New Greenwich borough archive not fit for purpose, users say

Greenwich Heritage Centre
The old Greenwich Heritage Centre closed last July

The replacement for the closed Greenwich Heritage Centre is “not fit for purpose”, its users’ group has said – branding it difficult to access and “impossible” for many visitors to use.

Users can only book appointments to view items from the borough’s archive on Tuesdays, and one part-time member of staff is facing an “intolerable workload” in dealing with enquiries from the public, councillors were told at a scrutiny meeting last week.

The facility, on the Anchorage Point industrial estate in Anchor and Hope Lane, Charlton, opened without fanfare in July – eight months later than first planned – a year after the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust was thrown out of its old premises in Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal to make way for the £31m Woolwich Creative District project, since rebranded as Woolwich Works.

Greenwich Council – which hived off the archive to the trust in 2014 – plans to move the archive back to the Royal Arsenal in 2028/29, although plans remain vague.

While users could walk into the old Woolwich facility to use the reading room and browse the archive, they are now restricted to two two-hours sessions on Tuesdays only.

“We acknowledge the quality of the fitting-out of the storage facility at Anchorage Point but feel that the unit is not fit for purpose,” the Greenwich Archive Users’ Forum’s Elizabeth Pearcey told councillors.

She said the current access arrangements meant researchers could not visit on Saturdays, while the brief sessions meant it was “impossible for visitors from afar or those doing long-term research” to use the facility. “There is an intolerable workload on one part-time member of staff who is dealing with the email enquiries, finding the requested papers, monitoring access and cataloguing,” she said.

“Heaven forfend that person is ill or ever wants to take a holiday,” she added.

Pearcey said the unit was already almost full up, leaving “little or no capacity for expansion”, and called for an adjacent unit next door to be taken on so further acquisitions could be accommodated and a reading room installed.

“The council set up the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust to take care of the borough’s collections, but the responsibility and ownership of those collections remains with the council,” she said.

“Now is the time for the council to start planning for a facility which will properly serve its residents and enhance its own reputation.”

The sharply limited access to Greenwich’s archive contrasts with neighbouring boroughs. Bexley’s archive, held at Bexleyheath Central Library, is open to visitors six days a week, while Southwark’s is open five days a week. Lewisham’s centre is open just two days per week, but is open for appointments at other times.

At a planning meeting for the Woolwich Works scheme last year, the council’s assistant chief executive Katrina Delaney and cabinet member for culture Miranda Williams apologised for the bungled nature of the Woolwich’s centre’s closure, which saw the archive closed at short notice. Neither were present at last Thursday’s meeting, which examined the trust’s progress.

The Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust’s chief executive, Tracy Stringfellow, said that the trust was still working through a “significant backlog of enquiries” following the year-long closure, and that it had gained National Lottery funding to take its collection out to community events, which would help it develop its ideas for its return for Woolwich.

Stringfellow also said that she was in discussions with the National Archives to have an archivist seconded to the trust “in the short term”, and that opening hours for the archive would be reviewed every three months.

Admitting “space was at a premium”, Stringfellow said she hoped that creating a proper inventory of the archive’s collection would enable the trust to loan items out to other museums and collections. Asked why details of the archive’s location were not on the website, she said that was for security reasons. “We are very security-conscious about access – it is purely a storage facility,” she added.

Judy Smith, of the South Greenwich Forum – a community group for the Eltham area – also raised concerns about the 29-foot long Millennium Embroideries, created by local people around 2000, which had been on show in Woolwich and is now in storage at Anchorage Point.

Stringfellow said that after nearly 20 years on display, the fragile objects would benefit “from a short period of rest” and the trust would be happy to discuss how they could be displayed in future.

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