'There's no way we will close' says director of Wisbech & Fenland Museum despite low funds and being added to Heritage England's At Risk register
PUBLISHED: 12:53 08 November 2018 | UPDATED: 15:45 08 November 2018
Wisbech & Fenland Museum has been added to Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register amid concerns that it could be forced to close in the near future due to a lack of funding.
It is one of 242 new entries to the register which acts as an annual snapshot of the health of England’s historic places.
In January, the museum received a grant of more than £40,000 from Historic England - the money was used to make plans for essential repairs to the roof of the historic building, which was built in 1847.
However, this and a number of extra grants received throughout the year were for restricted purposes only and cannot be used to pay the day to day bills. Therefore, the cash pot to keep the museum open is running out.
David Ball, director and vice-chairman of Wisbech & Fenland Museum, said: “We hope to be able to repair the roof next year but I think that’s bound to cost £200,000 or more.”
He said that although selling certain items would create extra funds, “there are restrictions because of the bequeath requests that have been made to us.”
Additionally, if the museum sells things for financial gain, they will lose their accreditation. “We would cut ourselves off from many funds,” he added.
But when asked if he thinks the museum will still be open in five years time, he said: “I’m absolutely certain. There’s no way we will close.”
As the second oldest purpose-built museum in the country, among the exhibitions are the original Great Expectations manuscript, a mummified hand, and hundreds of weapons including a walking stick that doubles as a pistol.
Robert Bell, assistant curator, said: “The real danger is that if the money can’t be provided and the museum had to close, then the collection would be distributed between other museums, and they’d pick and choose the best bits.
“Because things are much more different than they used to be; we expect to come after looking after old people and providing emergency services but the position we’re in is that we’re asking for money all the time - otherwise we close.
“If we can’t afford to employ staff then it becomes volunteers only, but that would be very different to run because of its size.
“Our plans include developing a programme of events, gallery guides – where people learn the stories behind each display – and generally building the capacity.
“There’s lots of potential but, most importantly, it’s about increasing the relevance to people. Thankfully, though, Historic England is very supportive and wants to make the museum a ‘flagship project’ for the town.”
Attracting 12,500 visitors annually and with knowledgeable volunteers, the museum -has the local community’s support - and plenty of ideas for the future.
Creating a new entrance to improve access for parents and disabled people as well as developing an online archive of some of the items are just some of the ways the museum team hopes to progress.
Carl Brodie, board member and trustee, said: “We’re getting more and more people coming in, but the challenge is creating events that pull youngsters in.
“We’ve got to give people a reason, and then when they come in they’ll – hopefully – think it’s amazing and tell their friends to visit.
“It’s a community thing, too, and we’re always coming up with new, creative ideas – but the biggest problem is getting money to fund the running of the building.”
As well as housing thousands of items, a library and a records office, the museum often welcomes groups of school children for educational visits.
Richard Barnwell, who has been a trustee at the museum for 25 years, said: “We’ve got to get it across that history is not boring – it’s about people and people have not changed.
“The museum, I hope, illustrates something interesting to young people… some of these items are incredibly rare. We have a responsibility to look after them.
“Overall, the collections must be worth millions, but we can’t afford to keep the roof watertight - that’s the awful thing.
“When people realise the amount of work that went into making these things, all by hands… it’s extraordinary to see.
“I think the museum is an incredible resource to be able to come and see - we have things in here that rival the Fitzwilliam Museum and that the British Library would love.
“It’s sad that not everybody realises what we’ve got. It’s extraordinary that, here in Wisbech, we’ve got this resource... every time I come in here I want to take these things home.”
The museum is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10am to 4pm but sclosed on Mondays and Sundays.
If you would be interested in volunteering at the museum or donating towards its upkeep visit www.wisbechmuseum.org.uk