Stronger together: Wimborne Tourist Information Centre
The proposed closure of Wimborne’s Tourist Information Centre was greeted in the town with incredulous horror, but a merger with the town’s museum has opened up the prospect of an exciting future. Andrew Headley reports.
Published in July ’14
Chronic shortage of cash has long been a fact of life for district councils throughout the country. It seems that every year, new closures and cuts are announced in local services, each accompanied by the inevitable outcry. One of the cost-cutters’ favourite targets has been Tourist Information Centres (TICs), which in Dorset seems extraordinary when visitors to the county spend something in the region of £800 million here each year. Nevertheless, North Dorset gave up responsibilities for its TICs some years ago, and early last summer, East Dorset and Christchurch decided to do the same. They justified the decision with statistics which some people found difficult to reconcile with what they had observed on the ground. The decision also meant that five part-time employees in the Wimborne TIC faced redeployment or redundancy.
The reaction in Wimborne was immediate and furious. A petition to save its TIC, next to the Priest’s House Museum in the High Street, just across from the Minster, gathered 300 signatures in the first hour and eventually topped 5000 names. As is the fate of most petitions to district councils, it was received politely and then ignored, despite the vigorous efforts of the town’s three district councillors. Wimborne, with its outstanding attractions like the Minster, the Model Town, the Priest’s House and Walford Mill Crafts needs and deserves a TIC to match, but it was more than that which made the people of Wimborne feel so strongly about this issue.
In some ways, the word ‘Tourist’ is misleading because the centre also provides an invaluable service for the people of the town. It can supply details of local events, entertainment, timetables and so on, and it also acts as an agency for organisations such as National Express and the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. Its retail side is substantial, selling books, particularly on Dorset subjects, maps, local gifts and souvenirs. It is not surprising that it is busy all the year round and Lindsay Lawrence, its manager, reckons that even in the summer, sixty per cent of the TIC’s business comes from local residents: that is why the people of Wimborne were so angry at losing a valuable facility. However the trading at the TIC is only in surplus if you exclude staff costs.
In Christchurch, the TIC is next to the Regent Centre, who almost immediately said that they would take it over and man it with volunteers. In Wimborne, the TIC is not only next to the Priest’s House Museum but is part of the same building, whose oldest parts date back to the early 16th century and which from the 19th century was occupied by an ironmonger, stationer and grocer; there is a connecting door, and the museum’s library is actually immediately above the TIC. The logic was therefore inescapable, and David Morgan, one of Wimborne’s district councillors and a trustee of the trust that runs the Priest’s House Museum (he has since become its Chairman), did not have too much trouble in persuading his fellow-trustees that the museum and the TIC should merge. With the invaluable help of Alan Breakwell, the retired Chief Executive of East Dorset DC, a limited company, wholly owned by the trust, was set up just to run the TIC and its profits will directly benefit the museum.
It was a logical move, too, in the current development of the museum. It recently completed phase 1 of a development plan, which involved the building of the Hilda Coles Open Learning Centre, comprising classrooms, vastly improved storage space and a tea room, in the museum’s famous garden. Phase 2 is the modernisation of the main museum, which can now be planned with the extra ingredient of the TIC in the mix. This can only build on the museum’s already high reputation not only for its permanent displays – currently arranged partly as period rooms, from a 17th-century hall to a working Victorian kitchen – but also for its temporary exhibitions. This summer, these have included ‘Uniforms for All’, which draws on the museum’s extensive costume collection and runs until November, and ‘Lost Tracks – Remembering East Dorset’s Railways’, staged in association with the East Dorset Heritage Trust and mining the rich seam provided by old lines like ‘Castleman’s Corkscrew’.
Emma Ayling, the museum’s director, enthusiastically explains the significance of the TIC to the museum: ‘Museums have their buildings and their collections but ultimately they are about people as well: “This is a museum not a mausoleum,” as David Morgan puts it. They should be diversifying and reaching out to the communities they serve, and we see this as an exciting and challenging opportunity to do just that. Both the Priest’s House and the TIC are about doing the best possible job of celebrating and promoting the heritage of East Dorset, and they complement each other so well: the museum brings people in to look at and learn about that heritage, and the TIC sends them out to explore it. At one time this whole episode seemed to be about doors closing, but it isn’t: it’s about doors opening.’
There are previous examples of a TIC being successfully run by the town’s museum using volunteers, but encouraging precedents, like enthusiasm and good intentions, do not solve practical problems, and the first job was to put together a team of volunteers to run the Wimborne TIC. The response to an appeal pleasantly surprised everyone, but it was not enough just to get the numbers because the volunteers also had to be of the right calibre: resourceful, personable and computer-literate, among other qualities. It was another pleasant surprise that the standard of the applicants was so high – it helped that some of them were former employees of the TIC – and Lindsay Lawrence found that they took easily to the training she had prepared for them.
East Dorset DC is still supportive of both the museum and the TIC in that grants have been agreed for three years to meet the costs of the present staff who were previously employed by them. This financial set-up gives the council a considerable saving, and it reminds both the museum and the TIC that their brief is to cover the whole of East Dorset, not just Wimborne.
At this early stage there are a lot of unknowns, and some of the detail of the integration remains to be worked out. The usage of different parts of the building and even its physical appearance are up for discussion, with an eventual re-vamp of the frontage being a strong possibility. The biggest question of all is what will happen in three years when the existing financial arrangements run out? Will the council renew them and, if not, what other funding can be found? For now, in the words of Anthony Oliver, a leading citizen of Wimborne who, as chairman of the Minster’s tourism committee, took a keen interest in the outcome: ‘Let’s just be glad that the Tourist Information Centre is not only still open, but being run by a superb team.’ ◗