Severe flooding over the past month has affected a number of sites managed by Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust in Shropshire.
The trust runs 10 museums in Ironbridge Gorge, a Unesco World Heritage Site and the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Residents of Ironbridge were forced to evacuate last week after the River Severn rose to its highest level this century and breached the flood defences protecting the town.
The trust’s sites are not behind flood barriers due to their historic links to the river. The two museums that suffered the worst of the damage are the Museum of the Gorge and Coalport China Museum. The trust has been unable to assess the full extent of the damage to the buildings.
After receiving advance warning from the Environment Agency, museum staff and volunteers were able to move much of the museums’ nationally significant collections before the flood, including a 12-metre-long model of Ironbridge Gorge that is one of the Museum of the Gorge’s most popular exhibits.
“We stripped a lot of the collection out of the museums and moved as much as we could,” said Nick Ralls, CEO of the trust. “Our people are safe and our collections are safe. We’re assessing it day by day and working on a recovery plan."
But the financial impact of the flooding could be serious. Visitor numbers are down at all sites and Ralls said the resulting loss of revenue, added to the cost of flood damage, will have a double impact.
Museums higher up the gorge remain open for business, as do high-lying shops, hotels and restaurants. The trust and local council have been liaising with local MPs and government bodies in an effort to secure relief funds from central government.
Ralls said his focus going forward will be on the role the museums can play in helping the community to recover. “We’re planning on being at the vanguard of Ironbridge reopening,” said Ralls. “We’ve got a big role to play in shouting from the rooftops that we’re here and we’re open for business.”
The trust is also offering assistance to the local community during the recovery period. With some schools closed, affected schoolchildren are being offered free entry to Blist’s Hill Victorian Town, and the institution is exploring whether some of its rooms could be used as classrooms.
Ralls, who has only been with the trust for a matter of months, has had a previous brush with a natural disaster; just after starting out at his previous job at Severn Valley Railway, the heritage train line suffered extensive damage in a storm.
“It seems somewhat familiar – either that or I’m jinxed” he said. “In my experience, there’s a period where the situation changes day by day. Then there’s a point where everything starts to settle down but we haven’t reached that point yet. Sometimes you think it’s over and it’s not.”
Although flooding in the gorge is nothing new, Ralls said this is the first time the water level has stayed so high for such a prolonged period. As the climate crisis advances, the trust is planning to explore how to make its collections more collapsible and its buildings more resilient.
Ralls added that, as the birthplace of industry, the heritage site is also considering how to use its buildings and collections to contribute to the climate agenda.
A profile of Nick Ralls will be published in the April issue of Museums Journal