After years and years of campaigning, but little response from the authorities, it’s been a very big week for everyone keen to establish a Leith Museum in Customs House.
Just a couple of weeks ago it was suddenly “crunch time” for the Leith Museum campaign after the National Museum of Scotland revealed that they were planning to put the building on the open market, with rumours that the public body hoped to raise at least £600,000 for the sale.
A well attended public meeting was held last weekend on the 22nd of June. And in a remarkably fast move, aided by an outbreak of political consensus on the issue, the council confirmed that it will bid for the building in partnership with the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, using funds from the city Common Good fund.
If the bid is successful the campaign already has an outline of how the building could be used. This includes a series of exhibits outlining the history of the port, from its early history right up to the present day. It’s also proposed that the parts of the building will be used as commercial space, including a dockside cafe.
The hope, as long-time backer of the Leith Museum campaign Mark Lazarowicz explained in this opinion piece, is that a Leith Museum will encourage the thousands of tourists who visit the Royal Yacht Britania to linger longer in Leith. He said: “Apart from the excellent, but very small, Trinity House museum, there is hardly anything about Leith’s history.”
Adding: “One of the concerns in Leith is that many of the visitors to Leith come down to Ocean Terminal, have an enjoyable visit to Britannia, and then go back up to Edinburgh without visiting any of Leith’s historic locations, or contributing to local businesses and the local economy.”
Of course if the bid is not successful, then Leithers will only be able to speculate on what the future will hold for the building, particularly if it is lost from the public sector. A super-pub? Private homes?
And indeed if the bid fails – and its been reported that the National Museum of Scotland is threatening to put the building on the open market if agreement is not reached by Monday the 30th of June – then questions will surely be asked.
Some already have been.
— Johnny Gailey (@johnnygailey) June 27, 2014
For example, local artist Johnny Gailey wonders why the National Museum of Scotland is so keen to put such a tight deadline on the negotiations, a point which seems particularly pertinent since the SNP are in power at both ends of the Royal Mile.
It’s not even clear at the moment how the National Museum of Scotland ended up with the building, or how much they paid for it in the first place.
One assumes that local SNP councillor Adam McVey had a quiet word with his senior SNP colleagues in Holyrood before he sent a tweet “announcing” that the Edinburgh SNP had agreed to purchase the building. It could all get a bit embarrassing if Customs House ends up going the way of Leith Waterworld.
— Adam McVey (@adamrmcvey) June 26, 2014
Afterall, what would Leithers think if they saw another major local public asset sold-off – apparently to fund improvements to flagship facilities in the south of the city?
For the record, earlier this month the Greener Leith board confirmed support for the Leith Museum campaign. A letter sent to the campaign from Chair Charlotte Encome said:
“On behalf of Greener Leith I would like to express our wholehearted support for a Leith Museum.
“There are quite a few underused historical buildings in public ownership in Leith and we strongly object to these being sold off to private developers. We’d like to see Custom House in Leith transformed into a venue which could be used for the benefit of the local community as well as provide a fascinating visitor attraction. A museum and heritage centre that tells the story of Leith as well as the provision of multi-functional space would be making very good use of this beautiful historic building.”
You can sign the Leith Museum petition here.