Victoria Roberts takes a look to find out what will be inside the new cultural centre…
AFTER ten years in development and over two years of building work in the middle of town, the Amelia arts and heritage centre based in the new Amelia Scott building on Monson Road is on track to be open to the public this spring.
Set for an opening date in the last week of April, the £21 million project is a joint venture of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC), Kent County Council, with National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England funding.
The Amelia Scott building and the Amelia cultural centre within, are both named after the early 20th-century campaigner for women’s suffrage who was one of the first two women to be elected to Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) in 1919.
Once it begins welcoming people inside, the Council hope the combined art gallery, museum, adult education centre and visitor hub is expected to bring around 450,000 visitors a year.
Despite having gone over budget from the original planned £13.2million, the Amelia project has enjoyed unanimous support from all the political parties at the Council.
Cllr Jane March, Conservative cabinet member for Culture and Leisure said: “We are delighted we have all party support. This is incredibly important for Tunbridge Wells as a town, as an area, and for the Southeast. Culture is a real driver for our town.
“It is accessible for all. The Amelia should be part of our everyday life. We hope people will feel comfortable in here even if you’re not here for the culture but for the café, or the children’s room.”
Cllr Justine Rutland of the local Lib Dems added: “The Amelia Scott is one of the best things to happen to Tunbridge Wells in years.
“We Liberal Democrats are pleased to see the Amelia Scott finally opening, albeit well over the original £13.2million budget. “We trust that it will be popular with residents and also draw visitors to our town who will want to stay, shop and eat out.”
Meanwhile, Cllr Hugo Pound who leads the Labour group continued: “The Labour Group of Councillors support the development of the Amelia Scott; all the available resources will hopefully be fully explored by many visitors.
“We want the Amelia Scott to be the starting point for people to spend time and money in the town and surrounding areas.
“It will need to be actively and widely marketed and not become a beautiful but empty space in the middle of town. The Council currently say they hope 400,000 people per year will visit – let’s hope that proves correct.”
Local traders, especially those near the site in Monson Road, are also keen to see the Amelia open.
“I am very excited about the spring opening of the Amelia centre and have been following the development of its beautiful building with great anticipation,” Claudia Wiegand of Monson Road based studio shop GLASS told the Times.
“I am sure the events, activities and workshops on offer will attract many artistically minded visitors and generate a wonderful influx of creative energy in this part of the town,” she added.
Meanwhile, at artists’ suppliers M. Saltmarsh, also in Monson Road, Jake Maher had seen an increase in interest in artistic activities due to the development.
“People are interested. A lot of people got activated during lockdown. They wanted to do something different,” he said. “Since the traffic restrictions have come into place, we’ve noticed a downturn of through traffic on the road. Having a destination on the road could make this a creative hub.”
10 YEARS IN THE MAKING
THE Amelia arts, heritage, culture and well-being centre will replace the original Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery, which was not fit for purpose, according to Cllr Jane March, who holds Tunbridge Wells Borough Council’s [TWBC] Culture and Leisure portfolio.
The project was partly prompted by a long-term loan to the museum from the fifth Marquess of Camden’s will trust, in 2012.
Once the priceless Georgian and Regency portraits were on the premises, the museum’s limitations became apparent, and made the need for a solution urgent.
“There was light and heat; the collection had to go into a small office and the sun had to be restricted,” explained Cllr March.
“There were leaks in the roof in the room where we had the dolls’ house, and the costumes collection as well. We had buckets on the floor!”
Meanwhile, the Kent Adult Education facilities were also in need of repair.
Given the situation, the TWBC leadership decided to look at the complex of buildings as an entire ‘island site’, surrounded on three sides by roads, and won the support of Kent County Council.
With national funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund in 2015 followed and Arts Council England, in addition to funding from TWBC and KCC, the project got the final go-ahead in 2018.
Despite later budget troubles connected with Brexit and Covid causing the price to rise, the project has srecently ecured £1.4m funding from the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP).
What’s inside the Amelia at the Amelia Scott?
THE NEW building will house Kent Adult Education (KAE) courses, the town’s museum, the library and local archives along with the local register office, a gallery, tourist information and café.
Meanwhile, in the children’s room, small visitors would be able to hide in cubbyholes or lie on the floor, looking up at the ‘night sky’ on the ceiling above.
There will also be a public accesible courtyard for people to relax wihtin the confines of the building.
The accessibility features of the building have also been designed to include everyone.
“Where there are steps, there is also a ramp or a lift,” said Cllr Jane March.
“We will also always have people walking around with a laptop who can help.”
The redesign had turned an outdoor waste space in the old complex into an integrated courtyard, where visitors will find a number of the seven specially commissioned artworks, starting with the courtyard gates, which tell the story of the Weald in wrought iron, explained Ms March.
Having moved out of Monson Road for the works, the museum and art gallery maintained a small exhibition space at Royal Victoria Place, but the brand new premises will allow curators to bring star objects and old favourites out of storage.
Chief among the celebrity turns on display when the Amelia opens will be paintings from the ‘Camden Collection’ including a Thomas Gainsborough, the 18th century landscape and portrait artist, and two by his contemporary, Joshua Reynolds.
The collection is on long-term loan to the museum from the trustees of the 5th Marquis Camden Will Trust.
The museum collections also cover the natural history and culture of the area.
There are many objects including toys, historical costume and the intricate wood work of Tunbridge Ware.
The local library, which also operated out of Royal Victoria Place during the building period, will return to Monson Road, much to the delight of local bookworms.
Local history resources, which had been temporarily relocated to other libraries, will return home, forming the archives, sitting alongside the local register office, where residents come to record births and deaths.
Meanwhile, the town visitor centre will serve those in search of up to the minute activities and attractions.