Queen Street Mill, which Lancashire County Council is planning to close

Communities counting the cost of museum closures

Nicola Sullivan, Issue 116/03, p13, 01.03.2016
As local authority budget cuts bite ever deeper, the sector is starting to get an insight into the consequences of shutting the doors on established heritage sites that are really valued by the people that they serve
As more and more cultural institutions around the UK fall victim to local authority cuts, the heavy cost of museum closure is starting to be fully realised.

Each new casualty gives the sector a greater insight into the consequences of closing the doors on established institutions that are deeply embedded in their communities and house irreplaceable heritage.

Lancashire is one of the worst-hit areas, where not even sites of Designated national importance are immune from the jaws of cost cutting. Last month, Lancashire County Council ratified the closure of five museums, including Queen Street Mill near Burnley and Helmshore Mills Textile Museum, which are covered by Arts Council England’s Designation Scheme because they hold original machines preserved in situ.

Sarah Hardy, a former employee of Lancashire County Council working at Helmshore Mills Textile Museum, who is now coordinating the Save the Mills campaign, says: “I don’t know how you can teach your children about an area when there is none of its history left. It just becomes impossible.

“We are losing this area’s entire heritage. There were about 3,000 mills in the east Lancashire area during the mid-1800s, and now we just have these two working ones left. If they go, then that heritage is completely lost forever. It is such a short- sighted measure to lose all of this to cost cutting.”

Museums to close

The heritage mill sites will close on 1 April along with the Museum of Lancashire, in Preston, Fleetwood Museum and the Judges’ Lodgings Museum in Lancaster.

The approval of Lancashire County Council’s budget also means five other museums will have to cover their costs by reviewing entry charges and maximising their income. Third parties have until the end of this month to express an interest in running the sites, but this outcome looks unlikely.

However, Fleetwood Museum is likely to be taken over by the town council. The museum, which explores the area’s fishing history, would be financed by reserve funds and an increase in the council tax raised for Fleetwood. Terry Rogers, the chairman of Fleetwood Town Council, says that saving the museum is essential, in order to maintain footfall in Fleetwood – one of the most deprived areas in the UK.

“We understand that the fishing industry may never return to Fleetwood but there is a massive local interest in it throughout Lancashire and beyond because it was such a diverse business,” he adds. Unfortunately, it is still unclear whether such a rescue is a possibility for the other four museums, which Lancashire County Council said would cost about £3.8m to run from 2015-16 to 2017-18. Hardy believes the cost of running the museums is a drop in the ocean when considered in the context of the £262m savings Lancashire County Council says it needs to make by 2020-21.

“The objects in the Helmshore collections are enormous bits of machinery, so storage isn’t really an option,” she says. “I think the cost of keeping museums such as the Helmshore Mills Textile Museum and the Queen Street Mill closed will probably be higher than keeping them open: there will have to be 24-hour security staff on site and, obviously, that’s not to mention shutting-down costs and redundancy fees. Making sure the building is watertight and fireproofed has huge cost implications too.”

Lancashire County Council has set aside a contingency fund of £500,000 to ensure that the collections are protected and the security of the sites are maintained after the museums close. It may also have to pay back money to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), which has invested £919,400 in the Museum of Lancashire and £720,000 in Helmshore Mills Textile Museum. A spokeswoman from Lancashire County Council said no decision would be made on the disposal or transfer of the collections until the end of the month.

Heavy costs

Meanwhile, in Leicestershire the closure of the Snibston Discovery Museum, in Coalville, which shut its doors in July after a legal challenge to save it failed, speaks volumes about the heavy cost and losses associated with closure. The demolition of the Snibston site, which will begin this month, will cost £179,625. The council will also have to pay back the £146,146 that the HLF invested in the museum and its collections. Moreover, redundancies that resulted from the museum’s closure cost £142,000.

Future of the collection

The council’s original plan was to sell the land to residential property developers, but Museums Journal understands the land has been deemed unsuitable for a housing development in its current state.

A council spokesman says 37% of the museum’s exhibits will return to Leicester City Council’s museum service, from where they were on loan. Other items are being stored in the site’s pithead buildings and other county council sites. But the loss extends much further than just restricted public access to the collections for those that campaigned to keep the museum open.

