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It is a New Year – time for resolutions. My resolution is to encourage our Council to get on with the Guildford Museum project which started in April 2016. The Council has great plans for new displays and a café with an entrance from the Castle Grounds. It has set up a project team and sorted out initial funding. However, there has been no official progress report for over a year.
In 2016 project was set up to consider adding a café, improving access from the Castle Grounds and revamping the galleries. £2.4 million was put aside provisionally and £250,000 allocated to a feasibility study. Another £87,000 was awarded by the Arts Council to carry out a public consultation. An architect was appointed in Autumn 2016. See my assessment of progress so far written in October 2017
The Council has a lot to offer - it has a museum, it has staff, it has initial funding, it has experience in many areas across Council departments.
But it does not have everything it needs. The museum no longer has staff who are experts in local history.
There are, however, many people in the community who can help and the Guildford Heritage Forum was set up in 2015 to bring them together. We have around one hundred members including museum professionals, heritage groups, historians, archaeologists, living history groups, photographers, IT experts, project managers and more. We have an abundance of expertise. All we need to do is talk to the Council but at the moment we do not have the relationship with the Council we want.
Neither the Council nor the community can do this alone.
We need to take a business-like approach to the problem. I am working with other members of the Guildford Heritage Forum to create plan and I have already written some articles which you can find on the Guildford Heritage Forum website.
A museum should not exist for its own sake or the sake of a few enthusiasts. Guildford Museum must provide value to the town by being a cultural, community and (indirectly) an economic asset. The Spectrum is a magnificent example of what the Council can do. The thinkers behind that project did not just create a sports centre. They created something for everyone from state of the art sports facilities to ice skating and ten pin bowling. The Spectrum has achieved national recognition and whilst the museum is a smaller, less commercial project the principles are the same.
First, we need to understand the benefits our heritage can bring to the town. (See the article “How heritage can benefit Guildford”). 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 past we can build communities, create a sense of identity and contribute to education.
We need should initially focus on areas that bring the greatest return for the smallest amount of effort. Guildford Castle appears to be the key. It is an icon of the town, a beacon for our tourist industry. Its views of the town, along with its position in the beautiful castle grounds make it an attractive destination. We just need to provide people with an excuse to stay longer. A café at the museum along with improved displays at the castle would seem to be the solution. The latter could probably be simple but I need to consult experts. Much research has been carried out into the castle in recent years. Also, I have spent the last two years visiting other castles to see what they do. There are many simple additions that could be made to the castle to improve the visitor experience (see my article on “Developing Guildford Castle as a tourist attraction”)
This still leaves the challenge of the café which is why we need to understand what is holding up the project. We also need to take advice from tourism experts to understand how we can make the Castle Grounds an attractive visitor destination without ruining the qualities that currently make it so great.
None of the above is intended as a criticisim of our heritage team or the council.
Over the last two years the Heritage Team has tried to make changes. It is hiring in temporary exhibitions, working with community groups and partnering with museums looking for a home.
However, so far there is no evidence that these efforts have reversed the decline in visitors. Whilst more exhibitions are good we need to focus on actions that are going to make a difference and build on what the progress made so far
It is a New Year, a new opportunity. Let’s work together to make this a great community project that enhances the reputation of the town and everyone involved. Our Victorian forefathers created the town we know today. Some wanted to demolish the castle and put a bandstand in its place. Instead they had the foresight to restore the castle, and lay out a park with floral displays that have won awards and become and icon for the town. We need to be the generation that is remembered for transforming the Castle Grounds into something that will be celebrated for decades to come?
Responding to the article, a GBC spokesperson said: “Improving Guildford Museum is a complex, long-term project and it is right that we take the proper time needed to create this new and exciting heritage hub and tourist attraction.”
“The feasibility study is well underway and we are working with specialist architects to make the most of this fantastic opportunity to connect the museum and Castle Grounds.
“Site sensitivity is a critical factor and we are also engaging with organisations such as Historic England, for their input on the crucial aspects of developing these archaeologically important buildings and grounds.
“We were also successful in obtaining external funding to help with our ongoing ‘Your stories, your museum’ initiative to ensure we meet local needs and expectations. This included wide consultation with many people about what they would like to see and how they would like to experience and explore exhibits in the new museum.
“A cross-party councillor and officer working group is helping to drive this improvement project forward and we are making progress with the many different steps that make up these initial stages. We will involve residents, businesses and other organisations when we have established the best way forward for this historic site to help inspire future generations and preserve our borough’s rich history.”