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Museums boss looking forward to a healthy past; IN straitened times, there's a new man in charge of Tyne & Wear's museums. DAVID WHETSTONE finds that he's relishing the task.

IT WAS just before Christmas that Iain Watson lost part of the job title he had been carrying since the beginning of last year, when Alec Coles left for a new job in Australia.

Without fanfare, the acting director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) became director of the organisation which looks after 12 of the region's museums, galleries and heritage sites housing some internationally important collections.

"It was fantastic, it was great," enthuses a man whose career has given him an intimate knowledge of North East museums and what they have to offer.

"I had a lot of practice as assistant director but it's different being director because you can start shaping the organisation in line with your views."

Obviously there is scope for this but Mr Watson takes over at a difficult time when organisations are being shaped by outside forces beyond their control.

With the imminent demise of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), some of its duties are transferring to Arts Council England.

These include the running of the Renaissance in the Regions programme - or its successor - which has directed funding to regional museums including a North East group headed by TWAM.

Announcing a new "road map" for the future of the programme earlier this month, Arts Council England chief executive Alan Davey said: "Although there are considerably less funds available than in previous years, and we have some tough decisions ahead, there is room for ambition alongside pragmatism."

MLA chief executive Roy Clare talked of "tough decisions caused by very tight financial circumstances".

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport also announced in the autumn that it intends to stop funding regional museums directly.

Its status as a nationally important museums group means TWAM has been receiving pounds 2.4m annually from the DCMS. But after 2015 it is likely that money will have to be found elsewhere.

All this could be construed as highly alarming but Iain Watson seems unperturbed. His response to the DCMS announcement at the time was to say: "We welcome the assurance from DCMS that it is confident new sponsors will be identified."

To me he says: "I'm very much a glass half full person but we have to accept there's less money in the public sector."

He says that actually only 15% of TWAM's funding comes from the DCMS with the lion's share of 40% coming from the five Tyne & Wear councils which remain supportive.

But he says the Renaissance money also comes from central government and it's "great news" that it's guaranteed at least through the coming year.

"It has been a really successful programme in the development of museums over the last seven years," he says.

A new system, the details of which are yet to be announced, is coming in to replace it. There is likely to be less money involved but Mr Watson believes TWAM is very well placed to benefit from it.

Nonetheless he adds that it's important to embrace a "culture of entrepreneurship" which is why a new TWAM fundraising and development trust was set up to explore ways of raising revenue.

So what about free admission? Since the old Hancock Museum reopened as Great North Museum: Hancock, with free entry, people have flocked in. The total admission now exceeds 1.2m visitors.

"At the moment our local authorities and the university (Newcastle) are very supportive of maintaining free admission and personally I very much believe in free admission and hope it can continue," says the new boss.

Grave talk of future finances might sound dispiriting but there is at least one reason why Iain Watson seems unfazed by what's to come.

Having begun his career with the old Tyne & Wear Museums as assistant manager of Wallsend Heritage Centre - remaining for four years until he went off to work for Durham County Council's heritage portfolio - he returned in 2001 to be senior curator at the Hancock.

After two and a half years he was seconded to Newcastle University to be first project manager for what became Great North Museum: Hancock.

"I had the task of getting the Heritage Lottery Fund money (pounds 9.25m) so had to put in a stage one bid.

"We had seven months to do it and if we didn't get that funding to match with European Regional Development Fund money, it wouldn't have happened.

"It was absolutely crucial for the university and Tyne & Wear Museums that we got the money, and we did."

On the day the bid had to be delivered by hand, power cables were down on the East Coast rail line and there was a London Tube strike. But mission was accomplished.

"I really enjoyed it but it was very hard work," says TWAM's new boss.

If anything, it has put current major obstacles into perspective.

But there's another reason why Iain Watson is viewed as a safe pair of hands. He loves what he does.

He was brought up in Newcastle, up the West Road and then in Gosforth, by parents who were librarians and who took him on many trips to museums and heritage sites which he enjoyed.

He did a first degree in archaeology at Leicester University and then an MA at Bradford. He became fascinated with the science of archaeology which brought him back to the North East in 1983 to do research work at Durham University.

He was on his way into teaching, studying for a post graduate certificate in education, when the Wallsend job came up, offering work in heritage and in the classroom.

Now a boyish 50, you would say he had never looked back if that weren't patently ridiculous for a man in charge of museums.

With a half full glass and a plate that clearly has a great deal on it, he sees no reason to stop thinking big. Even a long promised extension to the Laing Art Gallery is back on the cards, it seems. This could be the man finally to make it happen.


TOP JOB New museums boss Iain Watson with the Turbinia, one of the North East treasures that he has loved since his boyhood on Tyneside
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 22, 2011
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