Challenging times but confidence high at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

Confidence remains high – despite the challenges of the pandemic and the fact that visitor numbers are still variable – at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft as the museum marks ten years since its major redevelopment.
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The museum is celebrating with an exhibition about the museum's co-founder Hilary Bourne (1909-2004) and Barbara Allen (1903-1972), her partner in life and creative practice, Double Weave: Bourne and Allen's Modernist Textiles (until April 14). Museum director Steph Fuller has been at the museum for nearly six years but well remembers, from her own earlier visits, just how much the refurbishment was needed: “It was a huge thing in lots of ways. It made the museum quite substantially larger. We took the cart lodge, the 18th-century building on the village green that was falling down, and we restored it as our shop and cafe and entrance area.”

Crucially the refurbishment also gave the museum its own store: “We already had our collection though it has grown over the past ten years but it was previously looked after by Towner at Eastbourne. The store was completely new and it meant that we have the environmental controls that we need in a professional museum. It means that we can look after our collection really well but it also means other institutions are prepared to lend to us. I remember how the museum was before the refurbishment, as a visitor. It was a fascinating collection but quite a jumble of local history alongside the art and craft but the refurbishment meant that the museum could really focus on its collection, this extraordinary collection of arts and craft people from Ditchling. Being able to see their work in the place where it was created is the thing. You can really look at the landscape outside the museum and see it reflected in the collection that we have got. The refurbishment was very much needed. The building was not built as a museum. It was built as a school but it was built at a time when school standards were fairly ropey. I think it had been in decline for a while coming up to the beginning of the 20th century. Visitor numbers were falling back and it was clear that the building needed a lot of attention. The trustees decided that major redevelopment was what was needed. They took a long time to consult with people so they could home in on what was required. They had to raise more than £2 million. There was massive fund-raising alongside Heritage Lottery money. The trustees had to raise a lot of money from trusts and foundations but also lots of local people bought life memberships as well and we still see them here.”

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A continuing challenge now, though, is the fact that the pandemic absolutely isn't over: “We are not out of the woods. We are still recovering financially. There was a lot of support during the pandemic but that has all stopped. And visitors are not returning in the same way. It's very variable. For our winter exhibition we had really good numbers. We were back to where we were before the pandemic but the summer was quite poor but also very erratic with some months a long way down while July was nearly pre-Covid numbers.” Cost is also a huge factor: “The cost of running the building on a daily basis has more than doubled since 2020 and that's not including staff. You can turn the lights off but you can't turn off the climate control. Museums are quite energy hungry. But I am optimistic. When visitors come they like what they see here. We've just got to hold the ship steady. You don't know what is around the corner but we're doing the right things. If we can survive the pandemic, we can survive this.”

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