Council debate on future of Museum Resource Centre reveals danger ahead

Last Thursday, 26 February 2015, Shropshire Council discussed the future of Ludlow Museum Resource Centre. We also discussed the issue at that evening’s Local Joint Committee.

After participating in those debates, I don’t think we yet have the right model for running Ludlow Museum Resource Centre and the county museum services. We might have had the right model if Shropshire Council had engaged with communities and supporters earlier in the process. Now we are running to catch up with each other. This is not a way to run a museum service and it’s not a way to run a council.

Although Shropshire Council says the future of the resource centre is not under threat, it is planning massive cuts to staffing. That will threaten curation, cataloguing and research by academics and enthusiasts alike. I worry that Shropshire museum service will lose its Arts Council accreditation. This would be a crippling blow to the credibility of the service. It will also deny the service access to government funds, lottery money and grants from trusts.

The debate at Shropshire Council was triggered by a Friends of Ludlow Museum petition of more than 1,000 signatures protesting against the cuts. I had also submitted a question on the future of the Museum Resource Centre.

What we learnt was that the portfolio holder for museums, Tina Woodward, is determined to maintain accreditation. The paperwork for reaccreditation has just been submitted. She told the LJC that if there are any problems that threaten our accreditation, she would go back to her senior portfolio holder, Steve Charmley, to demand more resources.

If we lose accreditation, our museum services will grind to a halt as Shropshire Council and friends groups find themselves all but barred from external funding. That means that the council will have to find more money from its own pocket to run the service. It doesn’t make sense financially. It will also bring opprobrium on the council for failing to maintain nationally and internationally important heritage collections.

Tina told Shropshire Council that there will be a curator post at the Museum Resource Centre for four days a week, with volunteer access on three days. The current plans only allow for a 2.5 FTE curatorial post, so I am presuming there will be top up from staff in Shrewsbury. This looks to me like a service that will be stretched to the limit. It will be prone to breakdown and cancellation when staff are ill or on holiday. I also worry that the workload on staff will become intolerable.

The working group on the Ludlow Museum Resource Centre meets again in early April. We have a lot of work to do and we should have started earlier.

The Petition Debate

Details of the petition.

Lottie James, Chair of the Friends of Ludlow Museum

I am here to talk about the future of Shropshire’s Museums because this is a county-wide issue not one just affecting Ludlow.

The petition asked that the Resource Centre should be appropriately staffed for the care of the collections, education and the support of the many volunteers from all over Shropshire. It was signed county wide and the museum Resource Centre does matter to many people in Shropshire. In addition we received many letters of support across the country and abroad emphasising the international importance of the collections, particularly the geology.

We recognise the financial constraints under which the Council is working and wish to contribute, in that context, to your thinking on how the future funding of our museums should be determined.

We are aware that the Council has commissioned external consultants to advise them on future structures. But we are not confident that you have benefitted from the best advice open to you, not least because neither of these reports has been made public.

We understand the Council has plans for the future of the museums. The recent loss of staff makes it difficult to see how Accreditation Status can be retained.

Five years ago, the county had five professionals working for Shropshire museums service, supported by 1.4 curatorial assistants. It will be down to two part time to cover all six council sites: Shrewsbury Music Hall, Shrewsbury Castle, Coleham Pump Station, Much Wenlock museum, Ludlow and Acton Scott. This will also support Oswestry, Bridgnorth and Bishop’s Castle which are not county museums but are supported by the county.

We wish to engage with Shropshire Council in order to ensure that you have the best possible advice so that you can determine that future and manage the County’s museums responsibly and successfully. Along with making many staff redundant before new structures are in place, our concern is that a skeleton staff would not be able to achieve this.

We have access to well-informed, quality expertise and wish to be a part of your thinking. We require an open dialogue with the Council on the best way forward.

We urge Shropshire Council to seek the best for Shropshire Museums so that Shropshire’s many visitors and all who live in Shropshire, adults, children and future generations, can consult and enjoy these museums.

