A report by the council on Guildford Museum includes ideas to boost dwindling visitor numbers and the desire to maintain co-operation with the Surrey Archaeological Society (SAS).
The Museum Working Group, which was formed by Guildford’s Lead Councillor for Economic Development, Heritage and Tourism, Geoff Davis, considered several ideas to make the museum more appealing to a wider audience. These include a combined visitor centre and museum, a café, art collections and interactive exhibitions all designed to update Guildford Museum to feel relevant and engaging.
There is no guarantee that the museum will remain in Castle Arch House, as work to assess the suitability of the current location and other potential locations is underway to best fit the ideas of the Museum Work Group into an appropriate space. A fully assessed set of proposals for each location are planned to be ready for March, so that the public can have their say in spring.
Guildford Museum was originally established by SAS in 1898, the council later taking over management in 1930. With agreements in place, the SAS chose to stay as tenants, their collection in storage and available to the museum.
In recent years the number of museum only visitors has diminished, 2014-15 receiving only 10,874, the peak visitor count over the past 10 years being 2006-07’s 17,689. These are relatively small numbers for a museum in a town of Guildford’s size, The Lightbox in Woking having reported roughly 90,000 visitors a year.
The entrance to Guildford Museum is on Quarry Street, which is fairly far and isolated from the busy town centre and considered in the report to be a significant factor in the low visitor count. The castle grounds receive approximately 400,000 visitors a year, with survey results supposedly suggesting that many of its visitors are not even aware of the nearby museum.
Earlier this year a leaving notice, originally given to SAS seven years ago, was acted upon. Their tenancy is scheduled to end on 29 January 2016 with their vacation of the premises. The option of a new lease or outright purchase of the building was given but not taken up by the society.
The SAS owns over half the items across the collections, a substantial amount of information on and objects from the town’s history. This has had some residents worried and caused the formation of a local group, The Guildford Heritage Forum, over concerns that the collections may be split. The report indicates the council is keen to keep the collections together and work with SAS over items of significance to Guildford.
With the society moving out of the building, Guildford Museum will be free to expand into areas of Castle Arch House that were previously not available to visitors, such as the fireplace on the first floor. This will also make a lot more space for new exhibits, working areas for the heritage team and additional storage.
There is a fascinating story to the history of Guildford, feedback from individuals and organisations that share an interest in its heritage suggest that the museum needs imaginative and interactive ways to tell it. Digital technologies, modern displays and more opportunities for unique exhibitions would attract more visitors. Creating a social centre for residents and visitors to meet, and providing fresh exhibits could transform Guildford Museum into an area that people would want to visit again and again.
Councillor Geoff Davis spoke about the ideas for Guildford Museum, saying that:
“We want to broaden the Museum’s appeal and make it accessible and interesting to all who visit. Meetings with the SAS, Guildford Heritage Forum, the Museum Development Service and other individuals linked with heritage tell us we could do so much more in our Museum if changes are made. Our Working Group is about making change possible so that we do justice to Guildford’s historic story. Currently the Museum interests some of us but we want it to be appealing to everyone. We are making good progress and we look forward to providing updates on Museum options early 2016.”
The full report is available at http://www2.guildford.gov.uk/councilmeetings/documents/s3611/Item%2011%20-%20Review%20of%20Guildford%20Museum.pdf