Inverness Museum and Art Gallery reopened to the public on Saturday 13th January after a £1.5 million refurbishment. It had been a building which no-one ever loved, doing a worthy, if uninspired job explaining some of our history to us.

The building is substantially the same, but does iMAG, as it has been rebranded, do a better job?

The building still turns its back on the town and is easily forgotten as it huddles against the castle’s shoulder. There isn’t much to attract the attention of the casual punter. The signage is discreet to the point of ineffectiveness. When you climb past the corner of Bella Pasta, it looks much the same, a curving concrete monolith. The new is soon apparent, automatic glass doors bearing the new logo leading to a glass lift and a bright, airy atrium. A definite improvement on the fussy, roundabout road we used to access the building in the past.

Once inside, the layout is similar to the previous one: main exhibition room, cafe and shop on the ground floor and a smaller main exhibition room and temporary exhibition room/ art gallery upstairs. It’s all nicely fitted out and enjoys more natural light than I remember.

The ground floor exhibition is excellent: orderly, rational, with a narrative sequence. While there are many familiar exhibits, the whole floor flows and contextualises many of the objects well. The interactive, child-friendly nature of many of the exhibits is now a standard expectation, but it’s done well here and in my two visits has been in full use by young visitors. There are many outstanding exhibits, like the rocks right at the door, but I loved the Achavrail Armlet (try the replica on and wonder about who would have worn the magnificent original), the clan warcries and St. Columba panels, especially his poem of regret:

Fil suil nglais
fechas Erinn tacha hais
nocha naicfi iarmotha
firu Erann nach a mna.

There is a grey eye
That looks back upon Ireland
Never again will it see
Ireland’s men or her women.

The cafe looks functional and airy although I didn’t sample it. Unfortunately it is currently surrounded by cases of taxidermy, the animals and birds of the area. Most can easily be seen live and the few rarer specimens can be seen with a little trouble, but much more rewardingly, in their habitat or at Kincraig Wildlife Park, for example. The shop looked like a work in progress, but certainly didn’t look like much of an earner.

Upstairs I took a wrong turn on my first visit and visited the temporary exhibition first, before stumbling into the latter part of the main exhibition. I didn’t make much of either. My return visit was better, an hour upstairs enjoying the sense of the changes in Inverness and the Highlands from centuries of war, poverty and violence to peace and prosperity. It’s less to do with the benefits of current politics than with the fact that we are no longer a frontier town – Vikings, Picts and Celts / Kings of Scots and Maormers / religious wars / Jacobites and Hanoverians and so on. The frontiers and ideologies have moved on to Baghdad and Kabul, Bali and the big cities of the world. The genocides of the 18th century quickly turned to the calm of the 19th and that’s why Inverness Castle looks like a big cake. The courts as a growth industry as the lands were cleared?

Not much art around, the temporary exhibit, Fonn’s Duthchas : Land and Legacy, focusing on “iconic objects” rather than art to celebrate Highland culture. The video looked quite interesting, although I couldn’t comfortably linger, it was too popular! It should be up on youtube. Some interesting literary artefacts, fact and fiction.

good official preview of Fonn’s Duthchas

It is fortunate, though, that the exhibit is of this nature, because what we have here is the makings of a decent museum. We need an art gallery, a public art gallery, in its own right, not squeezed into a wee toty room. The big cake castle would be a good venue and establish a cultural heart to the city. I’m fed up telling visitors that we don’t have anything like this. Goodness knows what anyone expecting urban facilities might think. We have a lively city with lots going for it, but this is a major weakness.

So, for £1.5M, we get iM, not iMAG, and we advance the argument about the need for a gallery for the city – and the Highlands. A reasonable deal.

In the meantime, I’ll volunteer to house Gerald Laing’s American Woman until the gallery’s built.

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