Revealing hidden collections through digital engagement
Established in 1992, the award-winning Tower Museum is located within the historic city walls of Derry~Londonderry, with panoramic views of the city centre and the River Foyle. In this Digital Heritage Lab case study, Dr Ellie Pridgeon explains how the Tower Museum successfully delivered remote engagement during lockdown, developed a digital strategy, and successfully attracted national Covid-19 funding. The Tower Museum has been mentored by Ellie as part of The Lab strand of Digital Heritage Lab.
Lower Linenhall Street, Derry. 1963. From the Mabel Colhoun Collection. Image courtesy of Tower Museum©.
The Tower Museum holds extensive, significant, and unique collections — primarily artworks, museum objects and archives — that relate to the city of Derry and its environs. The museum boasts two permanent exhibitions. ‘The Story of Derry’ tells the story of the city from early settlement to the present day, with a focus on the Civil Rights Movement, political conflict, and the impact of ‘the Troubles’ on the people. The second permanent exhibition — ‘An Armada Shipwreck: La Trinidad Valencera’ — spotlights the large Spanish Armanda Fleet ship that sank in Kinnagoe Bay, County Donegal, in 1588. Discovered in 1971 by the City of Derry Sub Aqua Club, La Trinidad Valencera was subsequently excavated by archaeologists. The Tower Museum exhibition commemorates the 50th anniversary of the ship’s discovery, and was created through partnerships with County Donegal’s Inishowen Maritime Museum, the Ulster Museum in Belfast, and the Nerve Centre — a leading creative media arts centre in Derry.
The Tower Museum is also home to the Mabel Colhoun Collection, which documents the life and works of the Derry-based pioneering photographer, teacher, and archaeologist. Dating from c.1930s to c.1990s, the collection records Mabel’s travels in Ireland, the UK, Europe, and the Middle East, documents subjects such as rural life, local scenes and people, Mabel’s family, and archaeological buildings and sites, and includes documents, sketches, photographs, slides, and 3D objects.
Developing online collections
Over the last year, the Tower Museum has used online collections and digital technologies to engage audiences in a creative manner, and interpret their heritage. The brand-new Tower Museum website was launched in 2020, and since lockdown, the organisation has implemented several digital engagement initiatives. ‘The ‘An Armada Shipwreck: La Trinidad Valencera’ exhibition was forced to close to the public temporarily due to Covid-19 restrictions. However, the museum responded by developing a remote version, complete with a brand new 360° tour which can be accessed on the La Trinidad Valencera 50th Anniversary Collections pages on their website.
Bronze Remigy siege cannon from La Trinidad Valencera. 1971. Image courtesy of Tower Museum ©
Another remote offering from the Tower Museum, again prompted by lockdown, was the ‘Dividing Ireland’ exhibition. Launched in July 2020 and produced by the Nerve Centre, the exhibition forms part of the Understanding the Decade of Commemorations project, supported the EU PEACE IV Programme, and managed by the Special EU Programmes Body.
With a focus on archives and 3D objects, ‘Dividing Ireland’ engages audiences with the events at home and across Europe that saw the political and social structures of the island of Ireland change dramatically (1912-22). The exhibition includes a virtual tour, online film and collections galleries, and a downloadable exhibition booklet.
The Tower Museum used a range of digital platforms to engage with audiences during lockdown. The weekly ‘Weekend Nostalgia Friday Fix’ saw newly digitised and previously hidden images shared on the Tower Museum Facebook page by team members digitising collections remotely from home:
Of course, developing online collections is not a new activity for the Tower Museum — they have run several large-scale projects over the last few years. The most significant of these is the volunteer-led Mabel Colhoun Collection digitisation and cataloguing project, which aims to to preserve and provide access to the collection.
Digitised material includes photographs, slides, sketches, and paintings, and the image and video galleries are available for users to browse online. Cataloguing has been carried out by West Inishowen History and Heritage Society volunteers, and to date over 3,000 items have been listed. The volunteer team also supported the popular temporary ‘Mabel Colhoun: A North-West Pioneer’ exhibition held at the Tower Museum in 2017, and supported the travelling exhibition and engagement with thousands of people at public events.
Strategy and goal setting
The Tower Museum has created a digital strategy document that sets out organisational developments, and road maps the service for growing its digital offerings in a sustainable and scalable manner. The aim is to increase resilience, and to support organisational development in areas such as fundraising, digital marketing, and digital collections management. The focus is on developing online and social media offerings, on improving online access for audiences, and on digitisation of collections. The Tower Museum is also currently exploring how to understand its audiences better. Strategy and goal setting was supported by The Lab mentor Ellie Pridgeon via remote meetings, and through exchange of information about digital approaches undertaken by other heritage organisations that the Tower Museum could adopt.
The Tower Museum has successfully boosted organisational resilience through securing The National Archives Covid-19 Fund grant funding. The project identified for support is the unique audio-visual collection created by Derry cameraman and owner of Northland Broadcast, Vinny Cunningham. The at-risk collection documents protests, civil unrest, music, and sports events, and will help tell the important story of the region through visual history, interviews, and oral history. Run in partnership with Vinny Cunningham and the Museum of Free Derry, the audio-visual collection will be catalogued, digitised, and made accessible online to allow online engagement.
Developing online collections is not a new venture for the Tower Museum, who have extensive experience of delivering large-scale digitation and cataloguing programmes. However, both support from The Lab and the impact of lockdown, have presented the museum with the chance to develop additional online remote offerings using digital technologies such as 360° exhibitions, and to secure funding for exciting new projects and partnerships. We are looking forward to seeing how the Tower Museum’s current projects develop, and what form their subsequent digital engagement offerings will take.
The Digital Heritage Lab is a project managed by the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy, One Further and the Collections Trust and funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. It is a free programme for small and medium sized heritage organisations seeking to develop their digital capabilities and capacity.