The future of five Lancashire museums hangs in the balance as council cuts funding

By Adrian Murphy

Lancashire County Council approved cuts to its budget of £65m yesterday and agreed to slash its museum budget from £1.2m to 98,000, leaving five of its 11 museums without funding

These cuts, which predate this week’s spending review, put the future of the five museums; Queen Street Mill, Helmshore, Museum of Lancashire, Judges’ Lodgings, and Fleetwood Museum in jeopardy.

The proposals to cut the funding to the five museums was only made known on 16 November and was approved at a cabinet meeting yesterday. They face closure on 31 March 2016, when the funding runs out, if no alternative external proposals to run them are put forward, and staff are now preparing for each eventuality.

As things stand, from 1 April the county council will still be responsible for the buildings and collections and staff are now preparing contingency plans to look after them. The council has set aside £500,000 to 31 March 2017 for this purpose, although there is no guarantee that that will be enough.

As well as preparing for closure, in January the staff will also be looking at alternative operating models for all five museums or other viable delivery models. These could include a trust model or an existing organisation taking on responsibility for one or more of the museums.

“We are still working on plans to respond to this, it’s very early days and people are still coming to terms with the announcement” said Ian Watson Libraries, Museums and Registrars Manager for Lancashire County Council. “We knew the council was looking at budget cuts and we thought there would be reductions but had no idea of the size.”

Apart from a funding contribution to Queen Street Mill from Burnley Council, the staff and running costs of the five museums are met by the county council.

“In many ways we are hoping we can find alternative methods for the collections to be maintained and accessible to the public,” said Watson. “The worst case scenario is that the buildings have to close and we may have to look at putting collections into store or dispersing them by working with the Museums Association on how to do that.”

Two of the collections are part of an industrial museum and have very specific requirements and these factors will have to be addressed by potential funders.

During December the museum staff will be assessing each site to determine what they need in respect of funds and staffing, in order for the numbers to be up to date for potential funders.

“We will provide fact sheets on building running costs, repair and maintenance and security overheads for trustees, friends groups and all other external, interested parties,” said Watson. “We want to be as transparent as we can be when going to these organisation in January and we don’t want to do it half-heartedly.”

Advice and support has come from ACE, HLF and the Museums Development North West and the county council will be working with these bodies throughout the process.

“We have had lots of offers of support over the past 10 days but we are having to prepare for the worst although the decision to close the museums is subject to a full council meeting in February.”

The county council will still be managing six museums on behalf of other councils in Lancashire that cover their costs. Under the cuts 40 of the county’s 74 libraries will close by July 2016 and the decision on which ones will seize to operate will go out to public consultation in January.