THE FUTURE of the Museum of Farnham is in doubt, councillors heard this week, with its 18th-century Grade I-listed building in West Street requiring an estimated £1.1 million in repairs.
Waverley Borough Council’s executive member for finance, Councillor Mark Merryweather, delivered the gloomy prognosis at Tuesday night’s full council meeting.
He told fellow members the council first became aware that major repairs to historic Willmer House’s brickwork were required in 2018.
But despite years of discussions with numerous potential funding partners, he added a solution to secure the museum’s future was yet to be found.
Councillors heard Waverley has now commissioned independent experts to undertake an ‘options appraisal’ into the museum’s future.
But Cllr Merryweather hinted that, having already “pursued all lines” of funding, it is now Waverley’s intention to relinquish ownership of the museum to an independent trust.
He added the Museum of Farnham is the only museum in the borough still in public ownership – and suggested an independent trust would be better placed to secure grant funding.
And in conclusion, he called on "all concerned stakeholders to work with us in identifying a sustainable and exciting future for the Museum of Farnham".
Willmer House has been wholly owned by Waverley since 2012, following a protracted transfer of ownership from Surrey County Council.
Formerly a private residence, it has been used to house the Museum of Farnham since the 1960s, and is currently operated for Waverley by the Maltings.
Cllr Merryweather said in his statement to council: "There is absolutely no question that Willmer House is a highly important public building in need of substantial repair...but Waverley Borough Council does not have the capacity, let alone the appetite, to wholly fund from its own resources the repairs that Willmer House needs.
"In September 2019, Waverley and the Maltings jointly hosted a consultation meeting to brief all the relevant stakeholders that we could gather on the situation.
"Since then Waverley officers have pursued every lead both they and the stakeholders have identified that could provide funding for the repairs to the building.
"These have included, but not been limited to, third party grants. These have been time consuming, and profoundly disappointing.
"Most recently for example, despite submitting an expression of interest for Arts Council ’Mend’ funding, we were not invited to make a full application.
"We believe this outcome was not based on the standalone eligibility of Willmer House, on which we scored highly, but on the fierce competition from even higher scoring cases.
"We face two fundamental questions. First; whether being in local authority ownership is a help or a hinderance in securing grant funding?
"And second; whether Willmer House is an appropriate and sustainable home for the Museum of Farnham collection and service?
"Having commissioned an options appraisal, we remain of the view that Willmer House is an important community asset for its residents, and its future must be assessed just in terms of social value as much as value for money.
"Turning to the Museum of Farnham service, there also seems to be absolutely no question that Farnham wants and needs a vibrant museum, and the Maltings have provided a sterling service to our residents since 2012.
"However, the Museum of Farnham is now the only museum collection and service in the borough that is not independent.
"It is self-evident that the Museum of Farnham service would be a more attractive undertaking for an independent charitable undertaking or operator if it were housed in a fully-repaired Willmer House, or elsewhere.
"Farnham stands in stark contrast to its peers in Haslemere, Godalming and the Rural Life Centre in Waverley, and beyond – for example just over the border in Petersfield, and Gilbert White’s in Selborne, where non-public resources have come forward and secured sustainable models.
"It is clear that our most immediate fellow stakeholders at Farnham Town Council and the Maltings have the appetite for this challenge, but like us have been unable to solve so far the fundamental challenge of funding, whatever business cases may be in their minds eyes for the service.
"We have therefore also commissioned an options appraisal for the future of the museum service, and will continue to work with individual councillors, Farnham Town Council and the Maltings, as well as urging all other concerned stakeholders to contribute constructively and work with us in identifying a sustainable and exciting future of the Museum of Farnham service, that also answers the fundamental funding question to the repairs of Willmer House."