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Trust could save Shropshire's at-risk museums

Shrewsbury | News | Published:

A trust should be created to safeguard Shropshire's under-threat museums rather than "dumping them on to town councils", it has been claimed.

Friends groups for museums in both Shrewsbury and Ludlow, along with other supporters across the county, say time is running out for the county's museums.

They are calling for Shropshire Council to agree to the setting up of an independent not-for-profit trust to take over the management of Shropshire's major museums.

Lottie James, chair of the Friends of Ludlow Museum, which supports the Museum Resource Centre in the town that holds collections for the entire county, said the authority is dragging its heels on the matter.

The call for action comes after a "Save Shropshire's Museums" social media campaign was launched in response to Shropshire Council's announcement that it will cut the £800,000 museum and tourism budget to zero in 2017/18. The budget decision casts uncertainty on the future of a number of museums.

Museums receiving funding from Shropshire Council include Acton Scott Historic Working Farm, Coleham Pumping Station, Ludlow Museum, Ludlow Museum Resource Centre, Much Wenlock Museum, and Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery.

Mrs James said: "The friends are very keen that the Shropshire museums service goes into a trust. It's time Shropshire Council gave this fresh consideration.

"What they want to do is dump them on to town councils, and town councils do not have the money and are just not up to it.

"The advantage of a trust is that it helps in going to organisations for support, where those organisations might not give support to town councils.

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"Shropshire Council is cutting it fine. They've got less than a year now until the budget is cut, and they're telling us that if we want to do something we've only got five months," she added.

Time running out to save our museums

The clock is ticking on efforts to safeguard the future of the county's museums with Shropshire Council wanting arrangements in place by September.

A number of museums face either closure or huge cuts in their funding with Shropshire Council set to cut its museums budget to zero from April next year.

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Museum supporters have now warned that any closures could cost the authority millions because it would be forced to pay back grant money and compensation.

Council-owned or funded museums under threat include Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, Ludlow Museum and Resource Centre, Acton Scott Working Farm and Much Wenlock Museum. However, Shropshire Council's museums service also provides back-up and support to independently-run museums such as Oswestry Town Museum and Whitchurch Heritage Centre, so its loss would also affect them.

Friends groups for both Shrewsbury and Ludlow museums, plus other supporters, are now leading calls for Shropshire Council to agree to the setting up of an independent county-wide museums trust to take on responsibility for the council-run venues.

Council bosses have given assurances that they have no intention of letting the county's major museums close, but are looking for other organisations, such as town councils, to provide financial support or take them on.

Alan Mosley, leader of Shrewsbury Town Council, has said they are "willing to enter discussions" with Shropshire Council about taking on the town's £10 million museum but said: "They will be very hard-nosed negotiations, it will not be a case that Shropshire Council can absolve itself of its responsibility and expect us to pick it up."

Lottie James, chair of the Friends of Ludlow Museum, said that if Shrewsbury's new museum was to close, Shropshire Council could have to pay back millions in Heritage Lottery Fund grant money.

She also said that town councils were baulking at picking up the bill for museum services and would need to hike council tax precepts to meet the costs.

"Also town councils haven't got the manpower, they haven't got the experience and knowledge to do it," she said. Instead it is time Shropshire Council gives "serious consideration" to the formation of a museums trust, but with only five months until a decision on the future of the council-run museums, things are being cut fine, she said.

She said the Ludlow friends group has also put in a submission to government "countries of culture" select committee which is looking into what is happening to rural museums in particular.

"The fact that there is even a public inquiry into the state of rural museums gives you an idea how widespread this is," she said, adding that the Museums Association had revealed one in five regional museums has at least part-closed in 2015.

Stuart West, Shropshire Council's cabinet member for leisure and culture, said various options for the future of museums were still being looked into.

He said: "Shropshire Council continues to consider a range of possible options for the future delivery and funding of the museums service – new governance arrangements and potential trust models are part of these considerations.

"Heritage Lottery Fund are aware of the work we are doing to find new solutions for the service, and once the options appraisal work has been complete we will discuss this with them in more detail."

Malcolm Pate, leader of Shropshire Council, added that there was "no intention" to close Shrewsbury Museum. He said: "Our intention is to work with others to keep it running. It's the same with a lot of services. We want to try to continue to deliver those across Shropshire and we're working with people to do that."

Fiona Talbott, head of museums, libraries and archives at the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), said: "We would encourage organisations we've supported to discuss any concerns about their future with us and their relevant museum development body as early as possible."

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