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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jessica Murray

Stoke has missed chance to capitalise on its pottery heritage, says V&A boss

The Gladstone Pottery Museum in Stoke
The Gladstone Pottery Museum in Stoke is under threat from proposed cuts. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

A world-class ceramics centre should be created in Stoke-on-Trent to capitalise on renewed interest in the subject from shows such as The Great Pottery Throw Down, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum has said.

Tristram Hunt said a recent outcry over proposed council cuts to pottery museums in the city showed the growing level of interest in Britain’s ceramics industry and its heritage.

“Having seen the incredible national and international response to these proposals, the council has a great opportunity,” said Hunt. “There’s a strong case for bringing together the great ceramics collections of the Midlands into a ceramic centre which draws on the incredible history of the area, but is also connected to a growing demand for making and throwing and firing, all of the stuff we have seen in Pottery Throw Down.

“The V&A would be very supportive of that and it would be something good to come out of all this trauma.”

The final of the increasingly popular Channel 4 show, which is filmed at the Gladstone Pottery Museum in Stoke-on-Trent, takes place on Sunday.

Hunt, who has written a book on pottery pioneer Josiah Wedgwood and was the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, said The Great Pottery Throw Down is helping to fuel interest in the city and more should be done to boost its tourism offering.

In January, the city council announced proposals for its 2022-23 budget, which included cutting museum service funding by £479,000, and scrapping a number of staff roles across the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery and the Gladstone museum, including the posts of senior and assistant curator of ceramics.

It also said it planned to close the Gladstone museum for five months every year, from November to March, for filming, venue hire and events.

The Potteries Museum in Stoke
The Potteries Museum in Stoke. V&A’s director wants to see a ceramics centre in the city. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

After a backlash in the UK and abroad, with more than 250 written submissions and a petition signed by more than 20,000 people, the council rowed back on its proposals, saying it would “pause” plans to cut the curator positions, and would open the Gladstone museum over Christmas and in the February half-term.

Local campaigners and heritage groups said they welcomed the partial retreat but “many questions and concerns remain”.

“These plans effectively hollow out the museums. There has been a huge outcry,” said Peter Wilson, chair of the Friends of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. “A number of people, including some of our members, who have indicated they will donate their collection of pottery to the museum in their will, were saying they were not sure of doing that now, because they were not sure the council were going to care about it.”

Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum
Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Photograph: David Hartley/Rex/Shutterstock

Alasdair Brooks, chief executive of the charity Re-Form Heritage and the Middleport Pottery in the city, also said he had concerns the plans could “potentially damage the international prominence and international interest in the ceramics heritage” of the city.

He said The Great Pottery Throw Down, as well the recent British drama The Colour Room about ceramic artist Clarice Cliff, had boosted interest in Stoke-on-Trent across the world.

“Even during the pandemic, almost every time I went down to the shop we would have a group of east Asian tourists. As we slowly ease travel restrictions around the world, I think there’s going to be an increasing demand,” he said.

“Our visitor numbers in 2021 were on average up by 56% where we were able to make a direct month-for-month comparison with 2019. While stay-at-home holidays may have had a significant impact on that in the UK, Pottery Throw Down is shown in the US and The Colour Room will have some level of international distribution. I think there is pent-up growing interest around the world.”

Hunt said he wanted to see more investment in heritage tourism in the city. “Going up to Stoke and throwing some pottery should become more of an experience,” he said.

“There’s this new commitment from the government for Arts Council expenditure outside London, and to my mind, creating a ceramics centre in Stoke seems a perfect opportunity to think about that.”

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