Staff at the Brontë Parsonage Museum have asked to join a union

Brontë Society EGM fails to resolve dispute with members

Geraldine Kendall, 07.11.2014
Meeting airs allegations of bullying and concerns over governance
The Brontë Society’s recent Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) has failed to resolve the dispute that has engulfed the society since its AGM earlier this year.

The EGM was called by 53 members who disagreed with the society’s council of trustees over the charity’s direction and governance, and were concerned about the treatment of staff at the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

The disgruntled members had intended to use the EGM to elect a new governing council with “higher levels of professionalism and experience”, but were unable to do so due to company law.

The organisation has been without full-time leadership after its most recent executive director, Ann Sumner, stepped down in June and its chairman of trustees, Christine Went, resigned last month after 28 days in the role.

The society is preparing to launch a major six-year programme of events next year to celebrate the bicentenaries of the Brontë siblings.

A full transcript of the EGM held on 18 October has been shown to Museums Journal by a Brontë Society member concerned that the issues it raised were still not being adequately addressed.

“I’m worried that this will all just be swept under the carpet again,” said the member, who asked to remain anonymous.

According to the transcript, the EGM was told that employees at the Brontë Parsonage Museum were unhappy with their treatment by trustees and had asked to join a union.

One speaker described an “atmosphere of bullying and criticism” at the museum and another said staff felt undermined and were “afraid to put their heads above the parapet”. The meeting heard that there was a “depressingly cyclical nature” to the departure of the museum's directors.

The EGM also heard complaints that trustees had not made enough effort to investigate whistleblowing emails sent by three museum employees about the “disturbing” treatment of one former member of staff.

A Brontë Society spokeswoman told Museums Journal that the society was not in a position to comment on the allegations because the transcript was not an official record, but she confirmed that the society had met with a union.

She said: “Staff have been informed that the society has met with and welcomes the approach of Prospect Union and a draft agreement is being put together by the union.”

The EGM also saw the defeat of a resolution to consult with members, partner organisations and the local community over its bicentenary plans, and to apply to the arts council for Designation.

According to the source, a number of members were concerned that the council had urged them to vote against the resolution, telling them it was unnecessary because its recommendations were already in place.

The source said: “People are aghast because in effect it is sending out the message that we don’t want to consult with anyone.”

Before the vote took place, the society had been criticised by one speaker during the EGM for a lack of communication and engagement with local community groups and traders.

The society’s spokeswoman told Museums Journal: “Bicentenary planning and consultation has been underway since June 2014 involving staff, trustees, outside advisers, the president and vice president and a former president of the society.”

She added: “We are also currently in the process of recruiting a project manager to co-ordinate the bicentenary plans, with a focus on working closely with local people, businesses and community groups.”

The society was this week awarded a grant of nearly £100,000 from the arts council for a contemporary arts programme to coincide with its bicentenary plans.

Concerns were also raised during the EGM about the society’s governance structure. The meeting heard from an independent museum advisor that the society was in the midst of a “crisis situation” and should seek help from an outside consultant to ensure its governance was “fit for purpose in the 21st century”.

The society’s spokeswoman told Museums Journal that a governance review has been underway since 2013 and that the society plans invite members and non-members to join a focus group to assist with the review.

The Brontë Society is also inviting nominations for a new chairman and vice chairman, she said, and will elect those roles at the next council meeting.

The group of members who called the EGM will also be coming together shortly to discuss what course of action they will take following the meeting. According to the source, the group will continue to call for the resignation of the society’s trustees and the election of a new council.

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