AFTER less than a year in full operation – Whitehaven’s £2.4million coalmining museum at Haig Pit has closed because of financial difficulties.

In a shock announcement on Tuesday, the Board of Trustees said they hoped it would only be temporary.

Key funders Heritage Lottery said: “This is very sad news and our thoughts go out to everyone who has been affected.”

It opened its doors to the public to great acclaim last February, expecting to attract 15,000 visitors in its first year.

And while it has exceeded its projected footfall, the museum appears to have hit several problems, some financial.

A Heritage Lottery Fund spokesman said:”While the organisation has received the majority of the HLF grant, one payment was withheld awaiting financial and other information. But we are aware that the organisation face wider financial challenges beyond this.

“Our staff have worked closely with Haig over many years and we will continue to offer our support during these challenging times.”

The HLF will be meeting with mayor of Copeland, Mike Starkie and the other main funder, Copeland Community Fund, shortly “to explore options for the best way forward.”

There are hopes the closure will only be temporary, as pleas for support and further financial aid are being made.

In the meantime, while a solution is sought, bookings for events are to  be cancelled and regular users of the venue informed.

A statement from the museum said: “We regret to inform that the museum, visitor attraction, cafe and events venue is currently closed.”

Haig Pit Mining Museum is run by a board of volunteer trustees from the local community but ran into difficulties last January its chairman, Bob Metcalfe retired (through ill health), the project manager resigned and its Manchester-based architects ceased trading.

“There were concerns over the continued delivery of the capital project and our main funder, the Heritage Lottery Fund, suspended funding last April, without giving a full explanation,” said the board.

Since opening the new-build Visitor Centre in October 2014 and the new-look Museum in February 2015, Haig says it has successfully worked to its business plan.

“The hard work and commitment of the employees and volunteers at this important site has seen the restoration of a Scheduled Ancient Monument and development of a derelict site into an accessible attraction and an accredited museu.”

The revamped museum created five new part-time jobs, giving the museum a total of eight staff who have lost their jobs. It also has around 28 active volunteers.

At an opening ceremony in February 2015 the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Humphrey Welfare said the Fund had given it strong backing over the years because Haig was about two key things, heritage and people.

He said Haig was “a very special place. It has survived. It played its part in the industrial revolution and coal was so fundamental to the establishment of Whitehaven and West Cumbria, an area known for the strength of its community.”

Haig was bought from the National Coal Board in 1993 for a nominal 1p and has since become a registered charity, accredited museum, a company limited by guarantee and an Arts Award centre.

Tim Knowles, who is on the board of Copeland Community Fund, which co-funded the museum project, said: “I am sure everyone is shocked and disappointed to hear this news. I know how important this place is to Whitehaven.”

Copeland MP Jamie Reed has also expressed his shock at the news saying it was “simply horrendous” (see his column page 21).

Haig’s manager Pamela Telford has not commented on the closure.

Spanning two floors the new museum experience reflects local stories, landscape, traditions and tragedies of the West Cumberland coalfields.

The adjacent Powerhouse is used for a variety of local events.

West Cumbria Mining Company, who want to re-open the coalfield to mine coking coal and have plans to do so by 2019, have used the museum venue for exhibitions and community consultation.

Its chief executive Mark Kirkbride said: “This comes as a complete shock and is very sad news indeed, especially coming so soon after the closure of St Bees School.

“The museum was a vital way of commemorating the extensive coal mining history of West Cumbria, whilst aiming to be a key contributor locally in terms of facilities and community involvement.

“The work that Pam and her team were doing was to be congratulated and I always received strong support for the development of our own project.

“I am currently trying to gain a better understanding of the current position.”