Tunbridge Wells’ museum and gallery recently reopened after an ambitious £20m redevelopment that saw the integration the council’s library, tourist information and adult education services into the museum building, with an additional space set aside for live events. Now rebranded as the Amelia Scott Centre, the facility is expected to attract around half a million visitors a year.
Jeremy Kimmel, the centre’s arts, heritage and engagement director, told Museums Journal how the venue offers a new model for service delivery in local authorities.
How did the redevelopment come about?
Jeremy Kimmel: The story goes back several years, as is often the case with redevelopments like this, to the old Tunbridge Wells Museum & Gallery days – sharing a building with the local library. The entire building hadn’t really had a great deal done to it since it was built in the 1950s and really wasn’t fit for purpose anymore. So after a lot of consultation and back and forth with potential funders the idea came forward to create a new kind of shared service that incorporated the museum and gallery with the library, tourist information and council contact services – with adult education on site as a tenant.
It was a brand new way of looking at service delivery but that was the exciting part about it – challenging, but exciting. It really caused us to rethink our priorities and look at operating as an arts and heritage space in a new way – for many people coming to us wouldn’t be an option, it would be a need and their needs would be very specific and extreme in some cases (homelessness, fleeing domestic violence, newly arrived refugees, etc).
So it became about designing a building that was intuitive for traditional cultural users and those who never stepped foot in a museum before as well. All while creating a welcoming environment for the entire community to get help when they need it most, and telling real stories of the local area that they could relate to and be inspired by.
Why did you decide to rename the building after Amelia Scott?
JK: We thought it was an opportunity to celebrate one of our local change-makers that, at the time, not many people were aware of. Amelia Scott was a local suffragist, a poor law guardian, one of the first female Councillors in Tunbridge Wells and one of the founders of the first museum in the town. She made her life about helping others, building community and was dedicated to the idea that a society should lift people up. She was very much the type of person we wanted to emulate as a service and we are very happy to be her namesake.
What were the main challenges of the project?
JK: The times we are living in, really. This project began before Brexit, and years before Covid, but proceeded through both - all under the backdrop of councils receiving less and less funding from central government. As you can imagine this altered the timeline and the budget significantly over the course of the project, but the will to see it done for the good of the community was strong and the ongoing support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Arts Council England, Kent County Council and all the funders was absolutely crucial. You would be surprised how much the price and availability of wood can affect a project!
What does this new space do differently than before?
JK: Just about everything. I think in most ways the new space is entirely unrecognisable relative to what it used to look and feel like. The refurbishment has allowed us to tell better narratives and make the histories of the area more accessible and interesting. It’s allowed us to display different parts of our collection that haven’t seen the light of day in a very long time, and to properly feel like a modern, exciting space. It blends cultural services together in a way that makes sense to how people really learn and consume information and gives us a chance to rethink traditional ways of delivering just about everything. It’s a space that’s as inspiring for our visitors as it is for us to work in.
How do the library and museum elements interact with each other?
JK: In a way they are one and the same. Rather than a co-location model of operating, we chose to blend the services together entirely. The book stock still belongs to Kent County Council, but we administer it on site. That’s meant we have had to learn their systems of borrowing and delivering their statutory services to a high standard – but it’s also meant we have the freedom to make the offers unique to us, our visitors and to combine arts, heritage and literature together to make these offers exciting and new. While we have been the first to do this, I don’t think we’ll be the last as it has giving some very interesting and effective results.
What are the highlights of your collection?
JK: It’s hard not to love our Georgian portraiture and costume. It’s all rather fabulous and is still in such amazing shape and it really comes to life in the new gallery, along with an augmented reality interactive which allows visitors to “try on” the costumes and share the images on their social media. Locally, things like Tunbridge Ware (a kind of local marquetry sold as a souvenir to visitors of the spa) are very popular and we have a taxidermy dog named Minnie that many people consider our mascot.
How has the museum been received by visitors since it reopened?
JK: Almost entirely positively. There are definitely some people who really enjoyed the old wooden cases rammed full of objects – it had been that way for 60 years - so it’s understandable that people will have got used to it. But the number of people who have been literally moved to tears by seeing such a beautiful new space in the middle of the town has been humbling.
The best comment I’ve had so far though was from Amelia Scott’s descendant, and the last living person to have known her, Helen, who opened the building – I asked her what Amelia would have thought and she just smiled at me and said “she would have absolutely loved it”. That’s enough for me.