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Organising an Exhibition

Katherine Weldon asked if I could recount my experience, the highs and the lows, of putting together the current exhibition in the John Gray Centre Gallery – The Story of St Andrew and the Saltire – which opened on 28 October 2017 and runs until 30 January 2018.

I rashly agreed!

It was back in March 2016, at a meeting of the Scottish Flag Trust in Athelstaneford Church, that the idea was first raised. It was during discussions as to how best to mark the 20th anniversary of the Flag Heritage Centre which had opened its doors to the public in 1997. “Why don’t we hold an exhibition?” a Trustee innocently asked, and so it was agreed and minuted.

Little did I know what I, as Trust Chairman, was letting myself in for over the next 18 months.

The first task was to find a suitable venue for the exhibition. The John Gray Centre was the obvious choice – central location, accessible, and with good gallery space. But to secure this venue, formal application had to be made to East Lothian Council Museums Service, and this required details of what the aims of the exhibition were, and the likely content. And so the Trust put together an outline of what was envisaged, and what it might cost. After meeting and making the case to Museums staff, consent was granted and an exhibition slot at the end of 2017 agreed.

The second task was then to put together funding bids to various bodies, in the knowledge that mounting and promoting such an exhibition would be expensive. Applying for funding can take a lot of time and effort, as potential funding bodies ask for evidence of local support for projects, as well as detailed costs. So the Trust had for example to ask for written support from Haddington & District Community Council, and seek quotes for graphic work and publications. In the event, these funding bids proved unsuccessful.

The most frustrating rebuff was from the Heritage Lottery Fund. 2017 had been designated the year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, and HLF had grants of between £3k and £10k available, and the Trustees felt sure a proposed exhibition about the Battle of Athelstaneford and about Scotland’s patron saint would meet the criteria. But after waiting some months for a decision, the Trust was informed in December that its project was deemed not to represent good value for money.

Arising from this, the Trust had to cut back on some elements. For instance, it had initially wanted to take the exhibition on from Haddington to other venues, such as North Berwick and Musselburgh, and to engage more directly with schools. This was no longer possible.

The third and main task was to work up an exhibition layout, and then the design and content of the main boards to be displayed on the gallery walls. This was an iterative process in which each board went through a number of changes over a period of months. This was only possible thanks to the creative skills and flexibility, not to mention enormous
tolerance, of Scott Ballantyne, the Trust’s graphic designer. Scott is now retired, and generously agreed to work for far below the normal commercial rate. Images had to be sourced for exhibition boards and pamphlets, and this required many visits, for example to the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, and to photograph relics of the patron saint. Texts had
to be checked and re-checked for accuracy. There was a huge sigh of relief in the summer of 2017 when the boards were finally signed off, ready for printing.

All of the smaller exhibits to be displayed within the three gallery cases had been amassed over the previous months, and card descriptions were then prepared, checked and printed. A 16 page pamphlet providing a fuller background, to be made available to visitors to the exhibition, had to be prepared, checked and printed.

In parallel to all this, approaches were being made to National Museums Scotland and to other collections to try to secure some important items for display. Again, formal application can be a lengthy process, and the Trust was advised to allow up to 9 months in some cases. Fortunately, approval was given in time by NMS for the Pictish Benvie Stone
and a Roman coin from Traprain to be displayed, and the Edinburgh Trades also kindly agreed to allow the ceremonial copy of the Blue Blanket to be displayed.

The final week in October 2017 was especially nerve-wracking, as this was the setting up week in the gallery. We were working against the clock, knowing that the exhibition had been publicised as opening on the Saturday. Boards had to transferred safely and hung, exhibition cases had to be cleaned, moved and set up with exhibits and text cards, and the
arrival of loan items from NMS and other collections co-ordinated. The Thursday afternoon was particularly fraught, but fortunately Katherine Weldon, having seen it all before, was an oasis of calm. Amazingly, everything fell into place, nothing was overlooked, and the exhibition was able to open to the public on time and without any disaster.

The official opening on 31 October, with Cabinet Minister Fergus Ewing MSP doing the honours, was a highlight. Invites had gone out in time, the press turned up, and everyone enjoyed a guided tour of the exhibition, quite unaware of the panic of the previous week.

A final thought comes to me that an exhibition is much like an iceberg. What is on display represents the final 10%; what visitors don’t see is the 90% beneath the surface comprising all long months of research, preparatory work, design changes, text changes, not to mention discarded ideas and blind alleys.

Dave Williamson, Chairman, The Scottish Flag Trust

Written by Katherine Weldon

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