March 12, 2005

Just how open are UK museums?

Posted at 1:00 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

The Freedom Of Information act which came into force at the beginning of this year could potentially have positive implications for cases of contested ownership of cultural treasures in British Museums. It gives the public a legal right to request certain information from the Museums that they would previously have been able to withheld or even deny the existence of.
The Art Newspaper has used the new act to try & obtain information from a number of UK museums, with varying degrees of success.

The Art Newspaper

Just how open are UK museums?
The Art Newspaper submitted requests to four institutions under new legislation which gives the public much greater access to government documentation
By Martin Bailey

london. When the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act came into force on 1 January, The Art Newspaper submitted requests to four major UK museums and galleries. We are now able to publish the responses from the National Gallery, the Tate, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)—giving the first indication of whether the law is ushering in a new era of openness.

Our requests focussed on different issues at each of the four institutions, putting the spotlight on recent stories. We set out to choose issues on which we expected considerable data to be released, but where we knew there would also be sensitive material in the files which was was likely to be deemed “exempt” under the FOI Act and withheld. Our aim was to test the system and see where the parameters lie on the release of information.

All four institutions admitted that they were feeling their way, as they dealt with their first requests under the new act. The problem they faced was how much to release on sensitive matters, and what to keep confidential. Among the list of exemptions under the FOI Act is material the release of which would be prejudicial to the conduct of public affairs, personal details covered by the Data Protection Act, information provided in confidence, and commercially sensitive records. These were the main reasons why documents and even whole files were withheld, while some pages had sensitive phrases blacked out.

Direct comparisons are difficult, since we asked each for different information, but what is striking is the varied nature of the responses—an indication that institutions are indeed grappling with the new requirements for openness.

Next month we will publish our conclusions on how the FOI Act is working in the museums and galleries sector in the UK.

If any of our readers submit FOI Act requests to museums, we would be very interested in the responses received. Please contact editor Cristina Ruiz, 70 South Lambeth Road, London, SW8 1RL.

Tate Gallery: Reynolds’ Portrait of Omai

Background Reynolds’ Portrait of Omai was sold at Sotheby’s in London on 29 November 2001. The buyer was not announced, but is believed to be Dublin collector John Magnier. An export licence application was made and in March 2003 the Tate raised the money for a £12.5 million ($23.3 million) matching offer, thanks to a pledge from an anonymous donor. The owner refused the offer and an export licence was therefore refused, meaning the painting has to remain in the UK.
Our request Full information on the attempt to buy, or borrow, the portrait, including contacts with its owner and fundraising efforts.
What we got Nothing yet. Tate promised to respond within four weeks, but then asked for a further week. On the day after the initial four weeks expired, it was announced by the Tate that the owner of Omai would be lending the portrait to the gallery’s Reynolds show (see right). Will any papers relating to this loan be included in what Tate eventually releases?
What next We expect to get access to the Tate’s papers shortly and will report back.

The Victoria and Albert Museum: the Mantuan roundel

Background On 11 December 2003 Christie’s auctioned a recently discovered 15th century Mantuan roundel depicting Mars, Venus, Cupid and Vulcan. It sold for £7 million ($13 million), a record price for a Renaissance sculpture, and The Art Newspaper later revealed that the buyer was Sheikh al-Thani of Qatar. A UK export licence was deferred and the V&A began a serious fundraising drive. In July 2004 it was revealed that the Sheikh had withdrawn his application and would keep the roundel in the UK. The V&A then attempted to borrow the roundel, but this proved unsuccessful, and it remains locked away in a private house or store.
Our request Full information on the attempt to buy or borrow the Mantuan roundel.
What we got Access to a file of original papers, just over one-inch thick. We consulted them at the V&A and were permitted to take copies. The papers related to the export licence and fundraising. Sheikh al-Thani was identified as the buyer in the documents, but his name would probably have been blacked out had it not already been published in the press.
Surprises The revelation that Sir Timothy Clifford of the National Gallery of Scotland had tried to raise money to buy the roundel in a private treaty sale for £1.5 million (less than a quarter of what it eventually fetched at auction). This was in autumn 2003, a few weeks before the sale.
Also interesting was the V&A’s reaction to the withdrawal of the export licence application by Sheikh al-Thani. Museum director Mark Jones wrote to the Sheikh’s agent on 16 July 2004, saying he was “delighted” with the news—privately, however, the museum was disappointed after having devoted considerable efforts to fundraising (this is indicated by an internal email with the subject-line “very sorry!”). In expressing delight, Mr Jones was presumably hoping to make the best out of the situation, by obtaining a loan—although this never materialised. His letter is a salutary lesson on the dangers of relying solely on archival evidence, which may not tell the whole story.
What we didn’t get Eight pages contained censored material, a total of 28 lines. Four messages or letters were removed from the file. There was no documentation after July 2004 on the attempt to borrow the roundel—but it seems that the matter was never followed up, or at least not on paper.
What next Our understanding is that we were provided with virtually all the available documentation and we will not be submitting a request for more information on this story.

