Showcasing to the world the best of Tunbridge Wells

Sean Holden

Continuing our look at the town’s cultural standing, this week we’re taking the pulse of the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. Museum manager Jo Wiltcher and Tunbridge Wells borough councillor Jane March tell us what makes the town’s centre of historic interest tick and expand on a new cultural development initiative currently in the works.

Tell us about the background of the museum
Jo: It started as a local history society and was adopted by the council about 1900. The museum opened to the public in its current building in 1954 and the first paid curator came in about the 1970s, so there’s an ongoing history of the collections becoming more professional – it starts as amateur enthusiasts in the very early days then gradually, the collections get streamlined as professionals come in.

So is it professionally run today?
Jo: It’s all professionally run now. We’re one of the larger museum services in Kent and have professional staff, as well as a large number of volunteers and funding from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council.

Are there many unpaid volunteers?
Jo: We have about 20 to 30 volunteers, the majority working on collections, projects, inventories and cataloguing. We have a Friends of the Museum group and a lot of them will help at various museums.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Jo: I actually don’t think there have been any challenges in getting people involved and coming along. Museums are quite popular and our events programme is particularly aimed at engaging people; we have workshops, school programmes, evening events, meet the artist sessions – through the programming we do, hopefully there’s lots of people engaging. I think the challenge is more in our resources and how much we can do.

In what ways do you combat these problems?
Jo: There are infinite things we could do with time, space and advertising! In 2013, we did as much refurbishment as was possible without really extending, and that’s made a huge difference but that’s really as far as we can get, so now the challenges are about space.

Jane: We’re planning on launching a joint project with Kent County Council for a cultural and learning hub, which is dependent on a Heritage Lottery Fund application, but TWBC and KCC are also going to put in substantial amounts of money to make it happen. If that’s successful, we would have the adult education building, library, museum, art gallery, Gateway, visitor information centre, café and creative workspace, all on one site.

How will this new project benefit the town?
Jo: We’re hoping it will meet two needs: to make a really fantastic facility for people to get information and feel inspired, creative, safe and comfortable, but also to do the thing it doesn’t do well, which is be part of the tourist economy. We have fantastic collections that originate from Tunbridge Wells but if you were looking for an exhibition and you were based in London, you really wouldn’t come to our site, we think we can do much more to contribute.

Can you talk us through how Heritage Lottery Fund works?
Jo: It’s a two-stage process. You do a certain amount up to stage one, which tells them your ideas, that you are committed and that it makes business sense, but you start the real work if you get stage one passed, thinking about what it might look like and what it might do. If we submit in April, we will find that out late July.

Jane: It costs money to get to that point, but it’s 50/50 KCC and TWBC. If we get the HLF grant, we then have to go to the full council for a consultation to agree the money to spend on it.

Do you have an exact figure in mind?
Jane: We’re looking at £4m from the HLF and the total cost is estimated at about £12m. There will be community fundraising, as well as TWBC, Arts Council and KCC funding.

Jo: There will probably be a number of trusts, foundations and smaller grants involved but the key ones are HLF and the two councils. It can’t go forward without those.

Does TWBC support other local culture in the town?
Jo: Jane wrote a cultural strategy which has a long-term aim to sit alongside the vision of the council, which is about growing our creative industry. As part of that, I chair a consortium of the cultural leaders in the town and have a small budget, so we can fundraise together.

Is it all about giving money?
Jo: We support not just through direct funding, but also through enabling and bringing people together. The cuts to the Arts Council are starting to be felt, so it’s really by partnerships, by joining up, that we can all strengthen our own cases for funding. I think that’s a really important role of the council going forward.

Jane: There are also things like public art; whereas we don’t actually put any money into that, our staff are very much leading on it. Our resources are ourselves and we’re happy to give advice.

Has the recession had an impact on the museum?
Jo: There’s obvious pressure on resources, which is difficult for everybody, but there are definite benefits in that. The importance of culture really comes out at times like this, when we need to come together and be inspired and uplifted. It’s by going to a gig or a theatre, taking part in a course or learning something new in a museum; they all give us that important wellbeing buzz, and I think the cultural sector is getting better at articulating that.

