Bankrolling Our History; with More Than Two Million People Visiting Tyne and Wear's Museums and Galleries Last Year, a Current Funding Bid Could Not Be More Crucial. TONY HENDERSON Reports

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Byline: TONY HENDERSON

THE museums of the North East are the repositories for centuries of history which have shaped the character and identity of the region in which we live today. They reflect its importance through the ages, from its status as a frontier land and cradle of Christianity to industrial hotbed of invention and powerhouse of the world in the 19th Century.

Last year Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums (TWAM) attracted more than two million visitors, providing largely free enjoyment and learning. More than 152,000 youngsters also took part in organised educational activities.

This made TWAM the most-visited regional museums service in England, but now museums are facing changes in how funding is allocated.

Since 2003, part of TWAM's Government funding has come from the Renaissance programme.

This has been based on a hub structure, with TWAM the leader of the North East hub, working in partnership with Beamish and the Bowes museums in County Durham and Hartlepool Museums.

Renaissance funding came from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, but this body has now been abolished and its responsibilities transferred to the Arts Council.

Under the new system, TWAM has had to apply to be a major grant-funded museum service.

In the year ending in March, TWAM's Renaissance funding was pounds 1.8m, and its bid to the Arts Council is for the same sum.

"It is hugely important and supports so many of the things we do," says TWAM director Iain Watson. Continued The service manages 12 museums and galleries in Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland and North and South Tyneside.

They include the Laing Art Gallery, Discovery Museum and Great North Museum in Newcastle, Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields, the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead and the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

The five local authorities each make a financial contribution to TWAM, which also receives grant aid from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

TWAM also generates revenue through its shops sales, venue hire, cafe franchises, records management and archaeology unit, which last year totalled pounds 1.17m. At the same time, under the Comprehensive Spending Review, TWAM's settlement from the DCMS represents a 15% reduction over four years. A decision on the Arts Council funding bid is expected in January.

TWAM's application was backed by letters of support from 60 smaller museums, businesses and partners with which it works. These include Newcastle University, through the Great North Museum.

The criteria for the major grant funding says that applicants should have:

Significant multi-themed collections, part of which should be designated as being of national significance.

A track record in research and scholarship and development of collections.

At least 150,000 visitors a year.

A strong track record of delivering services to the public.

? Financial resilience.

A firm track record in management, leadership and partnership development. Iain Watson says: "As leader of the regional museums hub since 2003, I am confident that TWAM has already demonstrated that it meets all these criteria."

As well as the two million visitors and 152,000 children's educational visits, TWAM link-ups with national museums have included its partnership with the British Museum, one product of which was the Pharaoh: Kings of Egypt exhibition at the Great North Museum which pulled in more than 130,000 visitors. Three of TWAM's collections are designated as being of national significance - science and industry, natural sciences and art.

Also, 45% of visitors to TWAM venues are from the lower socio-economic groups, compared to a national figure of 25%. …