Social media can, I feel, be likened to an out of hours water cooler. A place where you can pick up all sorts of interesting titbits.  Like for instance that Councillor Jim Robins had been fortunate enough to have a guided tour round Lydiard Park and House.  Never one to miss an opportunity I tweeted him in request of a guest post about what he’d learned. So full was his response that I’m actually dividing what he kindly sent into two posts – cos it transpired not only had he been gallivanting round Lydiard Park but the wonderful STEAM museum as well.  So here’s what he sent me about his visit with the people at STEAM. I’ll give you all a few days to digest this one then I’ll release his writings about Lydiard.

This is good chance for you to engage with Jim about anything he has to say – he’s keen for that to happen: “Let me know what you think of the blog, and of STEAM and Lydiard. Feel free to comment here, or contact me on Facebook where I’m ‘Councillor Jim Robbins’ or on twitter where I’m @jimrobbins.”

So now, on with the show:

“I’m delighted and a little nervous to have been asked to write a guest post for Born Again Swindonian. I, like Born Again Swindonian, wasn’t born in the town, but moved here to be with my Swindonian wife and have come to love and appreciate the town. So much so, that in 2012, I was elected as a local Councillor for the Mannington & Western Ward. After the recent local election, I was asked to be the Labour Spokesperson on Leisure, Libraries and Culture which I was really pleased to accept. As part of the induction that I’m trying to give myself, I was lucky enough to get a guided tour of both STEAM and Lydiard Park which is why I was asked to write the guest post.

 Before I get on to my experiences on the tour, here is a little bit of context. The Council is required to save a big chunk of cash this year- getting on for £50m- and will have to make further savings next year. We also have significant debts- over £120m- so a lot of the discussions on the tour were about saving money and generating more income.

 My take on the overall financial situation is that we as a Council need to be far better at lobbying central government to make sure that we get funding that allows us to run the services and facilities that we have. We have to stick up for ourselves and demonstrate the value of the work that we do, and make sure that we have enough funding to do all of the things that we need to do in the town. It’s clear that the town centre needs huge investment and regeneration, our heritage buildings needs investment to make sure that they are not lost, and services such as libraries and culture need to be promoted and funded to make sure that the experience of living in the town is as good as possible. I could blog for hours on the need to properly fund our libraries in order to ensure that they remain influential tools for promoting social mobility, and will probably do that elsewhere!

 So back to the tour. I was met by a hugely passionate Council Officer at STEAM, who guided me round and talked about all of the plans that they have to ensure that the museum remains a jewel in the crown for the town and popular tourist attraction. Almost everyone knows about the history of the railway and the key role that it played in the development of Swindon as a town. Seeing this brought to life at STEAM is fascinating, but I won’t talk in detail about the current attractions. If you haven’t been, you need to go. Certainly, if you have not been to the museum on one of the days when the old GWR staff are around to talk about their experiences, please make sure you do go. Unfortunately, time is having its inevitable impact on these men and the museum have lost a number of volunteers over the last year. The men who do still come are in their nineties, so won’t be fit enough to come in and talk about their experiences for ever. The museum are working hard to record and document the experiences of the men, but hearing it from them in person and being able to ask questions is a wonderful opportunity whilst it lasts.

 The Museum is keen to develop an area that looks in more detail at the social history of the staff, so focusing on the railway village and the houses that the staff lived in, and the Mechanics Institute and Health Hydro and the services and facilities that they offered to staff. I think that this will be great, and hopefully, as the Mechanics Institute Trust develop, STEAM can work with them in partnership to develop joined up exhibitions and displays.

 Another great plan for the future will be using more modern technological equipment in the displays. STEAM was at the cutting edge when it was first opened over 10 years ago, but some of the exhibits are starting to show their age and have been superseded by better technology. For instance, the National Maritime Museum have recently developed multi-screen displays that work like iPads and allow visitors to scroll through the complete collection of the museum to find particular pieces that they want to see.   These are hugely popular, and it would be good to see STEAM move with the times and ensure that they remain competitive as a regional attraction. The simulators that the museum have are dated and take up huge amounts of floor space so newer equipment would allow them to host more displays.

 I think that the most exciting plans were those to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the founding of the GWR in the town, which is next year. To mark this, the museum is planning to change its line-up of locomotives and is keen to bring the ‘City of Truro’ locomotive to the museum. Built in 1903, and designed by George Jackson Churchward (who had the Churchward district of the town named after him), the City of Truro is said to be the first steam locomotive to reach 100 miles an hour. There will also be a number of events to mark the anniversary. I also learnt that, due to the closing down of Swindon works, the planned 150th anniversary in the 1980s was effectively cancelled so this will be the first big celebration of the GWR in the town for some time.

 I was very pleased to learn that the activities that the museum put on for school children are very popular, booked out for over a year in advance and all tailored to ensure that they meet the requirements of the national curriculum. Children get to dress up in period costume and learn about the experiences of railway staff, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and evacuees during the second world war… This service brings in money for the museum, as does the very popular conferencing facilities that they offer.

 To pay for all of these planned developments, the Museum is looking at new ways to fund the museum and also trying to minimise the subsidy that they currently receive from the council, around £300k annually. There may be options for the museum to operate as a trust in the future and work to remove the subsidy totally over time. I’m a huge fan of STEAM, and will be working to find ways to support the museum to develop and stay ahead of the game to ensure that it remains popular. It’s currently rated as the 2nd best attraction in the town on trip advisor, behind Combat Paintball, with an average rating of 4.5.”

At this point Jim moved into writing about his trip to Lydiard which, as I said, I’ll publish in few days time.

NB: Remember – if you have any comments about this post, address them to Jim Robbins not to the blog. #BAS is the medium of the message only.  🙂


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