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Archaeological Society Likely To Leave Guildford Following Council’s Notice To Quit

Castle Arch feature

Castle Arch – The medieval castle walls form part of the fabric of the house used by the Guildford Museum and Surrey Archaeological Society.

It is “most unlikely” that the Surrey Archaeological Society (SAS) will stay in Guildford once it has moved out of the museum, according to the president of the society Dr David Bird.

In a statement issued to The Guildford Dragon NEWS, Dr Bird makes it clear that the society does not want to move out of Guildford Museum and is unhappy that it is being forced to quit rooms at Castle Arch it has used for over 100 years.

The president of the archaeological society, a registered charity, questions the council’s claim to collaboration with the society and the museum and says that assets of £2.3 million are needed to fund the society’s activity, so cannot be used to purchase 48 Quarry Street, offered to them by the council at a guide price of £1 million for the freehold.

The society welcomes news that Guildford Borough Council (GBC) does not want all the artefacts owned by the SAS to be removed from the museum but Dr Bird expresses surprise that a storage charge for artefacts is to be made.

Describing the possible sale of Castle Arch as “unthinkable” the president links the admitted rise in property prices to the motivation behind recent council decisions. GBC, in common with other local authorities across the country, is facing ever increasing pressure as a result of central government’s continuing financial squeeze.

It is understood that the society is planning to have completed most of its move out from its rooms, rented from GBC at a peppercorn rent, by the end of November, well ahead of the January deadline.

It is not known whether SAS already has alternative premises in mind but it is understood that Woking has shown some interest in becoming its new home.

There is also speculation that one option to be considered by GBC is moving the museum to the Surrey County Council public library in North Street.

The SAS president concludes his statement by hoping that Guildford gets a, “museum that people want in the place that rightly considers itself to be the county town”.

Dr Bird’s statement in full reads: “Guildford Borough Council requires Surrey Archaeological Society to leave Guildford Museum after over a century of close collaboration between the Society, the museum and the people of Guildford. Yet the council’s own publications still refer to that collaboration.

“We don’t understand why the council is so determined that we must leave but we should make it clear that the partnership has been immensely important and we do not want to go.

“The society welcomes the new commitment from the borough council that our “exhibits will remain on loan in the museum”. It is good that the original intention to clear the museum of the society’s unique material, even that from the very origins of Saxon Guildford, has been abandoned. Yet apparently we will be required to pay for storage of the material we loan to the museum for its displays.

The SAS library use by society members, local historians and members of the public.

The SAS library use by society members, local historians and members of the public.

“It is most unlikely that we can afford to stay in Guildford. Our society is a charity. We use the income from our capital to maintain a major research library, for archaeological and historical publications, grant aiding research work, purchase of material that would otherwise be lost to the public and supporting modern scientific excavations. The suggested purchase of 48 Quarry Street would bring this all to an end.

“The council says the museum buildings have increased significantly in value. Yet it is surely unthinkable that the council should also consider selling Castle Arch, the medieval castle gatehouse.

“The council has formed a working group to consider the future of the museum but its reported composition includes no-one with first-hand knowledge of the huge potential of the collections.

“Our understanding of the past is constantly changing. The museum is there to communicate the excitement of new discoveries and research to the public, and the experience of genuine ancient objects is central to this. All can tell stories – but only after proper study, which is why our library is so important.

“Guildford’s heritage is a proven part of its attraction as an important centre, making a significant hidden contribution to its economy. Surrey Archaeological Society would like to see a museum at Castle Arch with modern additions opened up to the castle grounds, taking its rightful place as a centre for Guildford’s heritage and that of the county.

The rear of the museum with ruined walls that could be utilised in proposals that would have linked the museum with the castle grounds.

The rear of the museum with ruined walls that could be utilised in proposals that would have linked the museum with the castle grounds.

“We hope that this is the museum that people want in the place that rightly considers itself to be the county town.”

Cllr Susan Parker (Send) leader of the Guildford Greenbelt Group at GBC said: “Surrey Archaeological Society’s idea of a historical centre to Guildford which includes the castle, Castle Arch and the museum is vital to any vision of our town.

Cllr Susan Parker.

Cllr Susan Parker.

“I am wary of secret consultations and would like open debate, perhaps as part of the looming “Mastervision” discussions. Everyone who cares about our history should speak up. We don’t want casual commercialisation and certainly not a piecemeal selling off of assets.

“The castle has been badly restored and there is inadequate promotion to tourists. It  was one of the major palaces of England and one of William the Conqueror’s string of fortifications.

It is Guildford’s heart, and, with the High Street and the river, its centre, with important views of our glorious surrounding hills. The museum in its historic buildings next door should be a key element of that tourist focus on our mediaeval town as a gem which is worth visiting and protecting. It should not be be marginalised, or sold off.”

Cllr Angela Gunning (Lab, Stoke) said: “This statement from SAS shows me that their society and GBC are poles apart.

