The collapse of Nottingham Castle Trust last November sent shockwaves through the museum and heritage sector, leading to widespread fears about the vulnerability of museums in the wake of Covid and the cost of living crisis. There will be relief at the news this week that the museum and heritage site is due to fully reopen in June with a new business plan.
But what led to the collapse of a much-loved museum and heritage site just 18 months after it completed a £31m redevelopment?
At the time, the trust’s collapse was put down to an operational and funding model that was designed for a pre-pandemic world. But though this undoubtedly played a part, the full story of the organisation's failure is more complicated.
As the site prepares to reopen, Museums Journal spoke to seven people who were closely involved with the trust to find out what went wrong and what they would like to see done differently. Their anonymity has been protected.
Governance and management
A number of those who spoke to Museums Journal raised similar concerns about the now-defunct trust’s “over-controlling” governance model and top-heavy management structure, which they say led to rash decision-making and bad financial management. Some also feel there was a lack of museum and heritage sector expertise on the board.
The issues with governance were exacerbated by a lack of clear term limits for trustees and failure to clearly define the remit of the board.
The organisation also suffered from “an over-reliance on interim management from agencies”, which not only cost more but meant that some decision-makers had “no real investment in the site and its future”.
“There was also a lack of communication between both trustees and senior management and the wider staff team,” says one former staff member.
There is a strong feeling that, however it is run, the organisation should have transparent governance recruitment practices, clear term limits for trustees, and a focus on finding people with expertise in the museum and heritage sector.
During its short lifespan, Nottingham Castle Trust was beset by claims about its poor working culture. A number of staff told Museums Journal that they suffered burnout due to the pressure of working there, while others spoke of instances of bullying, controlling and discriminatory behaviour, and say their complaints went unaddressed.
The sudden dismissal of former CEO Sara Blair Manning had a “huge negative impact on the staff team”, says one former worker. Blair Manning is continuing to pursue a case against trustees for wrongful dismissal, alleging that she suffered bullying and harassment from some members of the board. The former trustees have strongly denied these claims.
The organisation’s response to an incident on 17 August 2021, when freelance curator and poet Panya Banjoko says her grandchildren were racially abused on castle grounds, led to further disenchantment in the workforce. “There was no dedicated support given to staff of colour that were affected by the incident,” says one worker.
Three letters of no confidence were submitted by staff criticising the trust’s failure to address their concerns following the incident, which they say were largly ignored or dismissed. Following this there was an exodus of staff from the organisation due to what one former worker describes as an “environment of fear” and threatening behaviour by some senior employees. “This left a huge skills gap and many departments without sufficient leadership going into the busy visitor season,” he says.
However, this negative experience of the site’s working culture was not universal and several former employees told Museums Journal that they had enjoyed working at the site. “It was a really friendly working environment,” says one former staff member. “I know ex-staff that would still love to go back and work there when it reopens.”
"This job acted as a platform to help people who had little to no work experience learn new skills in a welcoming environment," says another worker. "The castle's workforce had a significant LGTBTQ, Black and ethnic minority and SEN [special educational needs] presence where everyone worked harmoniously - something that staff were proud about and another reason why the closure was so devastating."
Fostering a healthy and equitable working culture, and ensuring strong processes are in place to prevent bullying, will be crucial to the site’s success when it reopens.
Racism, discrimination and safeguarding
The incident involving Panya Banjoko’s family badly harmed the reputation of Nottingham Castle Trust and its relationship with local communities. Those who were at the organisation during this time say it was the trust’s response, rather than the incident itself, that caused much of the damage.
“The trustees failed to proactively respond to the incident, despite calls from the wider staff team to issue a statement and to communicate with Panya about concerns of racism and wider governance issues,” says one former worker. “This inaction had a huge negative effect on the reputation of the castle, both within the local community and the heritage sector, whilst also affecting stakeholder relationships. [It] also meant that staff became a target of public frustration surrounding the trust's silence.”
The incident, which involved children under the age of 10 and eventually led to a confrontation between two families, also exposed failings in the trust’s safeguarding measures. There is a general feeling that the incident could have been de-escalated if staff had received adequate training.
A report into the incident found that staff had acted to protect the children involved, but had failed to follow safeguarding procedures, and there was a general lack of awareness around safeguarding policies. A former worker says that just one staff team had attended the two safeguarding training sessions that were held prior to the site’s initial reopening in June 2021.
There is a strong feeling that, in order to rebuild community relationships and regain trust, Nottingham Castle must take a much clearer stance against racism and discrimination, and significantly improve the diversity of its own senior management and governance. The organisation will also need to ensure that all staff receive appropriate safeguarding training before the site reopens.
Most of the former workers Museums Journal spoke to were clear that the visitor offer and pricing structure caused significant problems. The decision to charge entry for the site’s grounds, which had previously been free, was particularly off-putting for local people.
“Ever since the castle reopened, there was a lot of negative feedback from visitors surrounding high ticket prices and the corresponding offer. Most of this negative feedback came from local people,” says one former worker. The trust eventually did introduce annual passes but this came too late to make a difference, with the site attracting less than 250 visitors a day off-season, far below its original targets. Councillors have made clear that a new pricing structure will be in place when the site reopens this year.
There is also a feeling that the site’s offer should be more clearly sold to visitors, many of whom arrive unaware that the original medieval castle was replaced by a ducal palace in the 1600s. Better signposting is also needed to give visitors a clear route through the site's multiple spaces and narratives.
“The majority of visitors arrive expecting to see a medieval castle akin to those of Hollywood Robin Hood movies. Instead they are given a 17th-century building, housing a museum gallery that tells a range of narratives,” says one former worker. “I feel that the site was doomed before it reopened. The castle is a highly difficult site to operate and one that tries to tell many different stories but doesn’t meet visitor expectations.”
Another says: “Ultimately the site needs to be cheaper to the public. I visited the castle in the summer of 2021 before I got the job and I remember being disappointed with what was on offer at the price it was.”
High staff turnover meant that the site’s programming also suffered. “A lack of programming, and for a large period of opening, a sufficient marketing team, meant that there was no real opportunity to create events to attract visitors,” says one former worker.
Another worker felt that the site should improve its existing Robin Hood gallery, which often saw long queues for interactives that frequently broke, and new interpretation films that were not popular with visitors. “I believe this unfinishedness, especially in the Robin Hood gallery and the new didactic and unplayful films, contributed to the disappointment around this space,” he says.
Due to the issues within the trust, the site’s relationships with other local organisations suffered badly. Many small-business owners were left out of pocket when the charity collapsed in November, just after stocking up for the Christmas season, damaging trust with the local business community.
The organisation also failed to nurture partnerships with other local cultural institutions, leading to at least one such partnership coming to an end. Meanwhile several stakeholders chose to boycott the site due to its response to the race incident.
Those responsible for running the site will need to focus on rebuilding these relationships and fostering new partnerships to ensure they can bolster local support.
A spokesman said Nottingham City Council is committed to ensuring the castle "is reopened in a way that delivers what Nottingham people need from our internationally significant heritage asset".
"We know the significance of the castle for our city so this is a top priority and something we have a skilled and senior team working on, tackling it with pace and rigour," he added. "It is vitally important that we get it right for Nottingham."