Valley Heritage Trust

Dr. Robin Chesters

director

Almond Valley Heritage Trust

Millfield, Livingston‚ West Lothian EH54 7AR Scotland, UK

www.almondvalley.co.uk

Almond Valley: a family museum

Almond Valley is an independent museum dedicated to preserving and
interpreting the history and environment of West Lothian.  This area of
Scotland lies between Edinburgh and Glasgow and was once dependent on the
mining and farming industries. Since the creation of a new town in
Livingston during the 1960''s there have been many changes. New industries
have been introduced, people have moved into the area and large amounts of
farmland have been used for housing.
The 10-hectare museum site was once a farm but is now surrounded by the new
town. The site contains a watermill, a range of 18th century farm buildings,
riverside walks, fields and wildlife areas.

The museum project began in the 1970''s with a campaign to preserve the old
watermill that had been derelict for many years. From this arose a community
farm in which families, children and school groups cared for farm animals,
and collected old equipment from surrounding farms.  A succession of
training schemes restored and upgraded the old farm buildings, whilst a
museum-based training scheme collected objects from West Lothian''s shale oil
mining industry.

In 1990, the local authority oversaw the formation of the Almond Valley
Heritage Trust to bring together all of these activities and operate as a
professionally staffed museum. An annual grant from the local authority now
covers about a third of operating costs, the balance being earned from
admission charges, shop, tearoom and birthday parties. The Trust has
overseen a programme of development that has included construction of a new
museum building, education and visitor facilities, play areas, a
narrow-gauge railway, and many other improvements, As a result visitor
numbers have steadily increased from 10,000, to more than 80,000 visitors
per year.

The farm and it''s animals have always been very popular to families and
children but it has proved much more difficult to interest young people in
the history of the area.  Over the years, museum staff have devised various
games, crafts, computer programmes and other small-scale interactive
displays to involve family visitors in the museum collection and their local
history. As a result of these works, the museum won a number of awards for
innovative interpretation and education work.

Experience of these small projects was applied to the major museum
redevelopment project that began in 1999. This pound;500,000 scheme was funded by
grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, European Regional Development Fund,
the local council and local enterprise company. It involved the extension of
the main museum building, the construction of a picnic barn for visiting
school groups and enlarging of the tearoom. All the existing museum
displays, which had been installed at great cost less than ten years
previously, were removed and replaced with interpretation designed to
interest and engage families with young children.

In most areas of the museum, objects and display boards are combined with
games, activities and interactive features. For example, an area considering
local geology places a display of fossils within a simulated quarry
environment and combines this with caves and tunnels that children can
explore, jigsaws, rubbings, feely boxes, computer interactives and tanks
containing the living relatives of the fossil creatures. This mix of play
features and conventional displays provides something to engage and interest
both children and their parents or grandparents. This same approach is
adopted elsewhere in the museum when considering local topics such as the
shale oil industry, social history and public health. Other areas of the
museum are equipped as laboratory or workshop areas to serve as venue for a
changing programme of activities, scientific experiments and crafts.

A professional design practice was initially commissioned to pull together
the museum''s ideas for each display. This proved expensive and inflexible,
and was soon abandoned in favour of a do-it-yourself approach. Detailed
designs were worked up in-house then realised by a small team of local
craftsmen and artists directly employed by the museum for the duration of
the project. This way of working provided opportunity to experiment with
designs as work progressed, provided total financial and creative control,
and ultimately proved much less costly. It was however enormously time
consuming, taking over two years to complete, and distracted museum staff
from other duties.

Not everything was right first time, and even after the re-opening of the
main museum building and being named as Scottish Museum of the Year, we
continue to change and improve many parts of the display. Perhaps one of the
greatest legacies of the project is the expertise and experience gained by
museum staff that continues to be applied in improving displays and tackling
new projects.