Museums celebrating Norfolk’s past face uncertain and challenging future

For a service so dedicated to celebrating our history, the future is becoming an increasingly dominant topic in the corridors of museums.

As the amount of money available to the public sector decreases, competition for cash from other sources increases.

Within the culture industry, this competition is perhaps more intense. There is no legal duty for councils to provide museums.

But it is implausible to suggest ditching said service would go unnoticed or without protest.

The attractions remain popular in Norfolk, with more than 350,000 thousand visiting the county's 10 council-run sites annually. But thousands also choose not to visit a service they pay for via taxation.

How is it possible to grow and develop a service at a time of stretched resources? How can things be done differently to keep the existing visitors happy but also appeal to new audiences, of varying ages? What do people want from their museums?

For Vanessa Trevelyan, head of Norfolk's museums service, the search for answers to similar questions will soon stop.

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The 60-year-old will leave next April after 13 years in the post.

Mrs Trevelyan believes the future is bright although noted yesterday any sector can only take so many funding cuts for so long.

She is also currently president of the Museums Association - a role she will vacate in 2013.

But a report by the group called 2020 Vision, which includes an introductory note from Norfolk's museums chief, explains the challenges facing those within the industry.

In short, it is 'unlikely' recent levels of public funding will return in the next five to 10 years, which will 'inevitably' reduce the amount of work museums can do.

The report continues: 'It means museums have to 'critically review their situation, rethink various aspects of their operations, programming and partnerships... rather than simply reacting to what appears to be a looming crisis and trying to maintain previous operating models, this could be... a real turning point which makes museums fit for purpose.'

A look at the last 12 months in the history of Norfolk's service demonstrates the challenges being faced, the ups and downs embraced.

The Bridewell Museum in Norwich welcomed almost 3,000 visitors through its doors in the first few weeks after it finally re-opened, �1.4m a year until 2015 of Arts Council Funding has been secured and talks between English and French castle officials were held as both countries seek ideas about how best to display their Norman treasures.

The service will also become the country's first teaching museum from next year, giving eight people new to the industry a chance to work within it.

But security concerns at Norwich Castle have featured heavily, while an idea to create a charitable trust to operate Norfolk's 10 council-run attractions was comprehensively rejected.

A new review about all aspects of the service is being held by councillors. The attractions under scrutiny are: Norwich Castle, The Bridewell Museum, in Norwich, Strangers' Hall, in Norwich, Lynn Museum, the Elizabethan House Museum, in Great Yarmouth, Time and Tide in Great Yarmouth, The Tolhouse, in Great Yarmouth, Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, Cromer Museum and The Ancient House, Thetford.

One aspect is examining how more money can be raised in museum shops - if this can be achieved then it will provide much-needed cash.

People are now being asked for their views in two surveys put together by councillors. One is for people who do visit the museums, while the other is for those who do not.

George Nobbs, Labour group leader at Norfolk County Council, who is chairman of the review, said: 'We were determined on our working party that this survey will be inclusive and seeking to find out from people who don't use them, why they don't use them.

'They pay for the service whether they use it or not. They don't have a choice. If they are paying for it, the least we can do is ask them how we use their money.

'Mrs Trevelyan, in her interview yesterday, said her staff were 'throbbing with ideas of how to do things differently' and we will be absolutely delighted to hear their ideas.'

The councillors are expected to report back their findings in December. The report will influence the future of the service and whether it recommends changes to the senior management structure remains to be seen.

Questions also remain about whether a municipal art gallery could be established in Norwich and, more importantly, if there would be enough money to keep it operating.

Norwich Castle doubles up as a museum and an art gallery but separating the two would provide more space for the interpretation of the castle, and for more works to be put on display.

But cash is required to make this become a reality - and it appears now to be an ever-distant dream.

An idea to use part of the former fire station, in Bethel Street, as a gallery will not come to fruition after it was sold to a youth charity.

Keith Roberts, chairman of the Norfolk Contemporary Art Society, said: 'The only thing we would be very concerned about is there's a space to show contemporary art.'

Norman Lamb, North Norfolk MP, said the museums service was 'very valuable' to the county and he believed the 'well-respected' Mrs Trevelyan had done a good job.

He continued: 'Preserving the museums service is incredibly important for the county but we do have to think about ways to raise more funds, sponsorship and involving the public more. The bottom line is it's worth protecting.'

To take part in the survey on Norfolk's museums service, visit