Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Trying to save FIREPOWER

This week’s issue of the local newspaper confirmed rumours that I had heard about the closure – at the end of 2016 – of the Royal Artillery’s Museum FIREPOWER, which is located in buildings within the old Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. This news received further confirmation in an open letter written by Major General Michael Steele (the Chairman of the Friends of Firepower) in the Spring issue of the Firepower Newsletter, which I received in today’s post.



A full statement by the Chairman of the Royal Artillery Museum Board has now appeared on the Museum’s website. It explains the circumstances surrounding the decision to close the Museum.
As Chairman of the Royal Artillery Museum Limited (RAML) Board, I thought the time was now right to update you on some notable changes planned for our Museum. A strategic review of operations at Firepower has been underway for the last 15 months; its purpose has been to determine the best way to sustain a museum operation with maximum public access to the Royal Regiment of Artillery’s Collection whilst reducing the demand on our various supporting organisations whose ability to provide financial assistance is diminishing.

The sad, inescapable fact is that despite Firepower’s restructuring, streamlining and improvement – for which great credit is due to all involved – the Museum will be unable to live within the available income and it is also clear that the location is very unlikely to be able to deliver the number of visitors in the timescale needed for financial sustainability. Running costs cannot be reduced significantly below those achieved in the last 2½ years. Therefore, it has been essential to develop a new basis for sustaining the Regiment’s Collection.

The strategic review’s principal conclusion was that the long term future of the Regiment’s Collection would best be served by retaining a small heritage presence at Woolwich but moving the bulk of the operation elsewhere in partnership with others. Over the last 7 months, these conclusions have been examined more closely for feasibility and the Board will review findings in July/August 2014. This has been commercially very sensitive.

However there has been a recent development about which I can now update you. An early step of the review was to decide about the Royal Arsenal site where our assets lie and where we wish to remain in part. On 20 May 2014 we signed and exchanged a conditional agreement with the Royal Borough of Greenwich to reassign the leases of the museum’s buildings to them. This deal would see Firepower vacate its buildings by 31 December 2016 and, in the same timeframe, the creation of a permanent Royal Artillery exhibition in a combined heritage centre adjacent to our current site at Woolwich; this will set the Regiment’s history in the context of the Royal Arsenal and helps the Royal Arsenal site develop into the heritage quarter that has always been the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s ambition. Whilst further dialogue is needed with donors and supporters from the grant making phase in the 1990s, the deal’s conditions are assessed to be achievable.

In the meantime, we have been developing a better understanding of possible future sites for the long term museum operation and have 3 main options under active consideration. These will be presented to the RAML Board later this year and a preferred site will be chosen and developed to the next level of detail. Ideally we would move directly there from Woolwich, however it is likely that we will have to move some of the Collection via an appropriate storage facility. It is our firm intention to remain as active during the Transition Phase as we can be; amongst other things, we are working on plans for a virtual museum, access throughout transition to key parts of the collection and archive and specific events and activities to keep our heritage in the public consciousness.

Overall, this deal represents a significant opportunity to create a sustainable public access museum – the core purpose of our charity – whilst retaining a close and enduring bond with the Regiment’s birthplace at the Royal Arsenal. You can be reassured that our goal continues to be to provide the greatest possible public access to the history and heritage of artillery and the story of the courage and service of the men and women of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Our short term focus must be on maintaining an effective museum operation at Woolwich until late 2016 and ensuring that whatever we develop for the future appropriately balances the need for financial viability with the core goal of public access to our heritage. Future plans will be appropriately updated as they develop.
The Royal Artillery was formed in Woolwich in 1716, and until just a few years ago there had been a continuous link between the Regiment and the town. Woolwich was the home of the Regiment, and there are very few ‘Gunners’ who have not spent part of their time in the Regiment in Woolwich.

When the Royal Artillery moved out, other units – including the King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery – moved in. The only link between the Regiment and its ‘home’ was the Museum … and now that is slated for closure. Not everyone is taking this decision lying down, and an online e-petition has been set up in the hope that the decision can be rescinded. I have signed … and I am encouraging any of my regular UK-based blog readers to do the same. (Unfortunately the e-petition can only be signed by UK residents.) If you are interested in signing the e-petition, please click on this link.


