Director of £23m museum project resigns - Museums Association

Director of £23m museum project resigns

Fears raised departure will jeopardise HLF bid for a new museum and art gallery in Swindon
Jonathan Knott
The director of the trust hoping to build a £22.5m museum and art gallery in Swindon has resigned a year after taking up the post.

Hadrian Ellory-van Dekker's departure has raised questions about whether a £10m Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) bid planned for later this year will now go ahead.

In 2013 Swindon Borough Council resolved to relocate the museum to a new site in the centre of the Wiltshire town, with the aim of increasing its attractiveness to both residents and visitors.

The Swindon Museum and Art Gallery Trust was set up in 2015, following an unsuccessful HLF bid by the council in 2014. Ellory-van Dekker, who was previously the head of collections and chief curator at the Science Museum, was appointed as the director of the trust in March last year.

Ellory-van Dekker resigned last week. In a statement, the trust said that the resignation was for personal reasons, although Museums Journal understands that this was not Ellory-van Dekker’s primary motivation for leaving.

The project has recently met with opposition from some local people who would prefer to see it combined with investment in Swindon’s railway heritage. An online petition arguing that the new museum would be better located in the Carriage Works, a listed 19th century former maintenance depot for Great Western Railway train carriages, has gained more than 760 supporters.

Swindon resident Ana Kelly, who created the petition, told Museums Journal: “Over the last 30 years, there’s been a real lack of regard for, and any kind of council commitment or funding to, the railway heritage areas. The new museum project is taking quite a whack of council and HLF funding that really could be better-utilised.”

Jim Robbins, a Labour member of the Conservative-led council, said that it would now be impossible to meet the November deadline for an HLF bid this year, but believes that the project remains viable in the long term if different stakeholders can agree on a way forward.

Robbins said: “We need to come up with an agreed plan that everyone buys into as much as possible, so that there’s a realistic chance of success”.

He added: “Unless we can do some serious engagement work, it’s just not going to happen.”

David Renard, the leader of Swindon council, told Museums Journal that it was not certain that an HLF bid would be submitted this year.

“Clearly Hadrian’s departure is a setback,” said Renard.

“I wouldn’t say I can be confident the trust will submit a bid this year, but what I will say is that both the trust and the council are keen to get the whole project back on track, and the ambition is that we will submit another bid in November. But obviously we’re reacting to very recent events, and it’s too early to say whether that’s achievable or not.

“The council remains fully committed to and behind this project, in terms of committing the land, up to £5m capital funding, and ongoing revenue support.”

Renard said that the council had carried out “extensive consultation” for its first HLF bid.

“We submitted a whole raft of comments and support from those who responded to the consultation, and that was not an area where HLF was telling us there was a shortcoming,” he said.

The council originally considered four locations for the proposed museum, but this did not include the Carriage Works, which is owned by Network Rail.

“We are seeking to do a deal with Network Rail, but they have made it clear that they would like to see the property used for commercial purposes,” said Renard. “I don’t think they would allow us to do it, even if we wanted to.”

He added: “We’ve been on this journey for four years. It’s only in the last couple of months that anybody has suggested an alternative site should be looked at.”

In a statement, Robert Hiscox, the chair of the trustees, said: “We are very sad that Hadrian will be leaving, but we understand his decision in the circumstances. He has been very active on behalf of the trust and already achieved a lot since he has been with us, and we have thoroughly enjoyed working with him. We appreciate his loyal support in making the transfer as seamless as possible.”

Hiscox told Museums Journal that reports in the local media that he himself had also considered resigning were “exaggerated”.

He said: “Did I consider resigning? I’ve considered resigning since the day I started. It’s a huge challenge. Of course I tear my hair out occasionally, but I don’t go to the extent of penning my resignation.”

Hiscox was confident that an HLF bid would be submitted this year as planned. He said that the project would be “transformational”, saying “there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind it’s what Swindon needs".

A public event was held yesterday evening by the trust to discuss the project. 

After it, a statement from Hiscox said: “We had a lively debate, and by the end of that it was clear that there is a huge amount of passion locally for Swindon to have this new, iconic museum and art gallery in the town centre. More than 140 people from across the town attended and just seven people voted against the proposal."

But Ana Kelly said that following the meeting, she felt less optimistic about reaching a compromise over the project and would continue with her petition. Believing that the reasons given for not considering the Carriage Works as a location were misleading, she said:
"It is true to say that if the backdrop of crumbling, ill-served and hastily ‘dealt with’ heritage buildings in Swindon did not exist, these proposals look exciting and visionary. 

However, in the many years set aside for Swindon Borough Council’s new-build development plan, there seems no time, funds or compassion for anything other than a cursory treatment of our unique heritage buildings."


The original article included a quote from Ana Kelly that referred to a separate project to repair the Carriage Works. The article has been amended to include a new comment from Kelly and her reaction to the public meeting.

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