Guildford Museum: facts, fears, and the future

What follows is not a run-of-the-mill Surrey Medieval post, but something I’ve felt moved to write in the wake of some dramatic local news. Over the weekend, I learned that the Surrey Archaeological Society, of which I am a long-standing member (right back to fondly-remembered days as a YAC), has been given notice to quit the rooms and other spaces it occupies in Guildford Museum by Guildford Borough Council, the owners and operators, in preparation for a process considering future options for the building. The Society must vacate the museum premises, also known as Castle Arch thanks to the adjacent medieval gateway, by 29th January 2016, giving it roughly six and a half months to make arrangements to leave and find a new home. At the time of writing, what I know about this situation stems largely from two online articles I have read in the excellent Guildford Dragon NEWS online newspaper: one breaking the news about the notice being served, the other giving the Council’s response to and explanation of it.

Before I go any further, let me make it crystal clear that I have written the following in a personal capacity as a sort-of local blogger and what might be termed a stakeholder with an interest in the broader changes which seem to be afoot regarding Guildford Museum. I do not speak for the Surrey Archaeological Society on this or any other matter, and I most certainly do not want any of what follows to be taken as representing the official viewpoint of the Society or its membership. Nor am I party to what its official position is on the matter at the present time. This is simply me, offering a few facts and my own opinions about what I know so far.

The salient facts as reported in the Guildford Dragon NEWS articles are as follows:

  1. Notice to quit has been served on the Surrey Archaeological Society, which had paid ‘a peppercorn rent’ for the sections of the museum building it occupied for what seems to have been a considerable number of years.
  2. According to a quote from the Society’s spokesperson, Emma Corke, ‘We [i.e. the Society] will have to remove all our property from the museum including the numerous exhibits currently on show’ – it is not clear if the necessity of doing this is to meet a stipulation made by the Borough Council or a decision on the part of the Society, although the former party has expressed a hope that there is dialogue to be had about ‘access and use of the [Society’s] collection’.
  3. Guildford Borough Council offered to sell the building known as 48 Quarry Street to the Surrey Archaeological Society for ‘a guide price of £1 million’. This currently forms part of the Guildford Museum complex, but has been adjudged ‘not at all large enough’ by the Society to meet its present and future needs.
  4. Councillor Geoff Davis, Guildford Borough Council’s recently-appointed lead for economic development and a member of the Council’s Executive, has issued a written statement in which he underscores that the Council is ‘committed to Guildford Museum and providing a cultural offering in Guildford for residents and visitors’.
  5. It’s not something I’d picked up on before, but reportedly there has been debate about whether the Surrey-wide scope of Guildford Museum’s present displays is appropriate for an institution operated by a borough council (for those that don’t know, Guildford is the county town of Surrey, so there is something of a tension attendant to such status).

My purpose behind writing this post is not so much to do with the Surrey Archaeological Society, which very much sounds as if it has no chance of preserving the status quo and remaining headquartered at Castle Arch, but the future of Guildford Museum and the Castle Arch building. The news reports state Cllr Davis met with Museum staff early this month in order that they could be ‘briefed about developments’, though understandably the details of this meeting have not been made public. There is no reason to disbelieve Cllr Davis when he writes that Guildford Borough Council is ‘committed to Guildford Museum’, but is this as an institution, or the present museum in the present museum building?

I may not make myself universally popular when I say that Guildford Museum in its current form is a long way from being a perfect museum. Leaving aside sentimental attachment to a place where from a young age I have quenched my thirst for knowledge about the history and archaeology of the area in which I lived and still love, many of the gallery spaces have a tired and somewhat uninspiring air about them. Partly this must be attributed to the building in which it is housed. Castle Arch is a Grade 2* listed building incorporating fabric from the 13th, 17th and early-20th centuries; only the last was designed specifically for its role as a museum, and this was 100+ years ago. Plus, there is a considerable area of publicly-inaccessible and hence grossly under-used “garden” (mostly tatty rough grass) between the museum and some of the standing remains of the adjacent Guildford Castle.

I’ve often thought the Museum would do well to extend into this open space – or at least make much more of it – when looking out at it from the staircase up to the Surrey Archaeological Society’s excellent library. It seems I have not been alone in this, as better access between Museum and Castle Grounds (presumably using this pivotal open area) was at the heart of ambitious plans which were the subject of two failed bids to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF): one for £4.2 million at a national level in 2013, and a second for £1.9 million of regional cash earlier this year. Without any big external cash injection, this scheme could not go ahead giving the current public sector funding climate.

