Thomas de Quincey
The area around Ambleside at the heart of the English Lake District has had an extraordinary history. Following in the footsteps of the poet William Wordsworth, a remarkable number of notable people have made their homes here. They include Thomas De Quincey, Harriet Martineau, John Ruskin, Canon Rawnsley, Thomas Arnold and his son Matthew, Charlotte Mason, The Armitt sisters, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, Kurt Schwitters and many more. They have left their mark in many fields, both in the UK and beyond, particularly in education, the arts, and conservation. As a result they have helped to create a culture of the arts and learning in the Lake District.
Apart from the conservation of the natural environment of the Lake District, in which some of them were leaders, their most tangible legacy has been the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside. It was founded as a subscription reference library in 1909 through the will of Louisa Armitt, who, with other members of her circle, found that having to borrow books from the London Library was a tedious chore. The library was formed from two previous circulating libraries, and Miss Armitt’s own library, and it was opened in 1912 with Charlotte Mason as a founding member. It grew quickly, largely from gifts of books; Beatrix Potter, the children’s author was a major contributor. It was housed in leased properties in the town for many years, but in 1970, unable to find a suitable property for lease, it was forced into an unsatisfactory arrangement with the local lending library.
Eventually the trustees decided they needed a home of their own and following fundraising and a grant from the UK Heritage Lottery Fund, the present premises, within the campus of the former Charlotte Mason College, were built and opened in 1998.
In her will Miss Armitt declared a wish that eventually a museum would evolve from the library. The new facility was designed as both a museum and library to house the growing collection of artefacts such as, works of art, manuscripts, and other material of historic interest that have been gifted and acquired. The Armitt now holds a number of important collections including works by Beatrix Potter, Kurt Schwitters, and of course, the Charlotte Mason Archive.
Mary Louisa Armitt
The Lottery Fund Grant required that the Armitt be opened to the public. As the Armitt was unendowed, trustees planned that revenue from paying visitors would fund the operation of the library and museum. Unfortunately, this never proved to work in practice, and a regular deficit has been paid for in a piecemeal way almost since the beginning. In 2009, the museum was flooded, and although there was little damage to the collections, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The trustees resolved to close the library. This would have led to the dispersal of the collections. Fortunately, people rallied round, an appeal was launched, and the Armitt reopened in 2010 after an extended drying out period.
The Armitt has been a small institution, which holds important collections that belie its modest position. It has employed a part time curator, myself, and an assistant, Sue Osman. We have been supported by a small group of volunteers. The staff along with three trustees form a day to day management team that has been responsible to a board of twelve trustees who carry overall responsibility for the Armitt.
Since the re-opening, the management of the collections has been improved, and indeed the collections have themselves been strengthened through acquisitions and gifts. Despite improving visitor numbers and shop sales, the stubborn annual deficit of around £12,000 ($ 17,000), has not been reduced which require
s significant donations from trustees and occasionally from other supporters. This has not been a sustainable method of funding. Neither has it commended itself to the UK Arts Council which oversees museums and helps the Armitt to acquire new works. So, whilst continuing to seek to attract more visitors the trustees have been looking for support from the many friends of the Armitt both in the UK and across the Atlantic, especially those who have a particular interest in one of the collections and who appreciate the importance of it remaining accessible in the place where it has particular relevance. In this respect we have been seeking the support of the Charlotte Mason community to help to ensure that the archive can remain within the shadow of Mason’s old college in Ambleside. In the longer term we need to find ways of creating a reserve and an endowment to ensure that this venerable little institution can continue to survive into the future. Like many other institutions its collections have outgrown the building. We have ambitions to take over the adjacent Low Nook Building, which used to be the old PNEU offices, and we know that the Heritage Lottery Fund would be supportive – but not as long as we run an annual deficit.