Burns museum to miss 250th anniversary

A new museum celebrating the life and works of Robert Burns will not be ready in time for the 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth.From Scotland on Sunday – 13th January

By JEREMY WATSON

New Museum

THE cups of kindness are running low at the birthplace of Scotland’s national poet. A prestigious £7m project to save Robert Burns’ cottage and museum and turn them into a world-class tourist attraction has collapsed.
The trustees of the Burns National Heritage Park in Alloway, Ayrshire, asked architects to draw up detailed plans last year to prevent the 18th-century cottage where the Bard was born, and its linked museum, from further deterioration and protect priceless original manuscripts and other Burns documents. The architects were also asked to design a state-of-the-art visitor centre.

But although the plans were drawn up and the trust thought it had found partners to finance the scheme, Scotland on Sunday can reveal that it has been abandoned.

The collapse will be a bitter blow for the Scottish Executive, which wants Burns’ cottage to become an internationally acclaimed visitor attraction in the run-up to the 250th anniversary of the Bard’s birth in 2009.

The Executive feels the crisis is so serious it has asked the National Trust for Scotland to consider taking over the management of the park next year.

Architects and designers who worked on the project are furious that they will not be paid the thousands of pounds they could have expected if the project had gone ahead.

Some trustees of the heritage park also claim the local council’s decision to privatise the Tam O’ Shanter Experience, the park’s biggest income earner, left the new museum without enough funds to provide future running costs.

As a result, an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for more than £3m for the project was officially withdrawn this month. It had also become clear that matching money from a European Union fund was also not going to be available.

Laurie Black, interim manager of the Burns National Heritage Park, said: “This project is now gone, finished. It is very frustrating for everyone involved. The brief was to produce a really stunning world-class centre for Burns, and the indication was that funds would be available in the region [of £7m].

“But it became clear in October that the money required for such an ambitious project was not going to be there. The problem was not just the capital costs but the running costs, because there was no long-term commitment from either local or national bodies to assist with those.”

Burns’ cottage was built by his father, William, shortly before the poet was born in 1759, and he lived there for his first six years.

It has been a place of pilgrimage almost from the time the first Burns Supper was held there by fans in 1814.

The museum was purpose-built around 1900 to house the growing collection of Burns manuscripts and memorabilia. Despite Burns’ popularity in Scotland and among the Scottish diaspora, the joint attraction has barely broken even over the ensuing years.

As a result of lack of money for maintenance, the bible belonging to Burns’ father was damaged after a roof leak, and other valuable manuscripts, including that of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the Bard’s most famous song, and ‘Scots Wha’ Hae’, have been moved to other museums for safe keeping. Lack of proper heating, lighting and humidity controls were causing the old paper to curl.

The park was set up in 1995 to link the buildings connected most closely to the poet – the cottage, the museum and Tam O’ Shanter Experience – a visitor centre and cafe inspired by the Bard’s famous poem.

Then in 2002, the joint board which runs the park, which includes the trustees, South Ayrshire Council and Scottish enterprise Ayrshire, came up with a £2m plan to restore the cottage and museum and add the visitor centre.

Funding was secured from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Heritage Lottery Fund, the body that disburses National Lottery cash to good causes.

Had the board gone ahead with this relatively simple, inexpensive plan, it is almost certain the buildings and artefacts would now be protected.

But in 2003, the joint board decided to commission a much more ambitious project using a £50,000 HLF development grant.

The new £7m project was unveiled in September 2003 and included creating a modern building to house safely the cottage museum’s unmatched Burns Collection.

The development would have had a state-of-the-art conservation unit, temporary exhibition area and permanent galleries, as well as a dedicated education centre.

High-profile architecture firms such as Sutherland Hussey, from Edinburgh, and design companies such as Glasgow’s Graven Images, were brought in and an application for funds was made to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

But late this summer it emerged ERDF funds would not be available in anything like the £3m-plus required. Major concerns also emerged over the new museum’s projected running costs.

South Ayrshire Council decided to lease out the Tam O’ Shanter Experience to a private sector operator in an effort to reduce its overheads. However, the decision removed around 80% of the park’s income.

On October 29, the board pulled the plug on the project and the application to the Heritage Lottery Fund was withdrawn. John Skilling, a trustee, said: “The proposed £7m project had to be dropped because the council decided to withdraw from the park. They offered some money in running costs but nowhere near enough to run a £7m facility.

“The promise of ERDF money also collapsed and that left us several million pounds short of what was required. There are many people quite incensed about it, but we felt we just couldn’t go ahead with so many things unresolved.”

Charlie Hussey, a partner at the award-winning Sutherland Hussey practice, said his overwhelming emotion was “really just disappointment”.

“We put a lot of time and effort into this and we have to now just take the sting, but we are also sad because we were emotionally involved in the project.

“The main problem is that Burns’ birthplace, which should be a major national asset, is still deteriorating and nothing now is going ahead.

“Do we want all these things from the very important Burns Collection to be dispersed around the country to other museums, or do we want them to stay where they rightfully belong in Alloway? Unfortunately we seem to be forfeiting that latter option.”

The Heritage Lottery Fund confirmed the application for funds had been withdrawn and said it hoped the Burns Cottage Museum would find a way forward that reflected Burns’ importance. “Burns is an icon of Scotland and his works are renowned worldwide,” said HLF’s Scottish manager, Colin McLean.

Adam Ingram, the Scottish National Party MSP for the south of Scotland, insisted the Burns Cottage project should not be allowed to drift on and urged the Executive to come up with a permanent solution.

A spokesman for the new culture and tourism minister, Patricia Ferguson, said the Executive was working with the trustees of the cottage and other interested parties, including the National Trust for Scotland, “to secure the long-term viability of the Burns Cottage and Museum”.

He added: “We wish to ensure it is a centrepiece for the Executive’s plans to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns in 2009 as the Year of Homecoming.”

The chief executive of the National Trust for Scotland, Robin Pellew, said the trust was investigating taking over management of the park. “Our concern is making sure that these national treasures are cared for in the proper way.”

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