Launch of a new virtual museum of people and the sea in Orkney and Shetland

Following more than two years of working together across various islands and between both island groupings, the “new connections across the northern isles” virtual museum will launch on the 11 May 2019, in Shetland, and on the 18 May in Orkney.

Drawn from several islands, the virtual museum’s co-curators have collaborated to get hands-on with aspects of the Northern Isles rich maritime heritages, in museums, heritage centres, boat yards, at coastal sites, in archives, in the water, and within households.

Collaborators connected online and through videoconferencing to share knowledge, discover fresh perspectives, and make new resources including a website, seven new films, 3D models, and artworks to bring people into the heart of the maritime cultures that they care about, and care for. 

The virtual museum will be displayed alongside exhibitions of selections from the artefacts, historic photographs and archive, and creative works that are interpreted across its online platforms in Shetland Museum and Archives, Lerwick, from the 11 May – 9 June; and at The Orkney Museum in Kirkwall from 18 May – 15 June 2019.

It can be experienced online, from the 11 May by visiting

Important research, national funding and support

The project is funded by Museums Galleries Scotland’s Museum Development Fund, the Hugh Fraser Foundation and match-resourced by the Intercultural Research Centre, Heriot-Watt University and the Institute for Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands, through a Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities ARC Studentship.  The organisations are working in partnership with Shetland Museum and Archives and the Orkney Museum, and in collaboration with Cunningsburgh History Group, the Old Haa, Orkney Historic Boat Society, and Westray Heritage Centre.  Orkney Library and Archive has also supported and contributed to the project and Learning for Sustainability Scotland has offered advice and guidance.

Up-close to people and the sea, at the centre of the North Atlantic and the North Sea

The Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland, distinct and similar, are centres in the crossroads of the North Atlantic and the North Sea, and people living throughout these island groupings have been participating in international maritime cultures for millennia. This new virtual resource shares stories, objects, images, music, making, and islands-based knowledge from these centres shaped by surrounding seas.  

The contemporary interpretations include 3D models of objects not normally on display; historic and new sound recordings; and newly-made works, created by artist John Cumming, and reflecting his participation in the project. 

New Films: Boat building, sailing, fiddles, stories, and songs where land meets sea

There are also seven new films co-produced with Fionn McArthur and researched and directed by the project’s facilitator Cait McCullagh.  Each features people sharing about aspects of maritime heritage, including contemporary activities, that they are involved in caring for and caring about today.  Viewers have opportunities to get up-close to maritime culture, including wooden boat building in Orkney, with the county’s newest boat builder, Jeff Mackie; sailing on the Shetland sixern Vaila Mae with Ailish Parham and her fellow crew members; to Marwick Bay, in Orkney with singer and songwriter Sarah Jane Gibbon; and on a musical journey across the North Atlantic with Shetland fiddler Catriona Macdonald.  In other films, co-curators from throughout both archipelagos share personal reflections on why being involved with maritime cultures and the environment of the sea both matters now, and for sustaining people in Orkney and Shetland into the futures that they hope for.

The research, and the co-curation of this new virtual resource has been facilitated by PhD student Cait McCullagh, based at the Intercultural Research Centre, Institute for Northern Studies at the Highlands and Islands University, and Shetland Museum and Archives.  Cait has been joined in this inquiry by over 100 people representing a diverse cross-section of expertise, experience and enthusiasm for maritime history and culture, including representatives participating in present-day occupations and leisure activities.  “new connections across the northern isles” has drawn in contributions from people involved in diverse heritage settings, boat builders, sailors, former merchant mariners, people working in fisheries, archaeologists, musicians, marine spatial planners, historians, folklorists and storytellers, and people who work in tourism.

Professor Donna Heddle, Director of the Institute for Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and one of Ms McCullagh’s supervisors, has spoken about the importance of ‘new connections’ as a digital resource promoting the maritime heritages of the Northern Isles:

“The Northern Isles are defined by their maritime location - Orkney's coat of arms bear the inscription "Boreas domus mare amicus" (the north our home, the sea our friend) – and the university is known for its work in virtual learning so the Institute for Northern Studies, based both in Orkney and Shetland, is delighted to see this excellent initiative led by Cait, one of our PhD students. This virtual museum will promote and valorise the heritage of the Northern seas across the world - and will also be a wonderful resource for us here in the islands themselves.”

Jimmy Clouston, Chair of the Orkney Historic Boat Society, has spoken about the significance of being involved in the project:

“Participating in co-curating “new connections” has provided invaluable opportunities to build on our expertise for preserving historic boats; the related skills and crafts of traditional boatbuilders, and for sharing the stories of the boats they have built. We have benefited through developing curatorial skills, learning together with others concerned with the importance of maritime culture, history and heritage in the Northern Isles.  There is so much to be proud of in our maritime pasts and continuing traditions.  We are pleased to be able to share this more widely via the virtual exhibition.” 

Gail Drinkall, Curator of Archaeology at The Orkney Museum, has said that:

“Maritime heritage can be found right at the heart of our communities, as well as far out into the seas.  It is anchored in both, connecting people and environment, and our present-day and futures, through the responses we have to our pasts.  “New connections” has provided a context for exploring and developing these connections; meeting across diverse organisations and interests that might not ordinarily come together.  We hope that the virtual museum, and the experiences we have shared while co-curating will inspire new collaborations and ways of working for the future.”

Shetland Museum’s Curator, Dr Ian Tait has spoken about the value of the virtual museum as a portal to the people and places of maritime heritage making in the Northern Isles:

“The “new connections” virtual museum will become a vital portal, directing islanders and visitors alike to the places, websites, archives, museums and heritage centres, centres of contemporary maritime culture, and the people that hold knowledge and expertise about a wealth of maritime activities from fisheries to sailing craft, from traditional boat building to music of the isles and the sea.”


New Connections: Contact for Press, Publicity and Marketing

All inquiries regarding Press and Media Relations and Publicity for “New Connections” should be addressed to Cait McCullagh.

Cait can provide photographs from the project and links to previews of selected films.  She can liaise on photograph, reporting and broadcast opportunities up to and including the launch exhibitions.  Cait can be contacted by email  and by direct message on Twitter at @NorthernNousts