Monday, 9 April 2012

Happy Anniversary: the closure of Church Farmhouse Museum

Last week's occupation of Friern Barnet Library by local residents took place on the day the building was due to shut its doors forever, after 78 years of history as a much loved focal point of the local community. The council had planned to shut earlier than announced, so as to pre empt any demonstration by residents: they were outwitted by the strategy of determined campaigners.

By coincidence, last week marked the anniversary of another closure. Despite widespread protest, the Church Farmhouse Museum, a central part of our borough's heritage and cultural life for nearly sixty years was shut, cleared and now stands empty, awaiting sale and development, just as Friern Barnet Library is now awaiting sale and development.

A third property, the Barnet Museum, founded in 1938, is now also poised for closure, sale, and development.

Barnet Museum and its archivist, Dr Gilllian Gear

It was reported that at a meeting for business owners in North Finchley last year, council leader Richard Cornelius assured the audience that the Barnet Museum 'had been saved'. This is completely untrue.

Over the last year, negotiations between the council and the volunteer body which runs the museum have focused, pretty much as they did over Friern Barnet Library, on a prolonged courtship of flattery and whispered promises - a one sided, abusive relationship, which will end in tragedy - a violent assault, and the loss of honour on both sides.

The real prize is, in all these cases, the seizure of property: forget all the pretence at encouraging Big Society style voluntary schemes to run these museums and libraries - this is simply a load of cant. They want to get their hands on the buildings, because they want the cash from the sale of these buildings. They do not give a damn about the value to the borough in any other sense: there is no value in any other sense, for the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet. Leader Cornelius himself dismissed the significance of the contents of the Church Farmhouse Museum as being of no worth. Social history, the heritage of our borough: no worth, no value - throw it in a skip. Some of it actually was thrown in a skip, we hear.

The only reason Barnet Museum is still open is due partly to the tenacity, and naivete, perhaps, of the dedicated volunteers who run it, but most of all because of an unfortunate problem - for our grasping Tory councillors. That problem is that the council has not yet established legal ownership of the listed Georgian building in which the Museum is housed. You can be sure that if and when they do, the For Sale sign will be up outside the very next day. Barnet is pretending that they are encouraging the Museum to find alternative funding to enable it to carry it on, but of course this is impossible when they have no security of tenure, and the council is insisting on extracting a commercial rent from a community body.

Mrs Angry has heard that one Tory councillor has been telling people that the Museum can easily be substituted by - get this - a mobile museum in a van, visiting schools with our historic artefacts in tupperware boxes. The story, unfortunately, has a horrible ring of truth: think of Robert Rams, who wanted to get rid of all reference books in libraries because he thinks all residents now have google on their iphones, or tweeting, idiotically, to ask if we knew more Mills & Boon romances were 'published' as e books than in hardcover? They don't do culture, or heritage, in Broken Barnet. Has Rams ever read a book? Apart from Mills & Boon, that is. Does he know anything about the history of this borough? (History: that means anything that happened before the day before yesterday, Robert ...)

The philistine councillors who dominate the policy making of Barnet Council are typical of their type: jumped up working class Tories with a latent sense of inferiority that makes them averse to any reverence for culture, the arts, matters of heritage and local history. And as with all dictatorial administrations, they are determined to stop the clock at year zero, and start again, and value nothing that happened, well - before the day before yesterday. A cultural revolution, but with no culture.

In the days when we cherished the rich and diverse history of our borough, the Church Farmhouse museum and its long succession of fascinating exhibitions was brilliantly managed by a curator, Gerrard Roots - below, right.

Gerrard worked at the Museum for thirty two years, and was - and is - appalled by its closure. As he wrote in an open letter this week:

"Last Sunday, aptly April Fool's Day, marked the first anniversary of the closure of Church Farmhouse Museum.The house and its grounds are now up for sale.

Just as this dismal anniversary approached, the Conservative Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, called on schools across the country to concentrate more on their local heritage- especially old buildings- in the teaching of history. How ironic then that Barnet's schoolchildren should be denied access to that important gateway to their area's rich and fascinating past, Church Farmhouse Museum, by Barnet's Conservative council.

The savings made by shutting the Museum, despite much pharisaical flannel from Tory councillors about diverting limited resources to 'protect the vulnerable', are paltry. The fate of Museum's collection, largely consisting of local historical material generously given free by local residents, is undecided. A fine building stands mouldering in its neglected, litter-strewn garden, making a mockery of the 'conservation area' status of Church End, Hendon. (The Grade II* listing of the house makes it very hard to sell, but even if it is sold, it will never re-open as a public space, freely available to all.) Barnet residents, especially children, have lost a much loved and valued resource. Barnet council has aroused the contempt of thousands of ordinary people- within and without the borough - with an interest in, and an understanding of the importance of, history. What a splendid achievement!

yours faithfully

Gerrard Roots"

Church Farmhouse Museum: fifty seven years. Barnet Museum: seventy four years. Friern Barnet Library: seventy eight years. More than two hundred years of service to the local community, and of irreplaceable value: but measured by the timescale of Broken Barnet, it is all meaningless - and of no worth.

