Will cuts threaten Hull’s City of Culture plans?

Campaigner Mike Covell agains Hull City Council plans to close their Hands on History Museum.
Campaigner Mike Covell agains Hull City Council plans to close their Hands on History Museum.
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Hull insisted becoming UK City of Culture in 2017 would allow it to step out of the shadows, but amid cuts to the arts can it deliver on its promise? Caroline Mortimer reports.

When Hull was named as the UK’s City of Culture for 2017 there was much talk of reigniting civic pride and how the multi-million pound programme of events would allow the city to step out from the shadows of its past.

Six months on from the announcement and as work goes on behind the scenes to deliver the year-long festival, Hull already seems to be reaping the benefits of its moment in the sun. Since beating Dundee, Swansea Bay and Leicester to the title, it’s reckoned the city has benefitted from £7m of positive press coverage and according to council leaders, visitor numbers at many of museums and galleries are on the up.

Which is why local Hull historian Mike Covell is struggling to understand plans which may well see the city’s Hands on History museum close. He launched an online campaign to save the attraction - and got over 2,000 signatures in less than a month - yet its future still hangs in the balance.

“Every child I know that goes there has a great time. I think it would be a huge loss to the City of Culture bid. It’s the only place people can go and learn about our Hull’s history and people. As we are moving forward it is a good idea to have an eye on the past. It would be a real shame to lose it.

“A few weeks ago before it’s possible closure was announced Hull City Council said it was hoping to turn the square into almost a Covent Garden type of attraction. And of course the museum would play a really big part in that.”

The Hands Off Hands on History petition has gained a huge amount of support since its launch last month. The petition reads: “Hull City Council has announced that it is to close the Hands On History Museum in Hull to save money, with openings only available to pre-booked groups.

“This museum is a valuable asset to the people of Hull and tourists and it offers so much. If Hull is to truly be the City of Culture in 2017 then places like this should remain open for every generation to enjoy.”

Kingston upon Hull City Council announced plans to close the popular history museum to casual visitors to make £150,000 in savings. It said the museum would remain open for pre- booked events, such as school trips, which it believes makes up the most of the 30,000 annual visitors.

Currently the attraction, which is housed in the former grammar school of William Wilberforce, the 18th-century anti-slavery campaigner and arguably Hull’s most famous historical export, offers an interactive exploration of the city’s history.

Mike, who runs his own historical consultant business and regularly takes his own children to the museum, said: “It’s one of those places where you’ll see three or four generations of family enjoying history together and that is really rare. You’ll see the older ones telling the younger ones how it used to be and it is a really lovely atmosphere.”

With budgets from central government squeezed, all councils are facing difficult decisions in a climate where less money has to go further than ever before. However, the irony of plans to shut a museum, rated 4.5 out of 5 on TripAdvisor, at a time when the city is hoping to promote its cultural offering, has not been lost on some.

“What is a city that is about to be City of Culture doing shutting down its cultural buildings?” says father-of-three Nick Wright, who has been a frequent visitor to the museum with his daughters over the years. “It is farcical.”

One of the draws of Hands on History was that it lived up to its name, refusing to put glass cases between its youngest visitors and the exhibits.

“It’s the only museum that lets the children play with toys from the past, everything is out on show for the children to touch and experience,” says another regular Sandra Rowland, who believes the museum has played a vital role in getting children interested in their local area. “In fact this is the only museum of its kind in Hull that is aimed specifically at children.

“The beauty of it, is that it’s not just a playground full of old toys, it contains a wealth of information too, the children can dress up and play and whilst doing so they learn by reading how children just like them lived so many years ago.”

Winning UK City of Culture, was a coup for Hull which has for so long found itself topping all the wrong league tables. Finally, it seemed there would be a platform to tell the rest of the UK and beyond a little something about its rich sense of history. In the days after the announcement, Hull was often quoted as being the birthplace of Maureen Lipman and the adopted home of poet Philip Larkin. Both claims are true, but it hardly scratches the surface of the city’s long contribution to the arts.

Hull was where director Anthony Minghella started his career, it was where Barrie Rutter gave birth to his company Northern Broadsides and where more recently a former fruit market by the docks has been turned into one of Yorkshire’s most exciting new art venues.

Councillor Terry Geraghty, portfolio holder for leisure and culture is aware that any cutbacks will attract adverse publicity, but has defended the proposals.

“The council has to make savings within the heritage service budget and we are doing all we can to minimise the impact on visitors,” he says. “Opening the Hands on History Museum for pre-booked groups and educational visits only is a change that will have the least impact on visitors to the city’s museums. There will be no changes to opening times at the other museums and all sites will remain free of charge. The Hands on History Museum will continue to be a working, accredited museum and collections held there will be preserved.”

Hull City Council has to find savings of £48m over the next two years as it is seeing a 23 per cent reduction in its core funding. This is part of a wider squeeze of council budgets by the coalition government in Westminster.

Over the past three years, 1200 jobs have already been axed by the council and a further 450 redundancies over the next two years were confirmed at the end of February. Many more cultural services, face reductions and closures, including the city’s mobile library service.

“A few weeks ago it was revealed that over the last three years the council has spent £200,000 on a building that doesn’t belong to them,” says Mike, referring to the council’s decision to pay for scaffolding around a crumbling property on Beverley Road. With the figure just under half the spending cut facing the authority’s library service over the next 12 months, the council has been accused of having a warped sense of priorities. “It just doesn’t make sense, it just seems to be throwing money away.”

Initially the council said the museum would be shut to the public in early April. However, following pressure from the likes of Mike a final decision will be made at a later date. However, while Hull’s public services are feeling the squeeze, the fight over what to keep open and what to abandon will remain a hot topic.

Heritage and culture are often seen as easy targets when it comes to cuts. It’s far less emotive to cut money to galleries and museums than social care and health. However, Mike Covell and the dedicated fans of the Hands On History museum say these services are as vital to the well being of the city as any new road, school or hospital.

Mike said the response to the petition being launched had been overwhelming.

“People have been going into the museum and telling the staff ‘look we want you to stay open and we want to support you’. Everyone is behind it.”