Duties and Charges

crowds around Rosetta Stone, British Museum - image © Stephanie Pearson

Crowds around the Rosetta Stone, British Museum – image © Stephanie Pearson

A little over a year ago I attended the first in a series of “Museum of the Future” debates at the British Museum. The theme of this particular event was accessibility and how the institution could make changes to its operations in order to cope with its increasing visitor traffic. As you would expect from a public forum, there were good ideas and terrible ones too, and it is interesting to see that both the best and worst of those tabled at the event have come to prominence in recent weeks.

The best idea was undoubtedly that the British Museum needs a bigger entrance. Its current size presents the dual negatives of being both impractically small for the sheer volume of visitors who pass through it, but it is also distinctly unwelcoming when viewed from the gates of its main entrance on Great Russell Street. I suggested at the time that creating new entranceways would negate the aura of privacy created by small doors atop grand flights of stairs, as IM Pei’s pyramid has done at Paris’ Louvre, and by the 2011 refurbishment of the National Museum of Scotland. The British Museum is reportedly considering widening its existing two-metre front door in order to improve visitor flow, which may do little still to increase the sense of “welcome” portrayed by its problematic entrance but it’s an improvement none the less.

Speaking of welcome, a consideration that certainly isn’t is the idea proposed by one member of the audience at the debate that the museum could increase its income by charging “foreign visitors” to enter. This was rightly met with groans of derision at the time so it is surprising to see it now being discussed. To be more specific, the British Museum is considering levying a charge for the admission of commercial tour groups. As annoying as they can often be, standing around looking confused with their matching caps and selfies sticks, this is discriminatory and unacceptable.

Despite its name, the British Museum is, in its own words, “a museum of the world, for the world.” So to charge some of the world and not the other is unfair. I appreciate the grievance that these tour operators in London are profiting from their free service however any charge to the companies will be passed onto their customers, creating an indirect entry fee which is not permissible. If tourists want to pay someone not to tell them how simple it is to get the Tube to Tottenham Court Road and walk around the corner, more fool them.

The continued diversity of the British Museum’s collection is also largely predicated on the fact that it is exhibited for free. Take the high profile Parthenon Marbles for example. One of the museums key counter-arguments in the repatriation debate is that the objects are part of the greater heritage of all civilisation, not just Greece, and they are more ethically placed in an institution that is easier to visit and won’t charge visitors to see them. Having already surrendered the argument that the marbles cannot be moved by loaning the statue of Ilissos to The Hermitage in St Petersburg earlier this year, you would imagine they’d be keen not to surrender a further, and more legitimate claim to their retention.

Jonathan Jones, The Guardian’s answer to an arts Jeremy Clarkson goes further, stating he believes that, “tourists should be giving the British Museum money, and so should the rest of us.” He believes UK museums should be striving to emulate their fee-charging counterparts in France and Spain, not the other way around. He is wrong though. Museums are struggling financially due to government cuts which could see many lose as much as 40% of their funding, not because people aren’t paying for tickets. Free culture is not only desirable, the MoMA’s PS1 in New York for example has recently used a grant from the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation to waive entrance fees to citizens for a full year, but free culture also works.

Glasgow is great example. Currently playing host to the 2015 Turner Prize, the eyes of many in the art world will be in and on the city at a time when a commitment to the arts made during its European City of Culture year in 1990 is really coming to fruition. Glasgow now boasts a world-class civic museum service offering nine different free museums and galleries. Investment in these services was predicated on a trickle-down service economy that would rejuvenate a city struggling socially and economically with its post-industrial status. Take Finnieston for example, it is not by chance that the Kelvingrove Museum’s 2006 refurbishment coincided with what was the beginning of a blossoming bar and restaurant scene. One that has gone on to provide a leisure infrastructure capable of meeting the demands of The Hydro arena and cemented the area as Glasgow’s chief entertainment destination.

While the museum cannot take all of the credit for this, along with the Museum of Transport (then still residing at Kelvin Hall) it provided a cultural spine upon which to flesh out the skeletal area with the “cappuccino economy” City of Culture 1990 had aimed to provide by driving visitors into it. Look at any of the other Glasgow postcodes experiencing similar rejuvenations and you will find cultural institutions close by; Partick and Dumbarton Road served by the new Riverside Museum, Dennistoun in walking distance from the People’s Palace and St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Art and Life, and the Tramway Gallery and Burrell Collection in Shawlands.