What are your thoughts on Tunbridge Wells culture in general?
Jo: I think we’re on the rise. We’re not there yet, which is why we have the cultural strategy, and it’s not because we don’t have the quality, it’s that it needs to be more visible. That’s in helping smaller organisations raise their profile and do more, but it’s also things like the museum being able to reach its potential because, while the collections are fantastic, its environment isn’t. My experience is that, politically, there’s a definite interest in using culture to realise its potential and benefit the town. Jane: I like to say “culture is the driver of Tunbridge Wells’ economy.”

Jo: The Tom Fleming report, which is the basis of our cultural strategy, said people come out of London to work here because of the open space, schools, shopping, nice buildings and the heritage. But actually there’s a lot more to it that’s not yet visible, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We want to make it visible – we know it’s here, we know it’s great, but the world doesn’t yet, so that’s what the cultural strategy is about.

Being so close to London must pose a problem…
Jo: It’s absolutely a challenge and a bonus and it comes up a lot when you survey people. It’s not just London, it’s Brighton – we’re sort of half-way between two major cultural capitals. It’s good in that people feel they can work here and still have access to the great things in the capital. I find from the point of view of visual arts and the museum that a lot of people in town who are interested and involved in culture probably go to London; I don’t know if they would think to come to the gallery here. However, when they’ve got young families, they use local resources. Things like the redevelopment of the museum and gallery to show people how great the collections are and what they have on the doorstep will really help.

Where does your audience come from?
Jo: We tend to draw a circle which goes into the High Weald area but other than that, we draw actually from quite a large area -in the town, but also rurally and into East Sussex. Quite a lot of our schools come from just over the border, as well as in the towns.

How do you compare to other art galleries in the town?
Jo: We’ve got lots of visual arts represented in the town, but I think we all fit a different niche, and when we’re developing the learning hub, we’ll be developing our gallery to be part of a wider network rather than trying to dominate it. The museum has quite a specific role, about showing our collections and bringing in nationally known artists. We’re not competition, we’re complementary.

Do you use the gallery for just art?
Jo: We have an exhibitions policy that dictates how we choose to programme our exhibition space. For me, the gallery is an exhibition space as opposed to primarily an art gallery, so we might show local history exhibitions, not always fine art. We also have an exhibition panel, an external group of people including local artists and a KCC arts officer who act like a sounding board, so we seek advice on our programme. But our driving core is really about showcasing the best of Tunbridge Wells to the world and trying to bring the best of the world to Tunbridge Wells.

Is there much variation in your audience?
Jo: My audiences at the museum are probably different to those of some of the other arts and we try obviously to programme to our audiences. A big part of our exhibition space and what we do is about audience development, so we try to think about who might come before we programme it. As well as showcasing collections, we’re driven by developing audiences; we want to keep our regulars happy, but we also want to bring new people in. All that goes into the decision-making process. Part of what we do is try to pick up on current trends and then programme for people’s interests.

What’s your vision for the museum?
Jo: I’m so excited about this I almost can’t get it out! It’s about using heritage and our collections to really bring everything else to life. Our collections and history are so inspirational and relevant to the present; they tell a really interesting and exciting story and the big change of direction is in being able to reassess the preconceptions of Tunbridge Wells.

‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ is a fairly ingrained image…
Jo: If you look back at the history of the town, before the term ‘disgusted’ was coined, it’s a place of innovation, of change. Some of the big firsts happened here in terms of photography, science, politics, particularly around women’s suffrage, all here in Tunbridge Wells. It attracts innovators and people who want to change. That’s the big story we want to tell and I really hope that’s inspiring to people who live here and want to come and work here – to know they live somewhere people did make a difference.

ADDRESS: Civic Centre, Mount Pleasant Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 1JN
TEL: 01892 554 171
OPENING TIMES: Monday to Saturday, 9.30am to 5pm; Sundays, 10am to 4pm
SUPPORT: The Friends of Tunbridge Wells Museum, Library & Art Gallery
CURRENT EXHIBITION: Material Obsessions – British Folk Art (until May 31)
UPCOMING EXHIBITION: A Walk on the Wild Side – Social History of our Relationship with Animals (June 11 to September 20)

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