CURSE OF SEKHEMKA STRIKES AGAIN AT NORTHAMPTON MUSEUM [OR IS IT JUST A REGUAR FINANCIAL CRISIS?]

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Consultation over redundancies and end to role for specialist curators at Northampton Museum and Gallery.

Twelve posts will go and the role of specialist curators will end at Northampton Museum and Galleries if the proposals currently out to consultation are carried through by West Northamptonshire Council.

Under the proposals, reported first in the local news website the NN Journal, six new posts will be created, but there will be no role for specialist curators in leather, local history and Northampton’s principal industry in modern times, boots and shoes.  Instead those areas will be covered by two general curators.

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Responding to the proposed staff cuts, which the council says is designed to help address a £3.5 million overspend on the council’s budget, Lynsey Todd of staff trade union Unison told the NN Journal,

“Our museums and libraries play a crucial part in protecting and promoting both our community’s identity and its heritage but the continued hollowing out of local government means that these vital services are being asked to do more for less.
“Providing a vision of growth while overseeing a reduction in staff feels like a council wanting to promote itself but without the proper tools to do the job.”

However, Councillor Adam Brown, the council member for Housing, Culture and Leisure, told the NN Journal,

“The council has been clear that it faces enormous pressure on its services with demand and inflation increasing and the grants and money we raise not meeting these needs in full.”
“So in line with good practice across the sector we have had to look at all services to ensure that we have realised the full benefit of them being brought together, that our income is being maximised and that we are efficient.”

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Councillor Brown added,

“The public expects us to do this and it’s important when residents are faced with such cost of living challenges. We have reviewed all services in this way and in some cases will now be seeking to restructure where this makes sense.
“We will always seek to minimise or remove any job losses and we will consult with staff and unions where this is the case. It would therefore be inappropriate to comment further at this time until staff have been engaged.”

Staff under threat of redundancy were informed officially on 27 January and the consultation is due to run for thirty days.

The news of the proposed redundancies will come as a severe blow to the museum’s supporters in the cultural community of Northampton who were hoping for some stability after the turmoil which followed the controversial sale of the statue of the Ancient Egyptian court scribe Sekhemka in July 2014

While the Council’s predecessor authority, Northampton Borough Council, claimed that the sale of the statue from the museum collection was the only way the £6.5 million price tag of the refurbished museum could be paid for the Arts Council did not agree and when the sale went ahead the museum lost its Arts Council accreditation which meant it was barred from applying for certain funding streams five years and would face difficulties over such matters as the arrangements for exhibitions and loans.

Adding to the humiliation and the impression of sleaze surrounding the sale, were the questions which were also asked as to why the then Leader of Northampton Borough Council, Councillor David Mackintosh, had agreed to pay the Marquis of Northampton half of the proceeds of the sale after the council had paid all the costs, when the council claimed it owned the statue, which had been donated to the people of Northampton by an ancestor of the current Marquis?

In a related move, at the same time as museum staff are facing possible redundancy and the effective downgrading of the service, the heritage community of Northampton is also facing up to the possibility that some of the towns most historic buildings might be disposed of to get their £500k running costs, and an estimated £4-5 million maintenance backlog, off West Northamptonshire Council’s books.

Among the buildings listed in a report to be discussed by the cabinet of West Northamptonshire Council today [13 February 2024] as having the potential to be disposed off either on long leases or by selling the freehold are the Grade I listed Sessions House and the Grade II* listed Judge’s lodgings.

In this attempted disposal the council can be said following the advice of communities Secretary Michael Gove who recently told local authorities which were facing pressures on their budgets to consider the sale of publicly owned assets, including buildings, which were not central to service delivery.

It is also taking advantage of a change to the law in 2016 which allowed councils to use the proceeds from the sale of such assets to back fill budgets.  Previously councils were required to use such cash windfalls to pay for new public assets.

Responding to Mr Gove’s initiative Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting, told the Guardian,

“The truth is councils are being incentivised to dispose of assets to use those capital resources to fund their revenue budgets, which is appalling. They need to be properly funded by taxation.”

Meanwhile, though the sale of community assets like historic buildings, which may be difficult or expensive to maintain and operate, might offer an attractive short term sticking plaster to councillors facing very difficult spending decisions, the solution might not be as effective in reducing the pressure on the Government to supply additional funding as Mr Gove and the Government might hope.

In the same Guardian article Mr Mat Oakley, head of UK and European commercial property research at estate Agent Savills warned,

“If you were trying to identify the worst moment to sell, the first half of 2024 would probably be it…”

Mr Oakley added,

“A potential buyer will say: ‘They have to sell this, how little can I get away with paying them for it?’ I wouldn’t advise anyone to sell now just because there is that hint of blood in the water.”

Back in Northampton, with Arts Council accreditation restored, when the Museum reopened with much fanfare in the Summer of 2021 cultural services manager Nick Gordon said,

“We decided the art galleries would focus on Northampton and Northamptonshire artists. “We will be taking bigger, touring exhibitions, but we want to have a strong local focus.”

Now that it appears highly likely that the strong local focus will be delivered by fewer specialists with knowledge spread more thinly the cultural community in Northampton might be forgiven for thinking that the vengeful shade of an ancient Egyptian royal scribe is once again toying with the town and its politicians.

More prosaically, others might think that Northampton, like other local authorities across the UK, is paying the price for a decade and a half of Government driven austerity.

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