The British Museum: Ethiopian restitution claims

Background British forces overthrew the Emperor of Ethiopia at the battle of Maqdala in 1868 and seized his treasures. Many ended up at the British Museum. Since then there have been periodic requests for their repatriation to Ethiopia.
Our request Full information on objects seized at Maqdala now in the British Museum.
What we got Seven pages—a three-page listing of Maqdala objects, three pages of descriptive labels for six items on display, and a one-page note on our queries. We had expected more material, as the British Museum had been helpful and open when we published a detailed report on Maqdala last year (October 2004, no. 151, pp. 15, 18-9). Arguably, restitution issues are much more sensitive than acquisitions.
Surprises None.
What we didn’t get There were no “original” documents, other than the one-page summary note prepared for us. The list of inventory numbers should have always been available and the labels could be read by any visitor at the museum.
What next We asked the British Museum for the report on its director’s visit to Addis Ababa in 2004, correspondence with Ethiopian church officials, letters to the Foreign Office, and internal museum papers on how the issue of Maqdala should be handled. We will report the museum’s response in our April issue.

The National Gallery: Raphael’s Madonna of the pinks

Background It was revealed in September 2002 that the Getty Museum in Los Angeles had bought Raphael’s Madonna of the pinks from the Duke of Northumberland, for £35 million ($62 million). A UK export licence was deferred, and the National Gallery in London set out to raise the necessary money, eventually getting an £11.5 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. There then followed a protracted dispute with the Duke over what constituted a matching offer, taking into account his tax situation, but this was eventually resolved. In February 2004 the Raphael was bought by the National Gallery for £22 million ($41 million).
Our request Full information on the acquisition—including contacts with the seller, with the UK authorities on the tax situation, with the Getty Museum, and outside funders.
What we got A file of xeroxed papers, one-inch thick. Much of which related to contacts with the main funders—the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Art Collections Fund.
Surprises The National Gallery made a direct appeal to the Treasury for a special grant, although such grants have not been available for decades. On 10 June 2003 Treasury Chief Secretary Paul Boateng said no—stating that all requests for additional money “should be addressed to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport”.
A proposal that the National Gallery and the Getty Museum should jointly buy the Raphael was mooted in November 2003, but quickly shot down by the Heritage Lottery Fund. HLF’s letter of 18 November warned: “For our grant of £11.5 million, we had anticipated that the National Gallery would share the Madonna with a number of other UK institutions and museums, on the grounds that any benefits from the Lottery should be spread as wide as possible. But we had not considered that this sharing out go any wider than the boundaries of the UK. Any changes of this magnitude would, of course, require our board to look again at their original decision.” Not surprisingly, the National Gallery immediately dropped the idea.
A sign of the new openness under the FOI Act is the release of papers about an awkward incident which occurred on 11 November 2003, when Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota made a controversial speech at a National Art Collections Fund conference which was subsequently distorted in certain press reports. Sir Nicholas had raised questions about the money that would be needed to save the Raphael. Tate chairman David Verey wrote to the National Gallery chairman on 24 November to “offer a formal apology for any ill feeling caused by the misrepresentation of Nicholas Serota’s speech”. The documents released also showed that Arts Minister Estelle Morris wrote to the Tate director, describing his address as excellent—“challenging, thoughtful and not accepting established practices just because they have been there for years!”
What we didn’t get Twelve pages had censored material, although on average only one line a page was blacked out. No correspondence with the Duke of Northumberland or his agents was released, presumably on privacy grounds. Similarly, there was nothing on the prolonged negotiations over the price, which related to the Duke’s tax affairs. More surprisingly, there was no correspondence with the Getty Museum.
What nextThe National Gallery volunteered that it is still considering whether to release additional papers. This is expected to take a further three weeks—and we will report back in our April issue.

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