Collections of Scottish historical treasures at risk of being 'broken up and sold off'

Collections of historic Scottish treasures are at risk of being broken up and sold off due to the crippling impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the nation’s museums.

The National Trust for Scotland, which is keeping attractions like Culzean Castle, in Ayrshire, closed this year, has raised the prospect of some historic sites having to be sold off. Picture: John Sinclair
The National Trust for Scotland, which is keeping attractions like Culzean Castle, in Ayrshire, closed this year, has raised the prospect of some historic sites having to be sold off. Picture: John Sinclair

MSPs have been warned of a “potentially irretrievable loss of public access to Scotland’s culture and heritage” unless a crisis affecting more than 400 museums around the country is averted.

Holyrood’s culture committee has been told that some museums are facing insolvency “within weeks” after being forced to close their doors nearly three months ago following the introduction of social distancing restrictions.

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The Museums Association, which has submitted a wide-ranging dossier to the parliament spelling out the escalating crisis for the sector, said many of its members were also “concerned about the safety and protection of their collections during a period of prolonged closures”.

More than half of Scotland’s independent museums have warned they will run out of cash within six months, with 71 per cent predicting they will not survive over the next year unless they can reopen.

Although visitor attractions have been told they can provisionally prepare to reopen on 15 July, along with the rest of the tourism industry, it is thought many museums will stay closed due to the difficulties of enforcing social distancing measures or because it will not be financially viable.

The National Trust for Scotland has admitted many of its best-known sites are not due to open until 2021 or 2022.

These include Peter Pan author JM Barrie’s Birthplace Museum in Angus, House of the Binns in West Lothian, Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire, Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran, Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, Pollok House in Glasgow, Newhailes in East Lothian and Falkland Palace in Fife.

NTS, which has launched a “Save our Scotland” appeal to raise at least £2.5 million over the next few months, has heralded the prospect of some of its sites having to be “mothballed or worse still sold to private owners”.

Industrial Museums Scotland, which cares for around a quarter of the country’s collections of national significance, has warned the crisis has left many attractions on “a cliff edge” and is “putting Scotland’s heritage at risk”.

Key sites include the Scottish Fisheries Museum, in Fife, the Scottish Maritime Museum in Ayrshire, and the Summerlee Heritage Museum in Lanarkshire.

It its evidence to Holyrood, the Museums Association, warned there was “a particular threat to many rural museums which help to attract visitors and support the wider rural economy”.

Its dossier states: “Our research confirms that many museums have less than three months of reserves. Some are already making staff redundant; reducing pay to remaining staff; and not hiring seasonal staff, due to the fear that they will become cash insolvent within weeks.

“The possibility of independent museums becoming insolvent also raises the prospect of museum collections and buildings being broken up and sold off as assets of insolvent organisations.

“Such an outcome would reverse decades of hard-won development and investment, and the potentially irretrievable loss of public access to much of Scotland’s culture and heritage.

In a letter to members, NTS chair Sir Mark Jones warned that “much of Scotland’s heritage is threatened” at present and raised the prospect of “historic buildings and heritage sites” becoming at risk from developers in future.

An NTS spokeswoman said: “Places of culture and heritage bring a huge benefit to communities all over Scotland – from health and wellbeing to the economy, and in celebrating local history and heritage and connecting people to it.

“Heritage charities of all sizes are now facing an uncertain future, with dwindling reserves and few means to raise income. If these places are lost to the public, the wider economy and society will suffer.”

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