Wednesday 5 July 2023

A Visit to the new Loch Ness Centre Exhibition


A week or so ago, I made it up to Drumnadrochit to visit the new exhibition which is now under the management of Continuum Attractions and has undergone extensive changes over the first half of this year. It was time to see how the Loch Ness Monster story has been re-created by them over forty years since the first incarnation of this opened under the guidance of Tony Harmsworth. That first one was very much along the lines of the plesiosaur theory and everything was just about evidence while the subsequent exhibition was more along the lines of "no monster here" and everything was no longer evidence.

The exhibition moved from one extreme to another and so the question now was where the new one lay between these other two. Now I have to say here that I would not consider myself a suitable reviewer of exhibitions such as this. That is not because I am being paid to hype it or because I am related to anyone in the company. Rather, having imbibed a lot of the monster story over the decades, one can get a bit pernickety about things others would consider minor matters.

Moreover, the exhibition was not specially designed for me or any other monster believer or indeed for any sceptic. It is an exhibition designed for the average person, who, though not stupid, has little knowledge of the subject and may want to know more. Therefore, the job of any such exhibition is to present the subject in such a way that does not deceive or try and lead a person down one path to a fixed conclusion. In that light, I offer my thoughts and observations.

I turned up on the Friday and found that there had been a power cut and so had to wait for perhaps ten minutes while this was sorted out and everything was brought back up to speed. I went in and at this point I will confess I got in on a free ticket from Continuum Attractions. That was no big deal as I had helped them out on a few minor things and that was a fair exchange. I would say there was about five of us going into the exhibition. This was a week before the schools in Scotland closed for the Summer holidays and so I wanted to be there before the tourists began to arrive en masse over the next few months.

The first room we entered was a kind of ante-room before the main event. There were various famous and purported photographs of the Loch Ness Monster hanging on the wall along with sketches and a picture of the most famous man of all, Tim Dinsdale. On the wall beside these pictures was a quote from myself taken from one of my books. Don't worry, that was the first and last time you would hear about me in the exhibition! A nice touch above the pictures were four numbers hanging on hooks - implying they were subject to change. They were the numbers 1, 4, 4 and 5. Or to be more precise, one thousand, four hundred and forty five sightings and counting ... 

That would be the number taken from Gary Campbell's Loch Ness Monster Sightings Register. So all a good start I thought. Throughout the ensuing exhibits, the "classic" photographs, though not explicitly presented as evidence of the Loch Ness Monster, were neither subject to some of the unfalsifiable and withering arguments you get from sceptics. Well, one or two were but I move on.

Adrian Shine, the curator of the previous exhibition, would feature more than anyone else in the presentations. So he was there in the ante-room in a kind of "live" framed picture. I wasn't sure whether that implied an imbalance in views. On the one hand, he was there as an expert on the hydrology, limnology and history of the loch. On the other hand, he was also there as a sceptic regarding there being any large exotic creature in Loch Ness. Where one began and the other ended was not always clear to me.

Alongside Adrian's animated portrait were two interesting items from the lore of the great story - a copy of the Drumbuie Stone and Marmaduke Wetherell's hippo ashtray. One of them was accompanied by a text asking if this could be linked to the monster - a recurring theme as I ventured on into the first video room. There were eight rooms in all, taking me fifty minutes to go through. The first was an introductory video of the natural history of the loch from ancient geological times. 

I studiously stood and watched this, though a man and his two kids just took a glance at it and hastily moved on. Why pay good money but then rush through? Maybe the power cut delay had messed up his itinerary or something. The video was an entertaining walk through volcanic times using video graphics up to a present day clip and set the scene for the mystery.

I next walked into the Myths and Legends room and was greeted by the voice of David Tennant, famous for his portrayal of Doctor Who and apparently a Nessie fan. He provided the voice over and it was natural that this room was the next subject to greet us. It had that kind of ethereal feel to it which captured well the nether-world of kelpies and water horses.

By this time, I was wondering if the room dimensions were exactly the same as the prior exhibition. It looked like it, but the refurbishment was more important than whether rooms had been combined or split up. It was next onto the room of Nessie's origins as a multi-screen display took us through the early 1930s and the beginnings of the modern monster. This was in a dramatised form using actors representing such people as Aldie Mackay and Alex Campbell in the setting of an old style pub.

