How did we get to where we are? Why do things look the way they do? Such historical questions tend to crop up when you take a walk through Banbury's Castle Quay Shopping Centre, with its canal — redolent of the 19th century industrial revolution —- threading its way through the heart of 20th and 21st century shopping malls.
Amazingly, answers to such questions are right there — and easily accessible for anyone with the time and inclination to visit Banbury Museum.
It stands in the middle of the modern development, together with its shop, canalside cafe and information centre, not far from the still-functioning Tooley’s Boatyard and a mere 100 yards or so away from a multi-million pound hotel of the future
— now on the drawing board as part of the next phase of this successful town centre regeneration scheme.
But business-minded visitors might ask how the museum is funded? It is free to enter, after all. How can it possibly fit in with the consumer-driven environment of
commercial enterprise that is Castle Quay, unambiguously designed to attract top
high street retailers and each paying substantial rent?
Thereby hangs a heart-warming tale of corporate responsibility, social enterprise, charitable work, call it what you will, which is fast developing into a case study model for others to follow.
In 2013 Cherwell District Council divested itself of the responsibility of running the museum and instead appointed a chairman of a new entity called the Banbury Museum Trust to work unpaid to set up something called a Charitable Incorporated Organisation under new legislation introduced by Government specifically to help cut out the red tape which, all too often, ties itself up in knots when local authorities try to run
not-for-profit enterprises.
That chairman was retired Banbury businessman Bob Langton. He explained: “From the start I worked closely with the museum director Simon Townsend, who had already worked for 11 years as museum manager under Cherwell District Council.
“We made a list of the entrepreneurial skills we needed on the board of the trust which was essentially a charity and a company limited by guarantee and then set about finding people in the county who possessed those skills.
“We did not just go out to find the great and the good but specifically to find the skills we needed.”
Mr Langton added: “It is astonishing how people are willing to give their time if they can see a clear objective.”
And the objective here was clear, namely, as Cherwell District Council deputy leader George Reynolds — himself now a board member —- put it at the time of the transfer: to “ensure that it remains a treasure trove of the area's history”.
In a short time Mr Langton had put together a board of nine, all experts in their fields, which many a commercial organisation would view as a sort of ‘dream team’.
On the board now, besides Mr Langton and Mr Reynolds, are: solicitor John Spratt, accountant Andy Jones and surveyor Andrew Fairbairn.
And for specialist skills there are: Helen Forde, chairman of the National Post Office Museum in London, Sara Billins, principal of the North Oxford Academy, Dan Wolfe, director of the Royal Horticultural Society and Stephen Johnston of the Museum of the History of Science in Broad Street, Oxford. All working for nothing.
But why did Cherwell decide trust status was the way forward for Banbury Museum?
Mr Langton, chatting over a coffee in the museum cafe, enumerated the advantages.
“It saves public money — the council does not have the specialist expertise necessary; we can bid for funding in ways Cherwell could not.
“It gives us the flexibility to take on volunteers when necessary and it is easier to get donations from private and corporate donors, or from legacies. It makes the decision-taking process far quicker.”
Here museum director Simon Townsend, sitting alongside, cut in. “That is certainly true,” he said.
And he should know, having managed the museum as both a public and a private amenity.
“It broadens our sources of revenue and clearly makes it far easier for us to have the flexibility needed to become a provincial museum offering excellence,” Mr Townsend added.
In that last respect Banbury Museum is fortunate to be in Oxfordshire and to be working closely with Oxford University. Recently it staged an exhibition from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History which meant that for insurance purposes there had to be someone on the floor all the time. Volunteers were used.
The museum has just taken on a marketing manager and now employs 15 staff. These include managers of conferences, exhibitions, and education, as well as shop staff.
Is this the model for provincial museums of the future? Probably yes.
Gone, certainly, is any remnant of the dusty old image of museums that some of us remember. Instead, here is a vibrant community project that works and somehow manages to make the past relevant to the present.
True, the trust only formally took over management in November 2013 (after the museum had been on its present site for ten years and had welcomed an incredible two million visitors), but already the future is looking rosy.
Now the challenge is to become financially self-sufficient in readiness for the day when Cherwell District Council will cease to guarantee basic funding.