There was an astonishing story recently about 2,000 treasures being stolen from the British Museum. A report from the BBC asked:
“How could 2,000 items go missing without anyone inside the museum apparently noticing?
“This isn’t only about theft, it’s also about the perception of complacency or worse; warnings that went unheeded.”
The reality is that the British Museum has been hoarding items on such a gargantuan scale its collection has got out of control. It thinks it has roughly eight million artefacts. But it doesn’t really know. Maybe it’s seven million. Maybe it’s nine million. It has too much stuff even to catalogue – let alone display. It might be noticed if items on display go missing. The problem is that only around one per cent are available for visitors to see. 99 per cent of the treasures are buried deep in storage.
As Jacob Rees-Mogg put it on GB News:
“It’s been a magpie museum. It’s collected and drawn in things of, quite frankly, varying quality, for well over 200 years. It’s lost its sense of purpose. Museums need to be focussed. They need to know what they are about. The British Museum started as a focus of excellence. Of something exciting and brilliant. Then gradually it got to just having anything that anyone felt like giving it and it ended up with it’s eight million pieces.
“If you’ve got eight million items wouldn’t it be better for them to be seen and known and enjoyed and there to be pleasure derived from them? Rather than stuck away in dusty warehouses?
“There is no point in the British Museum having an Aladdin’s cave of goodies.”
Doubtless, the British Museum will respond that it doesn’t have enough staff and space to cope with such a hoard. In which case it should sell some of the surplus items and use the proceeds for a network of sites across the country to put the rest on view.
Such a cultural renaissance could be carried out in partnership with local authorities. Those of us who live in London have a chance to view some remarkable art collections. Why not seek such opportunities for artistic “levelling up”?
It may be that George Osborne, the Chairman of the British Museum, is disdainful towards such an initiative.
But many councils have impressive art collections. They might be proud of them but when they keep them hidden away they should be shamed.
Leeds City Council tells me it is the owner “circa 1.3 million” works of art. The most recent total estimate is that they are worth £150 million. Probably much more as only:
“Objects valued at £500,000 or more are included annually in the Leeds City Council accounts under heritage assets.”
So far as fine art, I’m told they “hold approximately 1,300 oil paintings, 3,000 English watercolours, 2,000 prints and 1,000 sculptures.” They have “220 artworks on display at Leeds Art Gallery.” Of the wider collection which includes “natural science collections and the total includes social history, industrial history, archaeology, dress and textiles and world cultures”, they do have over 8,000 objects on display. That sounds a lot – but is below the one per cent level the British Museum can manage.
To take another example, my own local authority of Hammersmith and Fulham tells me:
“The estimated total value of the art collection is over £15 million based on the most recent appraisals and market conditions.”
“We confirm that as of the end of the fiscal year 2022/23, our local authority owns over a hundred works of art. These include paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other mixed-media works.
“There are no records available to determine how many works are on display across all council properties.”
Last week, we saw that Nottingham City Council was on the “verge of declaring bankruptcy.” Cllr David Mellen, the Council leader said:
“We have very little room for manoeuvre if we’re to maintain the services that we deliver to the people of Nottingham as they are currently delivered.”
When I asked them the value of their art collection, the response was:
“Valuation for insurance is £54,178,860 (as at July 2023).”
They have 6,041 works of art of which just 381 are on display.
These councils combine keeping these valuable art collections hidden from view with mountains of debt. The Council Taxpayer has to pay interest on the debt – as well as the cost of insurance and security for the art collection. There could be a honest debate about the right way to “share the proceeds” (to use a topically Cameroonian phrase) of deacquisition. Should it go on reduced debt and thus reduced Council Tax? Or on new art galleries for the remaining collection to be seen?
Yet we haven’t even got to that stage. The childish municipal philistines insist on keep it (or 99 per cent of it) hidden away. They have the audacity to claim such intransigence is “ethical.” For instance, here is the prim response from Leeds City Council:
“There is a presumption against disposal, but where such a decision is arrived at, it has been made in accordance with nationally recognised codes of ethics and museum standards and procedures.”
The suggestion is that those who donated works wished them to be seen by the general public – not just viewed privately. But is it not blindingly obvious that a worse betrayal is for the art to be seen by nobody?
So by all means chastise Osborne for his failings. But do also hold your local council leader to account. The following list details the responses I have had on the value of the collections, the number of items held and the number on display: