This week, Northampton Borough Council will place the ancient Egyptian Statue of Sekhemka on sale at Christie’s auction house in London where it is estimated that it could produce a fee of between £4-6 million. The council is attempting to justify the sale of the statue, which is part of the collection of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, on the basis that the profits will go towards a proposed £14m extension for the institution. In a further twist, the council intends to share half of the proceeds of the sale with Lord Northampton, whose ancestors donated the statue to the museum.
The intention of this blog will always be to embody a positive outlook on museum issues and I have no interest in handing out criticism unless it is productive and contextualized at the very least by some suggestions for change or improvement. However there is nothing positive to say about this situation, and the only idea I can or will advocate to alter this is for the planned sale to be scrapped. Northampton Council’s move to deaccession the statue has been roundly criticized, not least by the Egyptian Government and the Museums Association who are refusing to endorse the sale and threatening to revoke Northampton Museum and Gallery’s membership of their organization.
My inability to find positives to address in this situation, and the fact that the issue of deaccessioning objects (or rather, not doing so) has been written about so extensively has left me hesitant to discuss this subject at all. I feel there is nothing more that I can, nor need contribute to the case against Northampton Borough Council’s plan, and the situation has been discussed and reported on a global scale already. However, it has got me thinking about another issue that is, for me, a little closer to home.
For nearly 30 years, the residents of Leith in north Edinburgh have been campaigning the city council for the establishment of their own museum, which would chronicle the rich history of the area and highlight the achievements of some of its most famous sons and daughters (such as colourist J.D. Ferguson and novelist Irvine Welsh). For around seven years now, councillors and campaigners have been in negotiations with the city’s National Museum of Scotland (NMS) over the procurement of the Leith Custom House (that the institution has been using for storage), to house the Leith Museum inside. However, in recent weeks the NMS has revealed its intention to place the building on the open market. They are still providing the city council with first refusal on the building, and I understand negotiations are on-going to reduce the £600,000 asking price. Should these talks prove fruitless however, the building will potentially be sold into private hands.
The Northampton Borough Council has been lambasted for its decision to sell the statue of Sekhemka, and rightly so, yet little has been made of the decision to place Leith Custom House on the market from outwith the Leith Museum campaign group. The issue here is that the building is being viewed simply as real property, rather than cultural property. The smorgasbord of architecture, statuary, public art and green spaces in Edinburgh has always made me consider it to be somewhat of a museum in itself. History pours from round the corners of every winding turn and forms the bricks and mortar of some of the worlds most beautiful buildings. The through-message during the media reportage of the tragic Glasgow School of Art fire this year was that the famed Mackintosh Building was, “a work of art in its own right,” and the building was considered as much a part of the school’s collection as the work displayed and stored inside. I have little doubt that the NMS feel the same way about their Royal Museum building on Chambers Street, which has over a century of shared history with both the city and the museum having been their home for over 120 years. What of Leith Custom House then? It has over two centuries of shared history with the city, and was designed by none other than Robert Reid, the same architect responsible for designing the façade of Parliament Square and the distinctively beautiful Edinburgh New Town. Reid’s buildings are etched into the face of the city, they are indicative of its aesthetic and its character, and the Leith Custom House is a shining example of them.
The neo-classical Georgian property is clearly a historical artefact in its own right, it’s already a grade-A listed building, as are the Mackintosh and Royal Museum buildings. For their respective owners to sell them into private hands would be unthinkable, yet for some reason this logic does not apply to Leith Custom House. The sale of the statue of Sekhemka is reprehensible because a museum collection should be considered invaluable, and should never be considered in terms of its price, only for its historical, artistic and educational worth. It also deprives the public of a deeper understanding of their history by placing it into the hands of a private collector where it can no longer be freely studied and observed. Perhaps most importantly, a museum collection cannot risk the possibility of being viewed as a liquid asset. If Northampton Borough Council can sell objects to fund extensions to the museum, what then prevents people from calling for the sale of objects to fund struggling schools or hospitals? Where then do you draw a line? The sale damages the sanctity of museum donation and collections. Artefacts are given to museums by collectors in trust, for the benefit of the public, strictly for their aesthetic, historical and educational value. For an institution to profit financially from a donation directly contradicts this, and is presumably why Lord Northampton has demanded he receive half of the share from the sale of his ancestor’s bequeath.
The aesthetic, historical and educational value of Leith Custom House to the people of Edinburgh is clear, the fact that the building too was a gift to the museum from Scottish ministers in 2001 makes the NMS desire to place it on the open market even more saddening. I am not so naïve that I believe all buildings can be treated in the same manner as other museum objects and I certainly do not believe that the museum should be expected to pay tax on and maintain a building they have no use for, solely out of an altruistic ethical concern. The new NMS storage facility in Granton has rendered the Leith Custom House surplus to their functional requirements, but I would encourage them to endeavour to reappropriate the building in a manner that befits its cultural value.
A spokesperson for National Museums Scotland stated last week,
“As a non-departmental public body and charity, we are obliged to achieve the best value outcome from the disposal and are therefore required to sell the building at market value.”
For me, the “best value outcome” would be a Leith Museum in the Leith Custom House. The building’s historical, aesthetic and educational value vastly outweighs the financial; especially considering the building was a gift in the first place. If the Leith Museum campaign cannot acquire the necessary funds to put the project in motion then so be it, but I would urge the NMS to allow more time in order to give every chance of facilitating this particular, “best value outcome.” The motto on the Leith coat of arms reads simply, “Persevere,” and my message to the National Museum of Scotland, City of Edinburgh Council and the campaign for the Leith Museum is simply that, Persevere.