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Surge in visitor numbers at town museum
THE HEAD of a Dorchester museum celebrating the history and heritage of Dorset says it can never stop looking forward.
In times of squeezed funding, director of the Dorset County Museum Dr Jon Murden says partnership working and moving with the times are key to the museum’s continued success. While many museums around the country are closing in these tough economic times, the Dorchester attraction is positively booming.
Recent major exhibitions included the Our Sporting Life display to coincide with last summer’s Olympics and the Pharaoh: King of Egypt exhibition that saw the museum link up with the British Museum.
The Weymouth Bay pliosaur has also proved popular with youngsters and this summer the museum is hosting the Pardoes Animate! exhibition showcasing the story of animation over the last 200 years.
Dr Murden said: “We have concentrated on the diversity of the audiences and what they are interested in.”
Those efforts are clearly paying dividends.
Dr Murden said when he arrived at the museum on 2009 visitor numbers were around 20,000 to 22,000 per year, where as now they were up to around 39,000.
He said during the Pharaoh: King of Egypt exhibition the British Museum also carried out a study to see just how much having the display contributed to the local economy.
Dr Murden said: “They demonstrated that having the exhibition brought an extra £130,000 into the Dorchester economy entirely outside of what we made “I don’t think it’s something that people really think about – having a successful museum in the centre of the town actually supports the local economy.”
He said recognition of that contribution helped the museum develop links with local businesses, exemplified by the way Pardoes solicitors is sponsoring the Anitame! exhibition and Battens solicitors sponsor the family activity programme.
Dr Murden said the museum was also massively indebted to the tireless work of its 180 volunteers, without whom he admitted the attraction would not exist in its present guise.
The museum employs the equivalent of seven full-time staff while in the last financial year volunteers contributed the equivalent of 17,000 hours, which translates roughly to the workload of eight employees.
That means that the work of volunteers more than doubles the museum’s staff.
Dr Murden said one recent highlight was the recognition for long-serving volunteer Gwen Yarker, who was awarded a British Empire Medal in the New Year’s Honours list and dedicated the award to all the volunteers at the museum.
Dr Murden said: “To be able to see something like that makes you very happy.”
Behind-the-scenes maintenance and improvement works are made possible because of the museum’s stable financial position, and as part of the Wessex Museum Partnership, where museums of similar size join forces for collective benefit, the attraction has paired up with the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes and the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.
The Hardy Country initiative to promote the landscape enjoyed by the great author has also seen the museum working with the National Trust, Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Dorset County Council, Kingston Maurward College, Stinsford Parish Council, the Thomas Hardy Society, Exeter University and Bath Spa University.
While it will not be overseeing the project, the museum has also vowed to support and work with partner organisations on the redevelopment of the Shire Hall in Dorchester.
The museum is clearly doing its bit to rise to the challenge presented by these straightened financial times and for every £1 the museum receives in public funding from bodies such as Dorset County Council and West Dorset District Council, it raises a further £7 itself.
Dr Murden said despite the recent successes there is no question of the museum ‘resting on its laurels’. He said: “In the last few years between 30 and 40 museums in Britain have closed every year so we have to work very hard to make sure we continue to be a success and thrive.
“This has been here for the people of Dorset since the middle of the 19th century and I think we want to see it her for the next 150 years.”
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