Historians fear for Greenwich archives as Heritage Centre announces closure

Building 41, Royal Arsenal
The Greenwich Heritage Centre is to close as part of the council’s Woolwich Creative District scheme

Users of Greenwich borough’s local history archive fear they will lose easy access to its collections after it suddenly announced plans to close its doors on 21 July.

A number of staff are being made redundant as part of the closure of the Woolwich facility, 853 understands from multiple sources, but the trust that runs the archive has not responded to requests to clarify the situation.

The Greenwich Heritage Centre’s home in the Royal Arsenal had long been earmarked as part of Greenwich Council’s £31m Woolwich Cultural Quarter – recently rebranded the “Woolwich Creative District”. But last week’s announcement caught councillors and users by surprise.

It hosts exhibitions about the borough’s history and is home to a reference library and search room where users can browse old newspapers, maps, photos, directories and other documents.

But after 15 years in Woolwich, it is having to close its doors – with users only told that they will be able to see its collections “by appointment” once the centre is “resettled”.

New venue in the Arsenal – but no clear plan

Along with Charlton House and Eltham’s Tudor Barn, the centre was spun off into an independent charity, the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust, in 2014, in the hope that it would be better placed to attract outside funding.

The trust says it has secured space within the Arsenal for a new venue, but has not responded to an email enquiry sent two days ago about its future plans, nor has it replied to a Twitter query about whether users will always have to make appointments to see its material.

853 understands that volunteers will be moving the archive collection to a storage facility during August while staff will be moved to Charlton House.

Greenwich Council, which has two councillors on the trust board, holds the leasehold of the heritage centre and has already earmarked its main exhibition space as a concert venue. It declined to comment.

Woolwich Riverside councillor John Fahy branded the closure “shameful” while Conservative councillor for Eltham South Nigel Fletcher said he was seeking assurances about the future of the archive.

Regular users voiced their unhappiness about the plans. Charlton-based war historian Steve Hunnisett called it “appalling news”. “Sneaked out with little or no consultation. Loss of a very useful and much loved local facility.”

The Charlton Athletic Museum, based at The Valley, tweeted that the centre had been “invaluable source of advice and information to us when setting up and ever since”. The centre holds information relating to not just the Addicks’ early days, but the initial years of Arsenal FC when it played at grounds in Plumstead.

Indeed, heritage centre resources have been used in past 853 features such as on the death of former councillor Dermot Poston in 2017, the history of council paper Greenwich Time and the 50th anniversary of the SE London boroughs.

‘Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’

A press release issued by the trust – which is partially reproduced on its website – and passed to 853 by a recipient paints the closure as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”.

“This marks the beginning of an extraordinarily exciting phase in the trust’s life, one within which a brand-new museum can make a lasting difference, through inspiring displays and social spaces, to the people and communities in Greenwich,” trust chief executive Tracy Stringfellow said in the release.

“We’re delighted to be developing the new museum in partnership with the Royal Borough [of Greenwich]. We’re looking forward to this development phase, talking to our communities about how we bring the borough’s diverse histories to life through collections, stories and our public programme, in preparation for a future funding submission to the Heritage Lottery Fund.”

The release also quoted council leader Danny Thorpe as calling the closure “an important opportunity for Greenwich”.

Neither the trust nor the council have responded to requests for clarification of their plans.

South Bank rival

The centre was formed after a merger between the old Greenwich borough museum in Plumstead and the council’s local history library at Woodlands, Blackheath. It is based in Building 41 at the Arsenal, which is a former ammunition factory.

Its fate appears to have been sealed by the closure of the neighbouring Firepower museum two years ago, which prompted council plans to turn five buildings on the Arsenal site – including Building 41 – into a “world class” cultural centre.

Woolwich Creative District
Greenwich Council’s “creative district” plan, with the current Heritage Centre building in the centre-right

It plans to transform the former military buildings into performance, arts and community spaces – aiming to rival the likes of the South Bank and the new venues planned for the Olympic Park.

Plans for three of the buildings – Building 17 (the 1865 Cartridge Factory), Building 18 (the Royal Laboratory Offices) and Building 19 (the Carriage Inspection Shop) were submitted to Greenwich Council in April to allow for an immersive theatre company to use the space.

Buildings 17 and 18 surround the now-closed Firepower museum, while Building 19, which sits behind, is currently used as a storage space.

The recent planning application outlines plans to make minor works to Buildings 17 and 18 – including restoring a former entrance door – to create a performance space which can last for three to five years.

More extensive works would be carried out on Building 19, which would be “re-roofed and upgraded” by Greenwich Council so it can house an unnamed “long-term performing arts-type tenant”.

But plans for Building 40 – the original 1718 Royal Military Academy – and the heritage centre were not part of the application.

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