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In my last email I mentioned an RCA report on "Networked Heritage". It called on communities to debate the importance of their heritage. Conversations need to take place across the community to develop ideas about how heritage can benefit a town. People need to work together to raise the profile of local heritage for benefit of all.
So what conversations should we be having in Guildford? As individuals and small groups we do not have to justify what we do and there are hundreds of projects on the go at any time. Collectively, however, we need to identify projects where our heritage benefit us all - particulary if we want the Council or grant bodies to support these projects.
First of all, we need to define how Heritage can benefit a town like Guildford. This has been discussed in various places. The Heritage Lottery fund defines how its help develops communities and this National Trust post is worth a look
I think there are 5 key ways in which heritage can benefit Guildford
These points are self-explanatory. Our heritage makes Guildford a great place to live. It can also be used for events and functions that improve the quality of life and attract tourists. As a result of this our reputation grows which attracts businesses and improves the economy. Meanwhile through our appreciation of our heritage we can build communities, create a sense of identity and contribute to education.
The image below highlights some of the big projects that have been discussed in relation to Guildford Museum. Across the top I have listed the benefits. Then I have listed ideas and projects and put them underneath the benefits they are able to bring. Most of the ideas are capable of bringing most the mentioned benefits but some are naturally better than others. In the diagram, the darker the box the greater the benefit. I hope that makes sense but if not I explain them in detail below. Also these are just my views and I am interested to receive your thoughts.
I have put Guildford Castle first because I think it is able to bring the greatest benefit for the least amount of effort. It is good for tourism and is already and icon of the town. It has been part of our history for centuries so it helps us understand our past and create a sense of identity. It is a good venue for events and a good educational tool. Looking at other castles, it appears we could enhance the visitor experience at Guildford Castle relatively easily. As it owned by the Council is it also under our control.
There has been a lot of talk about developing the Alice in Wonderland exhibits at Guildford Museum. I have put this second on my list. I think this could be an excellent benefit to the town in terms of tourism and putting us on the map. So you will see I have put a dark blue box under the Economy and Brand in my diagram. The Roald Dahl children’s gallery at the Bucks County Museum is a great example of how a local authority can create a great museum around an author. However, it does need to be done well. Guildford Museum would need to establish partnerships with external collectors and make sure that the exhibition produces a range of benefits for the town. I feel that Alice in Wonderland also scores less than the castle in terms of creating a sense of identity and explaining who we are. It is after all just one aspect of our past. So in my opinion it is not quite as straight forward as the castle but it could be a close second.
I am a great believer in using events to promote heritage and deliver benefits. Alice Day, Christmas at the Castle and the Heritage Open Days attract people to the town, enhance our reputation, add to community life and can be used for education. I talked about this more in an article last March for the Guildford Dragon entitled "Events are the Key to Success"
I have included a café because everyone agrees it would be a great way of boosting visits to the museum. However, I also want to stress that a café would not be a good thing if all we end up with was a nice café next to a museum that no one goes into. A café in the Castle Grounds could really benefit the town, of course, and would attract visitors as well as enhance life in the town. Hence I have put it in dark blue to score it high in these areas. Of course, like everything it needs to be done well and nothing could be worse than creating a poorly thought out cafe and finding that people still go back to the town centre for a coffee.
Most people would assume that a local history museum would tell the story of the town or illustrate life in the past. I have put this further town the list because it is a complicated task. Compared with putting a few high profile exhibits in the castle, the task for revamping all the displays in the museum is enormous. Not only is there much more to do but there are so many more topics that need to be researched. The task is made harder by the fact that Guildford Museum does not have a curator. There are staff who could do the research required but that is not their role at the moment.
It is hard to imagine creating a museum that does not include the Guildford story. It scores high in areas that other ideas do not. In the diagram I have given it a dark blue for “Sense of identity/who we are” and “Education”. However, it is arguably less strong when it comes to tourism and developing our image. By that I mean that people are much more likely remember Guildford for its castle than for its local history museum (but of course it does depend on the quality of the exhibits).
Guildford Museum has recently started to allow community groups to put on exhibitions in the museum. These (and also archaeology) are normally seen as of specialist interest but are strong in giving a sense of identity and education. There can be exceptions and the Surrey Archaeological Society does have a number of items of national importance.
There is currently an excellent display put on by the Surrey Infantry Museum in the main gallery of Guildford Museum and there are plans to give the Surrey Infantry Museum permanent space in the future. The Surrey Infantry Museum, in my opinion offers all the benefits I have identified but perhaps not as wells as Guildford Castle. It is, after all a specialist area.
I have found this a useful exercise in trying to understand where to begin if we want to develop the museum and increase visitor numbers.
Each of the above ideas could provide most of the benefits identified if it was given the right treatment. However, we should start with projects that bring the most benefit for least effort and for me the castle comes out on top. A lot of the research needed to put on displays is well documented. The castle is also part of the Castle Grounds and a visit could include a walk round the picturesque gardens.
However, we need more than one idea. We need a range of activities in order to reach out to different audiences. Alice in Wonderland might attract young families whilst the castle might attract families with children from 8 to 13. The Surrey Infantry Museum could attract teenagers (particularly male). The castle might be more of an attraction for toursits but changing local history exhibits would appeal to residents.
My next few articles will focus on how we can develop the visitor experience at the castle as well as how much it might cost. However, I also want to explore all the other ideas in more detail so that we can properly develop a plan.