Concern is growing over the future of Down County Museum in advance of a strategic review being planned by the district council.
Newry, Mourne and Down District Council is responsible for Down County Museum and Newry Museum. The council was created in 2015 following a reform of local government in Northern Ireland that reduced the number of councils from 26 to 11. The former districts of Newry, Mourne and Down were combined to form one council.
The Friends of Down County Museum group has written to Museums Journal with its concern that Down County Museum will be downgraded following recent changes to the way it is run. The Friends say that the post of curator is now shared with Newry Museum and that the two remaining posts in the reduced curatorial team have extended roles at downgraded scales.
They also say the post of technician/photographer has been deleted and that the job descriptions for front-of-house staff, which were designed to suit the needs of the site, in terms of customer care, cleaning and security, have been changed to include other tasks, including collections research, conservation and photography.
“Our understanding is that the council wish to manage and operate the two museums, for which it is now responsible, in the same way,” said the letter. “However, the two museums are very different in scale and ambition – Down County Museum was established and supported as a regional museum. Its collection matches this.
“We fear that the promised strategic review will benchmark the museum to smaller or currently under-achieving museums rather than looking at the actual site and collection.”
The Friends of Down County Museum also stated “that serious policy changes are being made by those who have no knowledge of museums and yet are refusing to consult with those who can help. It has become clear that there is a serious issue with governance in this case, which has implications for other museums”.
Newry, Mourne and Down District Council denies that it is not giving sufficient support to Down County Museum.
“Newry, Mourne and Down District Council is committed to the continuous improvement and development of its museums,” said a council statement. “For Down County Museum, this is demonstrated through the provision of a significant annual operating budget that is included in the rates estimates process, and a recruitment exercise that is ongoing to establish a full curatorial team supported by a team of museum assistants at Down County Museum. The council has no plans to downgrade Down County Museum.
“A new museum website is also currently being developed to create opportunities for further outreach and engagement with local communities and schools, and to encourage more visitors to Down County Museum,” the council statement continued. “The website will bring the museum collections to a wider audience and will help to enhance visitors’ appreciation of the diverse material culture of the region.”
Down County Museum, which is housed in restored buildings of an 18th-century county gaol, was established in 1981. It holds 12,000 objects and 50,000 photographs.