Museum history

I was interested to read the extract printed in your column headed ‘Museum ‘gift’ to council’. This tells only one very small point in a protracted series of negotiations between the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society (the ‘society’) and the Whitby Urban District Council, the outcome of which differs markedly from the conclusions of this extract.

The negotiations concerned the building housing the museum, built by the society in 1929/30 at a cost of £6,000, behind the Pannett Art Gallery, which had opened in 1928. The gallery, with the land which is now Pannett Park, had been bequeathed by Alderman Robert Pannett on his death in 1920 to the people of Whitby.

The museum building is the third home of the society’s museum, the museum which had been on Baxtergate from 1823-26 and Pier Road from 1827 to 1930. This last building was sold in 1926 and the funds raised went into the new building which was to be leased from the council. In 1928 a High Court Order was granted which governed the management of the two buildings together; sadly any financial provision was not robust enough to withstand the 1929 financial crash, which wiped out the value of the investments entailed in the Pannett Trust and the society found itself ‘footing the bill’ for everything. In addition, the society was receiving less income from admissions, despite a rise in numbers, due to the extension of the provision in Mr Pannett’s Will which gives free admission to residents of the town.

By 1938 the high costs of maintaining the buildings, which were already showing signs of wear, notably from the flat roofs and the heating system, led to new negotiations between Captain Harry Boyle, honorary curator and Vivian Seaton Gray, the clerk of the council.

Taking the story forward from the extract, by 1040 the society was virtually bankrupt. Further weakened by lack of visitors due to wartime restrictions, the option of giving all the artefacts to either the council or a joint management committee seemed desirable. Fears that the council might be free to realise its assets in time of penury (as noted in the penultimate paragraph of the extract) prompted a change of heart at the last moment and new options were explored.

In November 1948 a new High Court Order was granted which is still in force. The buildings belong to the (now Whitby Town) council, as does the Pannett Gallery with its paintings, and the museum portion is leased to the society for 999 years to house the valuable collections which it owns in trust for the people of Whitby. The society passes over 60% of the admission charges towards the considerable cost of maintaining, heating and lighting the buildings, which the order obliges the council to maintain. The joint management committee mentioned in the extract was also revised and now consists of six members of the society and nine councillors, with a councillor, often the mayor, as chairman.

Since 1948 the museum has been extended four times. In 1950 the Kendall Room, housing the society’s library, was built; in 1954 the Chapman wings, housing the shipping and exploration collections, was added thanks to a generous bequest from Dr Katherine Chapman; in 1982 a new store, now refitted as the Tommy Roe Archive Room was added; and the new wing, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fun, opened in 2005, effectively doubled the size of the building.

Incidentally, under the terms of the museum’s accreditation with Arts Council England and the Museums Association, granted in 2009 and for which we have recently applied for renewal, the collections cannot be sold for financial gain and any disposals are carefully monitored.

I hope this places the extract in full context and that it answers any questions that may have been raised.

Mark Edwards, Hon Keeper of Whitby Museum