Museum and heritage bodies have voiced their concern about the future of Swindon Museum & Art Gallery as momentum grows behind a campaign to prevent its indefinite closure.
Swindon Borough Council revealed weeks ago that it was planning to shut the museum’s current building, Apsley House, as it was no longer fit for purpose. It said it had a “long-term, costed plan” to find a new location for the museum within the town’s intended cultural quarter.
The Museums Association wrote to the council last week to express its concern that closing the current building at such an early stage of planning would leave the local community with no regular access to its cultural collections for many years.
Meanwhile the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) expressed “great concern” about the plans in an open letter to the council last week.
“As we understand it there is no detailed plan in place for the new facilities or agreed budget and timescale for delivery of the cultural quarter,” wrote Neil Redfern, executive director of the CBA.
Redfern asked the council to provide clarification “on the current situation and assurance that the important archaeological collections held by the borough at the museum, its role as an archaeological depository, and the support of the Portable Antiquities Scheme are all retained and that these collections and material remain publicly accessible”.
He asked the council to confirm that “any decision will be based on a sound business plan and the needs of the local community who value this community asset”.
Around 200 protesters attended a demonstration outside the institution last week, while more than 3,000 people have signed a petition to save the museum.
It follows a breakdown in relations between the council and the Friends of Swindon Museum & Art Gallery group after councillor Dale Heenan, who held the portfolio for regeneration, culture and heritage, accused the chair of the Friends of sharing confidential information about the plans. Heenan has since resigned from his cabinet role.
A spokesman for the council said: “We have ambitious but deliverable plans to develop a cultural quarter which would include a new home for the museum and art gallery, and this work has progressed with the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders. In the meantime, we have some fabulous buildings in our asset portfolio which could be used as suitable venues to display our art and museum collections.”
Campaigners have told of their alarm about the lack of detail or consultation on the decision.
But the council spokesman said there were no immediate plans for a public consultation. He said the closure was necessary because Apsley House is no longer Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) compliant and is “very unlikely to become so”.
“This is a real worry for us as we are keen that our art collection is viewed by as many people as possible,” said the spokesman.
Martin Newman, a member of the Friends group committee, told Museums Journal that the building was not DDA-compliant even before it shut to Covid. He said the DDA required “reasonable adjustments” to historic listed buildings and questioned whether the council had applied to the recently launched Museum Estate and Development Fund or why the £400,000 set aside for museum repair in the council’s budget had not been used to pay for improvements.
Addressing concerns about the length of time the museum’s collections would be inaccessible to the public, the council’s spokesman said collections would be displayed in a temporary building, as well as featuring in the council’s existing Art on Tour programme.
Newman expressed doubt that this approach would be effective, saying the Art on Tour programme had mainly displayed paintings in civic buildings where members of the public have to ask security or be accompanied on a tour in order to view them.
Newman also questioned whether the council had breached Accreditation guidance by failing to consult Arts Council England (ACE) at the earliest stage of a major change, as required.
The council spokesman said the arts council is “aware and supports the idea of ensuring that our collections are available to a wider audience”.
Newman said: “ACE may well be supportive of the long-term plan for the cultural quarter but it hasn’t been consulted on the proposals to close the Apsley House or leave the town without a museum and art gallery for a number of years.”
He said the Friends are also concerned about whether there is enough space in the museum’s existing storeroom to take in material from Apsley House, and fear the information on the museum’s collections management system is inadequate to allow those collections to be relocated or put into storage.
The council spokesman said: “The intention isn’t to put items into storage, rather open them up to a wider audience.”
Newman said even with many items displayed around the town, “a considerable amount will need to be placed in storage”.
Newman added: “There is no detailed plan, budget or timescale for the cultural quarter. Even the optimistic estimates put this at eight to 10 years away and we are sceptical that it will ever materialise.”