Monday, November 26, 2007

Unite to save our heritage

The close escape of the Cutty Sark from the the ashes of the near-disastrous fire in May made headlines around the world, and served as a potent reminder of the value of our heritage and our duty to protect it.

Now, another attraction needs our support. "Firepower", the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich is facing another cash crisis, and a paper being discussed by the Labour Cabinet in Greenwich tomorrow night seeks authorisation for a £60,000 grant to keep it going. The Council has bailed out the museum before, and expressed its support for its continued presence in the Borough, whilst seeking a long-term solution and business plan to make it viable.

I have to say I was extremely disappointed to read the paper setting out the latest grave situation. I raised the matter in questions at Council last summer, and was told by Deputy Leader Peter Brookes that everything the Council could do was being done, and that a business plan was being drawn up and put in place. Now, 18 months on, there are still meetings being held to discuss the way forward and avert closure. To call it frustrating is an understatement.

I have kept in regular contact with the museum and its dedicated director since the first financial clouds appeared on the horizon, and have been consistently impressed by the way they have faced up to harsh realities and been willing to change and consider new possibilities. But with so many players involved, and bureaucracies multiplied, the wheels turn too slowly sometimes.

A key event takes place tomorrow, with a summit meeting of partner organisations and external advisers, under the chairmanship of the Director of the Imperial War Museum, to consider changes to what the museum offers. This is a vital part of making it into the viable visitor attraction it deserves to be, and to broaden its appeal. One idea I discussed with the Director today is to develop exhibits on the history of the Royal Dockyard, which celebrates its 500th anniversary in 2012. But it will take more than this.

I know what the current Council administration's line is - they fully support the museum, but there is a limit to what the Council alone can do. True enough. But I don't think we are anywhere near reaching that limit. Perhaps it is the lethargy of having been in office for over 30 years, or simple bureaucratic inertia, but there seems to me an absence of imagination and vision of what can be achieved with the incredible heritage we have in this Borough . I know there are plenty of ideas amongst council staff and partner organisations, but they lack the co-ordination to be put into action.

Sometimes what is needed is the spur of ambitious political determination to make something special happen. There is huge change happening locally, with large-scale redevelopments and of course the Olympics coming in five years time. The Leader of the Council is fond of waxing lyrical about these, but sometimes seems to imply that talk of the future must of necessity mean ignoring or even bulldozing the past.

This has turned into rather more of a rant than I intended, but let me conclude by saying this: The Council may not be able to do everything, but that is no excuse for doing nothing. I know officers of the Council have worked extremely hard to assist Firepower through this difficult time, but strategic direction is set at the political level. If we are as proud of our heritage as we damn well should be, and if we believe it deserves not only to be preserved for future generations, but seized and celebrated by the current generation, then we should stop lurching from temporary solution to temporary solution and instead find a way to incorporate into the vision we have for the future of the Borough the very things which make it special in the first place.

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