Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
In 2004, in an albeit short break (barely ten years), from Labour’s 25 year tenure controlling Ipswich Borough Council, the Conservatives came to the rescue of the town’s cultural heritage: its decline meant buildings were in an appalling state of non-repair – leaving theatres on the verge of closure – and museums partially closed with valuable assets neglected.
A priority was the museums and their wonderful collections, from porcelain and glass to over 1,000 works of art on canvas, including a number by Gainsborough and Constable, 15,000 artworks on paper and a large sculpture collection, as well as one of the largest and finest furniture collections in the country, including long-case clocks, and archaeology.
One of the biggest concerns was the lack of a detailed inventory, inadequate storage, and poor management.
Cutting a long story short, as we made improvements, taking advice from a range of experts, we also developed a partnership with Colchester’s museum service which operated to a much higher standard, led by a passionate, knowledgeable, professional curator. The partnership was a great success and I was pleased to see that the Council’s current, Labour, Executive recently agreed to continue the joint management programme.
However, I do have concerns about some elements of its new Museums Collections Development Policy including further acquisitions and “rationalisation & disposal”, or potential “destruction”, which we are assured will be “open and transparent”. The plans aren’t costed, although the council appears to expect support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund; neither is there any evidence of where/how new purchases will be displayed/stored.
Instead of opening the vaults and loft space, extracting items to put more of the existing, magnificent, collections on display, the portfolio holder has announced it is to prioritise collecting: local school uniforms, Ipswich Town players’ football kit and items around the Windrush, as well as Covid-19 memorabilia. It also intends to add to the already extensive archaeological collection, most of which is in storage, and can only be of interest to academics.
The intention is to provide “a more varied and rounded collection”, with a focus on “how people lived and worked in Ipswich over recent centuries”, reflecting the Museums’ role as Suffolk’s county town.
I welcome the plan to broaden the art collections, adding contemporary works, especially those by women. However, I would remind the portfolio holder that, when they returned to power in the town they abolished the gallery the Conservatives created within the town hall to showcase modern artwork by local artists. And there is now no such public facility for the enormous range of high-quality talent, apart from an annual student show at the University.
With town centres in further decline, cultural assets are essential to an area’s economic wellbeing, attracting visitors from far afield, as well as benefiting local people and businesses.
So, the new Policy could be so much more ambitious. Whilst Christchurch Mansion, standing in a fine parkland setting close to the town centre, is a popular attraction featuring a broad range of exhibits, with a welcoming café, the High Street museum is often described as ‘dull’, lacking easy accessibility, and little known even amongst residents, apart from occasional school visits. Ideally, it should be moved to a more visible location, accessible for people of all ages, including the disabled, and linked to the university on the Ipswich Waterfront.
Such a project wouldn’t happen overnight, but without aspiration nothing is ever achieved. It could be a sort of Disneyworld, using modern technology to whisk visitors to discovery sites alongside the displays (ideal for explaining the archaeology) and to illustrate how items were made – even employing computer games as a way to engage young people in the historical context of items.
Suffolk Archives are already embracing this approach at its new heritage centre, The Hold, on the Waterfront, with a family friendly journey through famous historical monuments, all imagined in LEGO bricks.
Artist, Warren Elsmore, and his team have created a celebration of this popular toy, from tiny recreations to a 1.5m medieval castle; visitors will also see models of local landmarks created by members of the public during lockdown. Events through to the end of September include creative workshops and showing LEGO movies.
Cllr. Andrew Reid, Suffolk County Council’s Heritage portfolio holder, says:
“It is fantastic to bring this superb Brick History exhibition to Suffolk, filled with models to make you smile, make you think, and inspire you to build a better world.”
The Waterfront is also home to restaurants, private boat moorings, and a world-class luxury boatbuilder as well as historic barges, enabling visitors to take a trip down the River Orwell, enjoying the extensive wildlife en route to Felixstowe (Europe’s biggest container port) and Harwich, to understand the importance of seaborne traffic both in the past and present.
There are times when Ipswich feels like one of the neglected Red Wall towns in the North; it has lost its way under Labour, failing to realise its potential, and overtaken by Bury St. Edmunds. In 2019, a young, hardworking, Conservative MP was elected – if only the local council would acknowledge how he could help by using his access to Ministers to attract inward investment and big business. He could start by inviting the Chinese embassy to sponsor a permanent exhibition of the fine Chinese porcelain, which has never been released from storage in Christchurch Mansion’s roofspace.
Meanwhile, given historic buildings’ vulnerability to fire damage, I hope Ipswich Borough Council has commissioned Suffolk Fire Service to update its risk assessments for both museums, and when maintenance works are undertaken. Lessons need to be learnt from the devastation caused by lax protective measures at properties held in trust by various institutions elsewhere, where properties and their contents have been totally destroyed.