This note is intended to provide information to update members and visitors to our site about the situation as regards the Society and recent actions by Guildford Borough Council. It includes some references to correspondence in the on-line ‘Guildford Dragon’ and a recent press release from the Borough Council (attached as an appendix for information). The Dragon can be accessed on-line by those interested but the references should be self-explanatory.
The Borough Council’s press release concerning the future of Guildford Museum at last provides some welcome clarity about the Council’s intentions. The Society has been hoping to achieve this since we unexpectedly received notice to quit Castle Arch in mid-July. For that reason, until now, we have not chosen to make any statements with the exception of responses to questions from the press directed, at our request, to Emma Corke, my predecessor as President.
Councillor Davis (recently appointed Lead Councillor for Economic Development, responsible for Heritage and Tourism) has been somewhat critical of the Society in various comments to the Guildford Dragon and the Surrey Advertiser but seems to be proceeding from a lack of understanding of all the facts. The Borough Council now requires the Society to leave Castle Arch (left) by January 2016 after over a century of very close collaboration with the Museum. This was most recently formalised in 1953, in an agreement that was brought to an end by the Council in 2008. Initially the Council required the Society to leave but there was then a change of mind and a new rent was suggested at a level designed to acknowledge the Society’s contribution in kind. The Society was willing to pay a commercial rent for our office and library and was routinely providing for such an eventuality until new accounting rules came into force that prevented this because of a lack of any action by the Borough Council.
It was not the Society that dragged its feet but the Borough Council, which has nevertheless continued to act as though it was expected that the Society would remain at Castle Arch. Thus the Council’s own website currently states that ‘The headquarters of Surrey Archaeological Society is still housed in the Museum where there is an extensive archaeological library and a collection of research material devoted to Surrey’. As recently as 2013 Guildford Borough Council Heritage Services Collections Development Policy (approved by the Borough Council on 5 December 2013) noted that ‘the Museum and Society collections were dealt with as one, as is the case today’.
The Society welcomes the new commitment from the Borough Council that ‘We hope that the SAS exhibits will remain on loan in the Museum after their [the Society’s] office relocation’. It is good to see that the original intention to clear the exhibition spaces of the Society’s material, including much directly relevant to Guildford, has now been abandoned. All three of the differing versions of the notice to quit, served in quick succession, were quite specific on this point, although Councillor Davis overlooked this in an earlier comment (and also forgot our important library in a more recent comment). We have now been told, however, that we will be required to pay for storage of the Society’s collections, so it appears that the Society will have to pay for the privilege of storing the collections that have been rescued by its actions and which provide the backbone of the displays. With the need to find a new office and library space the Society therefore faces the prospect of a major drain on our resources.
The Borough Council’s approach seems to spring from a misunderstanding of the Society’s financial position and its activities. The Society is a registered charity whose activities are answerable to the Charity Commission. The trustees have wide-ranging legal and financial responsibilities as well as a number of legal constraints and the current relatively healthy financial state of the Society reflects the continuing diligence and effectiveness of the Society’s trustees. A closer look at the accounts would have shown that the Society relies on its capital to provide income in order to foster archaeological and local history research. Put very simply this includes a major research library (used also by the Museum staff and many researchers not members of the Society), publication of the results of archaeological and historical work relevant to Surrey, grant aiding research work or the purchase of important objects or research material that would otherwise be lost to the public, and supporting the cost of modern excavations where scientific techniques are increasingly important. I might note in passing that the use of such techniques has recently led to the discovery of a site close to Guildford that will rewrite our understanding of the history of the town. It is thanks to the Society that major sites have been rescued from destruction over the course of more than a century and we still step in where other means are not available. We seek where possible to involve the public and allow schoolchildren to experience the thrill of archaeological excavation in progress.
The Society must now look to the future, but it will struggle to continue the wide range of its present public services. It is most unlikely that we can afford to stay in Guildford. The option of purchasing 48 Quarry Street (see note and right) has been mentioned but the huge drain on the Society’s finances that would result would destroy its ability to continue its activities and foster research. Councillor Davis has described it as a ‘freehold opportunity’ but it is not the purpose of the Society to be a property developer. Indeed the current approach of the Borough Council towards the Society has so far been almost entirely in commercial terms, which is not much of a basis for any form of partnership with a charity and voluntary body. It seems that the financial aspect is what features most strongly in the Council’s thinking. The press release is keen to note that the museum buildings have increased significantly in value in current times. Yet Castle Arch is an integral part of the medieval castle, a hugely important part of its history. It is surely unthinkable that the Borough Council should even consider that it might be sold. It is also a matter of serious concern to us that in the longer term the commercial approach will eventually force the Society to follow the logical course and seek a cheaper and more congenial home, having been squeezed out of Guildford by financial considerations.
Apparently it is only now that the Borough Council has decided to form a working group to consider the future of the Museum, something one might have expected to happen at the start of the process. The composition of this group is hardly inspiring; to quote the press release it ‘includes finance, legal, property, communications and HR’ with the rather grudging addition of ‘an outside specialist museum consultant’. Thus none of those on the group will have any first-hand knowledge of the huge potential of the collections, indeed in most cases no relevant experience or understanding at all. They cannot know what stories could be told. It also seems that the group will not include others from outside the Borough Council, which must limit the options enormously.
