Guildford Museum has reopened with a new exhibition on John Russell, the 18th century portrait painter to the rich and famous.
The museum underwent a redecoration in 2019-20 and is much smarter. In fact the staff has done about as much as could be done without actually re-doing all the displays. During this period Guildford was also pursuing an ambitious lottery bid but now the bid has been cancelled (due to impact of Covid-19 on lottery funding), questions should perhaps be asked about whether staff go further an upgrade the entire museum.
The museum looks much better than it has for a long time and the town has invested in new display cases. However, it is not possible to change everything immediately and some of the older cases give the museum a dated feel.
Upstairs the galleries have had a tidy up with new panels on the walls and better descriptions of objects. The ironwork gallery is the finest room in the museum and one wonders what it would look like with fewer display cases. Could be it a gallery to display painting from the Council art collection – perhaps some old views of the town. A large print of the 18th century panorama of Guildford might look good here.
The museum has a charm and some lovely older cases. The corridor leading from the ironwork gallery to the children’s gallery has some wonderful cases that should be kept as exhibits in their own right.
The children’s gallery has some new objects and seating for people to use whilst children look at the objects. The next room has a display case with some Lewis Carroll related artefacts. I feel there is an opportunity to make the children’s gallery a Lewis Carroll room with some toys to play with (once restrictions allow such things) and wall panels with images from the books. Carroll love children’s games and tricks and it would be interesting to explain the importance and influence of his work. A few years ago Guildford Shakespeare created an animation of the Cheshire Cat for their Alice production staged the museum. The museum could benefit from this type of thing.
The Gertrude Jekyll room display is behind glass which whilst understandable for security reasons, makes it hard to enjoy (and even see). Better lighting could help. All the lighting is on the outside and creates reflections. There might be conservation reasons for this but temporary lighting in the display activated by a switch or timer could enhance this room.
Overall I feel a lot more could be done with Guildford Museum and this was confirmed by a recent visit to Godalming Museum which is slightly smaller but comparable. Guildford Museum is still very much as museum stuck in its own past. It has a traditional archaeology gallery, ironwork gallery, childrens gallery, costume gallery. It will always be shaped by its location and its collections but there is plenty of scope for improvement.
Guildford certainly has the staff with ideas and this has been shown in other exhibitions, such as Eating-In at Guildford House. It has not been possible to do much with the museum whilst the lottery project was in progress but perhaps we are beginning to see some major changes taking place.