Welcome to Year Zero.

Well, not quite, maybe.

The occupation this week of Friern Barnet Library was both a symbolic reclamation of a community resource, and a declaration of intent by the people of this borough.

We are no longer going to sit back, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, and let you rob us of everything we have without a bloody good fight.

Don't say you haven't been warned.


Mr Mustard said...

That looks like the famous "book power" salute being given on the steps of FB library Mrs A or did I not pay enough attention in my history lessons - I must have been sat next to Robert Rams.

Alice in Blunderland said...

I think this is downright disgusting and dreadful Mrs A. No respect more like utter contempt these politicians clearly have for peoples heritage and their wishes as well as rights. Yes rights because people should have the right to have a say what at happens and the chance to do something to preserve them.Taking a van around with historical bits and bobs like a mobile library is NO substitute for the experience of visiting one of these places where you can step back in time.
I am so pleased to see you still have a very strong community spirit there Mrs A and people wont lie down and take things like they do here.Good luck.

Anonymous said...

No, we're not naive, becoming the 'responsibility' of Property Services sharpens up the wits wonderfully. But as you say they have no proof that they own the building and we will fight tooth and nail to keep it. We owe loyalty to Barnet town and to generations of dedicated volunteers like ourselves.

Mrs Angry said...

Never underestimate the power of a book, Mr Mustard.

Alice: you are so right. I think some of our Tory councillors are now travelling on a very sharp learning curve as to the impact of the policies they have adopted in this borough.

Anonymous: yes, indeed, nothing could be more clearly a statement of intent in regard to the Museum than that Barnet Council has shifted responsibility for negotiations regarding the future of Barnet Museum from Libraries etc to Property Services.

The thought that Barnet could be left with no museums is just awful, shameful. I wish you every success in your bid for survival, and I urge every reader to visit what is a fabulous local archive of our heritage and history.

Mrs Angry said...

oh and there is a petition which you should sign - this link probably is not live, sorry, Mrs Angry is running out of steam, you can find it if you want to, so please do.

Vicki Morris aka Citizen Barnet said...

We learn lessons. Last year when CFM closed a few of us - not enough - turned up with the intention of staging a protest there.

I won't go into the details but the museum closed early with that few of us not showing enough determination to go through with our plan. That was a big mistake in my view and I've regretted it for a year.

We were more numerous at Friern Barnet Library last Thursday and had learned some lessons from the failure at CFM: turn up early, get inside, and when the time comes to decide whether to carry through your plan, stick to your guns.

We did and I'm glad we did. I am going to write up some other lessons from Thursday. We don't need to re-invent the wheel and in truth we don't have time for it.

Remembering our history also means remembering the history of protest. Thank you for this blogpost, because it reminds us of the continuity between all these stories.

When push comes to shove, we have to decide whether we will hand over our culture on a plate for it to be destroyed by people who don't value it, or whether we are going to fight to keep it.

Mrs Angry said...

I think we must fight: and that includes the active and continued opposition of the development of any of these properties. For generations these public buildings have been used by the community, were bought for the use of the community: the council may think they have the legal right to flog them off, morally they have no right whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

The Council most certainly do not own the Museum contents and they know this. I doubt many Barnet people would want to see their ancestors' treasured possessions, donated to the museum in good faith over decades, trailed around the borough in a Council van.

Mrs Angry said...

Anon: the fact that a councillor has apparently suggested this demonstrates how little understanding they have of the way in which museums work, or the importance and sensitivity of the items in the collection. Just what you might expect from our philistine councillors, in other words.

Our borough has a long and fascinating history, but perhaps the most significant event that has taken place here is the Battle of Barnet: an event of huge significance for the nation - for this reason alone the Barnet Museum should be supported by the local authority. The rest of the borough's history, and all the archival material and pictures have nowhere now to be displayed - this would be shameful in any borough, but in one of the most affluent areas in outer London, there is no excuse. Funny how we can subsidise a library in a shop for the millionaires of Garden Suburb, but nothing for the children of the less advantaged families in Barnet, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Even Boris has twigged that having the only battlefield site in Greater London might make Barnet rather important. When Rams first visited the Museum in 2010 to size us up for the chop he stared blankly at the battle display and then uttered the immortal words 'why does Barnet need a Museum'. Gillian and all of us there were totally 'gobsmacked'. That question encapsulates Rams.

Mrs Angry said...

Oh please ... normally in any administration, the obvious thing to do is appoint members to responsibilities for which they might have some understanding, if not expertise. Clearly in Broken Barnet,the reverse is true. Brian Coleman in charge of the environment, and Robert Rams in charge of libraries & museums, Tom Davey in housing ... All part of the cultural revolution: destroy what you don't understand and create a new reality based on fear, control and conformity.