If the artefacts owned by Surrey Archaeological Society currently on display are removed from Guildford Museum, this would leave Guildford Borough Council with less to display but more rooms in Castle Arch to find a use for. The fifth response to the initial Guildford Dragon NEWS article mentions Guildford Borough Council’s art collection, most of which apparently languishes in storage and out of the site of the public. The town’s designated art gallery, Guildford House, has pottered along for years without a galvanising sense of purpose (or least that’s what it feels like to me – it compares unfavourably with Woking’s dynamic new(ish) Lightbox, for example). I wondered therefore if there might be a move to reconfigure Castle Arch as a museum-cum-art gallery in order to get more of the Borough collection on display.

But things may very well not be as straightforward as that. Many of the rooms in Castle Arch are small and low-ceilinged (especially the ones currently occupied by the Surrey Archaeological Society), or have too many windows and too little wall space, making them even more ill-suited to displaying art than Guildford House. Internal modifications to create up-to-date gallery spaces (if these were even possible within a listed building) would potentially cost a considerable amount of money, which again returns us to the issue of cost and who would foot the bill for such capital expenditure.

If ‘all the options’ for Guildford Museum are to be considered once Surrey Archaeological Society has left the building towards the end of January next year, as Cllr Davis indicates they will, then I would suggest there are three main possibilities for what happens next. The first, and dare I say it least likely, is that Guildford Borough Council stumps up an HLF-sized wad of cash to pay for the improvements needed to take Guildford Museum into the 21st century on its present site. I’m sure this would be an outcome preferable to many in Guildford or who have an interest in the Museum but, given the times we live in, I’d be surprised if a pot of money was found to achieve this.

The second is the polar opposite: Guildford Museum vacates its current premises for a new site, leading to the sale of its former home. In some ways this would make more sense. To turn a previously-outlined scenario on its head, Guildford Museum might be moved into some or all of Guildford House, which after all occupies a plum site on the High Street perfect for increasing footfall. Where this would leave its visual arts offering, meanwhile, I don’t know. Similarly, I have no idea about Guildford Borough Council’s town centre property portfolio and what capacity there is for rejigging current occupancies to accommodate Guildford Museum elsewhere (presuming the intention is/will be for it to remain in a central location).

Conceivably, a new space could be bought or leased for the purpose. In the 21st century, it’s worth asking what can or cannot act as a museum space. Most local town museums around Guildford (Farnham, Godalming, Haslemere) are repurposed old town houses, yet there is no overriding reason why Guildford Museum must operate in an historic building. Modern premises, purpose-built or otherwise, could offer better environments and greater flexibility. At least one letter writer to Guildford Dragon NEWS has articulated his own reasons for seeing a brand new building as a positive.

The third and final option is for Guildford Museum remains in its current home, but in reduced form (possibly reorientated towards being a true “town museum”), thereby freeing up space within the building to be converted into other uses. This would most likely require the injection of private capital, possibly via the sale of some of the Castle Arch site. Turning the site into a mixed-use “campus” could even realise the ambitions for connecting the Museum with the Castle Grounds which were thwarted by the rejection of the bids to the HLF. Of course, this would involve the conversion of part of the existing building – and perhaps insertion of new structures – for commercial premises (cafes/restaurants/shops/offices) and maybe even housing. Done well, a mixed-use redevelopment could bring many benefits to Guildford, its residents and visitors.

The willingness of Guildford Borough Council to sell 48 Quarry Street indicates a desire on its part to monetise some of its assets in this part of the town centre. This would tie in with the fact that back in September 2014 the Borough Council was planning to tackle a predicted budgetary shortfall of £6.5 million in part through ‘better use of property assets’. Earlier this summer, I visited The Novium, Chichester’s civic museum. It’s a whopping great contemporary building which cost a reported £7 million to construct (and that was a few years ago). The project has been (or will be) bankrolled by a spot of property speculation on the part of Chichester District Council; the scheme was designed with a block of apartments for private sale to the rear of the museum. I’m not the biggest fan of The Novium as a building (and even less so of the associated housing) but as a model for delivering a museum facility for a town in this day and age, it’s undoubtedly succeeded on several scores. The circumstances prevailing in the creation of a new Guildford Museum would be considerably different, however, unless the Borough Council has something big up its sleeve involving the development of an equivalent surface car-park (and at this stage who’s to say it doesn’t).

My sentiments about Surrey Archaeological Society being given notice and the implications for the future of Guildford Museum have developed over the past few days, from initial disbelief and instinctive opposition to partial acceptance and cautious optimism. (This is separate to the fate of the Surrey Archaeological Society’s collection of artefacts. I have had in mind to produce a piece of work involving at least one find from the Guildown Anglo-Saxon cemetery, but this assemblage has been specifically mentioned as one that will be withdrawn from display as things stand. If a deal cannot be struck, it will of course make my research a good deal harder to undertake, and I’m certain other researchers would be affected by the same issue.)

Allow me to explain why of all things I feel a modicum of optimism. Although I don’t understand quite why Guildford Museum (and Heritage in general) should fall within the portfolio of economic development, I do believe there is someone with relevant expertise heading up the initiative. According to the Guildford Borough Council register of interests, Cllr Davis has a professional background in quantity surveying and commercial property, so should be versed in making optimal use of buildings. To keep things more or less as they are may be one of the options countenanced by Cllr Davis and his team next year, but a half-empty museum will not benefit Guildford in the longer term. Something needs to change.

I’ve laid a few cards on the table, so let me show the rest of my hand. From West Sussex to Dorchester, there is no shortage of examples of public sector cuts at local government level having an impact on provisions for the historic environment. I don’t think the changes to Guildford Museum which seem to be in the offing should be grouped with them – not yet, anyway. Maybe it’s the innate optimist in me, and I’ll be let down in time when the options are announced, but I think whatever comes next should be viewed as an opportunity rather than something to be resisted at all costs.

To capitalise on this opportunity in a rounded way, three issues strike me as being important above all others. Firstly, Guildford Borough Council should do more than “closely liaise” with Surrey Archaeological Society regarding the future of those elements of the present Guildford Museum displays owned by the latter. It must offer practical help to the Society to find a new home for its offices, library and collections. For its part, I hope the Society can impress upon Guildford Borough Council the benefits of keeping Surrey’s foremost popular organisation for archaeology in the county town. To see it go elsewhere after being based in Guildford for so long would be a real shame.

The second is the town vs. county museum question. Present-day Surrey’s a funny beast: the County Council headquarters have been outside the administrative county since 1965, the main county cricket ground even longer. The county name may retain a certain cachet, at least for places long subsumed by London politically, but few would claim Surrey has an especially strong county identity. This being the case, the interests of the historic county can all too easily play second fiddle to more local concerns. It is quite understandable that Guildford Borough Council will always put the interests of town and borough first, and likewise that it wants to make more of its estate. But I would argue it is contingent on the Borough Council not just to do right by Guildford, but Surrey as well. I wouldn’t maintain a website named Surrey Medieval if the county’s history was not a rich and varied one, and Guildford is in many ways the best location for a museum to reflect this.

Thirdly and finally, I would urge Guildford Borough Council and all other interested parties to be bold and imaginative in drawing up and evaluating the options for the future of Guildford Museum. Guildford is a conservative kind of place, small c and large, but overcautiousness and a feeling that things should stay the same (or as good as) must not be allowed to prevail if this means Guildford Museum – with or without the Surrey Archaeological Society’s collection – emerges from the process little improved or even degraded, occupying a leftover space in a bigger Council building.

Cllr Davis’ statement mentions the Borough Council is committed to ‘providing a cultural offering’ for Guildford, and it would be indefensible were this to emerge worse off after the implementation of the chosen option other than in terms of a quantifiable cost saving. You may not think it from what you read and hear, but there is so much more to Guildford than the picturesque shopping destination that is its High Street. As several comments to the Guildford Dragon NEWS articles underline, matters of culture and heritage go beyond questions of cost efficiency or profit; their benefits cannot and should not be measured only in financial terms. It is to be hoped that Cllr Davis and his colleagues recognise this now and throughout their evaluation of the tabled options for Guildford Museum.

One letter to the Guildford Dragon NEWS on the subject, written by a correspondent who I know has been well-placed to see the build-up to the present situation, lends credence to the impression that Guildford Borough Council has up to now taken a less-than-unblinkered attitude towards the purpose and future of Guildford Museum. Whatever the extent to which the departure of Surrey Archaeological Society from Castle Arch goes against the assertion that Guildford Borough Council will be ‘looking at all the options’ in due course, for better or worse, things have happened or will happen which cannot be reversed. It’s where we go from here – and particularly from early 2016 – that is important now.

There are too many instances of major development projects in Guildford that have failed to make headway or look as if they will disfigure the urban environment rather than improve it. Arguably, the town centre has entered a period in which its fabric will undergo the most profound changes since the 1960s, and from my position as a casual observer, there are worryingly few reasons for optimism that it will emerge more beautiful than the place Eric Parker once commended. But G Live shows Guildford can get it right (eventually), while the renovation of Guildford Castle’s keep is a superb example of the careful treatment of one of the town’s main historic monuments. Whether together as a refurbished museum or separated, better futures for Guildford Museum, its current collection, and the Castle Arch building, must be secured. And, in the shorter term, I hope the Surrey Archaeological Society is able to make a successful transition to a new home.

(I’ll add some photographs to the above so it’s not so “texty” next time I’m in Guildford, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing you probably read the rest of the post!) 

