Gavin Morgan June 2020
The Council’s decision to shelve the ambitious museum project is a blow to the High Street which stood to gain a new town centre attraction. We must focus efforts on ensuring that heritage still gives the High Street all the support it can. After all, heritage is one of the town’s biggest selling points. Were it not for the historic High Street and the Norman keep set in the beautiful castle grounds Guildford would not be the shopping centre it has been.
Some investment in the museum is needed but I believe much can be achieved with resources the museum currently has. The Council owns a network of heritage sites and there are four National Trust properties in an around the town. I have written about these in another article. Here I want to talk about what can be done at the museum. Obviously the key decisions are the job of the heritage team but having done this work its seemed sensible to share my thoughts
Empowering the right people
The first thing I want to say is that the town needs to empower the right people to get on with the job. We all noticed that as soon as Julia Holberry was appointed project manager in 2018 things started to move very fast. Committees and reports have a role but there is now a good body of work with which to guide future plans.
Next, clarity is needed over what the town wants to achieve. Museum’s pride themselves in working across many areas e.g. education, community events, research, collecting etc. Currently, however, the main need for a museum, and the best justification for one, is the role it can play in helping the High Street. The objective needs to be agreed but I imagine something on the following lines:
Objective: To transform the museum into a heritage attraction that works with other heritage sites to bring more people into the town.
Recent talk of a scaled down design somewhere else in the town needs to be dismissed. For financial reasons the museum will need to stay on the current site. However, in 2015 at lot of work went into deciding that the current location is in fact the correct one.
Resources may not be plentiful but the town has a strong heritage team who can improve the museum. As my review of Eating In mentioned they have track record of putting on interesting and welcoming exhibitions. The problem with museum work is that people get stretched over many areas of work. The Council will need to review the work priorities of museum staff in order to improve the museum as a visitor attraction. It can be done. The Heritage Team was were able to focus their efforts on closing the museum and moving cases around for builders. A lot of work has been done to redecorate the main gallery and exhibits are being put back. A quick peek through the windows shows that when it opens, the museum will have a much fresher look. Clearly, we have a team who can update the displays and I am sure they would enjoy doing so. They just need to be given the opportunity.
Guildford Museum is a traditional museum and it has not had an overall re-design in decades. Different rooms are dedicated to different parts of the collection so there is prehistory, ironwork, costume, needlework and toys. Alternative approaches need to be discussed and the museum would benefit from the employment of an exhibition designer who could review the whole museum. In the short term there is unlikely to be money for new display cases but in a way the old cases suit the building and a lot can be done with re-decoration.
The question of what goes on display is always contentious as everyone has a view. It is the role of the Heritage Team to decide but the problem starts to resolve itself when one assesses the options.
The “Your Stories, Your Museum” project discovered that people tend to want the sort of modern nostalgia that makes Guildford Past and Present such a great Facebook website. However, people are also curious about why their town is the way it is so there is a strong case for telling the Guildford story. If it is decided to link the museum to a tour of the town then the Guildford story could be told through the buildings. However, I suggest the museum should be used to pull the Guildford story together.
Detailed design of displays
Here I enter into territory that is for others to decide but some observations can be made. In choosing how to improve the displays it is necessary to take into account the collections, the structure of the museum, the stories that can be told and the people who have shaped the town.
- Exhibits: It is possible to understand the museum’s holdings through the collections policy document, the galleries themselves and a list of 1000 objects photographed in 2012. Most of the museum’s objects are small which is just as well given that the museum’s rooms are small. Many have a story to tell in themselves. The broad themes are domestic life, agricultrual life, archaeology, needlework, maps, prints and paintings. The museum is strong in the 17th century and 19th centruy but weaker in its 20th century holdings. Nevertheless themes such as war, the High Street, domestic and rural life are well covered. There is a good collection of prints and paintings illustrating the changing appearance of the town.
- The Museum Buildings: Guildford Museum is based in the 17th century Carter House. It is a series of small rooms, some with historic features on several floors. What it lacks in space it makes up for in charm and a route could be created around the rooms so that the visitor is taken on a linear tour e.g. a journey through time.
- Famous locals: A lot of people are associated with Guildford. Museums however are about things. Lewis Carroll, John Russell and George Abbott are worth considering as characters who lives can be used to introduce the periods they lived in.
- Stories: Locals probably one to see stories about recent events or changes to the town. Visitors probably want to appreciate the Guildford story. Both locals and visitors will be curious about how Guildford came about. One option is to mix modern items with exhibits from earlier periods to provide context. So a themed museum is one option. Another is a chronological series of rooms.
Pulling everything together
In deciding how revamp the museum certain obvious features spring to mind
- The main hall is the largest area and should probably be retained for meetings, events and temporary exhibitions. It should remain a flexible space
- The rooms with fire places are perfect for room reconstructions. The Gertrude Jekyll room works well where it is and the front room (ironwork gallery) could be turned into a seventeenth century room.
- People such as Lewis Carroll or John Russell could be used as a starting point to explore the period they lived in.
- Paintings and prints are good tools for telling the story of the development of the town and being flat and highly suited for the museum space which has a higher proportion of walls to floor space than most museums
- An obvious concept would be to tell the story of Guildford in a loosely chronological way but mix in modern exhibits to help people relate to the displays. A display on the medieval Friary could include plans for the modern Friary or exhibits from the Friary Brewery. A display on the origins of the town could bring in the Guildford Floods of 1969 to show how the river continues to influence the town.
In conclusion I believe the museum can be changed to become an important part of a heritage visit to Guildford. The town needs to include the Castle in its thinking (see article) and also consider the options for an entrance from the Castle Grounds and the opportunity for tea garden. The museum needs to be linked to other heritage attractions around the town and work is needed to create a tour.