Architects ZMMA are currently working on designs for a new exhibition hall at Guildford Museum. There will also be a café and an entrance providing access from the Castle Grounds. We do not yet know the details but there is one important issue I hope they are considering.
The key question that needs to be asked is not “What do we want to see in the revamped museum?” but “what do we want to do in the museum?”
We all associate museums with visits to galleries of historic objects. However, looking at exhibits is just one of the things we can “do” in a good museum. It is a very important function of a museum but if Guildford Museum ends up as a gallery and nothing more then the novelty will soon wear off. It will become a nice café for locals and a destination for tourists but not the buzzing, popular place that everyone wants.
In South London, the Brunel Museum has turned itself into a destination for a wide audience ranging from traditional museum goers to people who never set foot in museums. The museum is about the first tunnel under the Thames built by Marc Brunel and his famous son Isambard. Set in the engine house used to pump out water from the tunnel until the 1990s, it tells the story of the tunnel and the Brunels. However, its main feature, the large entrance hall to the tunnel, allows it to be used for a range of events. Staff give tours of the site and there are exhibitions but it is also used for opera, theatre and community events. A unique event which broadens the attraction of the place is the “Midnight Apothecary”. On the rooftop garden, with night time views of London, cocktails are served around an open fire on summer evenings. The variety of events is a tribute to the enthusiasm and imagination of the volunteers who run this small museum.
Nearer home the Lightbox in Woking is very successful because it is a versatile space. It can stage exhibitions, art shows, craft fairs and other events in addition to having a museum, shop and café.
Our museum will soon be linked to a beautiful, award winning municipal park. As the Heritage Team have shown we can use the Castle Grounds successfully for events like “Alice Day”. The Castle Grounds are also used for plays staged by Guildford Shakespeare Company and on summer afternoons there is often a band playing in the bandstand.
All these events contribute to the life of the town and Guildford Museum must be part of this. Indeed, with a café it will be a perfect destination for people visiting the Castle Grounds. The most obvious events the museum can stage are changing exhibitions that bring audiences back. I would like at least some of these to be focused on Guildford rather than brought in from outside. But exhibitions are just one type of event. We could have lectures, historical conferences, performances and theatre, old black and white films, craft shows and Christmas fairs. The museum could also be used for summer evening events.
It is important that we consider these carefully because they give the museum an opportunity to reach out to a varied audience. Obviously we cannot do everything and space is limited but a clever use of space could make Guildford Museum one of the most exciting destinations in the town.
One way to get round a shortage of space is to make the building versatile. A space could be used for a temporary exhibition part of the year, then for performances or conferences at other times and then reused for a craft fair. The position of the café is also important. We have the opportunity to create something that not only provides refreshment for museum visitors but which can serve people in the Castle Grounds.
I am pleased to see in the brief for the architects a mentions the need for an “events venue and enhanced visitor attraction” that “creates demand for repeat visits”. I look forward to seeing the ideas they come up with and hope we get a space that will be versatile and future proof and breathe life into our town. We don’t just need a new gallery. We need a living museum.
23rd March 2017