Museum crisis leaves balloon display homeless

Balloonists looking for new home for national collection just months after exhibition was reopened

By Liam Sloan, Reporter

West Berkshire MuseumBosses at West Berkshire Museum say they have no plans to leave the Wharf, even though the building remains closed and dozens of exhibits are sitting in cold storage.

Parts of the museum failed to reopen last Saturday (Sept 27) as publicised, as the council continues to struggle to fix fire safety breaches first identified in May.

Displays have been removed or sealed off from public view, and much of the museum faces months of closure.

The ground floor may now open next week, but the upstairs of the 17th Century Cloth Hall will stay shut for at least six months.

The crisis has left Britain’s only permanent hot air ballooning display without a home, threatening the finances of the charity that owns it.

The British Balloon Museum and Library (BBML)’s recently refurbished display, including models of 19th century Cold Ash ballooning pioneers John and Gertrude Bacon, was stripped from the museum just months after its grand opening by West Berkshire Council’s chairman in January.

Council funded storage of their exhibits will end on October 11, leaving the small charity facing huge storage bills.

BBML chairman Richard d’Alton is searching for a new home for the private collection, which has been at the Wharf for 25 years.

He said: “It was our main showcase in the UK, which we refurbished off our own bat. Everything was local. Everything was West Berkshire.

“It is slightly vexing. We’ve spent a lot of money and time to particularly tailor our new exhibition to this museum.”

Meanwhile, councillors will decide the museum’s future in spring 2009, after pledging £60,000 for private consultants to produce redevelopment plans.

The museum’s interim manager Steph Gillett said fire safety work would be delayed until they report back, forcing much of the building to stay closed.

He said: “The council’s preferred option is to come to come up with a redevelopment scheme and invest in the historical buildings.

“There’s no proposals to vacate and no options on the table that talk about building a new museum somewhere else.”

The councillor responsible for the museum, Pamela Bale (Con, Pangbourne) added: “We have got to look at what the future is. We will have to make decisions when we get the information. It’s too early to make them now, and I don’t want to pre-empt them.”

She said she regretted the need to remove the balloon exhibition, but the council had no choice if the museum was to comply with fire regulations.

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