- Elginism - http://www.elginism.com -

Caring for our collections report analysis

Selby Whittingham, a former curator at the Manchester Gallery and an art historian, has written an interesting analysis of the findings of the DCMS Select Committee’s Caring for Our Collections [1] enquiry.

Selby Whittingham [2]

House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Caring for our collections
6th Report of Session 2006-7, 2 vols, HC 176, 25 June 2007.

The Report and Evidence run to over 500 often repetitive pages with no index. Who will read it? ICON (Institute of Conservation) remarks: “Collections care has been the subject of a great many reports, studies, action plans and strategic reviews in recent years. The appetite for asking the same questions over and over again seems not to be diminished by feeding …” (Ev.69).

The issues proposed were funding, acquisition and disposal and the performance of the Culture Department and of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. Most of the 98 submissions of evidence come from museums and related bodies unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them. On the subject of disposal, currently under review by the Museums Association, there was much waffling.

The answer by the various bodies to the first issue is predictably simple: we want more money. The V&A pointed out that for the period 1997-2005 the grant for the Tate increased 75%, but for the BM, NG and V&A only 14 – 21%. Core staffing at the V&A had fallen 20% from 790 to 630 (Ev.17). Is that really regrettable? Clamour is currently greatest from the National Gallery with regard to its lack of funds for acquisitions. Whether the NG has been spending twice or half as much as The Louvre is left undecided. The arguments for and against expensive purchases are well known (those against are given by the art critic of The Times in its columns on 17 July as a coda to a listing of paintings “at risk” by a former member of the committee, Chris Bryant MP). However they are not weighed here.

That the possible sale of a great Titian portrait, a Rubens sketch for the Whitehall Banqueting Hall and five of Poussin’s Sacraments constitutes a crisis is not a view likely to be held by most MPs. Museums, like all collectors, by contrast are mortified by any failure to acquire. Many art-lovers would rate these works very highly, not least the Poussins. Anthony Blunt discoursing about their meaning 45 years ago had Oxford dons exceptionally on the edges of their seats. Yet, while his slides looked magical, the situation of the originals at Belvoir Castle was somewhat dowdy. What then would be their ideal situation? One might think a church or museum of religious art. However they were painted for a private museum at Rome. If completeness of the series is a desideratum, then the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has the sixth scene, would have to be the place.

This leads on to the question of the Elgin Marbles, which was the only one which provoked debate in the committee, two MPs, Adam Price (Plaid Cymru) and Adrian Sanders (Lib Dem), arguing for restitution, and two Conservatives and two Labour for retention. This outcome seemed predictable after the committee in the last Parliament had voted the same way. However the attraction of a jaunt to Athens was not resisted, followed by more dutiful ones to Glasgow and the North-East. The committee’s conclusion that “we note that the decision whether the originals should be returned remains one for the Trustees of the BM”, when only Parliament can decide that, is absurd.

The BM’s Director has said that its opposition to being given more powers of disposal has nothing to do with the Elgin Marbles question, but that it is natural for the V&A to take a different view with regard to its collections. Yet both museums are now equally “libraries”, whatever their origins. It is claimed that both originally were planned to collect, and so they must go on collecting today, a non-sequitur, as the positions of a museum starting up and of one full to the beams after numerous extensions are quite different. The V&A says that it was established to promote contemporary design, but that has long since ceased to be its primary character. Its Director claims that “30% of our visitors are practitioners of art and design or teachers of art and design or students of art and design.” Looking at visitors to the V&A I find that incredible. This, however, like every other statistic goes unquestioned. No doubt the number of visits, and to a lesser extent of visitors, has increased considerably since entrance charges have been dropped, but how reliable are unaudited figures for ticketless visits? The Minister, David Lammy, relying on the Travers Report (MLA 2006) said that in 2005 there were 34 million museum visits and that 42% of the population were visitors (Ev.252), but then gave the figures as 42 million and 43% (Ev.253), a discrepancy that went unchallenged. Visits by children to the V&A are said to have increased by 154%. Is that an unmitigated good? Not long ago the Raphael Court was taken over by a mass of toddlers seated on the floor intent on their own artistic efforts with not an eye for the Raphaels.

