Viewpoint: We must preserve our museums
Now that Northern Ireland is back on the tourist map and Belfast is regarded as a must-see destination, there needs to be a rethink about how visitors are to be catered for, in terms of museums and permanent exhibitions.
Too often, it seems, those who have responsibility for these attractions have to fend for themselves, without being able to plan for the future.
That is why David McNarry, vice-chairman of the committee scrutinising the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, has called on the Minister, Edwin Poots, to outline a clear policy for museums.
Lack of a coherent government strategy, he says, has left them uncertain about their long-term survival, in difficult economic times. As more tourists are attracted to Northern Ireland, because of the extra air routes, quality hotels and curiosity about our peace process, there must be more for them to do, in indifferent weather, than to shop or see the sights from an open-top bus.
They expect visitor attractions, in all the main towns, but they may find museums and permanent displays that are struggling to stay open.
In Belfast, the closure for refurbishment of the Ulster Museum and the City Hall has robbed the city, temporarily, of two of its main attractions.
A start has yet to be made on a dedicated Titanic museum — though the fitting out of the Nomadic is a worthy substitute — and in just four years time the whole world will be remembering the centenary of her first and last voyage. Anywhere else, with such a close connection to such a historic event, would already be planning how to cope with hordes of tourists.
The problem identified by Mr McNarry is that permanent exhibition centres and museums, which will always need financial support, are unable to plan for the future. They do not know how much money they will receive, from year to year, or how their success and sustainability is to be judged. They need more guidance — and promise of future funding — from DCAL.
As things stand, much of the responsibility for museums lies with local councils. There is a policy framework to enable them to provide and maintain the museums but, as Mr McNarry argues, departmental guidelines are not sufficient.
There needs to be a government strategy for making sure that museums are run along the right lines and can plan ahead.
To develop a sustainable tourist industry, looking ahead to the days when Northern Ireland loses its curiosity appeal, there must be more on offer than exceptional scenery, as well as world-class attractions like the Folk Museum and the Ulster-American Folk Park.
Mr Poots has been trawling for business in America, but needs to put museums and permanent displays here on a sounder financial footing.