Visitors gather to celebrate the reopening of Newtown Textile Museum earier this month

Q&A with Janet Lewis

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 18.08.2016
How a group of volunteers saved Newtown Textile Museum
Earlier this year, Powys County Council in mid-Wales transferred management of Newtown Textile Museum to a group of volunteers, who had come together to prevent the museum from being shut down as a result of funding cuts.

The museum, which had been closed to the public for more than a year, reopened earlier this month and is run on an entirely voluntary basis. Janet Lewis, the chairwoman of the museum's committee, tells Museums Journal how the museum came to be saved.

How did the transfer of the museum to the volunteer group come about?

Newtown was a centre for hand-loom weaving in the early 1800s. My father was very civically minded and interested in the industrial and social history of the town. He realised that these important buildings were either being pulled down, converted into living accommodation or becoming derelict.

He and a group of like-minded people clubbed together to buy the building and to turn the two top floors into a museum. The building was acquired around 1962 and opened as Newtown Textile Museum in 1967.

But my father grew older and succession planning didn’t seem to happen at that time. He had discussions with the museum service of Powys County Council and in 1990 the museum was gifted to the council. Over time it was upgraded.

While being part of a council museum service provided some security, by 2015 this was sadly not the case. I had become anxious about what was happening at the museum and discovered in April 2015 that the county council was considering closing the museum permanently, re-homing the artefacts and selling the building. I was very concerned about this and one of my sisters and I decided we would try to save it.

Following a meeting with council staff, we were given three months to produce an application for a Community Asset Transfer (CAT). We set up a small committee and sought community support for the museum to stay open. We negotiated with a local charity, the Montgomeryshire Community Regeneration Association (MCRA), and it agreed to take the museum under its wing and give the committee formal status; and we applied to a local charity for a grant for what the council estimated were the annual revenue costs.

The application was submitted at the end of September 2015. We heard just before Christmas that Powys had agreed to go ahead with the transfer and we were eventually handed the keys on 10 June this year.
What were the main challenges you faced during the process?

The challenges were huge. I had some experience as a trustee of a number of charities. Other members included an extremely knowledgeable local historian; a town councillor; and someone who was very knowledgeable about the woollen industry. So the group had considerable expertise but none directly concerned with museums.

The process of putting in an application for a CAT was quite daunting and it was almost impossible to write a forward plan in a virtual vacuum. There was also a frustrating time after we had heard that the museum would be transferred but we could only get access if a staff member was present. As no staff were based in Newtown we were reluctant to ask them to open up very often.
A visit early in the year showed us that the presentation in the museum was rather tired and would benefit from refreshment, but it was difficult to think about the changes we might want to make before we had fully got to know the collection. We also knew we would need volunteers to come forward to be in the museum when it opened.

Once we had the keys, the challenges were that we became responsible for a building that would be open to the public, with all the legal requirements this entails. We did not have the time to make major changes – and in any case wanted some experience first – but we did want to make the place more inviting and the information a bit more accessible. We decided that we had to open this summer - that did not allow us much time.
How has the group gone about developing the skills and knowledge required to run the museum?

Hard graft is probably the answer to this, plus wonderful contributions from a huge range of people. We have been blessed with support for administrative matters from the MCRA, whose chair has overseen the legal aspects of the transfer. We held an orientation day for our supporters, attended by 30 people. We recruited more committee members through this with expertise in finance, fundraising, publicity, weaving and spinning. 

We have appointed an experienced museum professional as our mentor, who has run a training day for us covering preventative conservation and talking through ideas of changes to make in the short term.
But we have only just begun the process of learning how existing skills and knowledge can be applied to running the museum, and developing ways of filling the gaps. It has been a matter of moving forward step by step on each of the aspects that need to be covered.

The need for funding is obvious. We are at the beginning of developing a financial strategy but in the meantime have been successful in getting a grant from Newtown Town Council and another local community fund. We are not charging as we want as many people as possible to come, but we have installed donation boxes, which are producing good results so far.

Promotion is obviously key to getting visitors and so websites have been updated and information circulated through local sources and social media. Applying for interim Accreditation is the next challenge.
What has the response been like from visitors and the local community to the museum reopening?

At one level it is too early to say, as we have only been open for two weekends so far. But I am almost stunned by the response. We had a small opening ceremony attended by about 44 people, some of them committee members, but had a total of 75 visitors over the three days. We had donations of £133, which I thought was a one-off, but the second weekend produced £110, which I find quite wonderful.

The reaction from visitors seems very positive and we are also getting comments and suggestions, as we see the current state as a 'work in progress'. Local people have also walked by and said how glad they are to see it open again.

Some of them remember working on clearing the top two floors in the 1960s when they were schoolchildren. We hope to entice them in with their children as time goes on! But who knows what the next six weeks, six months or six years will bring.