Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Spare a thought

All sorts of things wind their way into the Forsythe household. Fiona went to a local watermill and came back with Towpath Talk Issue 56 May 2010. Readers of the blog might think we are timetable obsessives who have nothing else to do in life but worry about things on two rails. We believe in fighting the corner strongly for issues we take up but the reality for anyone who enters our house and eyes the shelves or follows our diaries is that we maintain a very diverse range of interests. In my life waterways and boats came first as I was brought up on the Norfolk Broads. So whilst I truly think that the National Railway Museum has to be kept up to the mark and has to fight strongly to get the best deal it can, I cannot avoid saying how fortunate that the tale of the national waterways museum is not that of the NRM. In history they stem from the same root. The nationalised British Transport Commission enabled both the railway and waterways elements of its operations in the 1960s to have museums. There was Clapham in London for land transport and Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire. Today Stoke Bruerne is one of three sister museums. The others are at Gloucester and Ellesmere Port. Their collections are easily of the order of the National Railway Museum. British Waterways remains the only nationalised operator still in being from the 1948 creations. Yet as this issue of Towpath Talk (and I think the recent TV series "Behind the scenes at the museum" which I missed) elaborates, the last few years have been totally torrid. Thankfully 2009 saw some optimism and visitors grew by 25%. But to only 70,000 across three sites. And no free admission. That is awful!

The core point is whilst railways, ships and coal mining all feature properly funded national museums, the three waterways museums despite being spun out of a state organisation have been cast adrift. This is completely unfair in the total context of what the waterways meant in British history and in our leading industrial revolution, nor does it do justice to the astonishing revival of the waterways network since the 1960s. And whilst all sorts of rescue plans have been hatched, exhibits of real importance have rotted and crumbled away.

The article argues that in a very bad situation, The Waterways Trust has achieved a great deal. It has not closed any museum, it is back on the up, it has no central grant, but has created a whole series of new and positive local relationships. It is receiving recognition from museum peers for its work. The future for public museums looking ahead is evidently going to be very tough and it is really sad that in the last few years of plenty, the neglect of the waterways museums was allowed to happen. I think someone could find a fascinating study in comparing and contrasting public policy and the National Railway Museum and the waterways museums taking as a start date 1948. Would it not be fascinating to be able to speak to Tony Hirst and Tom Rolt about this?

If someone undertaking that needed a little bit of worrying context examining the history of ISCA the International Sailing Craft Association and the Exeter Maritime Museum would be instructive. In that instance there was no reprieve and the collection has wandered around Britain subsequently. I think Eyemouth is the current home?

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