Andy Boddington (Lib Dem, Ludlow North)

Thank you Mr Speaker. First can I thank Lottie and the Friends of Ludlow Museum for all the work they have been doing, not just in raising this petition, but over the years they have done a tremendous amount of valued work in Ludlow, and that’s true across the entire county. I haven’t volunteered as a museum worker in recent years but I started when I was fifteen in museums in Northampton so I know what sort of contribution it makes.

I would also like to thank Lottie and the friends for their constructive tone on this. Clearly we don’t want these cuts. That’s very clear. That’s what the petition is about. But the message is also that we want to work with Shropshire Council, to work with Tina and others. We have had initial meetings to try and find a way forward because this is not just, obviously, a resource for Ludlow. We tend to call it Ludlow Museum Resource Centre, it is Shropshire Museum Resource Centre in Ludlow. As Lottie said, it is also a national and international resource. I get as much post on this museums issue as I do on planning being on the planning committee, and we get an awful lot of email on the planning committee. So it is quite remarkable.

What I am concerned about here at the moment is that I don’t think we have quite got the process right. We are having the cuts and we are creating dangers. Dangers for example of losing museum accreditation and we are creating dangers there before we have got the solutions. And so we are trying to run to catch up to help the council to try to find solutions in terms of volunteer effort, in terms of raising funds, locally, from trusts or from wherever. I know that the council is trying to set up a development trust that will look at issues across the county. But we need to slot into that. We have ended up with the cuts being decided before we’ve got engaged.

I think there is a lesson here. Shropshire Council will be doing this time and time again as things are either commissioned or spun off, which is the council’s future way of working. This will happen time and time again. We need to bring things forwards so that the community is engaged early on because then we would be at a somewhat different place now if we had actually done that.

Vivienne Parry (Lib Dem, Ludlow South)

I would like to say that this is very important to Ludlow and the surrounding areas. We had the ability to look at something. I would like to thank Tina for coming to Ludlow, I had a conversation with her there, for coming and taking great concern for what is going on there. I think it is very short sighted to say that the staff would go and I am glad that the council have looked at that again and we have got this agreed for six months. But I remember six or seven years ago Brian Bennett coming, he was in charge of museums in those days, coming and saying how wonderful it was that we have received £2 million as a grant.

I must tell you that Ludlow Town Council, I’m part of Ludlow Town Council, are very concerned that the archives are kept together. If it is just split up, then we have lost a lot of things to do with our heritage going back to Roman times and further than that.

I personally think that if the council could look at this policy again I would really appreciate it. We want the archive to stay together. I know lots of people who have given things to those archives including people that have been the staff there over the years. I have had letters off most of the staff who used to be there and they are very, very concerned.

Cecilia Motley (Conservative, Corvedale)

Chairman, thank you very much indeed. First, as you may be aware, that I have the honour to sit on the board of the Midlands region of the Arts Council and I know they will be very willing to use the resources of their museums service to offer any guidance, advice or steer that might be of use to the portfolio holder in tackling this particular issue. So if you would like me to facilitate that, I would be more than happy to do so.

Ted Clarke (Labour, Bayston Hill, Column and Sutton)

Thank you Speaker. I think it is important for Shropshire to retain some sort of meaningful museums service, not just Ludlow, it happens to be Ludlow that is the host for the primary organisation. I very much support the petition as it goes forward. I begin to worry about what will happen eventually if this goes on to the Shropshire family silver. I think like everything else, it may just wither and quietly disappear.

Charlotte Barnes (Lib Dem, Bishop’s Castle)

Thank you. I just wanted to briefly mention about the knock on effect of what may happen with Ludlow as what would happen to the House and Crutches Museum in Bishop’s Castle. I know that they rely on Shropshire Council to provide curatorial and archive advice and they have to have professional input as part of their museum accreditation process. And help with preservation of the collection, freezing at low temperatures, and also assistance in development of the collection at Bishop’s Castle.

