Nearly 800 people have signed a petition demanding Greenwich Council restore its museum and archive – five years after it was thrown out of its home in Woolwich.
The Greenwich Heritage Centre, which was based in the Royal Arsenal, closed suddenly in 2018 and the space given over for the Woolwich Works arts hub, which cost the council £45 million to build and has struggled to build an audience.
Now there is no museum and there is restricted access to the archive, which is now based in an industrial unit on the Charlton riverside. The long-term future of the service is uncertain.
By 1pm on Sunday, 790 people had signed the petition.
Last month historians mocked the council’s latest bid to become London borough of culture after residents were asked to tell their family stories – but with poor access to an archive to research them in. To add insult to injury, the bid was launched at Woolwich Works.
The Greenwich Historical Society complained that Anthony Okereke, the council leader, had not responded to their complaints for more than a year.
The petition has been set up by Mary Mills, whose Greenwich Industrial History Society specialises in the companies that traded along the river and employed thousands of local people. That heritage is slowly being wiped out as the area is redeveloped.
The society’s Elizabeth Pearcey told The Greenwich Wire the access to the archive has been particularly difficult since the pandemic.
“At present access is only by pre-arranged appointment, which implies the applicant knows what is available and that it is relevant to their area of research,” she said. “The whole feeling is one of serious gate-keeping by the staff, not free and welcoming.
“A professional historian who needed to confirm and extend research for his commissioned work, asking in the summer, was offered an appointment the following January.”
Many feel the council, which brands itself “Royal Greenwich” after being declared a royal borough nearly 12 years ago, neglects the borough’s heritage beyond the sights seen by tourists. Some also feel that the current Charlton base for the archive, just a couple of hundred metres from the riverbank, puts it at risk of flooding.
The archive was handed to the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust in 2014 under cutbacks overseen by former council leader Chris Roberts. The trust also maintains Charlton House and the borough’s war memorials.
Pearcey said: “The council needs to acknowledge the importance of all history in the borough, and the relevance to all residents and visitors. They ride on the back of the national and international heritage, but the story involves so much more.
“And it needs to properly fund an archive and museum resource – indeed, reconsider the role of the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust. Any other local authority would see what amazing possibilities lie in the resources the council already owns, especially reputationally. but also as an additional attraction in a borough which relies so heavily on the tourist trade for income.”
A new archive would need to be “above high tide level and not next to the river, in a borough which has quite a proportion of high ground”, she added. “Good transport links are essential, and the site needs to be at least three times the current size, to allow for archive access, exhibition space, museum displays, school visits and so on.”
Charlton House and the Old Town Hall in Woolwich could be possible locations, she said, along with the Borough Hall in west Greenwich – all buildings the council owns. The old Greenwich University mansion at Avery Hill Park – where plans for a school have run into doubt because of falling rolls – could also be a contender, she said.
In the introduction to the petition, Mills – who was also a Labour councillor between 2000 and 2014 – referenced the role local industry played in the creation of undersea cables.
“People and organisations in the borough have made a unique contribution to the story of our country,” she said. “This has included cutting edge science, world class engineering, the development of a worldwide communications network – and the great multi cultural diversity of its inhabitants, all with a story to tell. We need the contributions of all our people.”
Len Duvall, the London Assembly member for Greenwich & Lewisham and chair of the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust, told The Greenwich Wire last month: “While Greenwich is not the only borough to operate primary access to the archive via an enquiry service, our team is actively considering several options to provide a reading room to the public.
“We do not have a solution to announce at this time, but in the meantime the archive is cared for and catalogued in a museum-standard facility in Lower Charlton.
“This was a condition set to the council by the trust when the archive and museum collections were moved from Woolwich. We appreciate the patience and understanding that local researchers have shown, and the hard work our archivist has put into ensuring all enquiries receive timely, complete responses, including scans of documents.”
The petition can be signed at change.org.
Updated at 1.10pm on Sunday to keep track of numbers.