Most observable of all however is that all of these venues are free, to everyone, and they always should be. The public funding which has kept them so has helped improve these parts of the city for residents and visitors alike. The cut-happy government should recognise this. Diverting the public money that keeps museums free out of the sector and then forcing them to recoup it through entry fees actually costs people more. Individuals like Jonathan Jones would be wise to remember that it is museums who should be charged with bettering peoples lives, not the public for the privilege.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 10.11.2015

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A Sinking Feeling

Klimt - Judith II (Salome) 1909. Photo © Alamy

Klimt – Judith II (Salome) 1909. Photo © Alamy

As a city and a museum issue close to my heart, it came as disturbing news last week to discover that Luigi Brugnaro, the Mayor of Venice plans to sell off several masterpieces from the city’s public collection in order to help pay off some of its debt. The works considered for sale, which include pieces from Marc Chagall and Gustav Klimt are estimated to sell on the market for somewhere in the region of £300 million. Although Venice’s debt is becoming an increasing burden, the deaccession of public collections to raise funds for alternative municipal initiatives is not, and should not ever be considered the solution to these problems. Brugnaro’s announcement last week is a worrying development.

Deaccession is a dangerous game, as was proven by the scandalous behaviour of Northampton Borough Council last year when then leader David Mackintosh attempted to fund his vanity project, a new wing for the town’s flagship museum, by selling the ancient Egyptian Statue Sekhemka. Despite protestations from the museum itself and various pressure groups, the council forged ahead with the sale of the object which raised just under £16 million at Christie’s in August last year.

The result of this was that, not without warning, the council’s entire museum service (Northampton Museums) lost its Arts Council England accreditation, rendering it ineligible to receive support from various heritage funding bodies and arts grants. It has also been banned from membership of the Museums Association for five years, and seen the winding up of the Friends of Northampton Museum group after 55 years of practical and financial support. It is estimated that the cost of these losses will far exceed the money raised by the sale, leaving Northampton Museum and Art Gallery and now its sister institution, Abingdon Park Museum, worse off than they were before.

The heavy sanctions handed down to Northampton Museums are in line with the disregard for museum ethics that the county council has shown. First and foremost the statue, a gift from the Marquess of Northampton to the people of the city and so held only in trust by the museum, was therefore not theirs to sell. Even if it were, to treat museum objects as assets as opposed to a collection, sets a dangerous precedent. Museum objects are to be preserved for their artistic, cultural or educational value. The actions of Northampton Museums run the risk of changing public perception of a museum collection to what Stephen E. Weil once called, “A Deaccession Cookie Jar,” meaning people view the objects as material of a financial value where the money could and should be better spent on other council services, such as schools and hospitals; a mindset with the potential to strip museums bare.

This is sadly what is now happening in Venice. With the city in huge debt and struggling to fund its municipal services, Luigi Brugnaro has cracked open the Deaccession Cookie Jar and pulled out several important masterpieces from the public collection. While still inexcusable, Northampton Borough council at least intended to keep the money from Sekhemka’s sale within their museum service. Venice on the other hand, should the sale of their works go ahead, will siphon the money into other things, leaving their museums culturally and financially out of pocket. On top of this, by placing other public services on a higher pecking order, the city surrenders all justification for preserving any of its collections should the public demand more sales to be made. Given that such action provides only short-term debt relief, it is entirely possible this could occur.

Brugnaro’s attempts to safeguard the majority of the collection whilst justifying these particular sales by claiming that, “they are not directly related to the history and culture of Venice” is merely further problematic. Using this logic, Venice has created two different sets of museum ethics, one for native objects and another for those of foreign origins. The result of this is that by publicly proclaiming it’s permissible for them to deaccession non-Venetian objects, they surrender one of their key counter-arguments to potential repatriation requests, further endangering their collections.

Above all, this is simply a saddening cultural loss for the city. Venice has long since ceased to be the merchant trading hub that may once have applauded such capitalist endeavour, and is now limited in the way that it functions. It is a UNESCO world heritage site in its entirety, meaning renovation is not permitted, only preservation and restoration. However the city has flourished under these restrictions for a long, long time as a city of art. Its beautiful exteriors are works of art in themselves, while the awkward interiors of its plethora of Palazzi are filled with everything from Greco-Roman antiquity to world famous contemporary artists.

I once heard Venice described as “like a Disneyland for grown ups,” but you could safely bet you would never see a cash-strapped Euro Disney packing up and selling Space Mountain just because it wasn’t related to any of their films. For Venice to sell its art is to sell part of its soul. Brugnaro rightly points out that Venice is a sinking city, but shipping out its paintings will not keep it afloat. In doing so, Brugnaro will be no better than his predecessors who shamefully green-lit allowing cruise ships to sail through the Guidecca Canal, causing irreparable damage to the city for short term financial gain.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 21.10.2015

An Eye for an Eye?

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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.

Appreciating Value

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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.