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About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Guildford, Museum, News, Politics, Surrey and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Guildford Museum: facts, fears, and the future

  1. UPDATE 22/07/2015: On the day I receive a letter from my old man with a cutting of a Surrey Advertiser article covering this story (published last Friday, 17th July, on page 8 of at least the Guildford edition), it has been added to the newspaper’s website at http://www.getsurrey.co.uk/news/surrey-news/surrey-archaeological-society-told-leave-9705786. Not much new information beyond what is to be found in the Guildford Dragon NEWS pieces, other than a lot more from Emma Corke of the Surrey Archaeological Society. This has hammered home to me the seriousness of the situation regarding the removal of the Society’s collection of artefacts, both in terms of storage and display, and that Guildford Borough Council is executing a unilateral plan for Castle Arch which places next to no value in the 100+ year old landlord-tenant relationship with the Society.

    • UPDATE 10/08/2015: The latest edition of the Surrey Archaeological Society’s Bulletin includes a piece (on pages 9-11) from incoming Society President Dr David Bird giving a balanced response to the notice to quit, stressing the reasons for seeing a bright future for the SyAS as well as the major disadvantages the removal of so many items currently at the heart of Guildford Museum’s displays will bring for town and county alike.

      I’ve also just read a Surrey Ardvertiser article – http://www.getsurrey.co.uk/news/surrey-news/guildford-museum-buildings-significantly-increased-9794179 – which pretty much tells us what we knew already, but this time from the mouth of Cllr Davis. The fact the Museum buildings are said to “have increased significantly in value in current times” suggests they have been surveyed and valued recently. This need not mean the entirety of Castle Arch will be sold off; how you choose to interpret the comment “Opportunities at other council-owned properties and including potential partners will also be explored” probably depends on how positively you view GBC’s actions to date. For me, it does tend towards suggesting the Museum’s future lies away from Castle Arch, which as I’ve said before is something I am agnostic about until such time as I see actual plans for any replacement facility.

      I can’t say I agree with the description of Guildford Museum’s current incarnation as that of “a traditional academic research museum”, particularly if this is held to be the main reason for falling visitor numbers and hence the necessity of introducing “more interactive displays” at the expense of actual artefacts. The archaeology of Surrey is very probably going to be the thing which comes out of this whole affair worst off, which makes me lament that this situation was not predicted and planned for at a county level. I mentioned The Novium in Chichester as a very good new civic museum with a broader extra-urban remit, and this morning my mind has turned to The Collection in Lincoln – http://www.thecollectionmuseum.com/ – as an even better example of a new-ish museum (opened 2005, albeit one formed out of two pre-existing county institutions) that uses artefacts, not touchscreens, to tell the story of the area alongside a visual arts offering. Maybe I should move to Lincolnshire…

  2. UPDATE 19/08/15: As it goes in journalistic parlance, this story is going to run and run, so this will be my last update unless something truly major happens (and if it does it would probably merit a separate post anyway). Couple more interesting online things to bring to your attention:

    (1) The statement posted on the homepage of the Surrey Archaeological Society’s website – http://www.surreyarchaeology.org.uk/content/statement-from-our-president-about-castle-arch. It’s worth reading as it brings useful clarity to matters now the initial dust-storm has begun to settle. It brings two bits of welcome news. Firstly, an undertaking that the SyAS’ contributions to the current and future museum’s collections will remain on display. Secondly, there will be a public consultation about the whole process going forward, rather than decision-making being left in the hands of a GBC-appointed cabal of internal representatives + one museum-sector expert. Much less welcome, but wholly predictable, is the SyAS’ belief “It is most unlikely that we can afford to stay in Guildford”. Well done GBC for losing another string in the county town’s bow to elsewhere in Surrey.

    (2) This recent leader for my new #1 source for Guildford news – http://www.guildford-dragon.com/2015/08/13/the-dragon-says-lets-create-a-museum-that-future-generations-will-appreciate/. It summarises all sides of the argument and, while I think the concluding sentiment that the existing Castle Arch site should be revitalised as per the plan which twice failed to score HLF funding is probably no longer feasible, it does make some good points along the way. Allow me to express how we got to the present situation through the medium of a simple sum:

    Lack of a dynamic curator for a number of years (the internet doesn’t even tell me who the incumbent is, which isn’t a good sign) + increasingly dated displays + two failed HLF bids (blame for which can be pinned squarely on whoever in Guildford Borough Council thought they’d be fine doing it without forming a partnership first) + long-standing lack of interest/engagement at a county level + the knock-on effects of central government funding cuts = a challenging future for Guildford Museum

    I’ll admit there may be more factors (and more nuance) with a bearing. Perhaps we, the public, haven’t discovered everything about the Council’s decision-making process up to now. Whatever happens, like I said above, if it’s something major then I’ll write a new post to drill down into the matter.

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