Dead Dolphin ashore May 2016

Dead Dolphin ashore May 2016

Friday, 23 December 2011

Reopen the Maritime Museum ?

This is entirely my own point of view and understanding and is not Ramsgate Town Council or Labour Party policy, so I would appreciate any point of view.

There remain many unanswered questions over the continued closure of the Ramsgate Maritime Museum and over the past year even before I was elected to Ramsgate Town Council I have thought in the back of my mind that perhaps Thanet District Council does not want the Steam Museum Trust to operate a Museum from the building. Bearing in mind all the controversy and the legalities of the previous East Kent Maritime Trust running the venue plus all the problems and cost involved does TDC really want to follow the same path again ?

Over at Margate for example the Museum has reopened with the use of volunteers overseen by one council officer. This has been an outstanding success and this is not due to TDC favouring Margate over Ramsgate. It is due to the fact that at Margate, TDC owns all the artefacts and the building so it is just a case of opening the doors. There is nothing political about any of this because all TDC did at Margate was to foster goodwill and now they have a flexible museum service run by volunteers which in all honesty could be a model for struggling local authority Museums throughout the country.

Now if the Steam Museum Trust was to vacate the Maritime Museum would it be a disaster, well the answer would probably be no if the TDC model at Margate was applied to Ramsgate. For example TDC owns the Ramsgate clockhouse building and there is enough goodwill in Ramsgate to form a volunteer group as the magnificent Ramsgate Tunnels project has proved that.

The next question would be what do we put in it? My research over the past six months does point to the fact that TDC owns a substantial collection of Ramsgate items. Which would then put Maritime Museum in the same position as Margate, a TDC building with TDC items that could be run by volunteers. Also it must be also taking into consideration that some of the items locked away in the Maritime Museum are owned by TDC anyway plus there many items that are still loans from Ramsgate people. If push comes to shove the SMT could loans items to the new volunteerMuseum group.

Finally, all it would need is the visitor information centre to move into the Museum and I would say it would be game, set and match.


MAC said...

Hi Tony - and Season's Greetings!

The Steam Museum Trust would extend its volunteer pool to include people wishing to help with running a professional museum service and already has a 'waiting list' of people eager to offer their assistance.

I agree that a new generic Ramsgate local history collection of sorts could be gradually assembled, but the strength of the Maritime Museum was always its immediate association with its main subject matter. There is also a substantial pool of specialist knowledge available via former staff and volunteers, and it seems daft to start from new when the basic sound 'product' is sitting there almost ready to roll!

However, there are three things that the Steam Museum Trust would bring to the Ramsgate Museum, as well as the collections, which as yet do not appear to have been considered at Margate.

A proper system of governance - Margate has an ad hoc relationship largely working through the goodwill of a particular TDC officer and the Friends. As far as I am aware there is no structure or long-term security of tenure.

Events and other activities. Margate has been able to stage low-key events using elements which were mostly introduced during EKMT days - Model Theatre, Chamber Music, special Exhibitions etc. At Ramsgate the expectation is that SMT will stage large scale fund-raising events attracting several thousand visitors which benefit not only the museum but the harbour-side traders and the town in general.

Thirdly - and perhaps most importantly from TDC's point of view - any proposed lease would expect the trust to take on responsibility for the conservation and maintenance of the Grade II* Clock House. This is a significant potential burden to the Council Tax Payer, and before much longer TDC will be faced with a substantial bill if it continues to fail in its duty to maintain the building.

The difference between the two approaches is that one maintains a fairly static provision under a short-term understanding whilst the other offers a real chance of a dynamic, professional and developing resource.

As before, the two should work together and share their strengths - this is not a competition! Hopefully a similar trust dedicated to Margate Museum can be formed in due course.

Anonymous said...

well said mac tdc affraid to let it work where they failed plus its not in margate

Tony Beachcomber said...

Annon, The closure of the Maritime Museum was not a TDC failure it was a East Kent Maritime Trust failure.From 1994 to 2006 the Trust received from TDC a sum of £1.6 million to run the Margate Museum and the Maritime Museum. In both cases the EKMT did not work towards sustainability and was content to be grant dependent. It doesn't matter if TDC is Conservative, Labour or whatever the days of direct grant funded museums trusts are over and there has to be alternative ways to run a museum.

The Margate Museum system works and it is nothing to do with a Margate versus Ramsgate thing. It is now time to throw open the debate on how the Maritime Museum is going to be opened in time for the 2012 season.

Anonymous said...

It's disengenuous to say that the closure of the museums is nothing to do with TDC.

