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Friends of the Falconer Museum demand update from Moray Council on welfare and future of five star tourist attraction in Forres

By Garry McCartney

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Friends of the Falconer chairman Dr John Barrett inside the building before it was locked up last October.
Friends of the Falconer chairman Dr John Barrett inside the building before it was locked up last October.

A VOLUNTEER group at one of the town’s most important buildings says they are being kept in the dark about its future.

The Friends of the Falconer Museum have been lobbying to have the facility reopened since it was closed a year ago by Moray Council when the region’s museum service was ended during budget cuts.

Despite maintaining the museum and its collection of 50,000 artefacts for numerous years, Friends chairman Dr John Barrett claims it is now very difficult to obtain information from council officials about the welfare of either.

He said: “The Friends do not have any access. What should be a hub of cultural activity and tourist interest, is shut up and darkened – a neglected gem in a sidelined setting.”

Local Moray councillor George Alexander (Independent) has been monitoring the situation.

He said: “Access would only be possible if council staff were available to let them in and that has not been possible recently due to other demands.”

Moray Council state that closing the museum saves £87,000 per year in costs. However, £28,000 was set aside this year to look after the building and its contents.

Dr Barrett said: “We were assured that a museum professional would conduct monthly inspections. The Friends are not allowed to see the reports, but the latest information I have is that no inspections have taken place so we have no idea whether neglect is stacking up.”

Cllr Alexander replied that, as money was spent upgrading both the museum building and the store, the artefacts should be safe and secure.

He added: “Regular inspections were interrupted by the lockdown, but I believe they have started again.”

In March, during a meeting of Moray Council’s policy and resources committee, there was mention of a Heritage Forum being created and informal discussions with potential funding bodies.

Dr Barrett said: “The forum idea is thin on detail and it is not easy to understand how the concept can be translated into finance for management of a professionally- staffed museum service. If the concept were to include a viable plan, the Friends would give it support. However, head of development services Jim Grant advises development work for the Falconer and any support for developing a Moray Heritage/Cultural Forum have halted.”

Cllr Alexander confirmed all development work associated with the museum has paused because of Covid-19.

The Friends would prefer to see the museum reopen as a council-run and funded public service.

Dr Barrett said: “We would also offer support to any other viable, sustainable management model.”

The Friends urge the local authority to explore the partnership with academic institutions and suggest commercial sponsorship from Moray businesses is explored.

Dr Barrett said: “There is already a binding obligation on the council to maintain the museum. Any delegation to a trust must be subject to the local authority’s legal duty to manage administer and finance the museum – as a museum.”

He added: “I was told that several bodies had been in communication with council officials with a view to forming a trust that would take over the museum. None of these allegedly interested parties contacted the Friends, and I believe that the council has not pursued any such discussions.”

Dr Barrett pointed out that a public petition submitted to the council with more than 1500 signatures requesting it reconsider proposals to close the museum was not considered, adding that the four local councillors had “abdicated their responsibilities as ex-officio trustees”.

He said: “An economic case for the museum can be made by its potential as a tourist destination and a key element in a vibrant High Street where culture, business and enterprise come together for the social and economic benefit of the whole community.”

Cllr Alexander claimed Moray Council had dealt with the petition according to its policies.

He said: “Commercial sponsorship, education etc will all be considered when developing a business case taking it forward, but given the public health and economic crisis we are in the museum cannot be treated as a priority.

“It is important that all our energies are focussed on developing a sustainable solution that will lead to the museum being open again.”

Fellow local independent councillor Lorna Creswell added: “We are all working towards solutions. We need to learn from other running museums.”

Conservative Forres councillor Claire Feaver said: “The business case going forward is a key driver for the future of the museum.”

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