‘Downgrading’ Museum fears

‘Downgrading’ Museum fears

12 January 2022

NEWRY, Mourne and Down Council has been accused of downgrading the status of the Down County Museum in Downpatrick.

A former senior staff member says the museum is being reduced to the level of a visitor centre because of cuts in staff numbers.

In a stinging criticism, Ms Lesley Simpson, the former Keeper of Collections at the museum, claimed there were not enough staff to keep the museum safe, clean and open.

She also criticised the proposal to do with away with a full-time curator and instead have one curator, who will also be responsible for the council’s other museum in Newry.

Ms Simpson said a full-time curator was needed in Downpatrick to ensure “professional standards are maintained” and that without such a leader, the museum would suffer.

Claiming that senior staff have been downgraded and front of house staff depleted, she said restructuring had taken place without proper consultation and accused the council of failing to support the members of staff involved.

“It appears that no one really understands either the actual work carried out by museum staff, the level of knowledge and experience required or the scale of the operation,” she said.

“What has been a county museum is being reduced, not just to the level of a small town museum, but effectively a visitor centre.”

Also this week, an eminent local historian accused the council of being “penny pinchers” and imposing “swingeing” staffing cuts without public knowledge or consultation.

Last week, former South Down MP Margaret Ritchie, now Baroness Ritchie, also voiced her concerns for the future of the museum, which opened in 1980.

She said it was “insulting” that one curator should be responsible for two museums and Down County Museum was being threatened with “drastic changes” in its staff, which was already seriously depleted.

She said: “The museum is struggling to open for only four days a week and community organisations are being discouraged from using the buildings.

“Decisions about the new structure have been made without any consolation with stakeholders.”

A council spokesman said the organisation was currently in the process of implementing a new staff structure within its museums service.

The spokesman said a meeting was held in December with stakeholders and elected representatives to clarify that there will be no reduction in “staff head count” following the restructuring.

He said staff will be appointed to the new structure, including a full curatorial team supported by a team of museum assistants at Down County Museum.

“The council is committed to the continuous improvement and development of its museums,” the spokesman continued.

“For Down County Museum, this is demonstrated through the provision of a significant annual operating budget that’s included in the rates estimates process.

“In the next financial year council plans to invest in an upgrade to the environmental control system within the Governor’s Residence within Down County Museum.  Collections are also being assessed by specialist conservators, with further visits scheduled in early 2022 by wood conservators and other specialists. 

“Engagement is currently underway with the British Museum to advance the loan of new exhibitions to Down County Museum in 2022.”

The spokesman said a new website is currently being developed to create opportunities for further outreach and engagement with local communities and schools, and to encourage more visitors to the museum. 

“The website will bring the museum collections to a wider audience, and will help to enhance visitors’ appreciation of the diverse material culture of the region,” he continued.

“Over the past five months council has invested in a schools engagement programme, which has secured museum visits for 655 pupils and teachers from September 2021 to date. 

“This programme of engagement has been particularly important in providing primary school children with an opportunity to re-engage with our local heritage and historic environment during these challenging times.

“Through the work of dedicated museum officers, Down County Museum and Newry and Mourne Museum both provide a high quality visitor experience, receive very positive reviews from visitors, offer excellent education programmes for local school groups and have a strong connection to our local communities.

“This work contributes to community cohesion, and can provide opportunities to reduce social exclusion and isolation for local residents in our communities.

The spokesman added: “The implementation of an updated staffing structures for Newry Mourne and Down County Museum Service now provides an unparalleled opportunity to build upon this work.

“Further engagement with stakeholders is planned for early this year and we look forward to working with all our partners to advance the council’s ambitious and exciting plans for our museum services.”