Local campaigners have submitted a 4,000-strong petition to Swindon Borough Council in an effort to stop plans to close Swindon Museum & Art Gallery indefinitely.
The campaign group Save Our Museum & Art Gallery (Somag) said it had been “shocked” to learn that the council intends to press ahead with plans to sell Apsley House, the Grade II-listed building that houses the museum, and move its collections to the town’s Civic Offices, where a temporary exhibition space will be created.
A report produced by council officers last week recommended that, contrary to the campaign group’s wishes, it would not be financially viable to reopen Apsley House to the public until an alternative home is found for its collections.
The paper is due to go before a cabinet vote on 8 September. It comes after a series of “constructive meetings” between Somag and councillor Robert Jandy, cabinet member for culture, heritage, leisure and town centre experience, earlier in the summer, when campaigners were told that the council would review the condition of Apsley House and consider other temporary options.
In a statement, the group said: “We were shocked to discover that none of the reassurances made by councillor Jandy have been kept regarding plans for the museum and art collections.”
Somag said an FOI request had revealed that Apsley House had been “knowingly left to deteriorate” and warned it risked being “sold off at a discounted price” to a private developer and “left to rot”. It said the council could have applied for government funding available to help civic museums cover the cost of repairs and improvements.
Somag said: “The cabinet are being pressured to approve a rushed and muddled plan to move the collections into the civic offices. The plan has no detail, no timescales and no costings.”
Campaigners expressed fears that the plans for the new exhibition space “will never be funded and the collections will stay in storage, despite the public reassurances of councillor Jandy that this would never happen as it would be ‘disastrous’”.
Linda Kasmaty, a member of Somag, said the arguments by council officers that Apsley House should remain closed for financial reasons didn’t stack up.
“The council admits it has allowed Apsley House, a Grade II-listed building which it owns, to fall into serious disrepair, but there is no evidence that professional surveys have been carried out, and no up-to-date costs for repairs have been produced,” she said.
“The council is also suggesting using the Civic Offices as an alternative to the art gallery. Yet the last time the council considered using the Civic Offices to house the paintings, it dismissed that idea because it would cost £1.8m.
“In all conscience, members of cabinet cannot take an informed decision on this, because they have not been given the information they need. We are urging members to do the intelligent and responsible thing, and tell their officers to go back to the drawing board.
“Swindon’s art and museum collections belong to Swindon people, not to the local authority. The least residents can expect is that the full council has an opportunity to see the results of professional surveys and costings, and make a decision based on the fact.”
In a statement, Jandy said: “I have a great deal of respect for all the campaigners who are calling for the reopening of Apsley House. They are incredibly passionate about the museum and art gallery and want to maintain the status quo by seeing the building reopen to the public at all costs.
“As cabinet member, I have a duty to explore all the options open to the council, and after listening to Save Swindon Museum and Art Gallery members we have looked again at whether reopening Apsley House is in the best interests of all residents in Swindon and for the collection as a whole.
“It is important to note that all options are being considered and no decision has been made as further evidence is still being collated by officers.”
Jandy disputed some of the claims made by campaigners. He said: “There have been a number of claims made on social media in recent days regarding Apsley House which are wholly inaccurate.
“For example, it is simply not true to suggest that the listed building has been knowingly left to deteriorate. Repairs to Aspley House have taken place and our statutory compliance and repairs teams have confirmed the building is compliant. There is a list of backlog maintenance which needs to be carried out, including replacing the heating system which was condemned because obsolete parts were unavailable to enable a gas leak to be fixed. This work was put on hold over the warmer summer months as the heating was not required. Our staff have been closely monitoring any leaks in the flat roof. There have been no leaks reported recently, but the roof is still in need of a full repair.
“Any suggestions that the collections have been exposed to damp could not be further from the truth. We are fortunate to have a passionate, enthusiastic and dedicated team of trained and experienced museum professionals who have done their utmost to care for and protect all the items within the museum and art gallery and in our storage facilities.
“The campaigners have also hinted that if Apsley House is deemed surplus to requirements it will be sold off at a discounted rate. We must by law ensure we receive best consideration for any of our assets and we cannot and will not sell it for less than it is worth.
“There has been much talk about applying for government or Arts Council England funding to invest in Apsley House. This was not a realistic option as the funding streams available would have committed us to keeping Apsley House open for at least the next 10 years when we have plans to deliver a new art pavilion and museum as part of the cultural quarter much sooner than that.
“Finally, suggestions that moving the museum and art gallery into a new medium term home in civic buildings would cost £1.86m are misleading. The 2019 options appraisal for Swindon Museum Art Gallery assessed creating a new permanent museum and art gallery. It did not assess the reuse of existing spaces in the civic offices on a medium-term basis. The current proposal is that the first floor be converted into exhibition, learning and storage spaces, without significant building works. This will provide a much larger footprint than Apsley House, which is accessible to all and with far less of the collection remaining in storage. The two are not comparable.”
A spokesman for the Somag responded: “The Somag campaign would like to refute the claims made to the Museums Association by councillor Jandy. We are sure this statement must have been written on his behalf as he would have known them to be untrue. For example: it was councillor Jandy himself who informed us of the damp problem and told us how ‘shocked’ he was by it and that parts of the collection had been moved or protected as a result.
“Councillor Jandy was present at a meeting between our campaign and council officers when one of them informed us that deliberate decision had been taken not to carry out maintenance on Apsley House where the museum is located. So it is correct to say the council allowed the listed building to deteriorate whilst it was closed and we have information released under FOI that catalogue the results of this decision not to undertake maintenance.”
A protest was held outside the museum over the weekend. The campaign group is planning a further demonstration at the cabinet meeting at 1800.
Updated to include a response from Somag to councillor Jandy's statement.