When the shortlist for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2023 was released to the press ahead of its official announcement, one nominee immediately stood out. Those bidding for this year’s £120,000 prize include the UK’s most visited indoor tourist attraction, the Natural History Museum, in London, and, a mile and a half down the road, Leighton House, the villa and studio of the painter Frederic, Lord Leighton. There is Belfast’s cultural hub, the MAC, and the superb art collection of ship owner William Burrell in Glasgow. Their most striking rival, however, is located more than 800 miles from South Kensington, off the north-eastern tip of Scotland, on the island of Hoy, in Orkney.
The Scapa Flow Museum in Lyness, which reopened in October last year after a £4.4 million rebuild, certainly boasts fewer visitors than the other nominees – Hoy has fewer than 450 inhabitants and can be reached only by a small car ferry from the Orkney mainland – yet its historical significance far outweighs its footfall. A thousand years ago, one would have seen Viking longships at anchor in the calm waters of Scapa Flow, a large natural harbour sheltered on all sides by a ring of islands. Orcas and humpback whales are regular visitors, seals and dolphins seen all year round. Two Martello towers, built in the early 19th century, meanwhile, signal the beginning of Scapa Flow’s strategic importance for the Royal Navy.
It was with the European wars, however, that the harbour came into its own. “If you look at almost anything that the Royal Navy does in the First and Second World Wars, they’re mostly going out of here,” says the museum’s director, naval historian Nick Hewitt. “The bombardment ships for D-Day go from here, the Arctic Convoy escort goes from here, the ships that hunt the Bismarck go out from here.
“If you want to experience the war on land, you can go and do all the very established tours – you can go to the Somme, you can go to Normandy. But if you want to get a sense of what the sea war was all about, you can’t go to some patch in the middle of the Atlantic. You can come here and really understand it.” I flew to Orkney to see the museum for myself.
Many visitors to the islands come to see the traces of Orkney’s remarkable Neolithic past. It has some of the best-preserved sites in the world, including the Ring of Brodgar, a giant circle of standing stones constructed more than 4,000 years ago. A visit to Scapa Flow Museum, meanwhile, begins with a spectacular seven-mile ferry trip across the harbour. At the time of the First World War, the Navy’s Grand Fleet of more than 150 ships was based here, its dreadnoughts sailing towards the largest sea battle of the conflict – the Battle of Jutland.
Beneath the waves lie wrecks that tell another dramatic story. After the armistice of November 1918, the entire German fleet of 74 ships was interned here, stripped of guns and operated by skeleton crews, as negotiations continued for an end to the war. The German command, fearing that fighting could break out again, and their battlefleet used against them, carried out a secret, co-ordinated plan to scuttle the fleet, just one week before the signing of the Versailles Treaty. Fifty-two ships were sunk. The museum houses many items salvaged from the vessels, including fine crockery and a striking rear ensign from the battlecruiser Hindenburg, which had been used as a garden play tent for generations.
Formerly situated inside the pumphouse that was used to pump oil from container ships up to a series of large circular storage tanks, Scapa Flow Museum has been completely reimagined with the addition of a new building adjoining the pumphouse. It’s a sensitive addition with a light-filled café and a new museum gallery that has finally allowed curator Ellen Pesci to display many of the more fragile exhibits in a controlled conservation environment. She has carefully brought out the social history of Scapa Flow. Visitors often arrive at the museum with their own stories of relatives who served here, and new artefacts continue to pour in from a vast diaspora.
“Hundreds of thousands of sailors, soldiers and airmen were cycling through here,” explains Hewitt. “If you track that through to their descendants, not just in Britain, but Commonwealth service personnel, there will be millions.”
Some have stories of lost family members. Scapa Flow was visited by Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, after a disaster in October 1939, when a German U-boat slipped at night through the harbour’s First World War defences and torpedoed the battleship HMS Royal Oak, which sank with the loss of 876 lives. The fleet was moved until the construction of the Churchill barriers closed some of the gaps between the smaller islands in the archipelago. A walk up from the museum takes you to the naval cemetery where 26 members of the Royal Oak’s crew are buried, alongside fellow sailors.
The pumphouse has been restored, and a virtual reconstruction of the entire site – the size of a small town during the Second World War – is an exciting addition. In the nearby Romney Hut, which it is hoped will be opened to the public, the 15cm gun from the minelaying First World War German cruiser SMS Brense, salvaged from the sea bed around 1930 and decaying ever since in the elements, has been rescued and properly conserved.
The five-year project has taken the offering away from the tiny “folk museum” associated with out-of-the-way places, Pesci says. Will it win the prize? The emphasis in recent years has been on the way that museums engage and interact with visitors to develop diverse new audiences. Last year’s winner was the much-loved Horniman Museum in south London. But Scapa Flow Museum clearly offers something unique: it’s a world-class museum in a remote part of the UK that is in keeping with the scale and significance of what it remembers.
Scapa Flow Museum, Orkney
What is it? See above
Annual turnover: £100,000
Annual footfall: 11,421 in 2022-23 (it reopened in July 2022 after a five-year redevelopment)
The Burrell Collection, Glasgow
What is it?: the art collection of wealthy ship owner Sir William Burrell and his wife Constance, housed in a refurbished setting in Pollok Country Park. Contains 9,000 objects, including works by Rembrandt and Degas
Annual footfall: 603,568 (2022-23)
Leighton House, London
What is it?: the Holland Park villa and studio of the Victorian painter Frederic, Lord Leighton, which reopened after an £8 million restoration in October last year, and showcases his work and art collection alongside new commission
Annual turnover: £500,000 since reopening in October 2022
Annual footfall: 40,000+ since reopening
Admission: from £11; concession and free tickets available, free exhibitions and displays as well as Pay What you Want offers
The MAC, Belfast
What is it?: the Metropolitan Arts Centre was established 10 years ago to provide a cultural hub for the city. It includes two theatres, three galleries, a dance studio
Annual turnover: £3 million
Annual footfall: 250,000
Admission: free, suggested donation £5
The Natural History Museum, London
What is it?: the most visited indoor attraction in the UK, with one of the most important scientific collections in the world, housing more than 80 million specimens
Annual footfall: 5 million
Admission: entry is free, with a programme of paying exhibitions, currently Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Titanosaur: Life as the Biggest Dinosaur
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