Hadrian Ellory-van Dekker, 48, is director and chief executive of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery Trust, the independent charity spearheading the £22m plan to give Swindon a new museum and art gallery. Married to Stuart, who works in press and public relations, Hadrian is currently based in Farnborough but plans a move to Swindon

AS might be expected, the man in charge of Swindon’s bid for a new museum and art gallery in the town centre has plenty of praise for the town’s collections.

These include archaeological, natural history, industrial and social history material, but only one group of objects has won national acclaim.

“The collection of modern and contemporary British art is exceptional, and it’s exceptional in terms of its quality but it’s also exceptional because it’s in Swindon,” he said.

“One of the things that I still find most gobsmacking is that at the time when Swindon thought, ‘We need an art gallery,’ – the late ‘40s – they could have gone out to market and they could have bought second rate Dutch paintings and 19th century copies of Old Masters and built a collection like that, but actually they didn’t.

“They had the vision – why do that? Why not do something much more exciting and collect from important living, currently working artists?

“They were then exceptionally lucky in the quality of advice they received from somebody called Richard Morphet, who was working at the Tate.

“They very economically put together a very good collection in terms of individual pieces, but a sort of coherent collection where one artist speaks to another because each piece was well chosen.”

The new venue will also display museum objects, of course, and fans of Swindon’s best-known museum exhibit are assured that the crocodile – actually a gharial – will be on show.

There is even a tiny one in the much-admired architects’ model of the new premises.

“It’s probably the most famous object in Swindon,” said Hadrian. “Whenever one of us is in a taxi and the driver realises where we work, the one thing they ask is: ‘Is the crocodile still there?’

“When I was speaking to architects about plans for developing the new museum and art gallery, the one thing I made plain that was totally non-negotiable was the gharial, because – quite rightly – I’d be taken out and lynched if it didn’t appear in the new museum and art gallery!

“I think it’s lovely that a 60-year-old taxi driver remembers coming to the museum to look at that, and finding it’s still here is planning to bring his grandchildren to see it.

“That’s what museums and art galleries ought to do, quite frankly.”

Although public reaction to the project has been largely positive, some wonder why an existing historic building couldn’t be used.

In fact, all such buildings have been considered but none are deemed suitable. Hadrian would like to see one suggested candidate, the Mechanics’ Institute, take something akin to its former role as a theatre space and community hub.

Others fear the project will simply never get off the ground, but Hadrian rejects the notion out of hand. He is also full of praise for the council’s staunch support.

“In 1946 people were visionary enough to actually put together a significant collection of current art. Considering the pressures the local authority are currently under – and they are making some difficult, tough decisions – to actually still believe that to thrive as a town we need to invest in the future, I think, is quite brave and quite visionary,” he said.

Hadrian is originally from London. His late mother was a secretary and office manager, and his late father a security guard.

“My father was very interested in archaeology, so I got named Hadrian,” he said.

“Actually, my mother wanted to call me Adrian but my father was convinced that only gay hairdressers were called Adrian, so I ended up being called Hadrian instead.”

Hadrian paused in telling the story before bursting into laughter.

“And that worked out well!”

He added: “The surname is my grandmother and the Dutchman she married, who moved to England in about 1914.

“I was born in Bethnal Green in East London to a very working class family. I’m not only the first person in my family to go to university, I was the first person in my family to do an A-Level.”

“I was always interested in art and history. I spent quite a lot of my childhood frequenting free museums and galleries in London.”

The British Museum, with its huge collection of antiquities from all over the ancient world, was a particular favourite.

He volunteered to work there at 13, entering information on a database.

Following an English literature degree and an MA in art history and literature at the University of Lampeter, Hadrian imagined a career as an academic, but was offered a six-month cataloguing contract at the British Museum’s department of Egyptian antiquities.

Apart from a brief exchange fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York at the end of the last century, he stayed for 15 and a half years.

In 2006, deciding he needed a new challenge, Hadrian joined the Science Museum as manager of collections, documentation and records. He rose to become head of collections and chief curator.

He was headhunted for the Swindon job last year, and a major attraction was the opportunity literally take charge of a new museum from the ground up.

“When I started going to museums, particularly as I went to national museums, it was still very much: ‘You will come into this place, you will look at the stuff we tell you to look at, you will learn about it what we think you ought to know about it, you will go away and feel enriched by it and you will be a better person for having done that.’

“I think museums and galleries have rediscovered – and the ones that haven’t are the ones that are struggling – that going to a museum and gallery ought to be fun and hopefully you will get something positive out of that experience but it might not be a clearly defined learning objective that is fulfilled.

“You are meant to have fun. It’s meant to be pleasant, it’s meant to be nice and it doesn’t matter whether you’re reading every label or are looking at something because you think it’s interesting or pretty. Both of those are life-enhancing experiences.”