Where now for Bath’s Fashion Museum?

Bath’s world-famous Fashion Museum has been given notice to quit.

It’s got to find a new home before March 25th 2023 – that’s the day the National Trust will officially take back complete control of the Assembly Rooms – a Grade 1 listed historic building it has owned since 1931 – and where the Fashion Museum is currently housed in the basement.

Many people think John Wood Junior’s 18th-century classical creation is council property. The local authority was granted a 75-year lease in 1937. One which was renewed by B&NES in 2013 for a further 15 years – but with a ten-year ‘break’ clause.

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Bath’s Assembly Rooms

The building had been restored to its former glory and reopened in 1938 by Queen Mary. It was then gutted by incendiaries in 1942 and again restored after the war for reopening in 1963. That is when the Fashion Museum moved in too.

The ‘rooms’ have been used for music festivals and graduations – award ceremonies and weddings – and, as B&NES were lease-holders,  they’ve provided the council with a fair stream of additional revenue.

However, last year the National Trust gave the local authority formal notice that it would call in its ‘break’ in 2023, and would need the building cleared so it could consider ways in which it could re-invent this ‘key social space of our Georgian city’ for the ‘assembling’ visitors of today.

As a member of the Mayor of Bath’s Corps of Honorary Guides l joined other volunteer walkers at a special gathering at the Assembly Rooms. We were going to be addressed by Tom Boden who is the manager of National Trust properties in Bath.

Their holdings account for ten per cent of the city’s floor space – everything from Prior Park and Solsbury Hill to 500 acres of the Bath Skyline AND the Assembly Rooms.

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The Mayor of Bath’s Honorary Corps of Guides gathering for the event.

 

There to introduce him was Stephen Bird, the council’s Head of Heritage Services and the man who has to help find a new home for the Fashion Museum and relocate staff.

In introducing Tom he said they were looking to find somewhere to display exhibitions and it would need to be within ten minutes walking distance of the Roman Baths. It’s clear there is already a plan forming but he was not going to say more about its possible location.

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L to R: Stephen Bird, Head of Heritage Service and Tom Boden, Property Manager for the National Trust in Bath.

What he did say was that this was possibly a prompter to look at the whole business of storing the collection and other artefacts making up Bath’s heritage.

It was, he said, ‘an opportunity to relocate to somewhere more suitable’ and to look at creating a ‘collections centre’ on a ‘lower land value’ site where the bulk of the 100,000 objects the museum now owned could be stored – along with a studies facility – in a purpose-built ‘cube’.

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One of the display corridors at the Fashion Museum

I know a council visit was made recently to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre at Chippenham to see how other authorities were managing heritage storage, conservation and research.

Stephen reminded us how important Bath’s Fashion Museum was with ‘one million people around the world’ seeing items that originated here in Bath – including many on display at the recent Dior exhibition at the V&A.

But back to the future of the Assembly Rooms and Tom Boden was at pains to explain it was still early days with ‘ideas not fully formed’ but that the ongoing discussions were about how ‘can we bring the building’s history to life – to let people experience it?’

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Tom Boden giving a Powerpoint presentation at the Assembly Rooms.

The Trust wanted to tell the story of the rooms and their part in the social life of the city and that they wanted to create a 21st-century version of what the complex was built for in bringing people together.

While that might involve balls, concerts and afternoon teas – l don’t think they will be bringing gambling back to the card room!

Tom talked about using some of the vacated space to take people on a journey which would culminate with going to the ball – in the ballroom!

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Two of the genuine Georgian chandeliers in the ballroom recently lowered for cleaning.

The National Trust now has six million members with the highest single concentration of the membership – 17,000 – here in Bath. It’s obvious – whatever concerns there might be about general access – the National Trust will put its members first. Its very existence depends on them.

Tom said the Trust was talking to many people – including groups they might partner with – and looking at using new technology to help recreate and interpret the ‘social, retail and scientific life of Georgian Bath’. They had now appointed a Project Manager.

They would also hope to be able to use the space to signpost other museums in the city as places people could move on to explore other facets of Bath’s history.

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Sharing a rough idea of the future of the Assembly Rooms.

There were many questions from the Mayor’s Guides about access for walking groups and whether local school children would be allowed in. Would Discovery Card holders qualify for a discount?

What about the festival events, concerts and graduation ceremonies – especially bearing in mind this is a city short on large public interior spaces?

Tom said there was no decision yet on charging or what outside events might be able to be catered for. Seems much is still being carefully considered.

Bath Newseum will be keeping a watchful eye on developments – including what might come out of the Fashion Museum’s relocation. I will keep you posted.