Campaigners are fighting to prevent the indefinite closure of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery after council officers revealed plans to sell off the museum building and put its collection in storage until a new venue is found.
Linda Kasmaty, chair of the Friends of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery said she had been informed last week that Swindon Borough Council had decided that Apsley House, the 1840s listed building that houses the museum, “was not to be reopened and that the artworks and artefacts would be placed in storage until such time that a suitable venue was available in the proposed new cultural quarter”.
In a statement on social media, Kasmaty said she was told that Apsley House would be put up for sale “in due course”. The recommendations were made by council officers in a Cabinet Member Decision Note.
The museum has been closed since March 2020. According to the Swindon Advertiser, the move would make a £33,000 saving on the council's £189,000 museum and gallery budget.
The council is planning to deliver a cultural quarter for the town by 2030, which will include an art pavilion, theatre, dance studio and media and arts production centre. It is also making a bid for city status, which could be granted as part of the Queen's platinum jubilee celebrations next year.
A petition has been set up calling for the collections to be “retained on show in Apsley House until they can be moved to a new home where they are on show to the public”. The petition had attracted 843 signatures at the time of writing.
The petition states: “We believe that the dispersal and mothballing of the collections would be highly damaging to Swindon’s bid for city status.
“We reject the recommendations in the Cabinet Member Decision Note and call for a further report to be produced setting out all the options for the future of the collections and of Apsley House, for all funding opportunities to be investigated, and for a debate to be held in full council before any decisions are made.”
The proposal has stirred up anger among Swindon residents, who have set up a Save Swindon Museum and Art Gallery Facebook group that already has 1,200 members.
One member, Pete Berry, commented: “The museum and art gallery is one of the very few attractions we have that make it worthwhile for outsiders to visit the place [...] What kind of short-sighted, ashen-souled misanthropes think they have the right to disperse it?”
In a statement on its website, the council said the building had “deteriorated significantly in recent years” and “had been recognised for decades as not being fit for purpose, providing a poor visitor experience”.
A significant amount of investment would be required to bring the building up to the appropriate standard, said the council. It added that the museum had been unable to reopen during the pandemic because the lack of space made social distancing impossible.
Dale Heenan, Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet member for regeneration, culture, heritage and leisure, said the museum and collections were not under threat and would remain accessible to the public.
The council said it is taking measures to bring the collection to a wider audience, including an Art on Tour scheme that saw art displayed in council buildings, further plans to install artworks in local business and community venues, and the development of a Museum Without Walls programme that will take the borough’s heritage collections into community venues for pop-up exhibitions.
Heen said: “I am determined to see our nationally important art collection shared with the widest possible audience, and for a new art gallery and museum to be delivered that Swindon can be proud of.
“Swindon Museum and Art Gallery is an essential service, and the provision and collections have never been under threat – that is something I would never agree to.
“A persuasive case was made by the professional officers running Swindon Museum and Art Gallery that Apsley House is not fit for purpose and for years barely attracted 30 visitors a day before Covid hit, so focusing efforts on a new purpose-built facility is in the best interests of the art collection and museum artefacts.
“I have asked officers to prepare a full cabinet report on the future of Apsley House, and the potential to relocate the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery to a new home.
“I can be clear. The future of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery in our town is safe, and there is a long-term, costed plan. Art is currently, and will remain, on display around the town.”