A dispute is growing between trustees of Falconer Museum and Moray Council over the future of Moray’s museum service, which closed indefinitely last month.
The council is cutting all of its £80,000 grant to the service from April next year, and the Falconer Museum, which is in Forres, north Scotland, will not reopen unless a third-party operator can be found to run it.
But three trustees from Falconer Museum Trust argue that the council would be in breach of contract if it does not continue to “manage, administer and finance” the museum, according to the terms of a 1996 agreement between the trust and what was then Moray District Council.
The trustees in question are the only members of the museum's board of trustees to be independent of the council. They have warned that they will consider suing the local authority if it does not fulfil its contractual obligations. They met with Scotland’s culture minister Fiona Hyslop last week and will hold a further meeting with Lucy Casot, the head of Museums Galleries Scotland, this week to discuss the future of the service.
One of the trustees, business consultant Peter Taylor, described the case as a “sad situation” and said it was “heading towards litigation unless wiser counsel prevails”. If the council were successfully sued, a court order could be issued forcing it to continue to finance the museum and reverse any decision taken to close it. The council would be in contempt of court if it did not comply.
The dispute is the latest chapter in a longstanding disagreement between the council and other museum stakeholders over the future of the service, which has been under threat since the cash-strapped local authority cut almost all its funding for culture in 2013.
Trustees have accused the council of taking steps to prevent independent scrutiny of its decision-making around the museum.
Last year, Moray Council had the Falconer Museum Trust removed from the charities register because it had no assets or funds to meet ongoing costs. The trustees say this was done without their prior knowledge, and they have appealed to the Office of the Scottish Charity Register for assistance.
The council says that the trust no longer exists because it has no assets, and the 1996 agreement therefore has no legal basis. It also says that the three trustees involved in the dispute were not appointed through the correct process and that “as the trust ceases to exist, it has no trustees”.
The trustees, all of whom are members of the local community and were asked to join the trust by the council itself in 2015 to help ensure a sustainable future for the service, say their appointment was carried out correctly and that the trust has not been abolished. They say the council has refused to enter mediation with them in order to find a solution.
A council spokeswoman said: “Regardless of any mediation process, the fact remains the council cannot afford to operate the museum service and will seek to find an alternative mechanism. Our resources would be better directed to finding a sustainable solution for the collection going forward.”
She said the council was engaged in “a continuing process to identify a sustainable business model for the museum service and an appropriate body to take it forward with sufficient capacity to run the service”.
The museum service holds around 50,000 objects and provides educational events and activities throughout the district. The Falconer Museum, which is part of the service, was established in 1871 to display the collections of the naturalist Hugh Falconer, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, and letters and documents belonging to his brother Alexander. It holds items of national and international significance.