Obviously, if the resources from Ludlow are affected greatly as proposed it will have a knock on effect around the county. I know from Bishop’s Castle point of view it will have a significant effect. It’s a small museum but a great museum. It brings thousands of pounds into our economy in Bishop’s Castle a well.

Tina Woodward (Conservative, Alveley and Claverley)

Deputy Portfolio Holder for Business Growth.

Thank you Mr Speaker. If I can actually thank all those who have written in to me and Steve [Charmley]. It’s been really, really helpful. Lottie, the chairman of the friends for actually bring the petition down on behalf of those that signed, thank you very much.

We do recognise that the resource centre is the cornerstone of the whole museums service. Acting as the main stores area and providing open access to the collection is vital. We remain committed to the centre acting as the base for our museum outreach services and to build the adult education courses that are very popular.

If I can, can I actually just sum up with everybody’s [comments] because I think the answers I am going to give should actually allay some of the concerns that you have raised in your questions.

There are no plans to close or mothball the resource centre. The new model for operating the resource centre will mean all the current services will continue but how this is resourced and managed will change. So researchers and individuals will still be able to book in advance to access the collections. Rooms will still be available for hire and the education outreach and adult courses will be continued.

We have listened very carefully to the views of the staff and supporters of the resource centre and museums services as a whole as we have reorganised different areas of it. We will have a professionally qualified curator based there for four days a week to ensure professional care to our internationally significant geological and natural science collections. Our newly designed curator post will be an expert in these areas. We have extended the current full time facilities manager post at the resource centre for six months to allow us to work with those that have actually stepped forward so far to join the working group, and that will be extended.

Councillor Andy Boddington was quite correct. We had our first meeting and I hope it will move forward productively because there are a lot of people out there with a lot of knowledge that can actually help this council moving forward with the museum service because it is the museum service that its future needs to be actually taken advantage of is what I would say. In other words, we want to maintain and actually work and grow what we have got moving forward with the help of others to provide those services.

We have been receiving concerns about how people will actually access the volunteering within the centre. The Heritage Lottery funding had a significant amount to provide an additional support for volunteering at the resource centre and we are simply not able to maintain the current level in future as this grant ends in March. We are now working with the volunteers to remodel the volunteering position and three days a week volunteering offer and we have professional curatorial support for those three days. That’s the intention.

As to the outreach to other museums, we continue to support that. As we will continue to support the new museum in the Buttercross in Ludlow. That is part of the agreement we have. We have a service level agreement which will be entered into to provide those services.

If there is any area you feel I haven’t covered I am quite willing to meet with you and discuss it. Thank you.

The Speaker asks which course of action Councillor Woodward is going to recommend to the council in relation to the petition’s request to reverse the cuts. She replies: “No action”. The Speaker had earlier explained that portfolio holder’s recommendations are not voted upon, they are a “statement of fact”.

The Question

Details of my written question and the response from Steve Charmley.

Andy Boddington

Thank you very much, and I thank Steve [Charmley] for his response. Now straight to the [supplementary] question. Given that museums must be accredited and the museums service must have accreditation, both for credibility and to raise funds from public sources and various trusts, is he satisfied that he can maintain current accreditation in the face of these cuts.

Tina Woodward

There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes obviously in the museum service which I party to luckily in my role and accreditation is one of things that obviously must be maintained. It is a priority for the service Andy, if I can give you that sort of reassurance.

At this stage I have just signed off the documents, so hopefully, yes, we will stay accredited as it is the most important thing that we do. You are quite right. It is actually how we access our funding. Thank you.

One thought on “Council debate on future of Museum Resource Centre reveals danger ahead

  1. I was alarmed to discover that the Ludlow Museum is under threat. I am a founder member of the Shropshire Geological Society in 1979 and worked hard with the then curator John Norton to develop the rock and fossil collections. These are unique and of world importance- the local quarries and exposures that these specimens came from are now no longer available.
    The news that ISIS is destroying ancient archaeological sites in Iraq is horrendous and we are rightly shocked – Shropshire County Council do not ‘destroy’, by incompetence and lack of foresight, this Museum and its collections.

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