A personal note: I feel very strongly about the closure of the Royal Artillery’s Museum for several reasons.
  • Firstly, I live within a mile or so of the Museum, and visit it as often as I can.
  • Secondly my father and my maternal grandfather (as well as at least one of my aunts!) were ‘Gunners’.
  • Thirdly – and in some ways most importantly – my wife’s family has been associated with the Regiment since one of her forebears – John Bayne – joined as a Fifer in Woolwich in 1767 at the age of 12. He later rose to become Fife Major to the Company of Gentleman Cadets, one of the most senior NCOs in the Regiment. Her family have lived in Woolwich ever since, and the closure of the Museum would sever a family link that is almost 250 years old.

26 comments:

  1. Duly signed (writes grandson of a gunner). May not help but a demonstration of strength of feeling can't do any harm.

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  2. Nigel Drury,

    Absolutely! It might not prevent the museum from closing, but you never know if a bit of public pressure might make a difference and help to change the decision.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  3. Signed as requested. My god father and his father are/were gunners. My uncle Mike's father won a MC in WWI for some bonkers act of bravery. They were both in the same lodge as my father in N Staffs where my father said the unofficial entry requirements were either to be a medic or a gunner. He was a complete interloper as a lawyer and ended up as their secretary for 25 years.

    regards,
    Guy

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  4. Guy,

    Thanks for signing the e-petition.

    I understand that there are millions of people in the UK who can say that their father, mother, grandfather, or grandmother were 'Gunners' during the Second World War. If they all signed the petition, then the powers-that-be might just reconsider their decision.

    I like the unofficial entry requirements for your father's Lodge ... and I think that they were wise to let a lawyer in to be Secretary. In my experience a medic would have written illegible Minutes and a Gunner would have been too deaf to hear what members said!

    All the best,

    Bob

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  5. Signed. And despite not living too far away (SW London/Surrey) I've never been...must remedy that!

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  6. Alastair,

    Thanks for signing the e-petition ... and make sure that you visit the Museum before it closes!

    All the best,

    Bob

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  7. I've signed too. At least it may make what is left more than a token if enough people sign.

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  8. Legatus Hedlius,

    Many thanks for signing the e-petition ... and your point about trying to make sure that whatever exhibits are retained in Woolwich are more than token is a very good one.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  9. Best of luck, Bob. Museum closures, 'reconciliations', 'mergers' and 'rationalisations' almost inevitably turn out to be changes for the worse, yet tend to have a momentum all their own. It might be interesting to investigate the substantive nature and causes or escalating costs ('commercially 'sensitive', of course, and therefore hard to identify or challenge). Mind you, judging by the view from this distance of the handling of monetary issues by UK Government (not that it's unique in this, but you would think it might take an interest, eh?) these are likely to be real enough.

    Still and all, even if the fall of the axe can be delayed, that will at least be time gained to mount a long term and permanently effective campaign.
    Cheers,
    Ion

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  10. Hi Bob,

    Duly signed. Best I drag myself there before it does close!

    All the best and thanks for highlighting this.

    DC

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  11. Hello Bob
    sorry for the un related post - but I wondered if you had seen this astonishing page on The Guardian's facebood pages - D-Day scenes precisely re photographed and then posted as an interactive set of pictures - which allow you to tap from then to now on each picture - it is truly remarkable!
    http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/ng-interactive/2014/jun/01/d-day-landings-scenes-in-1944-and-now-interactive

    kind regards

    Ken

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  12. Archduke Piccolo (Ion),

    'Commercially sensitive' is a great smokescreen to hide behind when making a decision like this.

    I happened to visit the Royal Arsenal yesterday, and had a walk around as much of the site as possible. It is being turned into an up-market residential area (with some public housing for essential workers), with its own shops, pubs, cafes, restaurants, health centre etc. It is surrounded by a wall, and has only three entrances, one of which has vehicle access. To all intents and purposes it is being turned into a gated, self-contained community. The museum occupies a prime site at one end of the 'enclave' and I seriously wonder if the 'commercially sensitive' matters are more to do with using the location for up-market business purposes that will generate more income for the local council than for anything else. One of the projected cultural uses is for a 'world famous' dance company to move its school there.

