Closure Threat to the Williamson Gallery.

Friends of the Williamson Art Gallery

& Wirral Museums
Registered charity number: 514641

Dear Friends of the Williamson                                                               January 13, 2014

Closure Threat to the Williamson Gallery.

Please excuse my writing to you with alarming news but there is a Wirral Council budget meeting on February the 11th 2014 that could decide future of the Williamson. We are writing on behalf of the Friends of the Williamson to draw your attention to the current proposal to make substantial cuts to the budget of the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum.

When the Wirral Council's Cabinet met on 10 December 2013, it proposed a cut in funding to the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum with the Birkenhead Priory of £250.000 for 2014/2015 with a further reduction of £150,000 for 2015-2017. This proposal went before full Council on 16 December. The current combined annual budget for the Williamson and the Priory is in the region of £600,000 so a cut of £400,000 would leave just £200,000. Taking into account all the necessary outgoings, these cuts are of such a magnitude that they could force the closure of the museum and gallery at the end of March 2014.

We appreciate the huge budgetary challenges faced by the council and its need to concentrate spending on front-line services and on protecting the vulnerable. However, it seems unthinkable to force the closure of the Williamson at the very point at which it was ready to develop its resources, extend and enhance its services and provide an enhanced visitor experience. The council has just invested £1.3 million in the building, which now has state of the art facilities, a café and a shop and is fully accessible and DDA compliant. Following this major refurbishment, the Williamson now has the capacity to develop further as the key cultural resource for the Wirral making a significant contribution to its social and economic life and to the education, health and well-being of its residents.

Since 1928 the Williamson has been the home of arts activity in Birkenhead, Wirral hosting a wide range of art and history exhibitions and events. These have extended from local and national children's art exhibitions to displays about Malory & Irvine and Dixie Dean, from local photography societies to National History Museums' Wildlife Photography of the Year, from exhibitions drawn from the Williamson's collections to exhibitions with loans from Tate Britain, National Museums Liverpool, Imperial War Museum and most major regional museums and galleries around the country. The AH Lee & Sons Tapestry Makers exhibition won a national award and Malory & Irvine was shortlisted. The forthcoming exhibition opening on the 8th of February, features Henry Moore, the renowned British sculptor.

The gallery collections attract specialist visitors from all over the world, an interest that has expanded hugely in the last couple of years since the BBC Your Paintings website, and works of art have recently been loaned to exhibitions in China, Australia, Japan, the USA, Spain, Italy, Germany, Poland and Holland as well as various UK galleries. The Liverpool Porcelain and Della Robbia Pottery collections are widely recognised as reference collections and the maritime displays much admired.

Community engagement remains central to the Gallery's core purpose. The Williamson has engaged with schools within the immediate area and Wirral Metropolitan College. Since facilities have been created in the recent development, there are a rising number of family and schools workshops as well as sessions with health groups and lifelong learning. Increased activity with artists and groups is drawing more material from the stores to be appreciated by a wider audience. The building is a vibrant social space, an alternative learning and leisure environment where diverse ranges of visitors, young and old, are welcomed and encouraged. Through talks, workshops and events visitors are invited to explore the ideas and issues raised by the work of artists in the collection and in temporary exhibitions.

For the last 40 years it has been a centre for music with one of the best pianos in the area, holding between 20 and 30 concerts a year supported by the Friends and the Wirral International Guitar Festival. In addition, many groups meet at the gallery and consider it their home: University of the Third Age, Birkenhead History Society, Western Front Association, Wirral Embroiderers' Guild, Oxton Floral Art Group, Wirral History & Heritage Association. The links with the Wirral Society of Arts, with exhibitions, meetings and life-drawing classes, goes back over 60 years.

It is worth noting that since the closure of the Wirral Museum in Birkenhead Town Hall, the Williamson is the only art gallery and museum devoted to the whole of Wirral and is the prime repository of its unique heritage. The collections have largely been deposited by local people in the expectation that they would be cared for, preserved and displayed to future generations and it would be wrong to betray that trust.

Wirral has always been proud of its heritage. Only very recently English Heritage cited Wirral as an example of best practice in the way it delivers heritage activity and plans were already afoot at the Williamson to develop a local history gallery which would tell the story of Wirral and its diverse communities, in a local, regional, national and international context.  Further proof of the importance of Wirral’s heritage comes from the Heritage Lottery Fund which has just awarded £393,100 to support the development of the Priory. This grant comes after £735,000 has been spent on a programme of improvement at the Priory, which has included making the site accessible and making the stonework of St Mary’s Tower safe.

Though there is a clear necessity to reduce costs and generate more income, the level of savings required do not seem achievable in the next financial year nor is it likely that a viable model will emerge in that time scale to run the service differently. The requirement to cut back should be deferred to allow time for a new model to emerge. To this end we are heartened, that following two meetings hosted by Frank Field MP, a small group of individuals has emerged to look at the future of the Williamson and to work with both Council officers and elected members to produce an action plan.

The group, now called the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum Action Group includes:-
  • Professor Rhiannon Evans MBE(former Pro Vice-Chancellor of Edge Hill University; Chair of the Oxton Society),
  • Alan Chape (former Deputy CEO, Liverpool City Council; an Oxton Artist and Secretary of the Oxton Society)
  • Professor Robert Lee (Chair of Friends of Birkenhead Park and former Professor of Economic and Social History, University of Liverpool and awarded an MBE in the recent New Year’s Honours List),
  • Lawrence Holden (former Senior Partner Brabners and former Pro-Chancellor the University of Liverpool, co-opted onto Friends of Williamson Committee, Trustee of The Reader Organisation)
  • Julian Treuherz (former Keeper of Art Galleries for National Museums Liverpool, responsible for Walker Art Gallery, Lady Lever Art Gallery and Sudley House)
  • Joe McGillivray, (Director Arts, Creative and Digital Media, Wirral Metropolitan College)
  • Sharon Granville (Executive Director of Collections & Estate, has joined the Action Group as a representative of National Museums Liverpool) 
  • and
  • Colin Simpson (Principal Museums Officer, Wirral Museums Service and secretary of the Friends of the Williamson)

There are several things that you as a Friend of the Williamson could do :

  • Write to your local Councillor. It is vital that councillors throughout Wirral are aware that this is an issue that affects everyone. A list of your local councillors can be found here
  • Write to the Leader of the Council; Phil Davies
    • Bus. email:
  • Write to the leaders of the other two main parties:
    • Conservative, Councillor Jeff
    • Lib Dem, Councillor Phil
  • Write to your local Member of Parliament
  • Visit the Williamson. Patronise its new café and shop. Use the interactive screen by the front door to complete a questionnaire and offer your ideas for the future.
  • Join the Friends of the Williamson. Membership forms are available on the desk in the foyer or by emailing
  • Attend an Extraordinary Meeting of the Friends to be held on Tuesday, January 21 at 10.30am with David Ball, Head of Regeneration for Wirral Council and Colin Simpson, Principal Museums Officer, Williamson Art Gallery. (It will be possible to join the Friends prior to the meeting Minimum of £10 for an individual and £7 Concession)
  • Follow the Friends on or communicate with the Friends via

Please show your support for the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum. It is far too important an asset to lose.

Your Friends of the Williamson Committee