Chelmsford museum row not connected to development plan says city council

Chelmsford City Council has said a row over a museum accreditation bid and the future development of the Sandford Mill site are not connected.

Sandford Mill, which acts as a museum, is preparing for Arts Council UK Museum Accreditation at the moment – which is what has led to an overhaul of procedures at the site – including the return of items which are not part of its own collections.

Sandford Mill is a collection of buildings, mill pond and filter beds that formed part of the original water treatment works that served Chelmsford.

Sandford Bridge, Sandford Lock and Brook End Bridge – which are Grade II listed – lie adjacent to the site.

Sandford Mill acts as a museum of Chelmsford’s unique industrial heritage.

The site is recognised as an opportunity for development and could include re-use and restoration of existing buildings, including space for an accredited museum that could house the Marconi equipment.

Councillor Mike Steel, a former employee of GEC-Marconi, claims that he heard the Marconi Veteran volunteers – who maintain and exhibit a range of equipment located at Sandford Mill – have been told by Chelmsford City Council to remove all their equipment.

He said it seems they have been asked to remove the equipment in a matter of weeks because it no longer fits in with the requirements of an accredited museum.

Cllr Steel added: “With the site being currently closed to the public whilst the future is determined – I do not understand the urgent need to remove the Marconi equipment.”

Between September 7 and September 11, Chelmsford will be hosting the British Science Festival and will feature a range of activities and events.

“On the one hand we intend to celebrate science and engineering, but on the other we thoughtlessly erase the magnificent contribution made by Chelmsford,” said Cllr Steel.

“In my 20 years at the company, I was involved in groundbreaking design and manufacturing with products that led to today’s technologies of the internet and cellular devices.

“When I see the things in Sandford Mill, I feel an emotional attachment to this history, made all the more poignant by the fact that the volunteers manage to keep some of it operating.

“I can’t be the only one. When I joined Marconi in 1979 there were over 100 thousand employees of GEC, with a large proportion in Chelmsford.

“But this archive is not just for ex-employees and enthusiasts – it is the history of GEC’s world-beating, ground breaking technology.

“I ask the city council administration to reconsider and, at the very least, continue to store the equipment whilst the future of the site is determined.

“If the equipment is removed now and returned to the attics and garages of the volunteers, it will never come back together again.”

A spokesman for Chelmsford City Council said: “The museum’s accreditation bid and the future development of the Sandford Mill site are two separate issues.

“The museum is preparing for Arts Council UK Museum Accreditation at the moment, which is what has led to an overhaul of procedures at the Sandford Mill site, including the return of items which are not part of the museum’s own collections.

“The museum has been getting ready for this over the last 18 months, carrying out an extensive assessment of all their practices, including a review of how items are handled and worked upon, the insurance policies they hold, and an audit of the collections at the main Oaklands site and at storage facilities such as Sandford Mill.

“The museum is expecting to receive an invitation to apply for accreditation this autumn with an assessment early next year, which is why these changes are happening now.

“This process has nothing to do with future plans for the Sandford Mill site – it is about how the collections (on display and in storage) are managed and the museum is run now.

“The industrial collection in storage at Sandford Mill is already part of the accreditation process, which is why items not in the museum’s own collection are being returned to their owners.

“At present the site is closed to the public not because of Covid-19 or because of decisions yet to be made about its future, but because it is primarily a store for the museum’s collections and wouldn’t be open anyway.

“Although there is occasional public access to the site for events such as Heritage Open Days, Sandford Mill is currently an archive for the museum’s main site at Oaklands Park.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter