By Gavin Morgan – 22nd May 2020
Plans to support the High Street with an £18 million revamped museum extension, cafe and entrance from the Castle Grounds have been halted. The National Lottery Heritage Fund has frozen lottery applications for the foreseeable future to free up resources to help existing projects through Covid-19.
In these difficult times the need for a museum might seem way down the list of priorities but we also need to keep one eye to the future. Our struggling High Street will need all the help it can get. So how can heritage do its bit? These are my views and I hope others will contribute theirs so that we can create a basic plan we can all support.
Upgrading the museum
Lets start with the museum. The museum project was an attempt to create an impressive new attraction in the town. In the post Covid-19 world, it is hard to imagine there will be any money for such grand schemes but there are still opportunities.
What we need is a place that feels welcoming and that tells the story of Guildford and its people through objects and artworks in an engaging manner.
Over the past year a lot of work has been carried out on the museum and we will hopefully find the atmosphere very different when it opens. The Heritage Team are adept at creating welcoming exhibitions. (See review of “Eating In” exhibition). It is up to them to revamp the museum but here are a few obvious ideas:
- Do more to explain the “Guildford story”
- Mix in more modern exhibits
- Develop Lewis Carroll displays
- Use the window in 48 Quarry Street as a “shop window”
- Promote the museum as “Guildford’s hidden secret” – its location down a side street does not have to be a problem particular if it is part of a tour
- Make a feature of the “old” displays – many people like the character
- Make good use of the main hall to make the museum feel welcoming
- Make the main hall adaptable so that talks or events can be held there. This will help promote the museum
A more ambitious idea is a cafe. Adding a cafe and an entrance from the Castle Grounds would surely transform the museum. The biggest challenge is that there is a three metre drop from the Castle Grounds down to the museum garden. Quite how that can be resolved is for others to decide. However the museum garden is a very picturesque spot and could be perfect as a summer tea garden and possibly a venue for evening events. See Littlington Tea Garden for a comparison.
Developing the Guildford story
To refresh the museum we will need to update the Guildford Story and understand what people would like to know about. Fortunately through our museum staff, heritage groups and sites like Guildford Past and Present and Guildford Dragon we can easily do this if people are inspired to come forward. There is also an archive of 1000 photographs of museum objects taken in 2012. Developing the Guildford Story and capturing information in an online project would be a good way start
Lewis Carroll Connection
Many people have speculated about the potential of Guildford’s Lewis Carroll connection. Alice in Wonderland is such a captivating and imaginative story that it would surely make a good visitor experience.
Even a modestly design experience would add to the attraction of the museum.
- The imaginative world of Lewis Carroll lends itself to a captivating exhibition design and visitor experience.
- There are similar examples of museums devoted to other authors (Wind In Willows Museum, Roald Dahl Museum, Beatrix Potter Museum).
- Lewis Carroll had a house in Guildford (Chestnuts) which is visible from the museum.
- Carroll was interested in puzzles and mathematical games so there is plenty of material to create an engaging experience.
- There are original exhibits and letters in the museum collections and private collectors might loan items.
- The old curatorial offices on the second floor of Castle Arch House might be worth looking at.
Unfortunately, a large Lewis Carroll experience would be needed to make a major impact and there are challenges in the current climate:
- This would be an ambitious undertaking
- Without the planned extension Guildford Museum would not have the space to create a major Lewis Carroll experience.
- The cost and practicality of creating a worthwhile experience could be prohibitive
For me , the castle stands out as a great opportunity. It was restored in 2004 and a floor inserted to create two enclosed spaces. The space on the first floor is perfect for exhibits. The exhibition put in the ground floor has an excellent model but will soon be 20 years old. Our castle displays do not compare with those at Farnham Castle and other English Heritage sites. The costs of upgrading the displays and creating a better attraction could be relatively modest and are worth exploring. Members of the Guildford Heritage Forum have carried out a lot of work on the castle and potential ideas have been brought together in a report (See following article for a report on the castle)
Developing our tourism
Heritage already does a lot for Guildford. Our historic High Street, medieval castle, the Castle Grounds and the preserved countryside on our doorstep make Guildford one of the most attractive places in the south-east. Could we do more by developing tours?
- We are lucky to have several attractions in the town that are owned by the Council (the Castle, Guildford House, medieval undercroft, museum, Castle Grounds).
- Other important attractions include The Spike, Chilworth Gunpowder Mills and Watts Gallery
- We also have four National Trust properties on our doorstep (Clandon House, Hatchlands, Dapdune Wharf, Shalford Mill).
- On top of that we have an active community of town guides and heritage groups who welcome visitors and support events like Heritage Weekend, Alice Day and Christmas at the Castle.
It would be interesting to know what ideas the tourist office has and I am sure the Guildford Town Guides would be interested in advising. Schools might also like to get involved in the creation process of different guides (particular for their peer groups)
- Guided tours – these exist (obviously) and work well for organised groups and people who enjoy the social side group tours
- We need guides aimed at young families with activities/stickers
- We could have more audio guides for people who want a self-guided tour with more detail. Perhaps these guides could be on different themes.
- Virtual reality, augmented reality or geo-cache type tours might work better for teenagers.
Guildford already runs several heritage events – Alice Day (August),
Heritage Open Days (September), Christmas at the Castle (December). These are a great way to promote the town and heritage and provide an opportunity for local groups to get involved. There have been thoughts about a “History Day” at the start of the tourist season. This would be well placed to promote the town before the summer and would also be a better time to involve local groups and schools in a large community event. (See Heritage Weekend article)
How heritage benefits Guildford
Most of the above has been about using heritage to promote tourism but it is important to remember that heritage benefits the town in many ways
- Promoting the town
- Appreciating and preserving what matters
- Supporting the economy ( esp High Street)
- Enhancing Community life
- Fostering a sense of community
Ultimately we need much more than tourist attractions and we should be wary of going down paths that close the door to other important benefits.
None of us can predict what the situation will be in a few months time or the impact of Covid 19 on the economy and our lives. All we know is it will be a different normal and money will be even tighter. However, historic Guildford is not going anywhere and people will still want to enjoy days out. So the more we can strengthen our offer in effective ways, the better. These thoughts have been put in the open to encourage others to share their own thoughts. I will update this article as I hear back. I hope there can be a new spirit of collaboration across all areas of our heritage community so that we can all do out bit.