North Somerset Museum saved in council deal

By Ben Miller | 20 October 2010
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A photo of the outside of a grey brick museum
The popular North Somerset Museum in Weston-super-Mare has been saved following a lengthy campaign by local supporters© Geof Sheppard
At the start of 2010, the North Somerset Museum faced an uncertain future. The local council had announced an ominous review of the 144-year-old institution's future after being told to make cuts of £2.5 million from its development and leisure section.

The news united local residents and historians, who joined forces with the long-established Friends of North Somerset Museum for protests outside the Burlington Street building. Local MP John Penrose – the government's Tourism and Heritage Minister – urged the council to discuss their plans in public, warning that the business plan for closing it should be scrapped if it didn't stand up to public scrutiny.

Eight months later, at a council meeting held on Monday (October 18 2010), a contentious two-hour debate ended in the authority finally agreeing to secure the museum by taking over the freehold and funding emergency repairs.

"I can't say I was confident because it could have gone either way, but we were just hopeful that it would go in favour of the museum and we'd be able to carry on," says Heather Morrisey, the Chair of the Friends group for the past five years.

Morrisey heard Weston Town Council leader Pauline Priestman use the meeting to warn councillors that granting the museum funding would be "stretching their finances too far", but she remains steadfastly down-to-earth about the chamber's decision to back the museum regardless.

"I think a lot of people wanted to get home to get some dinner – particularly the councillors," she says, when asked about the reaction to the 15-9 vote in favour of the move. "If the town council hadn't decided to take it over I think it might have been quite difficult.

"It's a financial problem. We put on talks, charge a subscription and hold raffles to purchase items for the museum, but we don't do huge fundraising events.” Nevertheless, it was still "a relief" when the jury backed the much-loved museum.

"It is very popular and a lot of schools go there – they have about 150 a year as part of the national curriculum," she says. Galleries and nostalgia fill the halls, as well as a cottage sold to it by a local family 35 years ago which has been turned into a Victorian house complete with toys, dolls and a kitchen.

"I think a lot of people in the town will be pleased because it did create a lot of interest in the media," she reflects. "There have been a lot of letters in the papers over the last few months and the councillors have had hundreds of letters."

Two storerooms which have been closed to the public will be sold off, and a trust will be set up in 12 months to run the museum. "Quite a lot of the items in storage will go down to [Taunton's] Somerset Heritage Centre, which has just opened," adds Morrisey. "We'd rather they stayed here, but they will be well looked after there."

The next step, she suspects, is a case of seeing the scope of improvements the council plans to make, with the possibility of the site having to close for alterations.

"In the past perhaps they haven't put as much money into the museum as they could have done," she diplomatically suggests.

"It's early days yet – we don't know what's required, or how many people, or when. But I think things will improve now – or at least, I hope they will."
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