Last year I wrote an article giving my Thoughts on the Future of Guildford Museum. Then in December 2020 the Friends of the Museum wrote an article on how heritage across the town could be used to better effect (Click here). Both are still worth reading but they are more detailed and specific. For this year’s review I want to look at a broader strategy now that (fingers crossed) we are coming out of Covid-19.
The frustrating thing about Guildford’s heritage is that we have so much potential and yet we can’t seem to pull it altogether. We have great heritage sites, good collections and an experienced heritage team. What we don’t have is a waterproof plan. A lot of good work was done on the lottery bid but the museum and other heritage sites were neglected whilst the “big plan” was pursued. The lottery bid was never a certainty and when it collapsed we were left with a dated, poorly attended museum that could be a target for closure. What we need is a dual plan. On the one hand we must ensure there is guaranteed, if modest, improvement to the heritage service. At the same time we should not be afraid to pursue large, risky, time consuming ideas because the rewards to the town could be tremendous.
Guildford needs its heritage service
Let’s start with the basics. Guildford needs a good heritage service and museum
- Most towns have one. Most big towns have a good one
- As a historic county town of Surrey it would be inconceivable for Guildford not to have one
- Guildford has important buildings and unique objects that it needs to be cared for
Big ideas make a big difference
One thing is very clear. The consultants on the lottery bid made a convincing case that only big ideas make a difference. Upgrading the galleries at Guildford Museum, opening access from the castle Grounds and adding a cafe would undoubtedly give the town a better museum but it would not pull in the numbers that would make a difference to local businesses. That is why the Council pursued large lottery bids that would have created a much larger museum what would have been an attraction in its own right. The evidence for this lies with Godalming Museum, a truly excellent little museum that is far better than Guildford but it is small and pulls in about 16000 visitors a year. The consultants on the Guildford Museum project pointed out that places like Woking Lightbox, Horsham Museum or Maidstone Museum which have been part of large developments get about 100,000 visits a year. Museums like Godalming which focus on their galleries and are excellent in many ways average about 20,000 visits a year. In 2019 at the Museums Conference I attended a tour of museums and galleries set up under the Blair government to support the local economy at Eastbourne (Towner) and Margate (Turner). The Tate at St Ives is a prime example of how a heritage/arts venue can be a draw in its own right
How do we measure the value?
It is all very well saying only a big attraction can make a big difference but how can we quantify the value to Guildford. Councils have lots of priorities and heritage is no longer one of them. To get back on the agenda the museum has to demonstrate its value. There are plenty of reports explaining how heritage benefits towns. The Turner Centre in Margate draws people to the town in its own right but visitor numbers are around 100,000. Guildford High Street brings in 4 million people a year so would a museum attracting 100,000 really be worth the money spent on it. And we should not take visitor numbers at face value. Guildford House Gallery boasts 100,000 visitors but how many of those visit the gallery and how many just pop into the tourist office? Guildford Museum gets 10,000 visitors but how many of them are school parties coming in after a lesson at the Victorian schoolroom?
A museum or arts venue needs to be justified in many ways – it is unlikely to be valuable enough in one particular area to justify its existence. Unlike a theatre or sports venue, you cannot just look at ticket receipts because many museums are free. Once they exists and bring in a reasonable number of visitors, museums can be priceless as educational resources, community assets or adverts for the area. Watts Gallery is the local heritage success story. Work has been done to demonstrate its social value. It has commercial element but its value is far broader. Even in commercial terms it value surely exceeds the number of people it directly attracts. It features in magazines, promotional material so that even if tourists don’t go there they are influenced by it. Watts Gallery contributes to making the area look like a great place to visit and live. Most people would agree that it would be valuable to have a good museum in Guildford. But how do we get there when there are so many Council projects competing for resources?
What should Guildford do?
The answer, I believe, is to start small but think big. Hats off to Godalming Museum but Guildford is capable of something just as good. Why is it not happening? Has the museum been overshadowed by lottery bids or is there another reason?
With the right direction it would not cost a great deal to start improving the interpretation of all the Council owned heritage attractions now. The museum needs good direction and a little bit money. It may be that we already have the required skills amongst existing staff – we may just need to empower them and remove obstacles. Godalming Museum is small, well designed and charming. It has a good curator and over the last 20 years all the galleries have been renewed at a cost of between £30,000 and £50,000 every year few years. It is an independent trust with around 16,000 visitors a year.
Improving the heritage service in modest ways would secure its position and would give the town another asset to promote. Regular events in the High Street e.g. 4 a year, would allow heritage to complement the farmers markets, antiques market and other other ideas which the town needs to give people a reason to come in.
At the same time the town should not shy away from big ideas. Indeed I believe that if we can run a small efficient, enthusiastic and focused heritage service then sponsors and grant bodies will believe we can run something bigger and will be more favourably disposed towards the town.
If big ideas are needed to make a big different then Guildford needs something along the lines of Woking Lightbox. The Lightbox is an exhibition centre, café, museum and art gallery combined. It gets 100,000 visitors a year and is an attraction in its own right. Its success lies undoubtedly in the fact that it was designed with visitors in mind. Everything was designed around giving people a reason to visit. There is space for community exhibitions and craft fairs, a museum designed for school visits, room for visiting blockbuster exhibitions, a café where people can stop off.
Guildford may have a chance to create something similar. Surrey County Council is exploring the future of the town library. It backs onto Guildford house. Together these two buildings could provide “Lightbox” style facility. Like the Lightbox they could be transformed into something that people want to use – art gallery, café, shop, meeting place, conference centre and there would be space for larger museum exhibits. The dream of the latest museum lottery bid to create an attraction that celebrates Guildford’s technology, satellite and gaming industries could be fulfilled.
If the existing museum moved to a new location then it perhaps Castle Arch house would make a perfect location for a Lewis Carroll centre along the lines of the Roald Dahl museum at Great Missenden (see video) or the Wind in the Willows museum in Henley.
However, these are no more than ideas. If the future of the library lies in other directions then the future of the museum remains at Castle Arch. Other locations around the town are too commercially valuable to be used for a museum. So we would be back to ideas for an extension, access from the Castle Grounds and a cafe.
So to summarise, we need keep Guildford’s heritage service moving forward and prevent it from stagnating. Guildford was right to pursue large lottery bids despite the set backs. I might not have said that a few years ago but the evidence is plentiful that to make difference to the town we need a big idea. Post Covid-19, it is unlikely that the money for large project will be available for some time but the thinking should start now.
We need to come together to devise a plan that works. We must not be afraid to pursue big ideas that will make a difference. However, they are risky and time consuming so at the same time we must deliver small improvements that guarantee our heritage service delivers better value.