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Shipshape Bristol becomes museum fashion victim

Display at Bristol City MuseumBristol City Museum geology collection needs your support, writes Ted Nield

Geoscientist Online Tuesday 17 March 2009

World-class geological collections are under threat from a staff and cost-cutting exercise being carried out at the institution, according to Tim Ewin, Former Curator of Geology at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. Ewin has written to a number of bodies and individuals calling for help in writing to Bristol City Council and local MPs.

The Bristol collection is very large, consisting of over half a million specimens with designated status, meaning they are of national importance. However owing to staff shortages brought about by a failure to replace curatorial staff, Ewin says, requests for access to material are now being met with frustration and delay.

“This situation is to be further compounded by a proposed staff restructuring, and a “shift in focus to the Visual Arts”.” Ewin’s letter reveals. “Senior management want a reduction in museum visitor opening hours with further reductions in front of house, curatorial and conservation staffing. The latter will result in the loss of 9 out of 26 curatorial and conservation posts as well as the merger of the remaining conservation and curation posts. The resultant savings are to be channelled towards public engagement and completion of the faltering Museum of Bristol project” he writes.

No official word on the detail of the new structure has been released and staff at the museum are apparently unable to comment. However it is thought likely that the biology and geology departments will be combined in a “Natural History Department” that will be staffed by a Senior Curator and a Curator, one with a biology background and the other with geology. “This will entail a 60% reduction in staff with natural history backgrounds and provide no specialist conservation cover” says Ewin.

Ewin describes the move by the Council as “tokenistic curatorial care with essentially non-existent conservation cover”. He believes these proposals will reduce staffing to a skeleton level that will compromise basic accessibility and collections care.

Bristol City Council has set up a select committee of councillors to oversee the changes. This committee has invited statements and questions regarding the staffing structure in Bristol and the potential impacts this will have on existing collections.

Says Ewin: “The more questions to the select committee the better so I hope that readers will duly oblige and send their statements and questions to this forum.

Written questions should be submitted three working days prior to any meeting i.e. by the end of Tuesday 17 March for the next meeting on March 23, but this should not discourage anyone from submitting them. Says Ewin: “Questions and statements could focus on requesting reassurances that the geology collections will not only be adequately cared for but also continue to be developed and used for the public benefit. Please send letters or e-mails to the councillors listed at:”.