Following the June Link’s exclusive interview with Hadrian Ellory-van Dekker, Swindon Museum & Art Gallery Trust’s newly appointed director responsible for developing a new museum and art gallery for the town, Daniel Rose chair of the Swindon Mechanics’ Institution Trust argues that there is a better location for investing in such a major facility in the town.
‘A hive of community, culture, learning and creativity’ – you could be forgiven for assuming such a headline is straight out of modern marketing spin for regeneration.
But actually this description is about something that all started 175 years ago, namely the highly innovative and far-reaching work of Swindon’s Mechanics’ Institution.
Even before the Institution built its premises in 1854 the organisation was rising to the social, health, learning and cultural challenges of the day.
The Mechanics’ was the epicenter of Swindon life, so popular and successful that it quickly burst out of the Mechanics’ and further buildings and organisations were formed around it. Organisation’s like the Medical Fund Society were created to meet the challenge of Swindon’s health needs and later built the Milton Road Baths in 1891.
The recent Link article about ‘Swindon’s new museum and art gallery’ makes you wonder how a gaping hole by the Wyvern Theatre pictured on the front page has managed to get ahead of a 30-year community effort to re-claim the derelict Mechanics’ Institution for the people of Swindon.
Swindon Borough Council decided some time ago to create a ‘cultural quarter’ in and around the proposed site of this new museum and art gallery. What has been ignored is the potential of the Railway Village area to once again be Swindon’s true ‘cultural quarter.’
Earlier I mentioned marketing spin – Swindon is immensely lucky that we have a real ‘cultural quarter’ just waiting to be dusted off and brought back to life. We all want to see excellent culture and heritage in Swindon but let it be authentic and grounded in our sense of place – not just some off the shelf, instantly forgettable modern development you could find in any town or city.
Swindon has an impressive modern art collection hidden away in Old Town in a building erected purposely in the 1960’s. And it might be better displayed in the town centre, in a larger building.
But is this the right place? Who has decided, and by what process, that this is so important, now?
Does it make sense to pursue that goal now, in a time of ‘austerity’, at the cost of £5 million borrowing, in the hope of £10 million Heritage Lottery funding, when the Mechanics’ Trust has long expected this very same Lottery Fund to support the renovation and re-use of a community achievement of international status?
If the goal of a new museum and art gallery is to make our collections more accessible and celebrated, then an alternative vision that truly has heart and soul is required.
Imagine a restored Railway Village, once again the centre of Swindon’s social and cultural life, with the Mechanics’ Institution at its core providing a facility for community action, large events spaces, performing arts, theatre, independent cinema, conferences as well as a café and restaurant
Across the road in the former GWR Carriage Works on London Street – the home of a new museum and art gallery. The street frontage could become a new Museum of Swindon and the extensive sheds behind an impressive and inspiring space for the modern art collection.
So would the Carriage Works be viable? Yes. Such former industrial spaces are popular and provide large, adaptable spaces for collections. David Hockney himself paints in such a shed in Yorkshire and Bristol’s recent new museum is housed in very similar surroundings.
The advantage of this plan:
• The desire to create a new museum and art gallery also enables the regeneration of derelict heritage;
• Creates a real, authentic heritage and cultural quarter;
• More attractive to the Heritage Lottery Fund due to the added benefit of restoring heritage and shows a commitment and clear strategy regarding the Railway Village and Mechanics’;
• Better value for money and the ability to create a mix of other uses in the Carriage Works and surrounding area to make a stronger sustainable model and focal point;
• Location – the art collection is predicted (and deserves) to attract many visitors from outside Swindon. The Carriage Works is ideally located within a few minutes of the train station as well as the Outlet Centre which now attracts millions of visitors a year;
• Great visibility from the train line for promotion – ‘lets get off the train at Swindon!’;
• Overall regeneration of the area creates an exciting and inspiring hive of activity which Swindon deserves – retail at the Outlet; community, culture and performance at the Mechanics’; heritage visitor attractions including the much needed boost to Steam; art and local history; independent restaurants and cafés, places to meet; leisure facilities in the beautiful Health Hydro; green spaces to walk and play within the GWR Park..…. the list goes on….
Swindon is a town where people used to decide which local needs should be met, and in what priority. That’s what the Mechanics’ Institution, the Health Hydro, the former hospital in Emlyn Square all represent, just by standing there; the film ‘Railway Town’ proved this point recently. All our derelict jewels need to be restored and functioning in the interests of local people, and be welcoming to visitors too.
Let’s think ambitiously, and in a joined-up fashion to get the best we can for Swindon in the spirit of those who left us such a legacy.
And what about that gaping hole in the town centre? I’m sure plenty of developers in the current market would be keen on a town centre site for housing, say mid-rise apartments, providing a very welcome financial boost to the council and provide more shoppers for the retail area.
This alternative vision is essentially everything nearly all of us have always wished Swindon could be. Surely it’s a no-brainer?
Find out more at: www.mechanics-trust.org.uk
All welcome at free Swindon fete celebrating 150th Anniversary on 9 July organised by the Mechanics Institute. Click for more info
Pictured top by Martin Parry, in the distance, the Carriage Works between London Street and the London to Bristol railway line, with UTC Swindon in the foreground and the National Monument Record close to STEAM on the other side of the tracks. Out of shot on the right are the Railway Village and the Mechanics’ Institute
Below, Daniel Rose in front of the near derelict Mechanics’ Institute, adorned externally by a collage of photographs depicting the building in its heyday. Image: Richard Wintle of Calyx.
Bottom, the Carriage Works, in the right foreground, adjacent to the GWR railway line. On the far side of the tracks is the National Monument Record in the former Swindon railway works; close-by is STEAM Museum and the Designer Outlet Centre. Photo: Martin Parry