Here we are again. A flurry of proposed council cuts, and the culture sector finds itself on the chopping block. Not for the first time, a museum is the subject of rumours regarding its long term viability, with ‘closure’ a word being bandied around. This time, it’s a museum close to my heart, as Newport Museum and Art Gallery is being considered by the city council for, what might diplomatically be described as, a ‘reduction’.
‘Reductions’ of cultural institutions can, of course, present themselves in a variety of ways. A cut back in staffing provision is often the easiest and quickest route toward budget realignments. Newport Museum, however, has played that card more than once already in recent years, and functions with the absolute bear minimum when it comes to curatorial and education based employees.
The next step, once you’ve got rid of your staff, is to start eyeing up a reduction of the collections, and then the museum building itself. On the table at the moment, are proposals to shut down the main museum site, and relocate the entire collection into some manner of warehouse, where objects would be distributed, on occasion, to select venues. This, of course, is not a museum.
The loss of a permanent site is the death sentence for a museum, and does little good for the collections as well. Conservation standards only suffer with a non-permanent location, as environmental conditions become unpredictable, and the lack of regular expert inspections on the collection mean decay and deterioration is either not spotted early enough, or the deterioration cannot be countered for the lack of full time conservation staff to attend to the problem. Put simply, the loss of a permanent home for Newport Museum and its holdings, would place the entire collection in a seriously precarious position.
This all being said, it cannot be denied that the current Newport Museum and Art Gallery building is no longer fit for purpose. Having worked in the building for several years, I can comfortably attest to the unstable nature of the structure. It has had its day, and its day was probably a couple of decades ago. In many respects I am in full support of the closure of Newport Museum and Art Gallery, so long as it is replaced with a new institution as soon as possible.
Looking across the landscape of Newport city centre, there is at least one very obvious location in which the museum could be relocated to. The old Marks and Spencer building, in the heart of the city, is a huge building specifically designed for the display of objects. It currently sits redundant. The scale of this building is such that were the money to be found, it would not be inconceivable to display the Newport medieval ship, in addition to the core collections currently on display in the existing museum. Imagine that possibility of having a major international archaeological attraction on display in the very heart of the city. Linking the train station, Newport market, and moving through to the new shopping centre development, a museum located in the M&S building would be the perfect connection, allowing Commercial Road to be an active part of the new Newport landscape.
There can be no doubt that the high street in Newport has been completely overlooked in the city council’s grand plan. Relocation for the museum, allowing for display of the ship, would be the ideal addition to stimulate footfall into what currently looks like a shopping wasteland, a situation which will only be worsened when the new shopping developments are officially opened.
Time is almost up on Newport Museum and Art Gallery as we know it, and it would be counterproductive to argue otherwise. The council wants rid of a dilapidated building overlooking its brand new multi-million pound investment, and it seems only a matter of time until they get their way. But this should not be the end of the Newport Museum story. Relocation has happened before in the life of Newport Museum, and it can, and should, happen again.
The campaign now should focus on the next stage of the museum’s life. That stage however, must not be mothballing into a warehouse with the occasional display of artefacts. What Newport must retain, if it takes its city status seriously, is a fresh commitment to the museum programme in the city, with a new building in which the collections can call home. Anything less would and should paint the city council as what they claim not to be, philistines of the very worst order. After their callous behaviour in relation to the Chartist mural, this same council cannot be allowed to close the museum, directly or by stealth – make no mistake about it, efforts to close the central library would be a death sentence on the museum as well. Only a new commitment to a new museum in the city centre should satisfy.
Newport Museum and Art Gallery is almost at an end. We must now ensure that Newport Museum and Art Gallery is born anew, and continues to act as the cultural custodians for Newport and the surrounds, as it has done for the past 126 years. If Newport Museum and Art Gallery does not exist in some form, come the year 2140, we will have collectively failed, and future generations will have been seriously let down. Don’t let it happen, save Newport Museum and Art Gallery.