Editorial

By Stoddart, Simon; Malone, Caroline | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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Editorial


Stoddart, Simon, Malone, Caroline, Antiquity


As we review the question of deep time with the assistance of leading scholars in the field, we also consider the question of enduring values. We write while accountants write off short-term expenditure against long-term balance sheets. We write as economic analysts try to assess whether short-term collapses of economic value on the stock exchange represent a long-term trend. And we write as the UK government announces its comprehensive spending review, explicitly advertised as an investment in the long-term values of education. Yet is that same government investing in the material culture of deep time? This is a society where the legs of some British footballers earn more in a week than the British Museum receives in a year to preserve objects of enduring value. The achievements of a footballer--and memories of those achievements--are ephemeral. The working half-life of a footballer's femur, even when expensively calibrated, is only 7.5 years. The football stadium may survive, but it requires a chance graffito at Pompeii to preserve the short-lived fame of a gladiator, the pre-industrial footballer. One can argue that tenuous fame is rewarded by monetary reward, but should the material achievement of humanity be measured in monetary terms? At the very least, the stadia of human achievement and their associated material culture deserve proper finance for their preservation and understanding, even if the ephemeral actors fade into distant memory in spite of all the best intentions of agency theory.

It is museums that are the guardians of the material culture of deep time. A negative trend appears to be affecting the investment in and integrity of these museums, not just in Britain, but on a wider international stage. Privatization and political manipulation are affecting museums in France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Spain and the United States. Each of these contexts has a particular history which provides a different nuance, but there is a common tendency to under-value the continuity of the history and encompassing expertise that is intrinsic in each collection. Although we interviewed the strikers on the steps of the Musee de l'Homme in December 2001, we can report with greater knowledge about the situation in the British Museum.

The British Museum has been much in the news of late. We reported optimistically on the opening of the new Great Court in March 2001, and described the plans that the museum was developing for its next phase of developments. These have been all but abandoned in a wave of financial problems, further exacerbated by the foot-and-mouth epidemic and 11 September. The finances were looking poor after the massive fundraising efforts of previous years to complete the impressive structure of the museum's Great Court (100 million [pounds sterling]), without additional support of running costs. The present government in Britain have turned their attention away from the core institutions of national museums, major universities, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the like--in spite of protestations to the contrary--and instead have become blinkered by laudable ideals of only partly financed access and regional regeneration. The core grant to the British Museum has been on the decline for several years now, with the expectation that additional revenue could be raised through increased tourism and clever management. The instant decline in tourism in September must be one factor, but there are of course others that have led a major institution to the brink of despair. Before the removal of the British Library from the core of the British Museum, and in the long-forgotten days of adequate government spending, these institutions were funded directly from the Treasury, and they were run on Civil Service lines, receiving grant, and spending it.

The good old days of the British Museum seem to have been in the late 1960s and 1970s when there was considerable expansion and improvement.

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