Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

How A Museum Ends/Museum Of Marco Polo

13th April 2015

The Reverend Collyer and Elsie Fletcher would be turning in their graves.  It was these two, along with many others, who saved the Roman history of Ilkley and fought to keep a museum going in the town. Now I am standing in the half-emptied galleries and tomorrow (in fact by the time you read this article) the museum will have closed.  It’s a fairly typical example of how these things happen.

Google the subject and you will uncover a series of bitterly fought local scraps, the length and breadth of the country.  Each fight is different although there are certain repeating threads.  Typically the money is reduced, hours are cut, staff laid off, and as the expertise vanishes the museum goes into decline until there is no one left with the skills to reverse it.  Then when the museum is weakened and the stamina gone, the decision seems obvious – to withdraw from the edges, to consolidate, to have one good museum rather than three scrappy ones.  All over the UK local museums are working desperately not to be the weakest link.

But if a local museum can survive anywhere you would think it would be here in Ilkley.  It’s a prosperous town with plenty of tourists, good train connections and a museum in an old manor house that’s bang in the middle of town.

And Ilkley has an interesting history.  Patterns occur.  Time and again this small town seems to have become the centre of something.  First it was in prehistory when the moors around the town were filled with barrows, cairns and prehistoric rock carvings.  Then the Romans came and built a fort here that remained in use for the entire Roman occupation. (We know the name of at least one of the fort’s commanders, Caecilius Lucanus.)  And then again in the 19th century the town revived itself and became one of England’s spa towns.

Manor House Museum, Ilkley

Manor House Museum, Ilkley

On the day that I stand in Ilkley Museum the galleries are largely empty, although two of the museum’s stars – a couple of Roman tombstones – have not yet gone.  One shows a family of three – a husband, wife and child, so maybe a soldier’s family? – each dressed in a tunic and with that engaging look – big eyes, big heads, short legs, bare feet – that you sometimes see on Roman tombstones.  These three also were the people of Ilkley.

One tombstone was pulled from the foundations of the Congregational Chapel;  another came from the yard of the ‘Rose and Crown’ during the 19th century when there were so many Roman antiquities being dug out of the ground that they were being carried off by the cartload.  One local antiquarian wrote, ‘The remains of Roman brick, glass and earthenware everywhere appear on the edge of the fort.’   Another reported, ‘Bits of red Samian ware, fragments of glass, tiles, pottery and bones were protruding from the ramparts or have fallen into the brook below.’  By the time that anyone thought to survey the fort large amounts of it had vanished.

It was precisely because of this that people like the Reverend Collyer and Elsie Fletcher fought so hard to maintain this museum. They saw themselves as saving history. It has had a bumpy ride, closed at least once but brought back to life again.  This time though it looks final.  There are several local bodies who might want to use the space;  no one though who shows any sign of wanting to keep the museum.

Meanwhile outside on this cold spring day life in Ilkley goes on regardless.

Does it matter if we have no local museums?  So ask my friends who don’t work in museums, to which there are three answers –

Firstly, local history is fine-grained, personal, detailed, expressive, in a way that top-down history rarely is.  Give it enough time, allow it to build up its case detail by detail, and local history sometimes changes top-down history.

Secondly it might look obvious to consolidate museums but when you take an object away from the place where it was found you change its meaning. A Roman brick means one thing when you see it next to the fort of which it was a part, and something completely different when you see it ten miles off.  And anyway at what point do we stop consolidating?  When we have ten, five, three super/local museums in the north of England?

And thirdly there’s the fact that the history of local museums is threaded through with amateurs, visionaries and eccentrics, who fought night and day to piece together our history.  Their stories are now part of the museum’s stories.  When the museum goes who will tell the next chapter in the story?

And there’s one other thing.  Why, you wonder, are the struggles of local museums only a local story?  Surely all history belongs to all of us, in which case why isn’t it our story also? And why is there no bigger strategy, just a series of local crises?  All of which questions will get more pressing as the cuts go on.

Bradford Metropololitan Distric Council, the local authority, said (18th February 2014):  ‘Over the last three years the Government has cut Council funding by over £100m.  Now more cuts mean that we have to find another £115m over the next three years. Cuts like these mean the Council having to change beyond recognition.  Services will be reduced and some stopped altogether.’

In the next issue we will be coming back to these questions.

By Rachel Morris