Madness That Has Put Our Greatest Treasures in Peril; the Cash Crisis Now Facing the British Museum Has Been Caused by Misguided Government Policies

Article excerpt


REMEMBER the Lottery? Remember the billions that were to be handed out to the nation's longstarved temples of culture? Or the vague feeling, when you paid your pound for the little pink slip, that you were not only buying a modest fantasy of what you might do with [pound]16 million, but you were also contributing to "good causes"? If so, you may be baffled by the news that the ultimate and original temple of culture, the British Museum, is gasping for air like a stranded whale. Or, to be more precise, like a Great British Industry collapsing in the dim and distant 1970s. There is a [pound]5 million deficit and staff cuts of 15 per cent are planned, with the inevitable accompaniment: rumbles of discontent from the unions, and the threat of strikes. How can Dame Lottery have let this happen?

The British Museum has the collections to make it, with the Met in New York and the Louvre in Paris, one of the three great museums in the world. It is also visited by three million tourists a year, a quarter of all visitors to London, which makes it a showpiece for the capital and for the country. If it is dim and dusty and closed for business, it makes the whole nation look bad.

Meanwhile, that thing that was really meant to impress Johnny Foreigner, the Dome, plus the valuable land around it, has been offloaded for precisely no money up front. This is rubbing Siberian quantities of salt into the wounds.

The British Museum would be pathetically grateful for the amount it has cost to look after the Dome for the 18 months since it closed, while a way was found of saving the Government's face. Of the [pound]600 million of Lottery money spent on it in the first place, it is too painful even to speak. Nor is it just the Dome: the land is littered with glassy, Lottery-funded Museums of Something-or-other, that will never come close to doing what the British Museum does for the country.

If you ask a Government apparatchik why the Lottery boom has left the British Museum in this state, you will be told that the Lottery was only ever for capital projects, and that the current crisis is one of revenue. They present this as a fact of nature, rather than something over which human beings might have some control. They might also say that the museum was handsomely funded by the Lottery to build its Great Court development, as indeed it was. More reluctantly, they might concede that the museum's annual subsidy from government has been cut by 30 per cent over a decade.

But these answers only lead to further insanity. The museum was almost obliged to spend money on construction, as the departure of the British Library from its heart left a hole that had to be filled, which could only add to running costs. …


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