The Ulster Museum will reopen on 22 October 2009, with an additional 1,225 sq m of gallery space. That increases the public areas by more than 10%.
The overall budget for the project is £17·2 million, which is made up of the following contributions: £11·2 million from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure; £4·7 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which is the largest Heritage Lottery Fund grant to be awarded to a project in Northern Ireland to date; and £1·3 million from trusts, private grants and donations, including a £500,000 donation from private individuals in the USA.
The removal and storage of the collections from the museum, together with the construction and fit out, has taken three years to complete. When the public come to see the end product of the refurbishment, I am sure that they will appreciate that the project has been time and money well spent.
The period that the project has lasted has been a very difficult time for the museum staff, who were endeavouring to do what they could. The other two sites at Cultra and Omagh were open during that time. There were difficulties regarding the staff at the Ulster Museum, and most were relocated to Cultra at various times. They were also involved in the development of the new museum.
The Member asked whether a value for money study was carried out. That is the sort of thing that might have been done at an earlier stage. As I indicated earlier, I arrived at the Department at the beginning of July 2009, at which point the project’s completion was only a few months away. The museum reopens on Thursday. I have every confidence that the management in National Museums Northern Ireland ensured that staff were deployed properly and that the refurbishment was carried out to the best of its ability, making the maximum use of staff. However, I can enquire further into whether a study was carried out.
There can be a tendency in our country to spend a great deal of time, resources and money on asking consultants and experts to do all sorts of studies. I would prefer that we devote staff, money and resources to front line services to ensure that, as in this case, we get the best outcome. The museum has a very important role to play in the cultural infrastructure of Northern Ireland.
National Museums Northern Ireland has sought to maximise the benefits and opportunities that the project presented throughout its five-year life cycle. Consequently, the project has expanded to provide maximum value for money for stakeholders and the public. Additional work has included the construction of a new applied art gallery, which was not in the original concept. The project has released an additional 1,200 sq m of public space. The Ulster Museum project compares favourably with other national museums’ projects in its quality of build, exhibition fit out and value for money. Those other projects include one worked on by National Museums Liverpool at a cost of £72 million and National Museums Scotland’s £46 million Royal Museum project in Edinburgh, which is due to open in 2011.
The Minister will be aware that Northern Ireland is awash with visitors and tourists, and we welcome that. However, following the investment of £17 million into the refurbishment of the Ulster Museum, it is to close on Mondays. How will visitors to Belfast be accommodated on Mondays if all the museums are closed?
National Museums Northern Ireland has been reviewing how best to support tourism, learning and community engagement. With that in mind, National Museums Northern Ireland has introduced revised opening hours to ensure that its services are aligned more closely with the needs and expectations of visitors. After it reopens at the end of October, the Ulster Museum will be open to the public from 10.00 am to 5.00 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Before the investment was made, the museum was closed on Saturday and Sunday mornings and open only in the afternoons.
Recent market research has shown that more than 70% of people prefer to visit a museum on a Saturday or a Sunday; only 3% cited Monday as the preferred day for a visit. That figure might not please Mr McCarthy, but it is the result of market research that was carried out by National Museums Northern Ireland.
National Museums Northern Ireland will keep its opening hours under review, ensuring that it continues to respond to visitor demands and expectations, and the revised opening hours will be implemented across its estate. Opening hours is an operational matter for the trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland.