In the current financial climate it seems very likely there will be cuts to the heritage service but Guildford is unlikely to get rid of its service completely. So, how can Guildford get the most from its investment in heritage?
The Council needs to accurately assess the costs of the service and understand in detail who uses what parts of it. It should then produce a long term vision that can be worked to over next the ten to twenty years. We live in an age of rapid change so it makes sense to hang on to some examples of the world we leave behind. I also think it is appropriate that such items are owned by the community.
There are three very simple things that can be done now and which don’t have to cost very much
The first is events. The High Street is crying out for attractions that can help it compete with the internet and heritage has an opportunity to contribute by opening up its historic buildings in a co-ordinated way. Events are a great way of getting attention and bringing people together. Heritage Open Days is a good example of what can be done and there are many community groups keen to help. A proposal has been put to Guildford Borough Council for a Victorian day at Guildford Castle involving the Heritage Service, Town Guides and re-enactors.
The next idea is a website jointly run with the community that complements sites like Guildford Town Past and Present, the Guildford Dragon, Surrey History Centre and others. It would not try to do what they already do well but it could act as a local hub collating all the wonderful stories these sites cover. It would allow us to develop the Guildford story, promote local history events, run online projects, show off collections, run virtual exhibitions and gather information. Guildford Museum has 1000 photos of items in its collections photographed in 2012. 90% of these have never been seen by the public. There are also 20 videos about the collections created in 2018. Only one appears to have ever been made accessible to the public. There are YouTube creators and many photograhers in the town whose work could also be featured.
A website cannot, however, replace the benefits of seeing the real thing. The Council has built up a collection over nearly a century and needs a place to show it off. The current museum is the only option and planning should start now to upgrade it over a number of years. The museum and castle could be dramatically improved and it does not have to cost a lot if done over a long time. Over the last 20 years Godalming has invested on average £10,000 a year on new galleries to create a charming museum comparable in size with Guildford. Farnham Castle, owned by English Heritage, has more up to date interpretation than Guildford but it would not cost much to improve the latter. Sponsorship, fundraising should be considered alongside Council funding. Planning should start on how to improve the permanent display. Indeed the temporary exhibitions programme could be used so that displays are transferred to the main galleries. The recent VE day exhibition was great but there is now nothing on the Second World War in the museum.
There are of course operational issues to be tackled like the working conditions at the castle and staffing capacity to open the museum. However, I believe there is an opportunity to do a lot if staff carefully consider how they use their time. Current tasks like writing blogs, collecting computer games, public enquiries, temporary exhibitions and even community projects are all important but none of them are vital. The only necessary task is the maintenance of conditions to prevent the decay of the collections. Everything else is optional and staff should feel empowered to choose areas of work that will secure the future of the service by demonstrating its value.
Finally, there are debates about whether the museum is in best location but there are not many options for moving the museum as the review in 2015 confirmed. However, Surrey County Council’s review of the library is an opportunity that should be discussed. It backs onto Guildford House and together they could make a wonderful mixed use cultural facility that could possibly include a museum.
So in conclusion, there is plenty that can be done. Times may be difficult but by a lot can be achieved by planning for the long term now, collaborating with the community and making good use of available resources.