Contributed by Steve Woods
Readers of this newsletter are only too familiar with the Herculean effort that is required to establish a district museum in Sleaford. But in Issue No.2 we had a very encouraging report about another determined museum group, in Ashby de la Zouch. And now there is word of another local campaign, which may give grounds for guarded optimism in North Kesteven.
In Eastbourne, the public collection of historic artefacts has for many years been the responsibility of The Eastbourne Society (The Civic Trust). Until 2006, a large part of the collection was displayed in the basement of the Manor House, a handsome 18th Century building in the Old Town. The rest of the building was occupied by the Towner Gallery, a major regional art collection. Some years ago, the Trustees of the Towner decided, for a variety of reasons, that the art collection would have to find a new purpose-built home. Eventually, funding was secured from various sources, including Eastbourne Borough Council, to the tune of £8.6 million. The new Towner in Devonshire Park, which will include public meeting rooms and a conservation workshop, is scheduled to open later this year.
Unfortunately for the tenants in the basement, the plans for the new Towner made no provision for a history museum. The Manor House was to be sold with vacant possession, and as a result, new temporary storage for the collection has had to be found. The archaeological collection (very impressively displayed in the old Towner) has been stored in The Redoubt, one of the Martello Towers dating from Napoleonic times, which is now the museum of the Royal Sussex Regiment. Much of the rest of the collection, including the vulnerable paper artefacts, has been found a temporary home in a store near the new Gallery.
One further feature of the town's museum scene (and there are others for which there is no space here) must be mentioned now. And at this point, Sleaford eyes may roll heavenwards. By the 1980's, Park Cottage, a quirky Victorian house which had been built by the 7th Duke of Devonshire for one of his managers, had fallen into disuse and disrepair. (The imprint of the Devonshire family on the town will strike a chord with historians of Sleaford) With demolition its probable fate, The Eastbourne Society stepped in and after strenuous campaigning and fundraising, managed to rescue and modernise the house and transform it into the Eastbourne Heritage Centre. Here, not far from the Promenade and at a peppercorn rent, it displays a selection of items from the collection, telling the story of the district from prehistoric to modern times.
On the lower ground floor, there are some reference books, documents and illustrations, and a button-operated 15-minute DVD on the development of the town. The Centre is open to the public during the afternoon from April to October, with a £2 entry charge. There is a small gift display area and workshops are available for school groups. It is staffed entirely by volunteers and the Visitors' Book records comments from all points of the compass, home and abroad.
Although, from an SMT perspective, this may not sound like a hand-to-mouth existence, the temporary storage facilities for the bulk of the collection will mean just that. But now (and none of the volunteers want to count their chickens) there is possibly a chink of light. After several years of the lobbying of previous Councils by the museum activists, the new (May 2007) Lib.Dem. Council has apparently been persuaded of the case for a new local museum. An Eastbourne Museum Committee has been formed, drawn from three local organisations, together with a representative from the Borough Council. The organisations are the Eastbourne society, The Local History Society and the Natural History and Archaeological Society. The Council has asked the Committee to submit a proposal, by June this year, for a new museum and local history facility in the town. At present, the Council is not committing itself to anything and the project will inevitably require substantial outside funding.
One moral of the stories coming from Eastbourne and Ashby (and there are surely others) seems to be that a pooling of efforts by local organisations may well produce results that a single organisation, however determined its members, may be unable to achieve. We know that several of the funding bodies in the heritage arena look favourably on joint applications, even if only one of the parties has a specific heritage remit. Any coalition that would increase the bargaining power of SMT needs to be considered. But these examples also suggest that if a motto for SMT is required, it might do worse than "NIL DESPERANDUM"!