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Brave new world for museums in York

YORK'S museums were set free today. Everyone says so. The council has relinquished control, handed over the sector to a charitable trust and, according to one museums worker, "there's a definite sense of let's get on with it". Peter Addyman, a founder of Jorvik and a trustee himself, also believes today marks a fresh start. "The new trust will have independence of action, and I think it has got the vision and determination to make the museums an even greater success than they are," he said.

And the new boss of the York Museums and Gallery Trust, Janet Barnes, put it this way: "We're being liberated."

Regular visitors will not notice an immediate difference. But change is on its way. There is a consensus of opinion that York's publicly-funded museums could not go on as they were.

The museum worker gave the bluntest assessment. "It's inevitable. It had to happen. People are concerned, but the feeling is we have been messed about for over ten years.

"It can't be any worse than it was under the council. The council couldn't run a sweet shop.

"I am sure that the trustees will be as difficult to deal with as the council. But at least they'll be interested."

To be fair, City of York Council has tried. But it has far bigger spending priorities, and there are no votes in a well-run museums service. A lack of investment has left some of the displays, to use the word of former council leader Rod Hills, looking "tired".

Meanwhile, grant-making bodies who could pump millions of pounds into the museums refuse to hand over any cash while they are in local authority control.

Recognising its hamstrung position, the council took the brave decision to create an independent trust. From today it is in charge of the Yorkshire Museum, York Castle Museum and Art Gallery, as well as St Mary's Church, former home to the York Story.

But will the trust, made up of 15 trustees with local and national museums expertise, make any difference? Naturally enough its chief executive Janet Barnes says yes.

Although still a partner of the council, the decision-making independence of the trust will allow it "to focus on the task in hand, which is to look after the collections, to display them and interpret them, to engage with the public, to do all the things that museums do".

The council has set some tough targets for the trust. It must arrest the decline in visitor numbers - from its yearly peak of 900,000 visitors 20 years ago, the Castle Museum now attracts little more than a third of that number.

The trust has to secure an £8 million redevelopment programme, and generate income through hiring out the premises.

It must increase the number of visits by schools and local residents, and come up with a long-term plan for St Mary's Church.

Ambitious stuff. And Janet is well aware that nothing can happen overnight.

"There's been no major investments for years. The quality of the collections is undeniable and yes, I think that we need to refresh the displays in the short term.

"But in the longer term we have to lever in major funding.

"People have high expectations of museums and we are not matching those expectations and we've got to."

The trust's charitable status will allow it to bid for millions of pounds of Lottery and other money to add to the £1.3 million it gets from the council, plus the income generated by the museums and gallery.

The money is badly needed: attracting visitors is harder than ever. Where once Sunday leisure time used to mean museums, parks and little else, they must now compete against shops, theme parks and home entertainment.

But Janet is convinced the trust can recreate an excitement around York's museums. "York has fantastic collections. It has an extraordinary range and depth of collections which you'd be hard put to find in other cities.

"It has enormous strengths. It has a hugely distinguished history in terms of museums: the Yorkshire Museum, one of the first; the Castle Museum in terms of its innovation.

"Once I knew that it was going out to trust I knew that change could occur.

"I just feel that it's all waiting to happen."

What will have happened by this time next year? The museums will be more visible, Janet said; some people have lived in York for ten years and still don't know a museum exists in Museum Gardens.

There will be more educational activities, "and I hope that the displays will start to be refreshed" based on the staff's ideas.

And in five years' time Norwich Union might be holding its Christmas corporate bash among the dinosaurs at Yorkshire Museum?

"I hope a bit more than that. I hope that we will have by that time a very well established and thought-through strategic plan and be well on the way with, or have completed, the first major capital project.

"Those words will come back to me, won't they?" she adds, with a laugh.

Janet knows what she's doing, however. York is only the second major city to set up a museums trust. Sheffield was the first in 1997 - and Janet was in charge. She had decided to go into the museums sector while reading English Literature at university in Sheffield, her home city.

Much of her working life has been there, including a nine-year stint as keeper of the Ruskin Gallery, which included manuscript, architecture and natural history collections. She also launched Sheffield's Millennium Gallery. More recently, she was director of the Crafts Council in London. Then the York job brought her back north.

So what does she think museums are for? "In the broadest sense they're places of education. They're places of discovery. We're inundated with information in terms of the web, television, publications, but there is nothing like the real thing.

"What we have is an incredible resource to excite people about different cultures about their own past, about York but also Yorkshire."

She is relishing the challenge. "It's really important for York. From my conversations with staff I think they are excited about it. They do see it as a great opportunity.

"I feel they're dead right."

Updated: 10:29 Thursday, August 01, 2002

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