New Connections: Curating and archiving maritime heritage in Orkney and Shetland, a response

I grew up in a fishing community and spent all my formative years in, on or near the sea.  It was, I think, inevitable that the ocean would be a profound influence on my later creative work. 

Fishing net kettle, Burra Isle, Shetland

Although I have kept sketchbooks all my life, the link between these and my sculpture has always been somewhat tenuous.  Sketchbooks recorded journeys, landscapes and elements within these, while sculptures have reflected that context, but without representing it. 

Making part of the “Westray” series for New Connections Across The Northern Isles

Over the past decade, however my three dimensional and graphic works have come together, gradually becoming more minimal, more abstracted.  I have recently developed a series of new responses directly from sea voyages made in the Northern Isles and on the Minch.

When I was invited to participate in research into maritime heritage making in Scotland’s Northern Isles, in the New Connections project, it seemed to me to be a unique and attractive opportunity.  The project promised access to artefacts which would be otherwise difficult to access.  It also promised conversations with individuals who could offer unique insight and expertise.

Large böst , Orkney. Date: probably 19th century
Imported from Norway, and common throughout the Northern Isles, these oval containers, known in some parts as Norway bösts (boxes), served many purposes: shopping baskets, sailor’s ditty- boxes, containers for odds and ends. This example is recorded in the museum’s files as having been a seafarer’s ditty box.
Orkney Museum 1999.19


At a very early stage in the project, I became increasingly aware of the extent to which gaps exist in our historic collections and the extent to which selection was made by a very small and carefully managed few; that the community whose story was being told in museums was in some cases excluded from the selection process. 

While working on the project it became incrementally clear to me that present managements of the arts and of “museum” culture have much in common.  Both are currently driven by accountability, novelty, visitor numbers and intrinsic obsolescence.  The visitor experience should be immediate, entertaining and instantly digestible, preferably in a single visit.  This inevitably begs the question for whom is our heritage making being created?  Are we archiving a people’s history for future islanders?  Do the visual arts only become significant once they have been added to approved or private collections, and therefore seen to be a sound investment? 

Making sketches from the Westray ship graffiti panels at Westray Heritage Centre, during a New Connections Across the Northern Isles co-curating workshop


To view film of John Cumming making new works as part of New Connections Across the Northern Isles click here.

If I subject my own work to the same degree of inquiry, I have to confront some uncomfortable truths.  For decades I have drawn, made prints and sculptures without truly addressing the thorny issue of the audience.  If art requires a viewer, for whom do I create?  The honest answer would I think have been some vague version of myself; someone who loved this landscape, the oceans and its wildlife, someone who was sensitive to material and to touch.  Researching the project has, for me, been an ideal opportunity to address and attempt to resolve this issue. 

Collections in conversation; people and artefacts at a New Connections Across the Northern Isles co-curating workshop


My work has increasingly involved collaboration with sections of the population who have no immediate commitment to the arts.  Recent works have involved as partners, crofters, masons, engineers, fishermen, craftsmen and fish farmers.  The resulting conversations were intensified through the New Connections project and became a source of knowledge and delight.

Participating in New Connections Across the Northern Isles has helped resolve some personal conflicting issues.   The audience my art addresses is this community in its broadest sense.  The islanders of Orkney and Shetland exhibit an openness, a curiosity and wit, a sense of self-worth that would sit ill with the current approach to “management” in the realm of the arts and of museums.  To restrict access to cultural management undoubtedly creates a safer, smoother, more accountable climate, but at considerable loss to our cultural heritage.

Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.

Find out more

To see and hear the New Connections Across the Northern Isles co-curators across Orkney and Shetland speaking about, responding to and making new maritime heritages click here.

To visit The Orkney Museum website click here.

To visit the Westray Heritage Centre website click here.

To return to the homepage click here.