Brian Voller, the former chair of the Friends of Snibston, says: “In an area of significant deprivation, the Snibston Discovery Museum not only provided economic benefit to the local community, but employment, volunteering opportunities and frequent visitor deals,
particularly for local people. “The workforce included staff and more than 40 volunteers, some of whom had physical, mental health and learning disabilities. On top of that, evidence shows that about 1,000 people, of all ages, with registered disabilities, visited regularly with their carers. Snibston had increasingly been used in recent years by disabled adults as a social and learning venue, since the funding reductions and closure of Coalville-based and other local social services community projects.”

The true cost of losing a museum is hard to quantify, but a spate of high-profile cases gives the sector a more vivid picture of what it means, not only in monetary terms, but also the loss of expertise and dedication of museum professionals and volunteers that have worked hard to protect and share the collections.

Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association (MA), said: “It is also worth considering the human impact and the amount that people have personally invested in these institutions, and the skill and knowledge that is lost when museums close and collections are mothballed.”
Museums with Designated collections at risk from closure

Museums with collections that are of “outstanding resonance” and therefore protected by Arts Council England’s Designation Scheme are not immune from closure.

Concerns are being raised about the robustness of the scheme, which offers no legal protection.

Sharon Heal, the MA’s director, said: “Some local authorities have decided they can no longer afford even the upkeep of collections designated as of national importance.

“A more proactive approach is needed from government and local authorities to ensure the long-term sustainability of regional collections for the benefit of local audiences and the local economy.”

Campaigner Sarah Hardy said that greater clarity was needed on what Designation means in “unprecedented” circumstances such as the closure of two heritage mills in Lancashire.

John Orna-Ornstein, Arts Council England’s director of museums, said: “We’re extremely concerned about the growing challenge facing local authority museums.

“The Designation Scheme highlights the most important collections that are held outside of the national museums.

“It doesn’t provide legal protection, but it is a valuable tool for the arts council, and the wider sector, when advocating for those collections.

“In Lancashire, for example, the Designated status of the collections at Queen Street and Helmshore is part of ongoing conversations with the council.”

Museums about to shut or under threat

• Durham Light Infantry Museum, which holds items covering 200 years of military history, will close on 1 April. There has been a high-profile campaign to save the museum, but the council said low visitor numbers and austerity cuts were among the reasons behind the decision to close it. The collection, which belongs to the museum’s trustees but is under the care of the council, was moved to storage facilities in nearby Spennymoor last month. The council is in discussion with Durham University over the possibility of a five-year agreement that would lead to part of the collection going on display at the university’s Palace Green Library.

• Museums in Kirklees, West Yorkshire, are under threat as the local authority looks to make savings of £531,000 by 2017-18. Kirklees Council, which operates five museums and one art gallery, has proposed reducing the service to three institutions and cutting opening hours. This makes the future uncertain for Tolson Museum, Oakwell Hall, Red House Museum, Bagshaw Museum and Dewsbury Museum.

• Campaigners are fighting to save the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, after Broxtowe Borough Council put the building housing the museum up for rent. The move follows proposals last year to close the centre, despite a £20,000 investment from Arts Council England and Nottingham’s status as a Unesco City of Literature.

• In January, the Haig Pit Mining Museum in Whithaven closed less than a year after it reopened, following a restoration supported by a £2.4m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

• Bede’s World in Jarrow closed last month due to lack of funds.

• Also under threat is Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery in Shropshire.

Comments

Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
08.03.2016, 13:32
I wonder how far the private collector and researcher could take-up the losses created by museums closures? not perhaps in terms of visitors, but in supporting heritage and research.
Anonymous
MA Member
02.03.2016, 16:38
In this very worrying time for museums it's critical we keep communication going about the costs of closure.It might not change decisions ( sadly it may only serve to justify further closures) but it's the responsibility of the sector and our strategic partners, in my view, to recognise and record the cumulative impacts.
The sad case of Snibston highlighted here and in the earlier price entitled Demolition costs shows us that it's not only the costs highlighted by the Council ( £640,000 in my reckoning ) but much more in terms of the staff time - very intensive in this case- and the ongoing storage costs for the collections which have displaced commercial revenue for the Council.