Swindon Borough Council (SBC) is pressing ahead with plans to close Swindon Museum & Art Gallery building despite a proposal from South Swindon Parish Council to take over the facility for the short term.
The parish council made the offer after SBC councillors voted last month to sell off the Grade II-listed Apsley House and display part of its collections in Swindon's civic offices. SBC says it intends to build a new, purpose-built museum in the town's planned cultural quarter, which is hoped will be completed by 2030.
Those opposed to the closure say the relocation of the museum has not been fully thought through or costed, and have warned that Swindon could face years without adequate public access to its collections.
The parish council recently passed a resolution allowing its chair to begin discussions with SBC to transfer the facility to the parish on a short-term basis, as well as bringing the Old Town library into the building. This option would “give the borough council breathing space to progress their aspirations to provide a purpose-built museum and art gallery”, said a parish council spokesperson.
Chris Watts, chair of South Swindon Parish Council, said he had requested an initial meeting with SBC to kickstart discussions.
“The parish understands that Apsley House is not the ideal facility to house the town’s museum and art gallery, but in the absence of a viable near term alternative we believe it is imperative for a town the size of Swindon, with aspirations of city status, to ensure such a facility remains open and accessible to the public,” he said.
The plan has received support from the Friends of the Museum and Art Gallery and the Old Town Business Association.
But SBC has indicated that it will not go ahead with the proposal. In a statement, the council's cabinet member for culture, heritage and leisure, Robert Jandy, said: “We were interested to hear what the parish council’s proposition entailed but it does not solve the issues Apsley House has with accessibility. The new civic venue will provide increased display space compared to Apsley House, improve accessibility, provide more opportunity for increased education and group activities, all within a central location with plenty of parking.
“In contrast, the parish council proposal would necessitate significant improvements to Apsley House and the building would need to remain closed while these works were carried out. It would also remove the only two disabled accessible rooms in the current museum by converting them to strategic book space, meaning the proportion of the collections that can be displayed would be reduced, resulting in more of our collections having to be put into storage.”
Concerns have been raised that SBC has already begun emptying Apsley House of its collections while discussions are ongoing. Members of the Save Swindon Museum & Art Gallery group, which is campaigning to keep the facility open at Apsley House, said that when they were granted access to the museum recently, much of the collection appeared to have been removed, with only large objects remaining.
Two Labour councillors who inspected the building this week confirmed to the Swindon Advertiser that all of the art and ceramic collections are now offsite and other displays are in the process of being packaged.
Jandy said: “We regularly move our art and museum collections between a number of secure storage locations because we often rotate our displays between various council-owned venues. We have been doing this for many years and the process is always overseen by trained curatorial staff.
“The ongoing deterioration of Apsley House has meant that the building is not currently suitable to store our art and museum collections and it would be irresponsible of us to leave important collections at a location which would not preserve them in optimal conditions.
“We are working hard to ensure that as many of the collection pieces can be displayed as soon as possible.”