The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society is looking at the potential of moving the Wiltshire Museum to the Devizes Assize Courts, turning the historic building into a landmark tourism asset for the County.
Wiltshire Council has been working on plans to revitalise the Wharf area of Devizes and, at the same time, working with the Wiltshire Historic Buildings Trust and the Trust for Devizes in the hope of finding a solution to the deterioration of the Assize Courts building.
The building is listed Grade II* and on the Historic England Buildings at Risk Register. It has been empty since the 1980’s. The owner has had planning permission and listed building consent to convert the building into flats for a number of years but has not yet implemented the permission. It is hoped the building can be acquired for community use.
Relocating the Museum to the Assize Courts would be a transformational project, linked to a newly revitalised area of the town. It could be a world-class building matching the importance of its internationally significant Designated collections. The building would offer more space, including a café, new library and purpose-built galleries.
The Director and trustees of the Museum have begun investigating this opportunity. A business plan is being developed to ensure that a move would be financially sustainable and any additional costs of running the new Museum to be met from income from increased visitors and from investing the sale proceeds of the current property.
There is lots of planning work to do over the next two years before a decision can be made on whether to go ahead with the project or not, and is conditional on the building being acquired for such use. A major fund-raising campaign would be needed to restore the building to its former glory and create the new Museum, which could open in five to ten years’ time. Meanwhile the Museum continues to develop its existing offer and attract increasing numbers of visitors and new members.
There is a to be a special presentation for members of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society after the Annual General Meeting, which is being held at Devizes Town Hall on 15 October 2016 at 2.30 pm.
How important is the Assize Court building?
The Assize Court was built in 1835 and designed by Thomas Wyatt. It is a Grade II* Listed building and is on the Historic England Buildings at Risk Register.
Why is it in such poor condition?
The Assize Court has been empty since the 1980’s. It is currently owned by a businessman and has planning permission for conversion to flats. The owner has carried out emergency repairs but there is little prospect that the restoration of the building will take place.
How can the Museum acquire the building?
It may be possible to purchase the building. If necessary, the Council could use its legal powers of compulsory purchase.
How much will it cost?
It is far too early to have a reliable estimate of the cost. On the basis of similar projects, our working estimate is that the cost could be around £7 million. We will need to launch a major fund-raising campaign for public support, business sponsorship and to seek funding from grants, including the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Shire Hall in Brecon, also designed by Thomas Wyatt, is currently being developed into a new museum with a £2.75 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester is working on a development with £10 million provisionally allocated by the HLF towards the £13 million project.
How does the size of the Assize Court compare with the current Museum building?
The Assize Court offers about 20% extra space, but more can be created by adding a new building at the rear and a new store. Initial plans include a larger lecture room, increased exhibition space and cafe that would meet the needs of the Museum and our visitors. We will be able to use these additional facilities to help to generate income to meet the increased costs of running a larger building.
Will there be more visitors?
We estimate that there will be double the current number of visitors. The Assize Courts are close to the Wadworth Brewery Visitor Centre and Kennet and Avon Canal and close also to the main tourist car park and coach park. We will be able to promote a landmark building with banners and a coach drop-off at the front.
Is there a viable business plan?
We are proceeding cautiously. We have developed a business plan for the project which suggests that it is financially viable. The business plan is being independently reviewed by an expert and will be further developed as plans are drawn up and costs identified.
What will happen to the buildings in Long Street?
The Society owns the current buildings in Long Street. It is likely that they would be sold for conversion to houses or flats and the income invested to secure the future of the Society and its Museum.