Itís Your Grandchildrenís Legacy
Iím Talking About.

The Waterways Trust, National Waterways Museum

Trust. What a lovely word. A slow, reliable, warm word that canít be hurried, a hand-holdingly comforting word. Trust presupposes a faith, a belief in something worth believing in, a faith in something trustworthy. What an honour to be a trustee, to hold something in trust for another, to care for something for a future when the innocent infants come to maturity and wisdom, when they can in turn be entrusted with this inheritance to carry forward to their own descendants. How satisfying to be a link in such a chain!

The National Trust. A philanthropic organisation holding our cultural inheritance in trust for the nation and for our children. What a thoroughly laudable objective, running successfully for a century and still growing. Well, how about a Waterways Trust then, to conserve our waterway heritage and culture for future generations too? Sounds like a good idea, doesnít it? Trust-- what a satisfyingly secure word.

What about the word Museum then? Another nice word, another set of assumptions and expectations although perhaps not quite so clear and unambiguous today as it was in my youth, in the 1950s and 60s. Then museums were part of education, dun coloured with the dignity of serious study, provided by the civic authorities as part of a package of self improvement. The objects were displayed and labelled and occasionally dusted but it was up to the visitor to find their own inspiration and personal interest in the collections. But one did rest assured that the institution was there, protecting facts for future discovery. The museum was an intellectual insurance policy, an information bank, a future investment of accumulated knowledge. It was just another unquestioned brick in the civic edifice, a Good Thing, like a police force or free school milk. Dull? Well maybe, but certainly well-meaning, a safe deposit for facts and artefacts entrusted to qualified keepers of collections for the use of future students.

But somehow that emphasis shifted and we have allowed the museums to be re-branded as part of the leisure industry. As such, in todayís world, they have to be seen to be paying their way and in order to do that they have had to actively attract visitors, and those visitors have to spend real money. This has involved a lot of radical soul-searching, much of which Ė perhaps most- has been of refreshing benefit to museums in general. Scholarly thought and brains have been exercised to make their collections exciting, informative and tempting, and Ďvisitor servicesí became as important as research. The downside of course is that the museum inevitably slides towards the theme-park concept, where the prime motivation is to create an attraction that people will pay for regardless of any historical truth or conservation need, a slippery slope out of education into entertainment. These concepts can sometimes happily overlap and co-operate but they are not the same thing, and anyone who thinks they can be balanced permanently is in cloud cuckoo land. Museums, historic conservation and culture will always need some sort of subsidy, however disguised, and the canal culture is no exception.

In the 1990s the waterway museums at Ellesmere Port, Gloucester and Stoke Bruerne were feeling the strain of a changing world. The national fashion for new museums had moved on, visitor numbers were not improving and maintenance costs were rising. There was trouble ahead. But then The Waterways Trust came into existence, a charitable organisation supported by British Waterways but one that had access to outside money too, from grants, other trusts and the lottery. What better partnership could there be than that between the new philanthropic Waterways Trust and the needy well-intentioned waterways museums? Perfect, surely?

Well it was fine whilst it was young and bushy tailed but whether through misjudgement or mismanagement that Trust has now hit financial trouble. Costs must be cut and money saved, and the first target for cost cutting over the whole range of their operations has been - why, the museums of course, in particular the curatorial staff. The post of Keeper of Collections at Ellesmere Port, which has been vacant for twelvemonths anyway, will not be advertised, the Keeper of Collections at Gloucester has been made immediately redundant, the curatorís job is being downgraded and relocated and the archives at the Port are no longer open to the public due to lack of staff. Oh, and one of the most experienced visitor services managers has been made redundant too.

And why has there been such a rush to make these dramatic staff cuts so soon into the newly appointed Director of the Museums and Archivesí reign? It will not have escaped the majority of the readers of this column that this news has been totally swamped by the quite sudden announcement of a radical restructuring of the whole of the British Waterways management. Compared to this The Waterways Trust problems are small fry, and as that unpopular young woman of two years ago politically remarked itís been a good time to hide some very bad news. Museums and Trust seem hollow words this month.

Tony Lewery
The Brow
Ellesmere
June  2003


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