The long discussed plan for a purpose built museum and art gallery in Swindon town centre takes a step closer when its first director takes up his position in the middle of June.
Appointed by the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery Trust, Hadrian Ellory-van Dekker, 47, does not fit the stereotype of a museum director which could be summarised as an Oxbridge educated expert in fine art with limited exposure to the real world.
Born and brought up in East London, Hadrian was the first in his family to stay on at school to take A’ levels and go on to university. In Hadrian’s case this was far away from home, remote and rural at the University of Wales at Lampeter.
Currently the Science Museum’s Head of Collections and Chief Curator, his route to Swindon is circuitous, informed and grounded in experience for his future role here. Hadrian will be responsible for overseeing a fundraising strategy for the yet-to-be-funded new museum and art gallery, managing the design and build when and if the money is agreed, and developing the forward programme of exhibitions and events.
He said: “I grew up with a passion for archaeology and explaining things from the past, and started volunteering at the British Museum at the age of 13. I continued until I returned to London from university when I was taken on for a 6 month contract. It turned into 15 years, working in different departments interpreting and presenting collections to the public. I was also involved in the early years in exploring the advantages and possibilities the internet gave us to put for the collections online.”
In 2004 Hadrian was awarded the British Museum New York Times Fellowship to spend a year at the city’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, observing a different approach to collections management and integrating the work of different departments rather than each operating as a separate organisation.
By the mid-2000s he was at a crossroads, either spending the rest of his working life at the British Museum or broadening his experience. In 2006 he moved to the Science Museum, but quickly wondered if he had made the right choice. He said: “It was an organisation that lacked direction as the leadership had frequently changed over the previous three or four years. But the present director Ian Blatchford came in and provided the stability for a coherent and attractive museum rather than a failing visitor attraction.”
As the Science Museum’s longest serving head of collections, Hadrian has had contact with a wide range of trustees, sponsors, donors, government departments, learned societies and other museums and galleries. He is also a Director of the Collections Trust and chair of the Accreditation Committee for Museums and Galleries which oversees the standards and recognition of museums and galleries beyond the world of national institutions.
His view of Swindon until quite recently was largely shaped by chats with taxi drivers taking him from the railway station to the Science Museum’s deep storage facility at Wroughton. But his interest was heightened when the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery Trust approached him to suggest possible candidates for the post of director and perhaps assess his own interest in applying.
Under the chairmanship of Robert Hiscox from Marlborough, the trust with a board of 5 local trustees, including the deputy leader of the council, Coun Brian Mattock, was registered as a charity in February 2016.
It has two key aims: to create a fitting home for Swindon’s museum and art collections, including the nationally significant collection of British 20th Century Modern Art, and use its location to boost regeneration of the economy and attractiveness of the town centre.
The cost of building a new museum and art gallery is estimated at over £22 million, to be raised by the trust from grants and donations, including an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £12 million. Hadrian’s position is funded by a Swindon Borough Council grant of £5m towards the project.
Hadrian has no doubt he has a major challenge on his hands. “It’s a great honour and privilege to be appointed the first director. It’s an incredibly exciting and once-in-a-career opportunity to make a real difference: to build a new art gallery and museum; to maximize the potential of, and continue to develop, a really great collection; and, working with the people of Swindon to place the art gallery and museum and its activities at the very heart of the town and its cultural life.
“I imagine some people will wonder what he’s on about, but talking to the taxi drivers and others, is that the default setting amongst Swindon residents is to do it down, and to regard the place where so many people live as a bit of an embarressment.
“There is a great deal of money in the town, but much of it is spent outside the town. However there is cultural treasure which is largely unknown across Britain and indeed within Swindon. The present museum and art gallery is not easy to stumble upon, even if you’re in Old Town, but there are good things happening with the resources presently available. The Turner in the South West exhibition last year and the Eileen Cooper exhibition until this September demonstrate how the limited amount of space can be used to present visiting exhibitions alongside the Swindon collection.
“The borough council is committed to the regeneration of the town centre which can be achieved by a new centrally located museum and art gallery. I realise all local authorities are under huge financial pressure and there will be arguments that adult social care and family support is more important than a new cultural centre, but the project has positive support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council and seeking sponsorship is part of my role. Apart from the initial financial injection from the borough council, the project is expected to be self-funding by incorporating commercial elements into the proposed building.
“Everybody knows Swindon is not Bath or Oxford, so our role is to find the unique elements of the Swindon story and to ensure it’s told in an innovative and compelling way. The bigger picture is about including the people living here and attracting visitors to both the museum and art gallery and discovering the town centre itself.
“Museums should definitely not be seen as storehouses for things or a place for elites. My aim will be to use vibrant programming around the core collection as a hook to draw people, to showcase the heritage of the town and to exhibit the creativity and innovation there is here. The location will mean a place where people can just pop in for coffee and meet up with friends. Visitors will be drawn back for events whilst every school and the colleges will be encouraged to see it as a major learning resource. Exhibitions, events and makers fairs will all serve to involve Swindon people of all ages in the future of their museum and art gallery.”
As he arrives in post, Hadrian does not underestimate the task of convincing the Heritage Lottery Fund to commit a significant amount of money to the Swindon project. “It’s all about marshalling the arguments about the transformative potential of a new museum and art gallery to the town.
“I expect some won’t see the point, but at the same time as shouting from the rooftops about the major collections it has, I think the majority of people will recognise the potential of attracting inward investment to create a more diverse, interesting and vibrant town centre. A major part of my role is to involve citizens in this bigger picture for the town’s future.”
Hadrian, top and left, reviewing the site between the Wyvern Theatre and Swindon Magistrates Court identified as the location for a new museum and art gallery. Photos: Richard Wintle of Calyx