Creating sustainable heritage partnerships in Sunderland

Sunderland City Council worked with Sunderland North Community Business Centre to significantly enhance the visitor and commercial offer of the Bowles Railway Museum. This case study forms part of the Value of culture - partnership working section of our online Culture Hub.


Bowes Railway opened as a museum in 2002 when it was granted full museum status. In 2014, the museum was struggling financially resulting in a very limited visitor offer.

The council enlisted the assistance of Sunderland North Community Business Centre (SNCBC), a local charitable organisation who deliver a range of services within the locality focusing in education, learning, volunteering and employment. SNCBC had worked on a number of projects with the council previously and were a good fit to offer mentoring support to the museum in areas such as operational management, learning, volunteering and business development.

A partnership quickly developed between SNCBC and Bowes Railway Museum and whilst cautious initially, this began to flourish resulting in the Directors appointing SNCBC to take over the operational management of the Museum shortly afterwards.  Almost two years on, and Bowes Railway is thriving. 

Working alongside the company board members, SNCBC have significantly enhanced the visitor and commercial offer of the museum with much improved opportunities for learning and training in heritage skills, volunteering and outreach. 

The challenge

Directors of the Board were initially cautious in developing relationships with external partners. It was difficult for board members and volunteers to receive such mentoring in regards to day to day operations and management. However, within a short period, Directors developed a strong relationship with SNCBC and today this remains a partnership very much built on trust which in turn has demonstrated positive outcomes for the museum. 

The solution

Bringing together a mix of skills and expertise in business planning, commercial, volunteers, learning and public engagement has strengthened Bowes Railway Museum’s overall visitor offer.  Networks were quickly developed within the locality and with other cultural partners.  Potential funders such as Historic England and the Heritage Lottery Fund have since supported building repairs with HLF in particular investing in heritage skills and training and development programmes; all of which has positively contributed to sustaining the museum in the longer term

The impact (including cost savings/income generated

The profile of the museum has been enhanced significantly.  The museum has generated new audiences and enhanced its web presence locally and regionally.    Bowes Railway is a key partner in supporting Sunderland’s bid for UK City of Culture 2021 and should this be a successful outcome for the city, Bowes Railway Museum will in turn become a key venue to host cultural activity and events.

How is the new approach being sustained?

Continuing to strengthen the partnership between the City Council, SNCBC and Bowes Railway Museum.  SNCBC leading a refresh of the museums business plan annually to strengthen income generation activity and seek ways to enhance learning and outreach, open days, promotional activity, programmes and events.  

Lessons learned

Identifying new approaches to intervention and mobilising them quickly.

For further information contact Trina Murphy, Assistant Head of Service, Museums, Heritage and Arts, Sunderland City Council:


This case study has been developed in conjunction with Arts Council England