Deborah Yaffe

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Chawton cottage on the brink?

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 15 2020 01:00PM

Chawton cottage, the house in Hampshire, England, where Jane Austen lived for the last eight years of her life, is the Austen pilgrimage site par excellence, a locus of mingled joy and heartbreak. It’s the place where she found the time and mental space to write or revise all six of her completed novels, the place where she finally became a published author – and the place where she felt the first symptoms of the illness that would take her life at forty-one.


In the seventy-one years since Chawton’s establishment as a museum of Austen’s life, its curators have collected relics with near-holy significance for Janeites: the topaz cross her sailor brother Charles bought her, the turquoise ring she liked to wear, the small writing table on which she composed her masterpieces.


And all this could be in imminent danger, a report last week in the Guardian newspaper informed us: “Jane Austen museum under threat due to coronavirus. . . . at risk of closing before the end of the year. . . . collections of first editions, letters and objects owned by the Austen family set to be dispersed. . . .” It’s enough to send any self-respecting Janeite into a swoon.


The Guardian story set off a flurry of impassioned tweets, spearheaded by Austen scholars Paula Byrne and Helena Kelly, and an avalanche of donations soon followed, from more than two thousand Janeites around the world. "This means that we won't just survive, we will recover," the museum tweeted on Saturday, after the fundraising campaign met its target just two days after the ominous Guardian story.


A look at the museum’s financial filings, however, complicates the picture, suggesting that the imminent peril may have been less severe than suggested -- although, arguably, the long-term dangers may be worse.


There’s no doubt that Jane Austen’s House, like arts and culture non-profits the world over and small museums in particular, has been hit hard by the virus-induced closure of the last three months. According to financial statements filed late last month with Britain’s Charity Commission – I’ve appended parenthetical page references for the relevant data -- admission fees paid by its nearly thirty-nine thousand visitors (4) comprised two-thirds of the museum’s 2019 income (9), a funding stream that the closure eliminated entirely, albeit temporarily. (Donations and grants made up most of the remaining third.)


Chawton's visitor numbers have been declining since the highwater mark of fifty-five thousand reported in the financial filings for 2017 (2), the bicentenary of Austen's death. And like any responsible board, the museum’s trustees had planned for a significant decline in revenue even before anyone had heard of the coronavirus.


The 2019 financial report shows that, at the end of last year, Chawton cottage held reserves of more than £265,000 (5), or over $334,000 – slightly less than the admission fees collected in all of 2019. Those reserves were significantly below the £444,000-plus (about $557,000) held two years earlier (2017 records -- 3) and slightly below the £275,000 ($345,000) the 2019 board had declared to be desirable (2019 records -- 5). In response to the virus-induced closure, a far bigger drop in revenue than anyone could have predicted, the board furloughed most employees, halted non-essential spending, and, in late March, launched an emergency fundraising campaign, the Survival Appeal.


“With these measures in place and taking into account the reserves position,” the report says, “the Trustees are confident that the Museum can continue to operate in the short and medium term.” (11) And that's not even considering how slim is the chance that the British government would allow the closure of an iconic tourist site celebrating the work of someone now pictured on the national currency.


So why the headline predicting imminent calamity? Why the implication that the museum’s JustGiving campaign, with its goal of £75,000 (about $94,000), was a new development, rather than a two-month-old outgrowth of the Survival Appeal launched on March 27?


In an email response to my questions, museum director Lizzie Dunford noted that the financial statements, while filed on May 29, were signed in early April. “They represent the situation then rather than in late May,” Dunford wrote. “Everything changed as it became apparent that we weren't going to see the previously expected V-shaped economic recovery and instead were looking at months of decimated income and uncertainty.”


Dunford pointed out the significant challenges the museum faces going forward: barebones monthly expenses of £30,000 (about $37,000), which will rise upon reopening; a likely decline in international visitors and group tours, both mainstays of the budget; and social-distancing requirements that will cut the number of permitted visitors below the level required to meet operating costs. “Our reserves could disappear pretty quickly,” she wrote.


I don’t doubt that the museum is facing hard times, as are so many cultural institutions, large and small. But given the numbers in the financial filings, I remain skeptical about the extent of the immediate peril.


Crisis tends to rally the troops. In response to the tweeting and hand-wringing engendered by the Guardian’s report, donations to the Survival Appeal leaped: The campaign exceeded its goal within days, with more raised in the twenty-four hours after the story appeared than in the previous two months. Scrolling through donors’ messages, with their heartfelt testimonials to the lasting importance of Jane Austen’s life and work, it’s hard not to be moved.


And maybe also a little bit annoyed at this ginning-up of possibly unnecessary panic.


If the £87,000 (about $109,000) that the Survival Appeal has now raised is enough, as the museum’s tweet says, to ensure a full “recovery” from the crisis, it’s hard to understand why holding nearly three times as much in reserves entailed a risk of closure within seven months. On the other hand, based on Dunford’s accounting, the funds raised in the Survival Appeal will only cover about three months of expenses -- roughly making up for the money lost during the closure so far, but hardly mitigating the built-in structural problems of living indefinitely in a pandemic-afflicted world. To quote Austen's Mr. Bennet, "It seems an hopeless business."


Of course, it's not hopeless at all; there is plenty of money available to save priceless cultural treasures like Chawton cottage. But that money isn't going to come from the pockets of Janeites, however generous. Perhaps the energy spent encouraging small-bore contributions would be better invested in lobbying the British government to prevent the nation's cultural heritage from becoming another of COVID's victims.


2 comments
Jun 17 2020 09:52PM by Kirk

Ah... thanks for asking the tough questions! I was wondering about a reserve fund, although I retweeted and posted about the campaign (mostly AiB).

I hope to catch the QA during the JA fest. I was signed up for JA Day(I met Wendy Jones last year in New Haven)...

Jun 17 2020 11:36PM by dyaffe

I retweeted the campaign and donated to it as well: I love Chawton cottage! But I do wonder about their numbers. Perhaps more will become clear once the UK reopens.

And I hope to see you at the Q&A -- it won't be the same as the JA Festival iive, alas, but it should still be fun.

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