I wrote briefly within another post a few weeks ago regarding my dismay over the proposed sale of the ancient Egyptian Statue of Sekhemka by Northampton Borough Council from its civic collection (which it holds in trust for its people), in order to fund an extension to the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery. You can read the reasons why I found the actions of said council abhorrent, here. Sadly that sale did indeed occur at Christies Auction House on the 10th of July, and the statue passed into the hands of a private collector in exchange for a fee in the area of £16m.
As a repercussion of this, the Arts Council England (ACE) met last week to review the Accreditation status of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, the result of which was revealed today. The decision that ACE have come to is to revoke Accreditation from the Northampton Museum Service, meaning the Abington Park Museum will also be punished for the actions of its governing body.
The question I find myself asking however, is who has really been punished here? The sale of the statue in the first place profited only Northampton Borough Council, and a single local Lord, while the public was robbed of their heritage and any future opportunities to engage with it. Now, the Northampton Museum Service has been punished for this, but their “service” is to the people of Northampton, not the councilors who approved the sale. The result is that this again only punishes the people, rather than those responsible.
Loss of Accreditation means that Northampton Museum and Gallery, and Abington Park Museum are now ineligible for public funding from ACE themselves and bodies such as the National Lottery. Both of these museums have received funding from these areas in the past. Northampton Council leader David Mackintosh, one of the key protagonists in the Sekhemka sale, believes that this will be of no hindrance to securing the remaining necessary funding for his proposed extension from private investors. However he makes no mention of his Museum Service’s future programming. They have in the past relied on public funding that they now cannot, and it would be naïve in my opinion to expect private entities to consider donating money to an organisation that has so flagrantly ignored its own Code of Ethics.
So if these two Northampton museums are unable to fund new exhibitions, it is the public who will have lost out, again. The sale of the statue robbed the people of their history. The statue being revealed as the property of a private collector robbed the people of any hope of having that history returned to them. Now, the people could potentially be robbed of the ability to engage with the history they have left. The museums certainly won’t close, they’ve just had a cash injection after all, but if they cannot fund new exhibitions and initiatives for public engagement then interest in them will certainly dwindle. You cannot expect repeat visits if nothing ever changes.
I appreciate that action had to be taken. I only wish that there were a way to do so that ensured those responsible had to account for their actions. The unfortunate truth is that David Mackintosh and his council have not acted illegally, only dangerously unethically, and no matter how they try to spin it, completely outwith the best interests of their public. I understand that ACE have deemed the loss of Accreditation necessary and I also understand why the move has been supported by the Museums Association, I just however worry that this punishment will only affect those already afflicted by what has been, as the Save Sekhemka Action Group have called, “a black and shameful” saga. Could an avenue not have been explored that helped support Northampton Museum and Art Gallery’s already weakened position, and targeted those who have so shamefully tarnished its name for financial gain?
Museum services and their funding bodies should always endeavour to act in the best interests of museums. For me, an eye for an eye in this case was not a desirable method of punishment. The people lost an eye when the statue was sold. Now, as punishment for this, future Northampton Museum Service programming may be in jeopardy, and it is the people again who risk losing their other eye. Soon they may have nothing left to see.