I was aghast to read this Guardian article suggesting that Kirklees district council are gearing up to close and sell the Red House Museum in Gomersal. This stems from the fact that the wellbeing and communities directive, in charge of museums and the like, have to cut their costs by 19% to £105m. To quote from the article: "Closure of the Red House in September would make a full-year saving of £116,000 with sale of the site an additional, one-off capital receipt, probably of around £750,000." The yearly cost seems negligible compared to what they need to cut. As for the one-off receipt: are they so confident they'll find a buyer? I'll come back to that bit.
I was fortunate enough to visit the Red House last year. Despite living so close, I'd just never got round to it. That seems bizarre, given the Bronte links, but sometimes the heritage on your own doorstep slips by unnoticed. You may pay attention when it's no longer there but my general feeling was that it wasn't going anywhere. Lucky I didn't wait a few more years judging by this. Anyway, although the house itself is quite small, it is wonderfully kept. It is a perfect small replica of Victorian life for those younger visitors who might be interested in history, but not that interested in musty old rooms. There is also an exhibition in the barn - holding, amongst other little artefacts, a card for Emily Bronte's funeral - and a beautiful small garden to admire. There's a little gift shop on the ground floor of the museum and, all in all, the place is a nice little outing. More importantly, it's history. Wiping that away for a few pounds seems silly.
I would be arguing for the preservation of the Red House even if it wasn't for the Bronte connections. It's a gorgeous little place. However, the Bronte links are compelling and rather difficult to ignore. Charlotte Bronte didn't just visit the house - it helped inspire one of her novels. This is taken from the Yorkshire.com website entry about the museum:
"The stained glass windows, described in 'Shirley' are perfectly preserved in the dining room. And the award-winning recreated 19th Century gardens, with their shaped beds, decorative ironwork and authentic varieties of plants and shrubs, help to capture the atmosphere of this fascinating bygone age.
Explore Charlotte Bronte's Spen Valley connections and her friendships with Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey in The Secrets Out exhibition in the barn. What did local people say when they discovered that she'd based some of her characters in 'Shirley' on them? And how did Charlotte, Mary and Ellen react to society's strict view of 'a woman's place'?"
Can you see how we'll be losing a slice of history if we let this slip quietly away? The Brontes are a major draw to Yorkshire. The more things we can offer the average visitor, the better. The council seem to think that because the museum drew so few people last year that it deserves to be closed down. It doesn't. It deserves to be promoted. There are plenty of schools in the area so why did less than 1,000 schoolchildren visit the house last year? This is a problem that probably delves deeper into school management than this blog post requires but it's certainly worth looking at. If a property fails, especially when it's free entry, it is usually down to a failure on the part of the management, not a failure of the historic site itself. The Red House is certainly a little off the beaten track but it's survived as a museum for quite some time and I don't see why we should let go of it now.
I would urge local residents to make their feelings known about this. As the Guardian article says, this is a decision hastily made that will be regretted in the long term. The Red House is a Grade II listed building. This means that a potential buyer would have to jump through all sorts of hoops to make changes to it. Have Kirklees council actually investigated whether there are interested parties in the event of a decision to sell? If not, the building will rest empty for a prolonged period, with the council still responsible for the maintenance. They will be getting all the difficulties of owning a listed building but with none of the rewards of enriching the area and providing access to a beautiful little house.
Savings have to be made. We know this. However, this does not only strike me as rash but also idiotic if they haven't completely thought it through. Can we have some sense please? And not lose a genuine piece of literary history while we're looking the other way.