Moray Council delays decision on closure of Falconer Museum

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 31.10.2019
Museum will be mothballed in spring in third party operator is not found
The future of Moray's museum service and the Falconer Museum in Forres, north Scotland, is hanging in the balance after councillors delayed a final decision on its closure this week.

Moray Council confirmed in February that the service's £80,000 funding would be cut, leaving it with the option of being closed or transferred to trust. The Moray-wide museum service operates the Falconer and a museum store. It cares for 50,000 artefacts, many of national and international significance. 

The Falconer is the only museum in the district still funded by the council, which has cut almost all of its budget for arts and culture over the past six years. The museum, which closed for winter this week, looks almost certain not to reopen in spring as no third party has come forward to run it. Campaigners have warned that visitors "may never see the displays again" after the venue shut its doors for the season.

Councillors were due to determine the museum service's fate at a meeting on 29 October, during which they were briefed on a confidential report about securing a sustainable future for it. During the meeting they chose to delay their final decision to allow more time for a solution to be found.

However, Museums Journal understands that there is little likelihood that this will happen. There are complex legal arrangements surrounding the original bequest that established the museum, while the Falconer building also requires significant roof repairs - both of which are obstacles for prospective third party operators. 

Concerns have also been raised to Museums Journal about the lack of clarity from the council regarding the care and monitoring of the museum's collections. Some donors have already begun to request the return of their objects, while other museums have expressed an interest in acquiring artefacts. However, some collections cannot broken up under the terms of the original bequest and are likely to be mothballed for the foreseeable future. 

A council spokeswoman said plans for the care of the collections and building would be "dependent on the outcome of the councillors' discussion early next year".

A further report on the museum service’s future will be put before councillors in advance of their budget-setting meeting in February 2020. Museums Journal understands that money has been set aside to mothball the museum from April next year, although the amount has not yet been identified.

The chair of the council’s policy and resources committee, Aaron McLean, said: “We all acknowledge the excellent work done by the museums service in promoting the Falconer as a destination, and I’m hopeful that this can be built upon by working with others such as Museums Galleries Scotland and more local organisations to produce a model that sustains the museum and the collection held by the service.

“We have to look at providing a sustainable museum service so that it can continue far into the future, and I believe all councillors are keen that work should continue in that regard.”

Established in 1871, the museum displays fossils, natural history specimens and artefacts belonging to the Victorian geologist and botanist Hugh Falconer and his brother Alexander, as well as social history, archaeology and world heritage collections. The museum employs 2.5 full-time equivalent staff.

The potential closure of the service has sparked a strong reaction among the local community. One source told Museums Journal that many felt the Falconer had been deliberately "left to die" by the council. 

Almost a hundred people attending a packed crisis meeting at the museum to discuss its future on 22 October. The Friends of Falconer Museum volunteer group has also hit out at the council, saying blame for the closure was being placed at its doors. 

Chairman of the Friends group, John Barrett, told local press: “We feel as the council is shifting blame for the closure onto us, because we will not keep the museum open. We are a group of volunteers who raise money to support and highlight the museum – we do not have the time or ability to run it full time.”

Barrett said the group had investigated forming a charitable trust several years ago but had found they did not have the capacity or resources to do so.

The council ceased funding two other museums, Tomintoul Museum and the independent Elgin Museum, in 2013 and 2015 respectively. Tomintoul Museum was taken over by a community group and reopened as a discovery centre last year following a £500,000 refurbishment.

Clarification
01.11.2019

This article was edited to make it clear that the Falconer Museum is part of a Moray-wide museum service, which is facing closure. More detail has also been included on the discussions about the museum service's future and the care of its collections. 

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