    The Army cannot pay for the museum. Its budget is already overstretched paying for the foreign ‘involvements’ our government has undertaken. The local council does not want to pay for the museum as it can make more money from using the site for other purposes … and it is controlled by a left-wing Labour majority some of whose members have privately expressed – within my hearing – opinions that are very anti-military.

    I suspect that this campaign will ultimately fail as there is no one out there who can take on the financial burden of running a museum that will never break even … but which is as much a part of Britain’s military heritage as many others.

    Thanks for your support.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  13. David Crook,

    Thanks for signing the e-petition ... and get yourself along to the museum ASAP before it closes!

    All the best,

    Bob

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  14. Ken H,

    Thanks for the link. I will have a look at it as soon as I can.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  15. Its a great shame, my sons know it inside out and even though it is not that large it does a great job.

    Interestingly for an area synonymous with the artillery the museum has been described to me by one of the developers as a 'blight'. Apparently the need to build a few more 2 bed buy to lets exceeds that of preserving our heritage.

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  16. e-petition signed - fingers crossed Bob!


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  17. Telemachus,

    I am very please to read that your sons enjoy visiting the museum and that you recognise the excellent job that it does.

    Your comment about developers seeing the site as a 'blight' does not surprise me. Having seen what they are doing over the area excavated for the Crossrail station (yet more residential tower blocks) I can just imagine what they will do with the current museum site.

    It's all about making money ... and heritage only matters if it generates cash!

    All the best,

    Bob

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  18. Ken H,

    Thanks. We MIGHT be lucky and save the museum ... but even if we don't we will have made the powers-that-be realise that decisions like this are not popular with everyone.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  19. Signed Bob and I'll share this on my blog.

    Great museum, been there and enjoyed it. Did they not close the old Rotunda to move here?

    Lee.

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  20. 'Lee,

    Thanks very much for signing the e-petition and for mentioning it on your blog. It will all help.

    The Rotunda was used to store some of the larger exhibits that could not be displayed in the museum proper, but it was emptied and converted into a gymnasium for the Royal Horse Artillery when they moved to Woolwich. The exhibits are now in the open in the courtyard of one of the buildings that form part of the museum. Work has just been completed on improving this storage so that the exhibits will not deteriorate any further.

    When the museum was at the Rotunda it was on Army land, and thus protected from possible development. It seems to have been under threat of closure ever since it moved to Woolwich and became subject to commercial pressure.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  21. As the creator of the petition, I just wanted to offer you my heartfel thanks for supporting the Museum, and encouraging the petition.

    As you say, it may well do no ultimate good, but I feel truly that this marvellous place cannot be allowed to go gently into that good night.

    Thank you all for your help.

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  22. Claire,

    For the reasons that I stated on my blog, I felt that it was the least that I could do.

    I was involved with the Friends of Firepower back when the Museum first opened, and know Mike Steele and Ken Timbers. I would have remained involved had my father's health not deteriorated so seriously at the time, and now that the Museum is under threat - yet again - I feel the need to help to save it if possible.

    With luck somebody might listen ... and it is a pity that the local elections have only just taken place. I remember what happened when the 'Save the Valley' campaign managed to gain enough votes in a local election to give the political parties pause for thought ... and not long afterwards Charlton Athletic returned to the Valley Stadium with the support of the then Greenwich Council.

    Good luck with the e-petition.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  23. As a Yankee Doodle I cannot sign but I wish you luck. local museums are a treasure that a community should fight for. I lost one of my favorites last year I hope you can save yours.

    Good luck!

    Adam AKA Fencing Frog

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  24. Adam Carriere,

    Thanks for your support.

    There is a desperate need to stop museums and the like being closed. I don't know what it is like in the US, but in the UK too many libraries, art galleries, and museums are being closed because they don't generate enough income.

    What price history and culture? In the words of the song 'you don't know what you've lost till it's gone'.

    All the best,

    Bob

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