Magazine article The Spectator

Who Dares Speaks Its Name?

Magazine article The Spectator

Who Dares Speaks Its Name?

Article excerpt

The news that an undercover reporter from the Sunday Times succeeded in persuading a string of London museums to consider giving gallery space to an amateur painting in return for a donation of il million has again focused attention on the desperate state of museum underfunding. Elsewhere the British Museum - in debt to the tune of 6 million - was reported to be considering an exchange with the Greek government to repatriate the Parthenon Marbles in return for a potentially lucrative series of exhibitions of Greek antiquities. Clearly it is now time for our national museums to reconsider the question of deaccessioning those parts of their collections that are no longer relevant.

Museum entrance fees have been abolished and debts are rising by the month and yet a staggering 95 per cent of national collections remains in storage. Much of this stored material has never been exhibited since its acquisition, some of it remains the subject of restitution claims, but all of it costs money to store and maintain. Resource - the inappropriately named government quango charged with overseeing the future of our national museums, archives and libraries - should be delivering solutions to these problems. Instead it has shown itself to be singularly bereft of ideas and leadership. Above all, it ought to be fostering deep structural change in the attitudes and commercial philosophy of national museum management. The thorny question of deaccessioning would be a good place to start.

Deaccessioning is a dirty word in polite museum circles, arguably even more taboo than that other unspeakable museological term - restitution. But no matter how much costs rise and revenues fall, no matter that museums cannot afford to heat their buildings, repair their roofs or maintain a half-coherent acquisitions policy, no matter how disastrous the economic state of the museum sector, few if any museum professionals are prepared even to contemplate, let alone discuss, the option of selling off parts of their collections. The fact that most museums are by definition committed to a continuing collecting strategy, even though many can neither show nor conserve what they already own, merely magnifies the parlous state in which many museums now find themselves.

This might not seem so scandalous were two things not irrefutably true about the current state of our national museums. In the first instance, museums are in debt and facing shrinking revenues now that entrance fees have been abolished; and, second, because most museums other than the most prestigious are grotesquely undercapitalised, they struggle to attract the sort of commercial talent necessary for their revitalisation. This Catch-22 situation will continue until the government - or Resource - grasps the nettle and has the courage to push through radical and probably initially very unpopular root-and-- branch change to the museum sector.

The question of deaccessioning, and indeed of restituting objects, should be at the top of any reforming agenda. If it is true that we live in a 'global' world, in which decentralisation and the return of power to the periphery are the catchwords of future cultural progress, then why do we balk at the idea of selected objects being dispersed to more relevant locations? This might mean dispersing parts of London or metropolitan collections to other regions in the UK, but it could also mean returning objects to their countries of origin. …

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