Alongside that was a screen displaying people, photos and sketches linked to the mystery as shown below. Here the old classic photos were again on display and in general they were neither praised nor pilloried, which I guess was the best I could hope for. One or two were questioned and I do not recall seeing the O'Connor, Shiels or Cockrell photos.

It was interesting to see actors who were non-white depicting eyewitnesses. I guess this was to fulfill diversity quotas but it made me think whether there had been any such eyewitness over the last ninety years. I could not think of a single one and although back in the 1930s that would have been no surprise, nobody over the last few decades came to mind. Of course, most of the time the ethnicity of the person involved is never stated. They are there out there somewhere, but who was the most famous one? I am sure someone will let me know.

The next room was a high vaulted space bathed in green light which conveyed the depths of the loch and the exploration of it. Well, it is actually more tea-like but green is perhaps more calming. The effects made one think they were standing at the bottom of the loch looking up as a large screen took us through the various underwater searches over the years. The effects were good with the odd mysterious shadow flitting past but I did not agree with the sceptical assessment of the 1975 "body" picture taken by the AAS. Well, I did say this exhibition wasn't crafted with a small cadre of Nessie hunters in mind!

The next room was what I would describe as the previous exhibition compressed into one room. This was the domain of Adrian Shine as he appeared on a large video screen in front of the John Murray boat giving us his perspective on the decades of the hunt, what animals may or may not be Nessie, the other usual suspects which fool observers and where do we go from here? Now I do not mean that Nessie scepticism was confined to this room only, it was not, but this was the room to go to for that genre of opinion. As I said, this was going to be an exhibition that would attempt to balance these two opposing poles. Did it achieve that? I will give my take on that at the end.

Nevertheless, it was a well presented video, and yes, people are fooled by everyday phenomenon, and so that had to be said, it just depends how you say it. As the tour drew to a close, it was into the penultimate room which was a kind of reprise of what had gone before as final arguments were made. There was a display of items highlighting curious explanations of monsters but the main focus was the video wall and at this point we finally got to meet some Nessie believers in the form of Steve Feltham and Alan McKenna who were stating their case to me. No worries, chaps, I am all in.

With all that done and dusted it was time to place your vote. What did I think? Plesiosaur? Big fish? Hoax? Boats? Logs or what? Make your choice and press one or more of those nine buttons. That was quite fun and my vote was added to produce a video wall display of all cumulative results. And the winner was ... well, you just got to love the voting public.

I took snapshots of the running totals and may come back at the end of the Summer to see how the voting has progressed. The final room may or may not have been a room, perhaps more of an exit hall. But it had preserved something that was for me a favourite part of the previous exhibition and that was the video testimonies of some well known sightings, straight from the witnesses themselves. 

This is something any enquiring mind should listen to and so I was glad to see it still there and a bit more modern looking. However, it was hard to hear the audio as there was some music playing over it in the same area. In the last exhibition, there was a set of headphones one could plug in to the display and hear it clearly. But it appeared there was no headphone facility, perhaps this was some health and safety rule about sharing a headphone. Anyway, I told the staff nearby about the issue and hopefully it will be sorted soon.

Overall, it was a big improvement on the previous exhibition in terms of presentation, entertainment and seeking a balance between belief and scepticism. However, what was actually presented as potential evidence for the Loch Ness Monster was small, the sonar hit of October 2020 taken from a Cruise Loch Ness boat got some attention at the end. As stated earlier, it was good to see some classic images presented uncritically, but no more than that. I wondered where some other classic images were, such as the Dinsdale film? Or more modern ones from the last twenty years.

Perhaps there was copyright and licensing issues tied to some of those? You can't just put on display images owned by others when you are charging a fee to see them. Such is the commercial world of the Loch Ness Monster. On the other hand, sceptical images of logs and wakes are pretty much free. So how did I rate the exhibition for balance between scepticism and belief in the creature?

I assigned a mark to each of the eight rooms out of 100, so 60:40 would be 60% pro-Nessie and 40% anti-Nessie for want of better phrases and each room was given equal weight. I added them up and got a balance of 55:45 in favour of Nessie. So I could say that the exhibition had achieved a balance with a tilt towards Scotland's most famous creature. Others of course, may come up with different numbers, but go yourself and form your own opinion as to how the mystery of the loch has been newly presented to us in Drumnadrochit.

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