Published: 00:00, 23 February 2017
| Updated: 08:39, 23 February 2017
City archaeologists are offering to dig the council out of a hole and help keep Canterbury Heritage Museum open.
They have stepped in following the unveiling of plans to close the loss-making attraction in Stour Street and turn it into a youth theatre and literacy cultural venue for the Marlowe Theatre.
The city council is consulting on the proposal after revealing visitor numbers have dropped from almost 30,000 to less than 9,000 in five years – the attraction only surviving with a £160,000 annual subsidy from taxpayers.
But Canterbury Archaeological Trust director Paul Bennett says that increasing entry prices and reducing its hours was bound to have a negative effect on those visiting.
Now he is appealing to the council to rethink the reuse of the building and was due to meet officers yesterday (Wednesday) afternoon to discuss his plans.
He said: “A growing number of Canterbury institutions and many individuals want to keep the building in use as the only museum that tells the story of Canterbury.
"We will be offering to work with the council to increase footfall and revenue and, in the longer term, raising funds to enhance the museum and develop the historic buildings in other ways to interpret the heritage of the city, district and region.
"If the council does not wish to pursue this option, we propose forming a trust offering to operate the building and the collections in partnership with them, in the same way that they are proposing to operate the complex with a new Marlowe Trust.
"We appreciate the council is going through difficult times with cutbacks from central government, but this museum appears to be low-hanging fruit and they’re going for it.
"Yet the building and its contents are incredibly special, while the Beaney is not a real museum, just a collections of curiosities. To lose it would be like cutting an arm off – it’s ridiculous."
A call to keep the museum open has already come from the Canterbury Society’s Jan Pahl, who says better signage and publicity is needed to drive visitor numbers.
Mr Bennett has launched a petition in a bid to save the museum which can be seen at www.ipetitions.com/petition/save-canterbury-heritage-museum.
It has already attracted more than 1,000 signatures.
Among the organisations backing his proposals are the Centre for Kent History and Heritage at Canterbury Christ Church University, the Centre for Heritage and the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent, the Kent Archaeological Society, Canterbury Heritage Design Forum, the Canterbury branch of the Historical Association and Canterbury Tourists Guides.
Mr Bennett said: “We have been given very little time to act before the period of public consultation ends on March 1.
"What we need from the meeting is more time to put together a coherent proposal and business plan for either of the two options."
Council bosses claim handing control of the heritage museum to the Marlowe Theatre will actually boost the presentation of the city’s history and open it up to far more people.
Despite only launching a public consultation into the proposal a few weeks ago, they say they have been working on it for many months and believe they have an exciting future lined up for the building.
Director of the city’s museums and galleries, Joanna Jones, said: “We will be collaborating with the Marlowe to particularly illustrate the literacy heritage of the city, which will bring some of the collections to life, instead of the existing, rather passive static experience."
Marlowe general manager Paula Gillespie added: "We will still be custodians of the exhibits and the changes will allow us to actually enhance the interior architecture of the building.
“With the change of governance of the Marlowe Theatre to a trust and charitable status, we also plan to look for outside funding opportunities.
"It will appeal to a new, wider audience, using the collections as part of live performance."
Some key exhibits of the heritage museum, like the Canterbury Cross Anglo-Saxon, will be moved to the Beaney, where it is planned to create a family gallery with exhibits like Bagpuss.
The closure will cost around £30,000, but the council insists none of the exhibits will be put into storage.
Mrs Jones also rejects claims that not enough was done to market the museum and boost visitor numbers.
“We did a rebranding exercise but there is only so much you can do with a Grade I-listed building,” she said.
Council spokesman Rob Davies also questioned the accuracy of the petition launched by Mr Bennett.
He said: "It does not give adequate context to our proposals and contrary to its claim, the building will not be closing.
"We want to make the most of this wonderful heritage asset and our aim is to increase the number of people who experience and enjoy it.
"Access to the collections will not only be preserved but enhanced.”