Campaigners have criticised a “disgraceful” council decision to dig up the ashes of dead war veterans, as they say plans to redevelop the former Durham Light Infantry (DLI) Museum have been scaled back.
The building, which previously housed the collection of historic artefacts, closed in 2016 after being described as falling into a state of disrepair. Developers have outlined plans for its refurbishment including a new exhibition centre, gallery and hospitality venue including a restaurant.
But campaign group Faithful Durhams, which for several years has fought to reopen the museum, say the historic collection is now playing second fiddle to the council’s plans for a new art gallery.
Diane Inglis, of the Faithful Durhams, says multiple appeals to the authority for more space have gone unanswered. “The DLI collection is only getting a quarter of what the art space is,” she said. “We asked for more space but we were told it has to be like this to make it sustainable.”
New access routes will be created at the front of the site but this requires developers to dig up land where people’s ashes are buried. Ms Inglis added: “We’ve had a look at the plans for the outside and it’s disgraceful, there’s ashes around there.
“We know for certain there is a lieutenant colonel’s ashes near the front of the building. We have other people who say ‘my grandad’s ashes are buried there’. We understand that the grounds need to be accessible but it seems that they’re not taking any notice.”
Members of the campaign group as well as trustees have followed the redevelopment plans throughout the planning process but now say the initial area designated for the DLI collection has been redrawn.
The ground floor will have a dedicated DLI gallery and a visitor restaurant. On the upper floor, there will be new galleries to host a wide range of exhibitions including loans from national museums and art galleries. A flexible education and engagement suite is also proposed to host a range of uses including school visits and small leisure events.
But it is these new proposed areas which campaigners say have been prioritised. Ms Inglis said: “When you look at the size, it’s gone from a full floor to 235 square metres. The DLI are playing second fiddle in this new building.”
Durham County Council says the rest of the DLI collection will be housed in The Story at Mount Oswald – a new £20million history centre based out of the Grade II listed Mount Oswald Manor House.
Alison Clark, Durham County Council’s head of culture, sport, and tourism, said: “We know the grounds have a strong historical and personal significance to many people and, for this reason, topsoil from the site will be removed, preserved, and carefully re-laid in the new reflective garden area.
“The venue will be refurbished and expanded to include a dedicated space for the display of key objects from the DLI collection. The upper floor will house exciting temporary exhibitions that will attract residents and visitors while The Story will provide the permanent home for the whole collection, reuniting it with the DLI Archive for the first time since 1998.”