A special meeting of Durham County Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Management Board heard details of how the authority plans to continue to honour the region’s military history at a time when it must find nearly another £140m of savings from its yearly budget.
In a near two hour session the council’s cabinet member for economic regeneration, arts and culture Cllr Neil Foster, corporate director for neighbourhoods Terry Collins, head of culture and sport Steve Howell, and chair of the DLI Trustees James Ramsbotham, moved to allay many of the fears expressed since the move away from the collection’s current Aykley Heads home was announced in October.
Through both a comprehensive presentation and responses to questions the meeting, which was open to the public, heard that:
- The council is continuing to consult with campaigners, veterans and other interested parties about what can be done to honour the regiment going forward.
- Durham County Council has received backing for its plans from the Army Museums Ogilvy Trust, which said the authority’s plans “demonstrate a clear commitment to the collection.”
- The DLI collection will be kept together, not broken up, and be more publically accessible than before.
- This will include a free exhibition on the History of the DLI – compared to a £5.45 adult entry fee for the current museum – lasting for at least five years.
- The proposals will also include a new, not currently available, “on demand” service for families who wish to see artefacts at Sevenhills.
- Moving the collection will allow curators to spend more time focussing on their work, rather than having to deal with an aging building, meaning they can concentrate on bringing the DLI story to the widest possible audience.
- With the museum vacated the building will be assessed and, if appropriate, declared surplus to the requirements of the council’s culture and sport department. At that stage it would then be considered for other alternative uses – but there are no current plans for the site or the building, there is a strong aspiration to maintain the landscape.
- The site of the DLI Museum will see memorial benches remain, and that the council is open to exploring if a new permanent memorial could in the future be created at Aykley Heads.
- Discussions have taken place over ashes which have been scattered near to the present museum, with a range of options for how to sensitively handle those remains being explored.
- As part of the proposals the council has made a commitment to the DLI collection, to invest £70,000 a year in funding for at least five years, at a time when it must find nearly £140m more in annual savings. That would include education officers being kept on, to take the DLI story into classrooms.
- An extensive programme of events, including plays, musical performances and an interactive theatrical experience have been commissioned alongside the already announced History of the DLI and Somme 1916 exhibitions in the next 12 months.
- The art gallery currently housed alongside the collection will see exhibitions taken on a county wide tour in 2016 while a permanent home is found for it.
James Ramsbotham, the chair of the DLI Trustees, said he felt a “very heavy responsibility” to do the best for a collection that “means so much to so many people,” but that the plans offered a “sustainable and exciting future.”
“There is a much wider story to tell,” he said. “And if we want to continue to engage people we have got to do something more dynamic to bring people back again and again.
“We need to refresh and be forward looking, much like the DLI was.
“We need to move away from a building that is in the wrong place and look to do things better, to do something that will ensure the DLI lives long in the hearts of the county.”
Cllr Neil Foster said: “Necessity is the mother of invention and you’ve only got to look at the challenges we have now and the continued financial pressures in the years to come to see we have to go out and be innovative.”
The DLI collection includes over 4,000 medals, 1,100 uniform related items, 2,600 examples of weapons and ammunition, more than 400 pieces of equipment, and over 400 relics, as well as extensive records and documents.
Steve Howell, the council’s head of culture and sport, said: “We are keeping the DLI collection together. I’ve had a lot of letters about it and heard the rumours that we are looking to split the collection up, but that is absolutely not true.
“We’ll be retaining and maintaining it as a single collection, regardless of where it is on display. That is how many national collections work – items go out, they are used to tell their stories, and then they come back.
“It’s not just going to be put in a box in Spennymoor, it is going to be maintained with proper curatorial skills so the story can continue to be told and live on.”
The meeting also heard further details of plans for events linked to the DLI and the current World War One centenary.
Steve said: “These are things we would never be able to do in the museum, and are not something we could do while we have to spend so much on the current building.”
Discussions will also continue, with public input, as to what is included in the free, five year History of the DLI exhibition on Palace Green, around future exhibitions, and about what happens after the initial five years.
The plans have been backed by the Army Museums Ogilby Trust (AMOT), an organisation that supports and promotes 139 regimental collections, including that of the DLI, which said it would work with all the interested parties and help where it can to create a secure future for the collection.
In a statement AMOT said: “We believe Durham’s proposals demonstrate a clear commitment to the collection.
“Durham has been generous over many years and we know there is the will to make sure the DLI has a secure future.
“Durham is unusual in the length and depth of support it gives’ – and this will remain the case with future arrangements.
“Durham’s proposals are quantifiably better than those for other collections at risk.”
Updates on how work is progressing will be presented back to Overview and Scrutiny in both three and six months’ time.