Your Museum of Cambridge Needs You


Four of the five Museum of Cambridge staff leave their posts just before Christmas as the Museum moves to a volunteer-led/run funding model following successive cuts to their budgets.

It’s been a bad time of late for the Museum – so please join the Friends of the Museum of Cambridge. It’s your museum as it is your city. 

[Updated to add the following post by Cllr Richard Johnson, Executive Councillor for Communities at Cambridge City Council]

I picked up these tweets this morning from my good friend Hilary Cox, who until today was working at the Museum of Cambridge.

It came as a shock today to find out that four of the five paid members of staff at the museum were leaving today. I didn’t pull my punches as I laid the blame squarely at the door of ministers who had cut local government budgets beyond the bone.

Yes – I am aware that my attire makes me look like one of those old skool rhubarb and custard sweets. 

“Hang on, hang on, hang on, you can’t go around blaming ministers without looking at the role of the trustees”

Yes you can – they made the cuts without thinking through the consequences, leaving it for local councillors to deal with the fallout of where the axe to fall without giving councils the choice of raising revenue by other means in order to protect services.

That doesn’t absolve the board of trustees collectively over any of their failings or shortcomings, whatever they may be. And the first place to look is at their accounts. All charities have to submit annual returns to the Charities Commission. You can see the Museum of Cambridge’s past annual returns and reports here.

171220 MuseumOfCamSummaryAccounts

The above is a screenshot of the summary of their annual accounts from March 2012 to 2016. Obviously something has come to a head since then that has led to the decisions taken by the Board of Trustees.

“Now that the trustees have lost so many staff, who is going to manage the volunteers?”

One of the trustees announced this afternoon that the Museum was going through a six week deep-cleaning programme before re-opening at the same time as the new revamped Kettle’s Yard re-opens next door.

But also this:

One of the things that I learnt was the reduction in the grant given to the Museum by Cambridge City Council Which covered running costs (as opposed to program-specific funding mentioned below. (I have had two slightly differing accounts on this so will follow up in a future blogpost)

[Updated to add]: Cambridge City Council has asked me to clarify the following:

“Our community grant to the Museum of Cambridge in 2015-16 was £45,000, in 2016-17 £35,000, 2017-18 £35,000, specifically for delivering the Capturing Cambridge programme”

The City Council also stated that they have received a further bid for funding for the financial year 2018-19 which will be discussed at committee early in the New Year. (If you would like to lobby the City Council to support the Museum of Cambridge, you can email your city councillor via )

Given that the archives service at Cambridgeshire County Council is being run at its statutory minimum, and given the toxic relationships between the Conservative group in control of the county council (but who have zero councillors within Cambridge City) vs their Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents (who have very few councillors outside of Cambridge City), there is very little political incentive for the Conservative group to put money into Cambridge City heritage. This is reflected in frequent calls from within the city for a greater Cambridge unitary authority. eg today in the Cambridge Independent.

…to those who accuse ministers of setting up the new county mayor structures so as to control the jewel in the county that is Cambridge City without actually having to win city-wide elections.

“You can’t blame the Tories for everything”

Yes we can – but doing so and then doing nothing afterwards isn’t going to help anyone. Not even them. At the same time, only blaming national government (or even the county council) means not looking at ourselves and asking what we the city could have done better.

“Where did the City of Cambridge go wrong?”

We – and I include myself in this – didn’t pay close enough attention to what was happening behind the scenes at the Museum. I came up with grand plans such as this without asking anything about the viability of the existing operation. You can’t ask people to think about what a new house is going to look like while they are trying to put out the fire.

Secondly, collectively we still treat local history in Cambridge as that of a large market town, not a small city with an international brand. Cambridge’s history is about far more than Kings College Chapel and young men educated at public school punting on the River Cam in straw hats – whatever your Rupert Brooke poetic fantasies might be. And Rupert Brooke hated the upper classes anyway – this is him campaigning *against* the Conservatives in the first 1910 general election.

But I digress.

Finally there was the failure of communications from the board of trustees of the Museum of Cambridge to appeal to the wider city to say “We might lose most of our paid staff if you don’t step up”.

Actually, the real problem is having a stable income stream to pay for running costs. They don’t have an in-house cafe like the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, nor do they have the spare building space to lease out as office space to other organisations. And when was the last time you heard someone say “I want to donate to your charity with the money being spent on administration, running costs and your electricity bills”? Exactly. But those bills need to be paid. Grant funding does not cover those costs – grant providers expect full value for money for the grants that they provide. Admin and other costs must be covered elsewhere.

“So, what is the answer?”

Ultimately Cambridge City Council need to step in – not only as owners of the premises but as the competent authority to find out what led to today happening. Then they need to host a gathering of some sort where we have that conversation about what that long term model of running the Museum of Cambridge actually is. And it must be run from the perspective of “we the people of the city want to help” rather than “Let’s condemn the trustees etc over their failures”.

“Who are we doing this for and why?”

This was answered for me by one of the volunteers earlier today as the Museum hosted Father Christmas at a day for children. The place had a fair number of primary school children racing in and out, meeting Santa and colouring in lots of things. The volunteer told me that what we were doing was for their heritage – they are the ones who will inherit what we bequeath them. They will then look after it for their generation before handing it to the next one just as we were bequeathed our inheritance by the successors to Enid Porter and before her, Florence Ada Keynes.

Click on to see how you can support the Museum of Cambridge. It’s not just money.

Or book a visit for the reopening in February.


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