Opinion: Don’t use Covid-19 as an Excuse for “Closure Culture” of the Arts

It’s not often I hop onto my soapbox, least of all on anything bordering on political. That’s not what 99% of you guys came here for, to be quite honest it’s not really what I came here for. However it has now reached a stage where I cannot sit here in good faith and say nothing.

Back in March 2020, at the start of the first UK wide lockdown, all museums and attractions across England were forced to close. This included Swindon Museum and Art Gallery (SMAG), a small site located in the heart of the town’s oldest district. Like all respecting patrons of art and culture institutions up and down the country, I fully supported this government-enforced directive.

On the ending of the first lockdown in Summer 2020, Swindon Borough Council refused to reopen SMAG. While other heritage sites reopened their doors, awash with safety posters and guidance on basic handwashing, the chains around SMAG’s grand entranceway continued to rust with dejection. Now, in August 2021, dejection has slipped into acceptance, the rust into rot. It feels like culture was never here at all.

Throughout the assorted protests and disjointed cries from local residents, the council has strongly defended their decision, stating this move is only intended as a short-term measure. Other rumours speculate Covid being used as a thin veil of scapegoating the closure on underlying problems the council had been failing to redress for years, including low footfall, costly repairs and accessibility issues. This, and the proposed £33,000 per year saving it would make to the local budget, at a time when the council needs to urgently balance the books.

Apsley House, location of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, until it’s closure in March 2020. Photo credit: https://englandrover.com/listing/swindon-museum-and-art-gallery/

For the years I have lived in Swindon, I openly admit to being less that a frequent visitor to SMAG. In fact, one of the few visitations I made was on a first date with my (now) ex boyfriend, which dates it very well. It was a long time ago.

I had thicker brows then, but (unsurprisingly) the same clothes.

But, on the few times I went, I enjoyed it. Aside from the unchanging artefact exhibits (complete with the much-loved “Apsley the Croc”), there was also an extensive art collection which went through frequent rotations. I was never a fan of the 1960s extension, bolted on in the 1960s, but as far as the contents was concerned I respected and enjoyed the contents for what they offered. Only in hindsight do I realise how little I fully appreciated what we had; now it’s gone.

In some ways the council’s decision to close SMAG is predictable. For years, concern was tempered with optimism over plans to relocate the museum to a newly constructed “Cultural Quarter”, proposed as part of a 2019 bid for Heritage Lottery Funding. Housed closer to the train station, the site would also contain a digital media centre, dance studio, and an expanded 1200-seat Wyvern Theatre. It was estimated to cost £80 million to build, create up to 1200 jobs and pump in an estimated £35 million into the local economy. Sadly, this bid proved to be unsuccessful.

Artist impression of new museum, situated in Swindon’s “Cultural Quarter”. Phot credit: Swindon Advertiser
Architectural “cut through” of the proposed museum design. Photo credit: Swindon Advertiser

At the time of writing (August 2021), all capital investment projects are on hold. Headlines will often cite the pandemic as the main reason, however the pessimist in me would also cite that by the council’s own omission, work on constructing the theatre alone wasn’t due to start until 2025. In other words, this project was always going to be a slow burner.

During the course of writing this article, I’ve discovered Swindon Borough Council are now considering different options, including having an “Art Pavilion”, and/or touring Art and collections in pop-up spaces, in a format being referred to as “Museums Without Walls”. Citing the museum elsewhere is also being considered. But these conversations are incredibly early in the process, and this response is quite possibly driven by community action by the Friends Swindon Museum and Art Gallery group (and local news coverage). Where the preservation of Arts and Culture is concerned, it shouldn’t take a group of people shouting and screaming to force the hand of local government. When the justification reads as “temporary closure, due to Covid”, was the expectation that we’d all forget? That we wouldn’t care?

Why does it matter?

I get it, not everyone is big into History; not everyone enjoys stuffy old exhibits and random bits of art. And that’s absolutely fine. But here’s the thing, when you’re sat in a boxy little room, planning ahead for the future, it becomes increasingly harder to pitch your town as being a “place to be”, “up and coming” or a “desirable” if with the other hand, you’re eroding the cultural bedrock on which it stands.

It’s why most towns in the UK will have a heritage centre of some size. It celebrates and brings communities together or, to be a bit more cold-hearted, it adds to the sales pitch. “Move to Swindon, we have…houses”, it doesn’t quite butter the parsnips.

Yes, the museum had a small footfall and yes, there were many areas in which it was crying out for improvement, but we’ve slept-walked into losing another thing that celebrated this town for what it was. With it, and an increasing trend of young professionals adopting WFB (Work From Bedroom) jobs, I fear we’ll start losing the point of why any of us are here at all.