Cllr Angela Gunning asked about a report in Private Eye that Cllr Mansbridge wanted to be the elected mayor.

Cllr Angela Gunning

“Who has been taking responsibility for continuous falling visitor numbers; who has designed the display and content?

“When I was a member of the museum management committee, made up of councillors, GBC staff and SAS members, at least 10 years ago, we visited Brighton Museum as an exemplar of good practice.

“What happened? Nothing. That is not to say that the current proposals aren’t to be considered carefully, but I am very concerned that no councillors, other than Cllr Davis, [lead councillor responsible for heritage and tourism] appear to be involved in the working group.”

Julian Lyon, chairman of the Guildford Society said: “We live in fragile times. It is so easy to place a market value on anything and arrive at a decision for the moment, but such a risk that what is then lost damages the integrity of the whole.

Julian Lyon

Julian Lyon, Guildford Society chairman

“Decisions on our historic quarter must take account of the fact that our heritage may not have a tangible value by itself, and it almost certainly can’t afford market rents anywhere, but it is a crucial intangible part of the value of the rest of the town.

“We have worked extremely hard to make the case for opening up the river to the town centre – not because the river is valuable in monetary terms but because of the effect of opening up the river on the whole of the town.

“The museum and the Surrey Archaeological Society exhibits, like the river, could do with a major rethink – an army of volunteers may be able to refresh the whole experience at low cost – and it is a shame Heritage Lottery Funding was not available to carry out the proposed development.

“Guildford, though, needs to recognise that we should do those works anyway as part of the enhancement of our heritage and visitor experience.

“This current argument is damaging to Guildford, it is a high stakes game being played out before our eyes but without real scrutiny and it is not too late to restore calm and have an intelligent debate about the future.  There is a very real risk that we will lose a vital part of our heritage for ever.”

Mary Alexander, former collections officer at Guildford museum said: “Guildford has been the county town since 1257 when Henry III decided that it should be so.

“Many county archaeological societies founded museums and are still connected with them. The Surrey Archaeological Society is not an anomaly, but a normal part of the archaeological scene in this country.

“It was the society who employed the first county archaeologist in Surrey until SCC took over.  Most of its capital came from a bequest which it has nurtured in order to fund important excavations, research and equipment which has transformed our knowledge of the county.”

Cllr Caroline Reeves (Friary & St Nicolas) leader of the Lib Dem group said later on Tuesday (Aug 11): “As a group we support a better, more modern and interactive museum.

“We support keeping a museum in this, our county town, and we are currently pushing for cross party involvement in the proposed working group.

“There needs to be an understanding of the current arrangements and then an open discussion about where we can go from here.

“We do not want to lose any of the valuable collections whether they belong to GBC or SAS and discussion has to be the way forward with this in order to gain a museum to be proud of.

“It is very unfortunate that so much time and effort has been lost on the unsuccessful lottery bids, the vision for Guildford museum which that funding would have allowed may have answered many of the current questions. We have to find another way forward.”

Cllr Geoff Davis (Con, Holy Trinity), lead councillor for economic development and responsible for heritage and tourism, said: “Our local heritage is something to treasure and we want to modernise, safeguard and secure its future.

“We welcome all ideas during our review to look at a new and improved museum. As part of this, we aim to work with and involve councillors, interested parties, experts and the public on future options.

“It’s important that as well as providing interesting exhibits and increasing visitors, we also balance this with finance and cost. We are at the start of this review process and more details will follow. It’s a chance for us to move on and look forward to a better visitor experience for everyone”

See also: Councillor, Given Brief to ‘Sort Out’ The Museum, Criticises The Dragon’s Coverage

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3 Responses to Archaeological Society Likely To Leave Guildford Following Council’s Notice To Quit

  1. George Dokimakis Reply

    August 11, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    The more information is unearthed [pun intended, it seems, Ed] about the SAS situation, the more it shows how badly it was handled.

    I would be interested to know what analysis GBC undertook and what were the benefits and disadvantages of the different options considered that led to this course of action.

    Considering this started back in 2003 (, did the council re-evaluate its initial assessment to ensure it was still accurate 12 years later?

  2. Mary Alexander Reply

    August 11, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    Julian Lyon’s comments are useful, but I would be wary of “an army of volunteers” to improve Guildford Museum. Museum work needs professionals.

  3. Sheila Smith Reply

    August 28, 2015 at 12:12 am

    I suggest someone visits Leicester and sees the approach to the Richard III project. Went there this week, also to Bosworth centre.

    The professionalism and clarity of the science(s) behind the exhibits, and the care and sensitivity of the work is just mind blowing.

    We could learn from them and find a way as a county town to provide premises instead of a junky collection of bijou boutiques in the High Street; make it a community attraction and move forward.

    The old premises were not user friendly, from my recollection when I visited the Museum some years ago. Not the way to commit to culture.

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