The favourite argument today for the retention of the Elgin Marbles, Marbles Reunited remark, is that only at the BM can they be seen against a background of world culture. This, they concede, “may prove to be a better argument than the others.” Is it? Neil MacGregor, Director of the BM, says that “there is nowhere else in Europe where you can look at…the cultural achievements of the whole world and the Parthenon sculptures are clearly part of that.” Even if that were true, how many visitors go to the BM to see “the whole world”? I doubt if one in 10,000 do. Moreover, classical Greece is well represented (over represented?) at the BM, so that the loss of the Elgin Marbles would not diminish the museum’s world view. Whether visitors look at the Marbles in the context of the vast collections of the rest of the museum I also doubt. MacGregor adds that “what is important is that objects move so that we can see them in different contexts and understand them differently.” Yet he refuses to lend the Marbles to Greece.

The idea that art works must constantly move around, if accepted, diminishes the need for any country to “save” them by paying millions to keep ownership. It is all part of the liberalising tendency, which involves British industry (the ultimate paymaster) being sold off to foreigners. It leads on to the increasing vogue for deaccessioning and overturning donors’ restrictions, which has been advancing step by step for a century and which some in Parliament in the past fought so hard against, but which appears to be a matter of indifference to it today. Unfortunately the arguments pro and con are never comprehensively marshalled, and certainly not here. The submission of Donor Watch is printed, but not discussed.

The Chairman, John Whittingdale, referring to the claim by the National Gallery that the report of 1855 (in fact 1853) by a Select Committee on the NG led to the ability of NG to expand greatly its collection of Italian painting, commented “I am not sure select committees have quite that power today!” (Ev.26). It would be instructive to ask why. The 1853 committee was focussed on specific questions relating to one body and included many knowledgeable members. Today neither is true. One member (Helen Southworth) is married to a museum curator and another (Janet Anderson) was a junior Culture minister 1998-2001, but it is unlikely that the other members would claim any expertise and few remain long enough to acquire it. Meanwhile the committee has had to deal with very diverse subjects (recent reports have been on women’s football, TV quiz shows and maritime heritage). If there are to be separate select committees for the regions of England, there surely should be ones for the arts, broadcasting and sport, though even then the arts would represent a very diverse field.

Other committees in the Commons and the Lords also hold inquiries. In 2004 the Public Accounts Committee held one on a specific topic, Income generated by the museums and galleries. However only 5 of the 15 members attended the session receiving oral evidence, and one (Gerry Steinberg) boasted of being a philistine. Meanwhile the valuable evidence presented to the Lords’ Burrell Inquiry lamentably remains unpublished. That submitted now by a few individuals such as Christopher Price (chairman of a predecessor heritage committee) and Julian Spalding (former Director of Glasgow museums) makes stimulating reading compared with the official submissions, but was ignored.

The language of politics is the language of priorities. Yet this Report fails to make choices. Should the built heritage (the subject of its previous Report) be prioritised or should museums or archives? Should acquisitions or existing collections? We have argued that the Turner Bequest represents a 150-year-old undischarged obligation, besides being a national icon, and should take precedence over newer and more questionable ventures. Turner and his bequest get sundry mentions – Ev.199, 291, 311, 371, 426 – but in the unquestioning way found throughout. It is ironic that the bequest’s fate was given a lower priority than that of the Theatre Museum by the Arts Minister a generation ago, but now the second has closed and is the subject of several submissions but no answers. Clearly a special inquiry should be devoted to that sorry saga and another to that of the Turner Bequest, undiscussed since 1861.

As for the broader questions, they too go undiscussed. How far should commercial considerations rule? How much waste is there? Should culture be considered solely in the national context or also in the international one (Neil MacGregor plays both the nationalist and internationalist cards)? One fears that this Report will not help the new Secretary of State in setting his policy objectives, and that like others he will generally do whatever the institutions propose, forgetting Bernard Shaw’s maxim that all professions are conspiracies against the laity. No doubt the museum profession is more public-spirited than some, but that does not invalidate Shaw’s insight. (The Commission for Looted Art in Europe remarks on the lack of co-operation from the V&A, Ev. 281). For all the talk about Britishness and British culture, Parliament offers no vision or road map as to how these might be promoted.

Selby Whittingham, July 2007.