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British Museum to take over some roles from defunct government quango

Following on from this earlier article [1], it appears that the British Museum once again being treated as an organisation that is not entirely independent of the government.

In this instance, the British Museum is taking over the role of administering the Portable Antiquities Scheme [2] from the MLA which is being disbanded. This is an interesting development, as while it can be carried out by any organisation, it does to a certain extent pull the museum closer to the government, removing some of its independence & impartiality. This separation from the government is regularly emphasised when dealing with restitution requests, where the assertion is made that they are a matter to be dealt with entirely by the trustees of the British Museum. At the same time though, actions such as this & the previous one over denial of access to funding indicate that the government continues to maintain a strong hold over the museum & could, if it chose to, influence the actions of the museum.

Museums Association [3]

ACE takes over MLA functions
Sharon Heal

Speaking this morning at the British Museum, culture minister Ed Vaizey announced that Arts Council England (ACE) is likely to take over the functions of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA).

If approved, all of MLA’s functions will transfer to ACE, including Renaissance, cultural property and accreditation by March 2012. The export reviewing committee, the government indemnity scheme and the acceptance in lieu scheme will also be transferred.

However, the Portable Antiquities Scheme will take a 15% funding cut and transfer to the British Museum.

ACE will receive more than £46m of additional funding each year from 2012/13 to deliver this work, while the British Museum will receive £1.3m of funding.

The future of the MLA’s staff has not yet been agreed, although it is thought that many of them will also be transferred over to ACE.


Mark Taylor, director of the Museums Association, said: “While we would prefer a Museums Council, this is not going to happen, so we’re happy in principle for ACE to take on the MLA’s functions. But we’ve been waiting to hear that this will definitely happen since July, never mind how it will happen. You have to question whether ACE is digging its heels in because it’s concerned about how much money it will receive to administer these functions.”

Culture minister Ed Vaizey said: “ACE has an exciting opportunity to integrate the MLA’s expertise and bridge some artificial divides between different aspects of cultural funding and get the maximum bang for the taxpayer’s buck.”

Roy Clare, chief executive of MLA, said: “It is a difficult time for MLA staff, but they have shown exemplary professionalism, and I am sure will continue to do so as we work to ensure a smooth transition of our expertise and know-how for the benefit of the public who gain so much from high-quality and improving museum, library and archive services in places across England.”

The future of archives work currently undertaken by the MLA is still being considered by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. An announcement is expected before the end of the year.

Guardian [4]

British Museum takeover safeguards buried treasure agencies as quango goes
Schemes for checking finds by amateurs face 15% cuts as Arts Council gets responsibility for regional museums
Maev Kennedy
Tuesday 23 November 2010 18.30 GMT

The agencies that handle archaeological finds, many from amateurs with metal detectors, will become part of the British Museum, their future assured as the government dismantles the Museums, Libraries and Archives (MLA) quango.

The fate of the treasure and portable antiquities schemes was disclosed as they today report their annual audit of finds, another rich haul of gold coins, silver goblets, a 3,000-year-old bracelet found by a man clearing stones in a field in northern Ireland and a 400-year-old toy coach which came out of the mud of the Thames foreshore.

However the two schemes, which maintain a national network of finds officers, will lose 15% of their £1.4m budget over the next four years, like the British Museum itself.

Culture minister Ed Vaizey also said, as he launched the latest Treasure report which covers 806 reported finds in 2008, that the MLA responsibility for regional museums and libraries will be transferred as anticipated to the Arts Council – but it is far from clear how the council, which has taken a much heavier 30% cut, will cope with the additional responsibility. Future responsibility for archives is also still unclear – they will not become part of the Arts Council portfolio.

Wales will also have to take responsibility for its own treasure and other antiquity finds – likely to cause many tricky decisions in the rich archaeological landscape along the border, or finds by English detectorists going into Wales.

Vaizey also promised that the government will take another look at the legal definition of treasure next year. There have been urgent demands for a review from archaeologists, in the wake of what is perceived as the heritage disaster of the beautiful Crosby Garrett Roman helmet. The helmet, one of the most spectacular finds by a metal detectorist in decades, did not meet the definition of treasure – which must be reported, and museums have the right to acquire if they pay the agreed valuation. It was sold for £2m at a Christie’s auction, with the still anonymous buyer far outbidding Tullie House museum in Carlisle, which was desperate to acquire it.

At present only finds of gold, silver, coin hoards and prehistoric bronze hoards, count as treasure, leaving out finds such as single gold coins however valuable, and exceptional bronze finds like the helmet.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, which is already the headquarters for both the treasure and portable antiquities schemes, said he was delighted to take on an extremely important task which had transformed understanding of the history of the country, and created a community of national and local museums, archaeologists and responsible metal detectorists.

Vaizey said he was “an enormous fan of the schemes” and was proud of being cover boy for a metal detecting magazine, even though he found only a 1971 2p coin.

Among the 806 treasure finds in 2008, slightly up on the number reported in the previous year, were a beautiful gold bracelet, brought to the surface when a field in Castlederg, County Tyrone, was ploughed, and found by a man clearing stones. The rare find dates from 950-800BC, with beautiful refined incised decoration at the finials. It has just been valued at £95,000 and will be acquired by the Ulster Museum. Very few treasure finds are reported from Northern Ireland, where detecting for archaeological objects is illegal.

During the English Civil War, a field in Nether Stowey, Somerset, became a hiding placefor a stash of spoons, a goblet, and a spectacular three part silver salt holder. They were hidden in an earthenware jar at a time when parish records report that people were hiding their treasures, bewildered as to which way the winds of fortune would blow them, with a Royalist garrison occupying nearby Stowey Court and the parliamentarians on the march.

The treasure finds are dwarfed by the torrents of objects of lesser commercial but vast historical value reported under the portable antiquities scheme: 659,000 since 1997, 84,891 in the last 12 months.

One of the most touching would have cost pennies when new, a matchbox-sized lead toy coach found on the Thames foreshore by Andy Johanessen, a builder and decorator who now lives at Charlton, south-eats London. His passion for the history of the river and the capital began when he was brought up in Rotherhithe.

His most important equipment, he said, is not a metal detector but his eyes and a stout pair of wellies. The cobweb-fine strands of metal were squashed flat when he found it, but he managed to restore its original shape. He took it to the Museum of London, which has an outstanding collection of early metal toys dropped into the river more than 1,000 years ago by undoubtedly bitterly disappointed children.

The museum concluded that it is more than 400 years old, fully justifying the miniature display case he has made to add it to the rapidly expanding museum in his home. Surrounded by gold and silver treasure, most of the archaeologists admitted it was their favourite find of the year.