The Museum of Cambridge needs to expand to display more of its huge collection – but who will fund it?

The message from Roger Lilley, Trustee for the Museum of Cambridge to the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History at St John the Evangelist Church on Hills Road in Cambridge earlier today (07 Jan 2023)

This was at the monthly meeting of the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History, slowly getting back to face-to-face meetings after the lockdowns of previous years. When both the Museum of Cambridge and the CALH were founded, the administrative boundaries of Cambridgeshire were much smaller than they are today – as the image for this blogpost shows. Huntingdonshire was a separate shire-level council, as was the Isle of Ely Council. Some maps refer to ‘Cambridge Borough and Cambridge County’. The local history membership organisations and museums within Cambridge include:

I’ve provided membership page links to all of the above – take your pick as to which one (of any) to join and get involved with.

The science park investment bubble tells us that the City of Cambridge and its sub-region is not getting its balance right – for its economy, society, or environment.

I wrote about malfunctioning city and county here. Hence trying to make the case for a single unitary council for the city and surrounding towns & villages (something the nationa political parties pay lip service to). But that’s not the purpose of this blogpost. This one looks at where local and civic history fits in. And at the moment, it does not – primarily because of decisions taken at The Treasury over local government funding. This is reflected by the lack of a permanent tourist information building for Cambridge. I’m not talking about a shop for King’s College Chapel, or a ‘Cambridge BID stall’, I’m talking about a place marked out on maps that visitors can go to in order to get impartial information about the city they are visiting. Therefore, any improvement for town heritage is inevitably linked to the fate of local government in and around Cambridge.

“The Museum of Cambridge is unique as a centre for local, social history – caring for a collection of over 40,000 everyday objects which evoke the diverse daily lives of those living in this region over the last 300 years.”

Which is why it is very fortunate to receive a grant for 2023 to employ a collections officer in an announcement a fortnight ago (just before Christmas). But one-off grants that last a year are not what sustainable heritage institutions are made of. With austerity over the last decade or so, grant funding for those all-important administration functions has dried up – as local councils have focused on funding projects, or have tightened up funding criteria to meet more narrowly-defined objectives.

Yet a centuries old former public house that is also a listed building is hardly the place to display items and artefacts measured in the tens of thousands numerically for an historical city like Cambridge – let alone the county surrounding it. It’s worth adding that Huntingdon, the Fenland towns, and the cities of Ely & Peterborough have their own unique and proud histories.

Either Central Government has to overhaul its unsustainable method of local government funding as MPs recommended in 2021, or Cambridge’s wealthy businesses and affluent residents who are making/have made their fortunes from Cambridge’s economy have to make up for the gap. For the latter to happen, they will want to see proper business plans.

Museum of Cambridge Strategic Plan 2022-27

You can read their strategic plan here. I also wrote about that plan and also some things about the Cambridgeshire Archives Service in this blogpost

For the policies of the other three, you can find them as follows:

Not every institution needs to have formal strategic plans that involve expansion. For some, keeping membership, finances, and activities at a stable level might be all that their memberships and committees want to do.

The case for expanding the Museum of Cambridge: Archaeologists are discovering more things as major building and infrastructure projects begin

I wrote about it in early 2019 where Cambridgeshire County Council stated local museums are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of significant findings. Yet because of central government policies on how local councils are funded, there is nothing left after statutory duties have been fulfilled (and even that is a challenge) for local councils to fund projects to create more museum space.

In 2018 I made the case for expanding the Museum of Cambridge onto Castle Hill where the car parks now cover what was the Cambridge Assizes Court (see below).

Above – the old Cambridge Assizes Court on Castle Hill – now a car park

The RIBA Archives still have the architectural plans – could they be revised and upgraded to create some new exhibition and museum space up the hill on Castle Hill? Sadly we lost the lot – statues and street lamps included. (Photo from the Museum of Cambridge)

A civic capital fund (that raises large donations) for the City of Cambridge to pay for new and improved civic and heritage facilities

I wrote about it here, tabled a question to Cambridge City Council six months after coming out of hospital, and that was the last anyone heard about it. Well…until a few months ago when I tried to make the case for such a fund to pay for a much-needed revamp of The Guildhall. But my point remains the same: There are more than a few people and companies who are making fortunes in/with Cambridge’s economy, yet perilously little of that returns to the city in the form of ‘commonwealth’. You’re more likely to hear about a new consortium formed to lobby ministers for something else for industries – such as the latest one – Innovate Cambridge.

“We aim to initiate an inclusive, ambitious, and broad-ranging innovation vision for the Greater Cambridge area. The initiative will include leaders from industry, the investment community, accelerators, the University and other research institutions, local government, science and technology parks, networks and programmes, start-ups and entrepreneurs.”

Innovate Cambridge 2022

Above – spot who is missing/conspicuous by their absence.

“Where could we start? How could we start?”

Given the number of events that The Mayors (Civic and Metro), and senior councillors are invited to, the easiest starting point would be to bring along representatives from local charities and civic organisations to go along with them. As a matter of routine, make it crystal clear that in any publicity literature promoting the presence/speeches by civic figures, that a representative from a nominated local charity will be there.

In return, the civic/charity representatives will need to be prepared and professional – brochures, leaflets etc and be fully briefed on how event delegates can get involved and or make donations/subscriptions to those organisations. And make it clear that there will be a strong expectation that the organisers of such events will go out of their way to publicise and promote those civic and charitable organisations whose work is essential to the proper functioning and wellbeing of our city.

Then review everything after a year. Given where we are in the calendar and local governmental year, the election by city councillors for the Mayor of Cambridge 2023/24 after the elections in May 2023 is the ideal time to make that small change. It gives enough time for officers and local charities to prepare, and those involved will be take in their stride anything that is simply a small change of routine or procedure.

Could it work? Let your city and county councillors know what you think.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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