diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 17, 2010

With the Coalition's spending squeeze imminent, I thought it would be instructive to see what life in post-cuts Britain might be like. So I visited part of London where cuts have been a way of life for some time, and where the council doesn't believe in supporting services if they can support themselves. That'd be Wandsworth, where the council tax is rock bottom but there's always a price to pay.
Wandsworth is famous for running a tight ship. We keep an eye on our costs and are constantly looking for new ways of making our services more efficient... Unlike many councils there is very little slack in the organisation. So when the main grants we receive from Government are cut, there are no easy ways to find the money... Our main priority must be to protect those essential services on which the most vulnerable members of our community depend. It will mean some hard choices in the weeks and months ahead.
Edward Lister, Leader of Wandsworth Council (February 2007)
My destination was the local museum. But not the old Wandsworth Museum - the much-loved repository in the town centre opposite the shopping mall. The council decided they couldn't afford that back in 2007, despite the protestations of locals and a petition with 17000 signatories. So they closed it down, and two nearby libraries too, then reopened one new library in the building where the museum used to be. Call it rationalisation or call it cuts - the outcome's much the same.

But hurrah, the Wandsworth public stepped in. In an early foreshadowing of the Big Society, a group of volunteers got together and vowed to reopen the museum somewhere else. It helped that two of them were philanthropists with £2m to spare, which isn't necessarily going to happen in your neighbourhood when something similar faces the axe. An independent trust was duly established and the borough's collection was saved from dispersal. It's taken a while but they've since moved into one of the two libraries that the council closed and established a brand new Wandsworth Museum there. Boris turned up last month to open it and praised "people with dosh stepping up to the plate helping create cultural institutions in tough times".

Wandsworth MuseumThe man on the front desk seemed very pleased to see a visitor, and gestured to the card which detailed the admission prices. Eight quid!?! He assured me that my money would permit entry at any time during the forthcoming year but, all the same, that's eight quid more than the previous incarnation of the museum used to charge. I hoped that the rooms which followed would provide good value.

Gallery 1 houses the museum's permanent collection. A timeline round the walls gave highlights of local history from the Iron Age up to the present day, and included a disappointingly low number of artefacts. The usual flint axeheads all local museums have, a paltry few Roman coins, and a metal cup (or something) to represent life in Stuart times. The Norman era was represented by a single metal sickle stuck to the board with no explanatory label (label-lessness was to be a key feature of my visit). Further neolithic flint tools shared a cabinet with a wartime ARP helmet and other 20th century ephemera, for some reason. A central panel promised "Human Stories" but then failed to give any, while another spoke of Wandsworth's "Cultural Landscape" without providing a great deal of evidence. Two highlights were the splendid Battersea Shield (possibly the real thing, more likely the Museum of London's replica) and a stone from the world's very first public railway. But highlights were most definitely thin on the ground.

Gallery 2 houses the museum's temporary exhibition. At the moment that's "Wandsworth - a history in 100 objects", which appears to be an excuse to half-fill a room with stuff. A wooden drainpipe, some stuffed birds and the Earlsfield baker's cart all have their place, as do an old telephone switchboard and a Young's Brewery barrel. Apparently "each object has its own story to tell", which is convenient because the curators haven't always bothered to tell that story for them. No more than half of the 100 objects had any explanatory text (but this was at least better than an entire wall of unidentified watercolours, most which could have been painted anywhere).

There is no Gallery 3. The only other public room is the café, which was shut throughout my visit for a private function. So I'd paid eight pounds to visit two galleries, both of which underwhelmed me. Not enough exhibits, not enough information, and a nagging feeling that the place wasn't yet quite ready for public show. What was trumpeted two years ago as a tax-free way to rescue a favourite museum has so far delivered an over-priced showcase that few will want to visit. Sorry Wandsworth, but I won't be reusing my ticket and rushing back.

If this is the future for Britain's museums, I'm concerned. Once culture's not centrally subsidised, and market rates for admission apply, I fear that only people with disposable income will ever bother to interact with it. Coming very soon to a neighbourhood near you?

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