Our understanding of the past is constantly changing as a result of new discoveries and new thinking. It is one of the most exciting things about archaeological and historical research. The Museum is there to communicate these discoveries to the public, and the use of objects is central to this. Nothing can beat the genuine, the feeling that a pot was used by someone over 4000 years ago, one on which the fingerprints of the potter can still be seen, or the discovery of flint tools left by those living 10,000 years ago where Guildford is now. Every object can tell a story – but only if that story has been properly studied; this is one reason why ready access by the Museum’s staff to a major research library is so important. It is not a simple matter to prepare displays. Finds must be understood and presented in their wider context.
The Borough Council’s somewhat belated commitment to public consultation is to be welcomed. We must hope that it will not be limited to a narrow range of options. There seems to be no thought that the decline in visitor numbers could readily be reversed by more frequent and exciting displays, or a recognition that a proper Museum is a measure of a town’s prestige, a prestige that is of course increased by being the county archaeological centre. Disabled access can be solved with imagination. The whole approach indeed smacks of a lack of imagination and a response that will soon be outdated but will be difficult to reverse. There must be concern that it sounds as though many of the decisions have already been taken, as indicated by the breaking of the long-standing link between the Museum and the Society. In his own words, in an unsolicited statement to the Guildford Dragon, Councillor Davis has been brought onto the Borough Council in order to ‘sort out’ the Museum, which sounds rather alarming. The press release makes it appear that the intention is for the Museum to be subsumed into a different location also devoted to ‘art, themed displays, virtual displays and a visitor centre for the town’. We must hope that none of this is true and that the consultation will be genuine and allow for a more inspiring vision.
Surrey Archaeological Society would certainly want to be part of an inspiring vision. Our offers to help with the Heritage Lottery Fund bid were rejected and might well have led to a different outcome. It should not be too late to aim for a Museum at Castle Arch with modern additions opened up to the Castle grounds, taking its rightful place as a centre for Guildford’s heritage and that of the county. We hope that this is the Museum that people want in the place that rightly considers itself to be the county town. This would be entirely appropriate, for in medieval times the castle was the centre of justice for Surrey and Sussex. It is not possible to tell the story of Guildford or the wider Borough (which has no historical basis as a unit) without placing it within the county’s story, and neither can be told without the Society’s collections.
Is this too much to expect of such a rich area? Even the most cost-conscious Councillors must recognise that it is the heritage aspect that makes Guildford a more attractive prospect than most other local centres. This has a hidden effect on the town’s overall balance sheet that has been amply demonstrated and is recognised in the Borough Council’s own draft Local Plan.
Finally, I should turn to the difficult circumstances that it seems will be imposed on the Society. As noted in our recent Bulletin, the Society’s Management Committee has been tasked with finding short-term solutions to the crisis caused by the Borough Council’s unnecessarily short-sighted actions. The Committee has not been idle. An office will be found and the library will probably be squeezed into the Abinger centre where it is hoped to provide at least a reduced service while the longer-term implications are investigated. The research material will probably be placed temporarily at the Surrey History Centre. The longer-term options, that it seems must also involve the collections, are being investigated with interested parties (and those who should be interested) and members’ views are needed so that we have a basis for decisions about which activities might be curtailed in the future. We aim to consider the options and then present a choice of ways forward for discussion at Council and at the special meeting to be held on 27 February.
Dr David Bird, President
Note: 48 Quarry Street is the Victorian building to the north of the purpose-built Museum gallery. It currently houses the prehistoric and Roman displays on the ground floor and there are small offices on the floors above. A rough price guide of £1 million has been suggested but we believe that the building would require significant further expenditure to bring it up to an acceptable standard. Even then the accommodation would be unlikely to meet the Society’s needs. It would certainly not do so if the Museum was moved away from Castle Arch.
Appendix: Press release by Guildford Borough Council 5 August 2015.
The future of Guildford Museum
Cllr Geoff Davis, Lead Councillor for Economic Development, responsible for Heritage and Tourism says: “We are committed to providing an inspiring and wide ranging cultural offering for residents and visitors and have formed a working group to consider the future of Guildford Museum.”
The group includes finance, legal, property, communications and HR. An outside specialist museum consultant will also be included. Cllr Geoff Davis chairs the group, which is led by James Whiteman, Director of Environment. Their brief is to carry out a full review of Guildford Museum, its collections and the Victorian schoolroom, with the key aim to look at a new and improved museum and visitor experience.
The review will examine the current offering of a traditional academic research museum, expanding its scope to include art, themed displays, virtual displays and a visitor centre for the town. It will also look at increasing access for everyone, particularly as the current location does not have disabled access. The group will review the use of the museum buildings, which have increased significantly in value in current times. Opportunities at other Council owned properties and including potential partners will also be explored.
We will work with interested parties and the business community and look at the collections within the Museum and at the Council’s Woking Road storage depot. After the review is complete we will ask the public for their views about the possible options for the future.
Cllr Davis explains: “At the present time, the annual running costs of Guildford Museum and associated services are approximately £385,000 a year. Visitor numbers have unfortunately declined, so it is important to review these services and explore reducing the financial impact for local residents.
“As part of the process to modernise the museum, it was necessary to update the notice to quit served on the Surrey Archaeological Society (SAS) seven years ago for the few offices and the library they currently occupy. SAS are in a very strong financial position with over £2.3m on their balance sheet. They operate throughout Surrey but we are the only local council offering subsidy arrangements.
“We are currently discussing their collections, both in the Museum and our Woking Road storage facility. We hope that the SAS exhibits will remain on loan in the Museum after their office relocation. We have offered SAS the Freehold interest in 48 Quarry Street and a decision on that offer is awaited”.
For the latest information and exhibition details visit guildford.gov.uk/museum