So, where does this place the arts and culture in this sprawling town? It seems the future is set to remain uncertain indefinitely. And this post only relates to one type of cultural attraction; novels could be written of the erosion of a good deal of other services (libraries, community groups etc) in the years leading up to 2020.

In light of all this, I have only one thing to ask of the local council; don’t use Covid-19 as an excuse for a move that can only be described as closure culture. Because, at the end of the day, I think we’re all smarter than that, don’t you?

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Swindon Museum and Art Gallery website: https://www.swindonmuseumandartgallery.org.uk/

Friends of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery: https://friendsofsmag.org/

Petition to Save Swindon Museum and Art Gallery: https://www.change.org/p/swindon-borough-council-save-the-swindon-museum-and-art-gallery

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Single Girl Seeks +0 for Family Wedding

This post features images of taxidermy. To understand why visit the Powell-Cotton Museum website. “The past is a foreign country” – L.P. Hartley.

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Sometimes on those rare moments of peace and tranquillity I take a step back and think to myself, “where does my creativity come from? My ability to construct a half decent sentence together that delves deep into an experience, item or concept while also being able to pull out some humour that keeps people coming back time after time to this humble website of mine?” It’s on such occasions I naturally turn to my family to find the source of my flowing words…

…and realise I really must have been adopted.

Despite the fact my normal dress sense makes me a walking advert for the French rom com Popularie (and something I’m completely fine with, even if it is set in 1958)

…the Cotswold Bennett clan were in fact dressed up to the nines in the Powell-Cotton Museum at Quex Park for a family wedding. The union of my lovely cousin Stella with her Welsh husband-to-be Alun. Because if there was one thing our family needed, its more Welsh (given I’m only 25% of the rugby-mad stuff this marriage couldn’t come soon enough, our family is becoming far too English).

The day started in the same way most my weekday mornings do, wondering why the hell I was awake and why wasn’t I drinking coffee. Not that it got in the way of me catching up on the zzz’s, I woke up some 2.5 hours down the M25 to find a blob of saliva on my dress and a chicken roll having appeared on my lap. I think India might have thrown it at my face. If my bodily fluids didn’t ruin my make up before then the massive size-of-your-face chicken roll did. Again, I took a bite of the roll to be very concerned over the amount of red behind (thankfully my lipstick, not thankfully an expensive brand of the stuff).

Once we’d arrived at Birchington (where Mumma Bennett had booked the apartment for the extended weekend) there was a delightful scene where the postcode wrongly took us to the wrong spot, causing us to drive up and down the street multiple times. When people in mobility scooters and shorts start giving you looks you know you’re looking like class A muppets. A particular highlight was when Papa Bennett proposed us three women get changed at the wedding venue seeing as it was apparently so close to where we’d be staying. The response?

As if we’d even be dared seen by other guests before we’d got into our wedding gear. I only had one of my normal 50s outfits on! Men.

Flash forward a few hours once we’d finally found the apartment, got bags, got changed, went to the loo, changed shoes, updated make up, went to the loo again and hopped in the car for all of the two minute journey and were at the venue. One of the first people we saw when arriving at the venue was Aunt Shiona, mother of the Bride.

“What are you doing all here so early?! We had bets on you!” She said as she gave us all hugs and chatted briefly before dashing of to more important matters.

“What a funny thing to say about having bets on us.”

“I can believe it.” Mumma B said.

“I think she was joking.”

“We’re a whole forty minutes early Dad,” I interjected, “that’s not like us at all.”

And then we were chatting and chilling with relatives and I was complaining that I couldn’t be the little toddler who got to wear a pretty dress and roll around in the dirt on a wedding day.

“I mean you could,” Uncle Martin said.

“Don’t worry, on Alice’s wedding it’ll be all mud pies and S Club 7 songs” Mumma B said. While everyone laughed I muttered to India “do you think we can get Aqua live?”

And then the wedding happened. Sorry Stella and Alun, I know you guys love my blog but I honestly can’t think of much to say – I wish I could write something wonderfully romantic but unlike your friends I stuffed up my poetry module at A Level. Urm…

The ceremony was wonderful // Stella’s dress was anything but colourful.

(I think I’ll stick to the writing.)

Here is a very small sample of some of the photos taken of Stella and Alun on the day.

And here is one of the child I want to be when I grow up.

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And here are a selection of all the many selfies I did whilst we were waiting for the drinks reception.

And then things ground to a temporary halt while we tried to fix the selfie stick/camera.

