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Newsletter, July 2003 (Issue 152)

Ipswich Museums


Introducing Tim Heyburn, Society Chairman Jack Chapman referred back to the Action Group of which the Society had been a member and which had recommended that a properly qualified person should be appointed to head the Museum Services. By the end of Tim's talk I am sure that there was no one in the room who doubted that he was the ideal person for the job.

Tim said that his three years in post had been very challenging ones. In response to the Council's decision in 1999 that there was a need to reform the direction of the Museums'service and to create one more in line with the needs of local residents, he was developing a five-year action plan which included a complete review of the displays in the High Street Museum.

He described the context in which his review was taking place with the Borough Council's reorganisation, a plethora of strategies, the move towards regionalisation and the emphasis on "best value". He told us of the performance indicators used, such as the number of visits/usages per 1,000 population, including the number of web-hits (170,000 in 2002). And he shared with us his concern that indicators did not always measure the most important aspects; for instance the emphasis on the number of pupils in booked school groups was at odds with his belief in the importance of life-long teaming.

The Government's strategy for museums was based on a top-down rather than bottom-up approach. Its report "Renaissance in the Regions" had divided the country into "hubs" with a core museum and up to three satellites. Our regional hub consisted of Norwich and the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge with Luton and Colchester as satellites. There was no direct provision for Local Authority museums outside of the hub but the theory was that the hub's influence would benefit museums such as Ipswich. The Eastern Hub is to be part of Phase 2 funding starting in 2005-2006. However, there is an initial stream of funding to help with capacity building.

Tim emphasised the importance of Ipswich's museums. Founded in 1847, they contained nationally and regionally important collections. During 2001-2002 there had been 32,107 visitors to the High Street Museum and 68,231 to the Mansion (with 2% at the Museum and 8% at the Mansion coming from overseas). Both were generally popular with all age groups but the Mansion was less popular among the under-10s.

Having given us a vivid picture of the context in which the Museums had to operate and the constraints on funding for the developments which were needed, Tim then went on to spell out some specific challenges. These were: the need to engage the local community, to put Ipswich on the map, to regain the confidence of regional and national bodies after the cuts of a few years ago and, very importantly when museums are a discretionary service, to engage local political support and joined-up thinking so that they are seen as an asset rather than as a burden.

He believed that museums made a vital contribution to quality of life by stimulating human creativity, conveying an understanding of past and present, developing the individual and encouraging sustainability. They contributed to regeneration by developing civic pride, stimulating investment, creating tourist destinations and developing social cohesion.

Tim then listed the steps being taken to implement the development plan. In Stage One (with a small grant) a dedicated display of the town's history, "The Ipswich Story", had been created in the Museum's gallery and an "Ipswich at War" exhibition is being planned for late September. He emphasised the importance of Ipswich Museum and Galleries providing an inspiring experience which fired the imagination. It was important to preserve, too, what was not directly relevant to Ipswich since there was strength in the breadth of the collection. There was now only one expert (the Keeper of Natural Sciences) and more Keepers were badly needed to stem the erosion of expertise.

For Stage Two (2003) neither growth nor cuts were foreseen. He would concentrate on enhancing community development and life-long teaming and building up a handling collection.

Under Stage Three, the collection (and access to it) would be reviewed. This would include the High Street Exhibition Gallery, to which there was no access from the Museum and not enough staff to open it. There was insufficient support of education at the Museum at present and he hoped to develop the community learning side, with bids for a Community Learning Officer and Community Studies Officer, possibly in partnership with The Ipswich Society and others. Lottery funding might be sought for new posts, facilities improvement and re-display projects.

In response to members' questions, Tim discussed other aspects of his difficult task. Time had been needed to restore stability and confidence after the cuts. While the invaluable contribution of volunteers was now measured, there was a need for staff to back them up. Tim spent a lot of time filling in forms and felt that he would like to spend more time "processing the service rather than servicing the process".

Tim's talk was comprehensive and reasoned, giving us a clear picture of the position of our Museum and Mansion at present and the outlook for the next few years. His passionate commitment to the Museums and to their potential is illustrated by his quote: "A mind once stretched by an idea never regains its original dimension".

SHIRLEY SADLER

    Front cover of issue 152 Cover, issue 152

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