Lost Heritage, No Future?

In which The Author attends a public meeting

Wales is a unique and enriching place in which to live and work, with a distinctive character. An understanding of what makes Wales Welsh, embedded in the collective subconscious, is built upon the foundations of Wales’ oral and written history, its monuments and its heritage. The museums of Wales play a critical part in both preserving all of these and in sharing the excitement of their stories locally, nationally and internationally.
The recession we have experienced and the hard road we must now travel to recovery make it imperative that museums build on their tradition of working together to make effective use of the resources that will be available. I urge museums to develop different ways of working and in doing so to look beyond existing structures, to explore further joint working, and look for new, innovative ways to generate income.
I acknowledge that the next five years will not be easy and we must not underestimate the scale of the challenge facing museums striving to improve services in a time of economic difficulty. By developing new approaches, museums can continue their role in contributing to our social and economic well-being.
Alun Ffred Jones AM, Minister for Heritage in the Welsh Government, from the foreword to A Museums Strategy for Wales
Regular readers already know something about the savage spending cuts which my local authority, Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council, are seeking to inflict on us in the next four financial years. Phase One was announced last year, and involved cutbacks to meals on wheels, day centres, nursery provision, and the library service, amongst other things.
In A Further Turn-out For the Books I listed the proposed library closures, which have now been approved by a majority vote. Then again, when the seventy-five strong council is made of fifty-nine Labour members, nine Plaid Cymru councillors, four Independents, one Conservative, one who doesn’t seem to belong anywhere (according to their official website, anyway) and my pal Mike Powell (the sole Lib Dem), it was going to be impossible for the vote to go any other way.
Phase Two was announced a little while ago, and I’ve highlighted some of the resulting issues in earlier postings. This time, they’re after soft targets: the borough’s three theatres, Pontypridd Muni, Aberdare Coliseum and Treorchy Parc and Dare; the museums in Pontypridd and Aberdare; and the Rhondda Heritage Park. The plans are to close the Muni and both facilities in Pontypridd; to retain the other theatres with a ‘limited programme’, and to reduce the opening hours at the Heritage Park.
In order to mobilise opposition to the Cynon Valley Museum and Gallery closure, retired headteacher Tydfil Thomas pulled together an action committee drawn from across the community. Tonight, I attended a packed public meeting at Green Street Methodist Church in Aberdare, in which the arguments in favour of keeping the museum alive were rehearsed in considerable detail.
David Walters, the chairman of the Cynon Valley History Society, introduced a number of impassioned and cogently-argued speeches in defence of the facility. Detailed arguments for retaining the museum came from local historians, artists, teachers, councillors, and members of the public. Furthermore, letters objecting to the proposals have been sent to the council from Ann Clwyd MP, Christine Chapman AM, and Lord Aberdare, and we heard extracts from all of them.
Some interesting facts and figures were thrown about, including visitor numbers at the borough’s attractions. Nearly fifty thousand people frequented the Cynon Valley Museum and Gallery in a twelve-month period – half as many again as the Heritage Park welcomed during the same time. It’s a focal point for tourists, and appears in Wales’ Top Ten Museums. It also has accredited museum status, which the Heritage Park doesn’t. Forgive me for being cynical, but Cynon Valley has been the poor relation in the Rhondda Cynon Taf family since the unitary authority came into existence. It seems as though the favoured child is the Rhondda once again.
My old friend, historian and author Gwyn Morgan, gave a fiery address about the need to maintain the link between our past and our future, and highlighted the vital role of museums in keeping this connection alive. The other speakers, including local historian David Leslie Davies and Tyrone O’Sullivan of Tower Colliery fame, expanded on this theme. They made some fascinating observations about our Valley’s role in Welsh history. We had both the first deep coal mine in Wales (in Cwmbach) and the last (Tower itself.) During the Merthyr Rising of 1831, the red flag was raised for the first time on Hirwaun Common. It is their connection to events like these which draw people to the museum from all parts of the world.
If, as has been claimed, the entire argument revolves purely around money, then we need to see more hard evidence. For example, if the museum staff are redeployed then no money would be saved on payroll. At one point, the council’s own accounts were called into question. It was pointed out that revenue generated from commission on artwork sales, amongst other receipts, had not been taken into consideration. Councillor Karen Morgan (PC, Hirwaun) promised the meeting that she would pursue this issue with the necessary department. Meanwhile, a representative of UNISON stated that the staff have not been assured that they will be redeployed in the event of closure. As one speaker pointed out, the last thing we need at the moment is more job losses.
Someone else asked what would happen to the twenty thousand artefacts currently stored there, a great number of them donated by members of the public. It was also pointed out that it is housed in a Grade II listed building (part of the old Gadlys Ironworks), and that the building would have to be maintained whether the museum remained open or not.
Plenty of innovative ideas were outlined by Ann Watts, another of the speakers, and I’ll run through just a few of them. A popular option seemed to be the establishment of a trust, to administer the facility at arm’s length from the local authority. It was also suggested that volunteers could help to run the place, much as they do in the National Museum in Cardiff. The introduction of a small admission fee for adults would raise a substantial sum of money as well, judging from the visitor numbers. Someone else suggested linking to museums across the country, so that exhibits could be exchanged and a rolling programme of themed displays introduced. With the Welsh Government presently looking into a national strategy for museums it seems counter-intuitive to be talking about closing one of the most highly regarded museums in the country.
Coun Mike Forey (Lab, Aberdare East), a member of the cabinet who are faced with making these hard decisions, attended the meeting and admitted that he had difficulty separating his personal feelings from his civic responsibilities. However, he has also promised to look into the financial breakdown as well, and make sure that all revenue streams are taken into account when the decisions are made.
For now, at least, the ball is in our court. The public consultations on Phase 2 close on February 24th, and the relevant documents can be found on the council’s website. Even if there seems little hope after the council consider the outcome, the place won’t be closed overnight. We’ll probably have until July to pull something together to keep the museum open.
In the meantime, reflect on RCTCBC’s civic motto for a moment: Strong Heritage, Strong Future. Let’s see if they’ll put their money where their mouths are.

A Museums Strategy for Wales Welsh Government, 2013

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