Guildford Museum is not exactly a dynamic advert for the town. It has been struggling for years and has hardly changed in decades. Visitor numbers are at an all time low. Councillor’s appear divided. Some see heritage as an asset and some as a burden. However, I think the Council should make more of its heritage service for three reasons.
There are three things that the museum should be doing in my opinion
- Create website to show off its collections
- Promote heritage events
- Change the permanent collections instead of staging temporary exhibitions
First, whatever cuts are looming, the Council will be forced to spend money on heritage for the foreseeable future. It is not about to sell the castle or the Guildhall and needs people to care for the museum and art collections built up over the last hundred years.
Secondly, historic Guildford needs a good heritage service that champions the town’s history, promotes the town and helps us appreciate what must be protected. Developers are knocking at the door wanting to change our town to suit their purposes. The High Street is crying out for attractions that will help it compete with the internet.
Thirdly, whatever plans the Council has for the long term, there is plenty that can be done now if the Council and community collaborate. And it does not have to cost the earth.
A good website would be a start. The Guildford Town Past and Present Facebook site shows there is a large community interested in heritage. (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1477813459124815/).
What Guildford needs is a complementary website where stories can be collated, information provided for tourists and the Guildford story can be explored. This could be done entirely by the community. The Guildford Heritage Forum website was designed as an experiment but shows what can be done for free. The Friends of Guildford Museum have recently produced some great video clips about town attractions (https://m.facebook.com/Guildfordmuseumfriends/videos/?ref=page_internal&mt_nav=0) and there are local YouTube bloggers who would help.
However, Guildford Museum also has a lot it could contribute to a website. In 2012 it commissioned professional photographs of 1000 items in the collection. In 2018 twenty videos were created about the collections as part of a community project. The museum also has a large photograph collection. Most of this material has never been seen or at least not for years. A website would be a cheap way of making the collections more accessible at little cost.
Next on my list are events. They are an easy way to create a splash, support the town and get heritage to show its value. Again there are plenty of community groups willing to help as they do each year at Heritage Open Days. Last September, volunteers pulled out the stops and were supported by historic vehicle owners and re-enactors (see the video). https://youtu.be/pls9AmcEsMc
With this experience of Heritage Open Days it would be easy to run events at other times of the year. However, this requires access to buildings which are controlled by the Council. It used to run Alice Day and Christmas at the Castle. Will those events return? Will the Council allow access to historic buildings on occasional weekends and work with community groups?
Finally the museum and castle displays need improving. This is entirely in the hands of the Council’s Heritage Service and there is little the community can do to help unless invited. This might sound expensive, but it is not. The Heritage Service puts on some great temporary exhibitions but they disappear after a few months. See Stories in Stich (2017) or Eating-In (2020) reviews in the Guildford Dragon. The service could use the same money, time and effort into gradually change the museum and castle displays? That’s what Godalming did. Over the last 20 years it has invested about £15,000 a year on average on new galleries and transformed itself. It can be done and a better museum could be a venue for business receptions and events as well as a facility for the town. I would start by upgrading the displays at the castle which is a natural tourist attraction and could benefit from better interpretation which in turn could be used to promote it.
Much more could be done and it is worth looking at a handbook on museums written for Councillors in 2019 by the Local Government Association and Arts Council called “Making the most of your museums” (https://local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/12.20_Museums_Handbook_V11_WEB.pdf).
The forward stated “Museums are crucial to our sense of place and at their best, bring people together, expose people to new ideas and concepts, and instil a sense of pride in their communities. Councils value this – we are increasingly placeshapers, not just deliverers of services now. But, in the current funding climate, we also have to ask tough questions of our museums.”
It went onto say that “Museums can deliver against some of our most pressing agendas. However, if they are to do all this, then we have a responsibility to ensure they are given the political direction they need to prioritise their work; give them the freedom to communicate their offer on websites and social media; and empower them to seek the right training and networks to help them to be more commercial, innovative and creative.”
So in conclusion, I would like to know what the Council plans to do with the heritage it owns. I recognise that some see the museum as the impossible problem, out of date, out of the way, too expensive and too difficult to resolve. But I disagree. Guildford Borough Council owns a big chunk of the historic town ranging from old buildings to art and museum collections and it employs a team of museum professionals. With its historic High Street, Norman Castle and Victorian park, Guildford has the perfect setting for pop up history events. There are four National Trust properties on the doorstep. And there are plenty of people from town guides to local historians, schools, colleges and heritage groups who could help. The potential is there. The future should be bright. We just have to make it happen.