South Ayrshire Museums & Galleries

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

Claire Gillespie

If you were a South Ayrshire kid in the ‘80s, you might remember the occasional visit to Rozelle House – or at least racing around the huge gardens playing hide-and-seek or looking for squirrels. Today, the grounds are as impressive as ever (37 hectares, no less). The biggest changes have been to the interior – and the best may be yet to come.

Rozelle House has been an accredited museum since 2003, meaning it can display and exhibit South Ayrshire Council collections and host exhibitions and objects on loan from other places. It’s best known for being home to Scottish artist Alexander Goudie’s narrative series of 54 paintings inspired by Robert Burns’ famous poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, but there’s something for everyone, says Fraser MacDonald, who took the role of Programme and Engagement Officer at South Ayrshire Museums and Libraries in 2022. A big part of Fraser’s job – both at Rozelle House and South Ayrshire’s other main gallery/museum space, the McKechnie Institute in Girvan – is to increase awareness of these venues as free, fun days out for all ages.

“We’re trying not to necessarily repeat what we’ve done in the past, but instead look at certain hooks and local interests to let us curate exhibitions that might attract a new, different audience,” Fraser explains.

To whet your appetite, a glimpse of what’s coming up at Rozelle House over the next few months: an exhibition of renowned Scottish colourist William Gillies with pieces on loan from the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) followed by a golf exhibition to coincide with the 152nd Open Championship at Royal Troon. Meanwhile, the McKechnie Institute will host an RNLI presentation exhibition (the first of its kind in Scotland) to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the RNLI at Girvan, covering the past and present of the station and featuring the crew members and specific calls they’ve responded to.

The transition from Gillies’ still-life and landscapes to the efforts being made to mitigate coastal erosion at Girvan golf course of South Ayrshire is the perfect example of one of Fraser’s favourite aspects of his job. And it’s this variety that he hopes will draw different audiences to the venues who will then become lifelong supporters and visitors.

To give these visitors the best experience, extensive improvements are underway. At Rozelle House, the galleries are going back to their original parquet flooring. One of the rooms has been transformed into a permanent “engagement space”, where visitors can take part in a wide range of activities – from printmaking with a pasta maker (“and very clear instructions,” Fraser assures me) to art work that can be continued on easels in Rozelle Park. The hope is that this will increase visits from schools – and on that note, there are also plans to fundraise to make school visits more affordable. “We also want to make it easier for parents to spend a few hours at Rozelle House with their kids,” adds Fraser. “You don’t have to book in advance, you can just turn up and know there’s something there for all ages.”

Accessibility is top of the list at the McKechnie Institute, with a lift being installed to enable access to the upper floors for all. (While you’re there, be sure to check out the beautiful garden, complete with a pétanque court – the result of a town-twinning partnership with Torcy in Seine-et-Marne, France.)

Another exciting development comes thanks to funding from Museums and Galleries Scotland to commission bespoke shop units from local furniture maker Stuart Clachan of Clachan Wood. “Solid oak Scandi” is the approach, says Fraser, with the design inspired by the backdrop of Ailsa Craig. Rozelle House, the McKechnie Institute and Ayr’s recently opened Heritage Hub (a smaller venue focused on the history of the town) will all have shops featuring a range of products, from affordable, branded “pocket money” items like pens and pencils to reproductions of some of the key artworks in the collections. Creators, take note: “We’re really keen to commission product lines from local artists,” Fraser says.

Public involvement is something Fraser and his colleagues are keen to encourage in as many ways possible. “What’s nice about doing exhibitions like the upcoming golf one is that people with fascinating private collections quickly get in touch,” Fraser says. “So many people have amazing collections, whether it’s art or something they’re interested in, from computer games to local history.”

Sometimes, members of the public get in touch with the seed of an idea that turns into something that surpasses all expectations. “A group called the Friends of Seafield House contacted us and we started working on what was to be a small, one-room exhibition on the history of Seafield House and the work the group did to save it for future generations.” When the conversation turned to the engineer Sir William Arrol, who designed and built the property (as well as Finnieston Crane in Glasgow, the Forth Road Bridge and London’s Tower Bridge), something bigger began to take shape. “We put out a call for loans of items related to Arrol and ended up with an incredible offer of replica cranes from the Scottish Meccano Society,” reveals Fraser.

The fact that Seafield House was once a children’s hospital was another aspect that got people talking – and reminiscing. “We heard lots of interesting and often highly emotive stories about people’s experiences,” Fraser says. “A big part of our role now, I think, is to try to gather stories like these to make them available for future generations. The Seafield exhibition is a prime example of someone coming with the crux of an idea, which we then managed to spin in directions we didn’t expect.”

Local community is at the heart of another upcoming exhibition, scheduled for the end of 2024. “Cabinet of Curiosities” will showcase items handpicked from the Museums and Libraries collection facility underneath Ayr Grammar Primary School by staff members from South Ayrshire’s cultural sector.
“Like any museum collection, only so much of it can ever be on public display at one time,” says Fraser. “This exhibition is all about getting people behind the scenes; we all love looking into boxes and peeking behind curtains to see what fascinating things we can find!” All going well, this will become an annual event, open to schools and community groups.

As you’d expect, Fraser has been to lots of amazing exhibitions at museums and galleries around the world, and he has some particular favourites. “I saw a brilliant one at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. They commissioned bespoke takes from several different artists on a very standard, cheap-looking item: the garden chair,” he says. “This shows that you can take any subject and spin it to make a fascinating exhibition. At South Ayrshire Museums and Libraries, we have an amazing team with a huge amount of knowledge and that’s basically our job: pooling our collective resources to make a threadbare idea into something interesting for people to come and see.”

As Fraser says, South Ayrshire museums are essentially owned by all of us who live here. With lots to discover, he hopes every person who visits will find something that excites them.