Monday, January 17, 2011
Hands off our local museum collections
In the busy runup to Christmas, Bolton council's executive committee quietly voted to sell 41 pieces from its museum collections. They are tendering for auction houses, claiming that the sales won't include any items from current exhibitions, or the core collections, but have not disclosed what art and artefacts will be placed under the hammer.
Stephanie Crossley, Bolton's assistant director for culture and community services, argues the sale will improve the service. They need to move the museum's stores to a new location, parts of which they hope to open to researchers and the public, and have to flog the objects to pay for it.
Bolton isn't the only council selling off the family silver. Gloucester city council has invited Christie's auction house to value its collection. And the Museums Association, the professional body for the sector, has disclosed that a further museum has contacted them specifically about financially motivated disposal.
The wider context is the cuts. The average local council, in 2011-2, will have its government funding cut by 4.4%. Some will be hit by 8.9%. Museums are discretionary services for local authorities so they are an easy target. Somerset council has already decided to cut 100% of the £159,000 arts development budget. And it has rich pickings. The Royal Cornwall museum sold two Victorian paintings, last summer, each fetching about £1m, for an endowment fund. With this backdrop, it is unsurprising that a poll undertaken for the Museums Association found 80% of respondents saying they did not trust local authorities to safeguard the collections.
Selling valuable museum objects is controversial, and rightly so. Until recently, there was a strong presumption against any disposal of any item. It would only happen in rare circumstances – such as when there was a duplicate in the collection. Never to raise money.
This is to protect the institution from the pressures of politics, finance and fashion. Museums are not there to make a profit or act like a business. Their purpose is to conserve, research and exhibit objects and art for future generations; to care for the past in perpetuity for the public.
In America, the Association of Art Museum Directors are so concerned about the threat of the current financial climate that they recently introduced a policy that explicitly forbids the use of funds raised by selling collections to cover museum operations. Not so in Britain. Two years ago, the Museums Association significantly altered its policy, softening its attitude towards the protection of the collection. The MA argued for the first time that financially motivated disposal was permissible in certain circumstances.
This was a bad move and there will be the consequences, as evidenced by the decision at Gloucester council, who now are eyeing up their stores and talking to auction houses. A spokesperson explained they plan to get rid of things which have "no relevance to the Gloucester story".
What a parochial outlook. Cultural organisations should be about opening people's horizons, showing them the world outside their own time and place, not limiting them to what is considered to be "relevant". There is no special watercolour or antiquity that Gloucester want to buy with the cash that would enhance the collection. Instead, they intend to spend the money raised on a new cafe, shop and renovated education facilities.
Gloucester say they will only sell what is rarely on show. But display is not the only point of collections, which are also a treasure trove for researchers. What is sold will probably go into the hands of private owners, and will be of little use to anyone else then.
Nor is it always predictable in the present what will be regarded as interesting in the future. Birmingham Museums lament the sale of their south Asian and Far Eastern metalwork in the 1950s as "an act of irrevocable rashness". What was considered unimportant in the past is now important.
History shows that the few disposals that have taken place in the past were regretted. The V&A once auctioned a set of 18th-century gilt wood chairs to the then king of Libya, thinking they were bad 19th-century reproductions. Afterwards it was discovered that the chairs were from an important set commissioned by the Venetian Doge Paolo Renier. By then it was too late to try to buy them back: they had been converted into mirror frames and stools.
Losing the treasures from our important local museums is a high a price to pay for short-term gain. Now is not the time to forget the true value of our collections: a historical and aesthetic resource held in care for future generations. We should shut the doors to the salesmen and ask them not to touch the artefacts.
guardian.co.uk, Friday 14 January
at 1:00 PM