As Lancashire’s museums fight for survival visitors are voting with their feet.
If there was a popularity contest for most visited venue, the prizewinner taking the top crown would be Clitheroe Castle museum which welcomed some 69,003 visitors in 2014/15.
Museums aren’t just buildings – it’s the contents and our heritageCounty Coun. Chris Henig
In second place it is Lancaster City Museum with 50,316 visitors in the same period.
Lancaster Castle comes third with 40,444 visitors and Preston’s Museum of Lancashire is in fourth place with 37,587 visitors.
The county council has been consulting on its decision to close five museums – the Museum of Lancashire in Preston, the Judges’ Lodgings in Lancaster, Fleetwood Museum and the Queen Street and Helmshore textile mills – to save £1m.
The original intention was to shut them on Friday, but they have been given a stay of execution until the end of September, while talks are held to see if ways can be found to keep them open at no cost to the council.
A special cross-party Cabinet Working Group, chaired by County Coun. Chris Henig, met for the first time on Friday to try to broker solutions to a crisis, which the ruling Labour group says has been forced on them by further multi million pound cuts in local government funding.
County Coun. Henig said: “We’re not the only authority faced with these problems. We have to make massive cuts.”
She said workshops are going to be arranged for local interested group or parties interested in helping keep the museums open to contribute their ideas and offers of help.
She said: “I think it is really important we do meet people and listen. I know people feel passionately. Museums aren’t just buildings – it’s the contents and our heritage.”
She emphasised that each museum will have different assets and issues, but one possibility might be for museums in a locality to become part of a cluster group.
Five remaining museums – Clitheroe Castle, Lancaster Castle, Lancaster City Museum, Lancaster Maritime Museum and Lancaster Cottage Museum – operated on behalf of other owners – will stay open providing they can cover their costs.
If they can’t, the intention is to hand all back to their owners by March 31st, 2017.
The county council says it is contractually committed to run a sixth, Gawthorpe Hall, on behalf of the National Trust, but hopes to cover its costs from fees and admission charges.
The working party will pass on its recommendations to the cabinet member for environment, planning and cultural services County Coun. Marcus Johnstone.
If councillors were to make their decisions on a “use it or lose it” basis there will be some other significant figures to ponder.
Data revealed in a special analysis by county council officers compares attendance at 11 county museums and the Lancashire Conservation Studios between 2013/14 and 2014/15.
This makes sobering reading for some centres.
When figures for 2014/15 are compared with 2013/14. Visitors to Lancaster’s Cottage Museum are down by 22.4 %, the Judges’ Lodgings by 21%, Lancaster City Museum by 17.6%, Lancaster Castle by 11.1% and the Lancaster Maritime Museum by 7.1%.
Meanwhile in the same period the Museum of Lancashire saw a 3.3% increase, Fleetwood Museum saw a 3.1% increase in visitors to 14,580 and Lancashire Conservation Studios increased its footfall by 2.1% to 3,913.
The most successful, with a 9.1% increase in visitors was the Queen Street Mill Textile Museum in Briercliffe with 12,402 visitors enjoying a tour in 2014/15.
Seasonal openings and special exhibitions have impacted on the figures – for example, the Judges’ Lodgings closes over the winter.
Taking a wider perspective some museums have seen a dramatic change in visitor numbers over a five-year period – Clitheroe Castle attracted some 36,383 visitors in 2009/10. The Museum of Lancashire welcomed just 10,642 visitors in 2009/10 and Queen Street Textile Mill went from 6.738 visitors then to 12,402 in 2014/15.
The report notes some of the museums identified for closure, including the Museum of Lancashire, have made improvements to access to assist visits by the disabled.
The council says it has been consulting with partners such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and National Trust as well as Friends groups and Trustees.