Named after the town’s turn-of-the-century suffragist and supporter of working women’s rights, the Amelia Scott complex incorporates a new library, museum, archives, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council’s (TWBC) Gateway, Kent County Council’s (KCC) register office, the Tourist Information Centre and Kent Adult Education (KAE) centre.
The £21million complex, was first conceived back in 2013 with unanimous cross-party support at the Council.
Tomorrow’s noon opening will see the suffragist’s great-niece Helen Boyce cut the ribbon to open the new centre, accompanied by her daughter – who is named Amelia.
But the Times has been already been given a sneak preview inside the four-storey cultural centre.
New Museum, art gallery and library
On the ground floor right next to the buggy park and on the same level as a café and gated courtyard, the children’s section of the town’s new library.
The adult and teen library section on the first floor, which also holds public access PCs, DVDs and audiobooks, and sits under the barrel vault of the Atrium, overlooking both the courtyard and Monson Road.
All the bookcases are on castor wheels, meaning the library’s 10,000 books can be cleared to make use of the space for functions.
Kent Adult Education (KAE)’s new pottery studio on the ground floor has entrances from the KAE reception area and the courtyard. The education provider also has a large silversmithing studio on the first floor and a textile studio on the second floor.
TWBC also has an education suite for school groups in the basement of the building, and a digital digital suite on the ground floor, where digital creators can make short films, videos and other digital art.
The museum and art gallery was one of the major drivers for the rebuild and houses some of the town’s collection of 60,000 historical objects, twice as many that could be displayed in its forerunner.
Curator Jeremy Kimmel told the Times: “In the old museum, we had about one per cent of the collection on display. In this museum, it is two per cent. However, the reality is that the most any museum will have on display is 10 per cent.”
He said in the former Tunbridge Wells museum, many of the town’s treasures, including rare examples of Tunbridge ware as well as paintings, including a Gainsborough, were at risk of damage.
“Things were too close for comfort for some things. It was an alarm bell for those of us interested in preserving heritage.
“We can now get national-level exhibits and bring them to the people of Tunbridge Wells. And it’s not elite because it’s free.”
As Amelia Scott’s namesake, the museum has a dedicated display case in the centre of the main hall, containing the campaigner’s famous picture, along with personal effects such as her ‘Easter Lily’ brooch – signifying purity, and her National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies badge, along with papers and other objects.
Most of the basement of the museum complex is occupied by storage and conservation areas, for example the special giant freezers where curators put all new acquisitions, in order to ensure there are no moths or woodworms which might destroy the whole collection, as well as slowly acclimatising all objects to a dry environment.
In a nod to the museum’s genesis as a natural history collection, the hall next to the library is called ‘The Origins of Collecting’, featuring glass cases at child height containing stuffed animals posed as though interacting with one another, while glass-covered display drawers line the room, showing off rows and rows of preserved animals and insects.
Meanwhile, on the ground floor, the display-drawer concept is expanded to fill an entire hall, called ‘Behind the Scenes’, where visitors can explore fans and gloves and a real set of stocks – where criminals would have been punished in public.
There are also new objects and new interactive displays for the historical rooms.
In ‘The Georgian Spa’ on the first floor, the collection of Georgian formal dress and accessories is back on display, along with eighteenth-century portraits, some of which could not be displayed in the old museum due to poor conditions. The paintings include portraits by Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds.
The hall’s newest addition, likely to attract big queues, is ‘the Dressing Up Box’, an interactive panel with camera, which allows you to superimpose images of the Georgian costumes onto yourself, and even e-mail the picture to you.
In ‘The Story of the Wells’ on the ground floor, another interactive screen allows you to ‘swipe’ between historic pictures of the town and modern views.
Local crafts and products are in display in the ‘Work Room’ next to the adult and teen library, ranging from the intricate woodwork of Tunbridge ware to Pembury earthenware, which takes its rust-red colour from the iron-rich Wadhurst clay.
Meanwhile, amateur and professional researchers have access to local records and directories in the Local Studies room.
Or you can add your own records to the town’s history by registering births and deaths at KCC’s register officer onsite.
Thanks to being the hub of TWBC’s ‘Gateway’ to Council services, the complex will be open seven days a week, said the Council. “All the staff are integrated. You can pay a parking fine or ask a question about a council benefit – all with the same person.”
And best of all, you can pick up your copy of the Times from one of our stands that is placed at the entrance to the Amelia Scott.
While the Amelia Scott project has been unanimously backed by all councillors at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, regardless of party affiliations, it has not been without controversy.
Originally it was widely understood the centre would be named ‘Amelia Scott’ after the town’s famous social reformer and women’s suffragist campaigner.
But the Council revealed in March 2019 it was to be branded as just the ‘Amelia’.
The news caused consternation among some councillors, members of the public, and the media, who accused the Council of ‘infantilising women.’
As much of the marketing and branding material was already produced, the Council came up with a compromise and has called the building The Amelia Scott, but the cultural centre inside is known simply as ‘Amelia’.
OVER BUDGET BUT ON TIME
The cost of the Amelia Scott project has spiralled since it was first conceived.
The original £13.2million budget for the Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) project first crept up to £16.1m back in 2019.
By August 2020, due to a number of challenges faced by builders Willmott Dixon, the figure increased again £19.3million.
These challenges included an unexpected gas main that was not in the original plans, more asbestos than was expected, contaminated soil and the impact of Covid and Brexit on supply chains.
By March last year, the cost had again crept up by another £1.26million increasing the budget total to £20.6million, and by this year it had hit £21.27million.
The Council has also had to contribute an extra £468,000 due to a shortfall in fundraising for the project.
It had hoped to raise more than £1.2millon but found Covid reduced the local authority’s ability to raise enough money.
The Amelia Scott is jointly funded between TWBC who were paying around £11.6million, Kent County Council who are providing £1.7million.
The Arts Council of England are contributing £886,000, while other sources of funding equals £1.4million.
The National Lottery Heritage Fund is providing nearly £5million.
Despite the spiralling costs and pressures incurred due to Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, the project has, however, been delivered on time.
TWBC say they hope that for every pound spent on the Amelia Scott, it will return around £4 of investment.