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But luckily Aunt Yvonne was on hand to capture me at my most beautiful.

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I never met the guy stood behind me in that photo but I think he liked me, that or he felt pity (very easy to get the two mixed up in my world).

And lets take a moment to admire how amazingly my bun held up, despite the four hour drive/sleeping/undressing-dressing/just being me.

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You know, with some of the pictures I’m seeing here you’d think the official photographer could have taken the day off. Anyway moving on and back, the venue was lovely. I mean a wedding in a mother flipping museum is always going to get me excited. Don’t forget this…

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…This was taken before the consumption of any alcohol. So I was living the dream being able to drink prosecco and wonder exhibitions with suited and other smart type people.

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Even if it made me look like a horned beast.

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But they had a kid’s trail (and seemingly unlimited prosecco and canapes) so I was prepared to overlook this.

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We sat down for food and, you’ve guessed it, took more selfies (remind me again why we were there?) Mumma B tried to set the camera up for Bluetooth group photos, but by this point I was on the table wine with a stomach lined with a couple of mini spring rolls. Of course I wasn’t going to be taking anything seriously.

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Stella and Alun then cut their wedding cake. FYI am I the only one thinking Stella was far too happy to be holding such a sharp knife?

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Alun probably had his eye on it for his tomato addiction. His need to consume £50 worth of the little red things a week got a mention in every one of the speeches to much laughter. Everyone needs a hobby I guess.

After speeches, food and yet more table wine (suddenly the headache I had the next morning makes a lot more sense) people broke off while the function room was set up for evening entertainment.

Papa B, India, Uncle Chris and a few others got excited over a drone and Mumma B grabbed a photo just in time to get my typically Alice reaction.

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Mumma B and I instead spent time wondering around the gardens and discussing flower beds and architecture. Standard. Once the evening portion of the night kicked off it was all dancing and fun way into the night. Have you ever danced to the hit song Nelson Mandela by The Specials at a wedding? Well you have not lived my friend.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m dancing for Mandela India! We’ve got to free him!”

“[Laughs] what the hell?”

“FREEEEEEE NELSON MANDELA! INDIA! IT’S MANDELA!”

(For context, Stella spent a good deal of time in Southern Africa growing up.)

And then eventually the whole night wrapped up with a UB40 song.

“What’s this?” India asked.

“The song played when the DJ wants you to bugger off.”

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The following days were spent relaxing and enjoying the Kentish sunshine. A particular highlight was when the four of us visited Walmer Castle in Deal. India, with her expert technical knowledge helped restore my confidence that I must be at least related to her.

Further shored up when she got just as excited over a pair of mini Wellington boots as I did.

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Tell you what, I have a lot of time for a young Wellington. Before I say anything further let me explain a bit of background behind the rationale.

Whilst loving life in Granada recently myself and one of the girls I was staying with developed an heightened interest in olives. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the fact we didn’t know each other and were jumping on the first connection we had but our lust of olives was just off the scale. Our friends would have told us to get a room, if we hadn’t already decided we were going to because of the olives. We bought a massive jar between us and in started taking ‘shots’ of olives and eventually skipped the middle man by carting the whole jar to bed with us at stupid o’clock (don’t ask me to explain why). Anyway, because the jar was so hard to open and because of how much we loved those olives I coined a phrase to subtly describe any man (or woman) that the perciever took a fancy to. I explain this to you now a) for future reference on any subsequent blog posts and b) because seeing a young Wellington in Walmer Castle prompted me to say it.

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“Ooh. He can open my olives.”

“What?”

I related the above story to India.

“Again, what?”

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I attended my cousin’s wedding with only my immediate family and happily so. It made me wonder why people have this need to put on their dating profiles “seeks +1 to attend weddings”. Why? What’s wrong with going solo? I had just as much fun being a plus zero, if not more so by being able to be classic Alice and wander around a museum late at night after a glass or two, pretending I was living my own version of Night at the Museum. Would I have wanted a plus one to see we twirling about and exclaiming “I love History!”? Goodness no!

The Cotswold Bennett clan left Kent early on Sunday having spent a four days in South East England, a part of the country that none of us had visited in any depth before. We came away feeling very relaxed and India and I with a long list of wedding ideas for that of our own one day (although for the love of God don’t let that be any time soon – Aqua don’t have the availability).

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Big love to my cousin Stella and her husband Alun, I had a wonderful time at your wedding and wish you all the best now and long into the future. I’m no poet but I hope this, alongside the wire chicken egg holder (memories of hunting cheap eggs in London), I hope they both make you smile.

With love, AEB x