TAITMAIL Behind the battlements
Nottingham Castle Museum was doing well, for a museum without much real history left to talk about, and it was getting a healthy 150,000 visitors a year - about half what Stonehenge gets - before it closed for its £30m refurb which it was hoped would double the numbers.
It’s owned by Nottingham City Council which in June handed over the running of it to an independent charitable trust. Most of the money for the remake came from the council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF).
It reopened triumphantly in June, with new galleries, a new visitor centre and café, and improved access to the caves underneath, with a brand new admission fee of £13 about which there have been howls of local outrage (it used to be free).
But there were high hopes for a “huge regeneration project (that) has created a brand new-look facility” bugled the Nottinghamshire Live website. Anne Jenkins of the NLHF said the castle will be “a beacon of pride and optimism” and “a true symbol of resilience for the region”. The museum’s CEO Sara Blair-Manning declared: "This is a highly-anticipated moment for fans of the Robin Hood legend".
Oh dear. Since June Blair-Manning has been fired after two years in the job and is suing for wrongful dismissal with accusations of bullying by the trust, a trust that has been hit by a complaint to the Charity Commission about alleged racism, and a current petition is demanding the trustees resign, including the chairman.
It’s difficult to see exactly what history this museum actually has to tell. Nottingham Castle was one of the first fortresses to be built after the Norman Conquest with the wooden original being replaced by a stone version a century later, and was both a strategic military outpost thanks to its commanding situation on a rock rising high above the River Trent half way up England as well as being a popular resort for the royals and their hangers-on because of its well-stocked hunting grounds - “The King’s Larder” – its forests of Barndale and Sherwood, and its deer park.
But the stronghold that myth has Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham commanding was demolished after the Civil War, the mansion the Duke of Newcastle built for himself in its place was burnt down in the 1830s, and what is there is now is a Victorian pastiche incorporating the few medieval remains. Even the ancient moat is now an adventure playground, and the main premise is the legend of Robin Hood, enlarged to encompass the general notion of “rebellion and resistance”.
Nevertheless, it gained the confidence of not only the council but the lottery funds which tend to have a wary eye for the spurious and historically specious. Although the trust appears to have been created in 2013, it only took control in June with its six trustees coming from historic houses, PR, tourism, libraries and one is described as a member of Nottingham’s Indian diaspora. No museum people.
The chairman is a former Nottingham Council chief executive, Ted Cantle, who since his retirement 20 years ago has made a new career as an academic and a community cohesion guru – he is also chair of the Cohesion and Integration Network and he set up the Institute of Community Cohesion (with the unfortunate acronym of iCoCo).
So what happened?
In August a curator at the museum, Panya Banjoko, reported that she and her black grandchildren were refused admission to an exhibition, despite her staff status; that the children were racially abused in the museum’s adventure playground; and that she was herself mistreated with racist undertones by a senior member of staff.
In June the CEO, Sara Blair-Manning, complained about "inappropriate behaviour, including bullying and harassment by trustees towards her and other members of staff and external consultants". She was ignored, she claims, and after a second attempt to complain was fired.
And in October an open letter to the trust by current and former employees alleged an “environment of fear” following the alleged hate incident against Banjoko. “The subsequent poor handling of the incident, the treatment of Banjoko, and the lack of any formal anti-racist statement have led to an environment of fear, distrust, and extremely low morale among staff of all backgrounds, but particularly those of colour”. In November another group of employees known as the staff of colour collective made its own formal complaint about the Banjoko incident.
The trust kept its own counsel but has now issued a long response. The playground hate crime was none of their business, no staff being involved, but the incident was reported to the police. The refusal of admission to the exhibition is being investigated by a “diversity, equality and inclusion specialist” with trustees declaring that “racism will not be tolerated on our premises”.
As to the sacking of Blair-Manning, the trust has agreed to hire an external lawyer to examine her claims, after which it will “welcome any recommendations or lessons to be learned”.
The statement goes on to praise the staff who have got the place open and running again after a two-year closure - “A great deal rides on the success of the castle as a visitor attraction but also how it contributes to the resuscitation of the local economy. Our staff are ambassadors not only of the castle but of this wonderful city”.
But it goes on to add: “The trustees have been subject to a regrettable trial by social and other media, despite the huge achievement …”.
So, no surprise, it’s about perceived woke-ism then, and the petition and its demands are couched in familiar aggressive terms not designed to reach amicable agreement. Clearly shaken, the trustees even hint that, as well as being prepared to learn lessons, some if not all the trustees “will naturally change”.
It should never have come to this, and Nottingham Castle is not the only heritage attraction that hasn’t got its governance aligned with the post-George Floyd public mood and finds itself confused by the government’s belligerent attitude.
The Clore Leadership governance module says there are eight qualities demanded of good governance by boards in the arts and heritage: it should be participatory, consensus-orientated, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive. You don’t learn how to ensure it is all those things simply by running a stately home or a library, or even a local authority: it has to be taught, and that teaching continually refreshed because the situation changes almost daily. It seems that although the Nottingham Castle trustees represent the local great and good and took their places with all the goodwill in the world, they weren’t able to cope with unsuspected modern challenges and have been wrong-footed by the government’s unsympathetic stance.
Every trustee of a cultural institution has an obligation to its staff as well as its public and must be assiduous in fulfilling it. If they find they haven’t got time to do it properly they must stand down, but before they take up trusteeship it should be a condition that they attend a recognised course, like the Clore’s.
As Prof Tom Shakepeare told us about arts boards a couple of weeks ago, “We’re trying to grow people with an interest in art forms and with a willingness to learn more and contribute to the running of an organisation, asking questions such as ‘are staff happy?’ to ‘do the finances add up?’ to ‘have we got an audience to play to?’
“That’s generic, I think”.