TDC chose to provide a service in Ramsgate by establishing an 'independant' trust in the 1980s and created EKMT. It was a cheap way of providing a museum and was independantly assessed by the Area Museum Service to be costing the Council about a third of an equivalent directly provided (Council Run) service. 80k per annum is pretty good value for money when taken in perspective - if the Trust had ever had the 1.6 million as a lump sum then it would indeed have been sustainable! The council revenue grant only accounted for about 70% of the average annual running costs and did not contribute at all to capital projects, some of which were substantial.

At Margate the Council wanted to open the Margate Museum and Tudor House using the same model of an independant charitable trust, but in the 1980s there were no 'worthies' in Margate willing to take up the challenge. After a few years TDC decided to close down its directly provided service, which had always performed poorly compared to the Trust model at Ramsgate - however it was measured. There was a short stay of execution when it struggled on for a while having lost the Tudor House - a great mistake in hindsight.

In 1994 it was announced that the Margate Museum was to close, but EKMT stepped into the breach and saved it. It saved it again a year later when TDC cut the budget and again announced to the press that Margate Museum was going to close - without consulting the Trust!

The Trustees refused to let that happen, and it was only their determination to carry on that allowed Margate Museum to survive at all - that should never be forgotten.

The Trust's great failing was that it didn't take succession planning seriously and post about 2004 it went into gradual but accelerating decline and failed to maintain its links with TDC and other funders.

It's final demise was the result of a complex interaction of circumstances which TDC had no small influence on. The closure of both museums was avoidable if the Trust and the Council had continued to work together, and if TDC had truly valued the Island's heritage.

The national picture does not support Tony Beachcomber's view about the end of independant trusts. Across the country former Local Authority Museums have been transferred to new trusts - take York as a shining example. In most cases the councils realise that they should offer some support or pump-priming - something which Thanet was doing 25 years ago before it was fashionable!

Volunteers have a strong role but they can't operate in a vacuum. What happens when the 'favourably disposed officer' retires or is reasigned?

Create a properly constituted not-for-profit body at Margate and get the council to offer secure leases to the organisations that want to run both our fine museums.

Tony Beachcomber said...

Annon, perhaps you can answer one question that has been bugging me for years. Why did it cost so much to run the Maritime Museum ?

At one point the EKMT was receiving £134K per annum to run both venues and the Margate Museum was run on a shoestring. The EKMT couldn't even produce a breakdown what was spent on the Margate Museum at the time.

Also the EKMT didn't take on the Margate Museum in 1994 out of the goodness of its heart it did it for funding.

The problem I have annon, is that I know exactly what went on in the past and I sincerely hope those days do not return, because if they do I will have nothing to do with it.

MAC said...

Hi Tony

I can answer that - but I don't know where you get your figures from. Don't be fooled by the contemporary TDC's creative accounting which added all sorts of abstract amounts including very imaginative assessments of rental values to the theoretical budgets.

The highest ever cash payment to EKMT was 90,000 in 1994-5 when it was increased to assist with the takeover of Margate Museum, but this was reduced by 10,000 the next year and never increased thereafter.

In the last 8 years that I was with EKMT, the trust received 79,800 per annum from TDC as a revenue grant. This was around 65-75% of an average year's revenue costs - most of which was for staffing. 6 or 7 staff easily eats up that amount of cash, even on the low pay offered by EKMT!

I negotiated the deal with TDC to allow the Margate Museum to stay open and can tell you that the trustees considered long and hard whether they wanted to bail it out. The extra funding offered by TDC did not equate to the extra costs and was a fraction of the direct provision budget previously enjoyed under TDC management. There were no threats from TDC, and it was always something EKMT could have walked away from, but the trustees saw the heritage merit of Margate and agreed to take it under their wing.

There was an element of creating critical mass, which allowed both museums to survive and allowed EKMT to be a fairly major player in the museum sector in the Kent and, I think, the South East region.

It was always on the basis that the two museums would be run as one service and that no precise breakdown of costs would be made. It was very much a matter of economies of scale, staff at Ramsgate routinely carried out work for Margate (and to a small extent vice versa) and all administration, purchasing etc. was pooled.
It was always possible to pull out the obvious costs for each venue but that would have been a pointless accountancy exercise.

Anyone that really knew what 'was going on' was convinced that it was excellent value for money and at least preserved the Margate Museum for others to take forward.

Anon. is quite right, more and more council museum services are going down the trust route but nearly all still enjoy some continuing revenue support from the parent authority. Not likely in Thanet, I agree!

Tony Beachcomber said...


I see as from July 2011 EKMT accounts are no longer accessible on the charity commission website.Which is a shame as there are still many unanswered questions and that more or less sweeps everything under the carpet.