HC Deb 07 April 1843 vol 68 cc728-38
Sir JR. Peel

said, that he had then to propose the annual vote for the British Museum, but as there were such ample details with respect to it in a paper which had been laid on the Table, it would not be necessary for him to go into any lengthened explanation. The estimate was 2,640l.. more than that of last year. The chief of this increase was 1,500l. for the completion of the collection of English scientific works in the library. Another addition was an increase of 450l. for binding books. He was happy to state, that there had been a great increase in the number of visitors during the last year. In 1841, the number of visitors was 319,000, while last year the number had increased to 547,000, showing an increase of 220,000 in one year. He thought that after this it was unnecessary for him to say one word more in recommendation of the vote. He should, therefore, propose that the sum of 32,576l. be granted for the establishment of the British Museum, for the year ending April 5, 1843.

Mr. Hume

agreed with the right hon. Baronet, that the circumstance of the great increase in the number of Visitors was most satisfactory; but this showed that formerly the trustees of the Museum had not properly estimated the character of our countrymen. But there was no reason why this useful institution should not be made even more useful than it was at present. He objected to the constitution of the trustees who had the control over the institution, and who formed almost a self-elected body of thirty-eight persons. Of these, twenty-eight were ex officio, and the remainder were the representatives of the families of Sir Hans Sloane, and other persons. Some years ago it was considered a great thing to allow seventy-five persons to be admitted to the Museum on three days in the week. In the year 1804, when Mr. Rose proposed the vote for the British Museum, he said, That the trustees of that institution had adopted a variety of regulations, by which every possible degree of accommodation would be afforded to those who were desirous of visiting that interesting establishment. It was now provided that seventy-five persons might be admitted per day, three times a week, and that even those who applied in the morning might be admitted in the course of the same day. Regulations were also adopted for admitting private parties three times a week, and orders had likewise been issued for an easy and regular access to the reading-room. In short, it would appear that the Museum promised to furnish the means of being both useful, instructive, and adequate to the gratification of the public curiosity. What a contrast did this afford to what took place at present, when not less than 30,000 persons were admitted without inconvenience or risk in the course of one day. Still he thought that the constitution of the controlling body at the Museum should be changed, and that the public money should not be placed in the hands of persons over whom the Government had no control. He thought that the superintendence of this establishment should be placed under some responsible officer of the Government, by which means the public would enjoy much greater benefits from the institution than it did at present. If the matter was left to the control of a body like that of the trustees of the Museum, the public never would obtain the full advantages which they should enjoy. He complained of the exclusion of children under eight years of age from the Museum. At present even children in arms were admitted to Hampton Court Palace, and no inconvenience was found to result from such an arrangement. He also thought that the Museum should be open to the public, after one o'clock on Sundays, and also an additional day in the week.

Sir R, Peel

said, that the hon. Gentleman bad stated that the Government had no control at the board of trustees of the British Museum, whereas six members of the cabinet were ex officio trustees. So far, too, from their having no influence, the First Lord of the Treasury had always a very great influence, as it must be with his sanction that the vote was proposed; and he would venture to say that any rea- sonable suggestion as to the management of the Museum made by the First Lord of the Treasury would be attended to by the trustees. The hon. Gentleman stated that formerly only seventy-five persons were admitted to the Museum each open day in the course of a week, whereas at the present time not less than 30,000 had been admitted in a single day. Did not this circumstance prove that the trustees of the Museum were anxious to afford every facility for the access of the public? In the year 1840, the number of visitors was 247,000; in 1841, it was 319,000; and last year the number had increased to 547,000. If, then, the hon. Member would contrast the present management with that which obtained formerly, he would find that there was every desire to afford accommodation to the public. Again, in the year 1810 the number of visits made to the reading-rooms for the purposes of study was 1,950; in 1815 the number was 4,300, but last year the number was 71,000. It was to him most gratifying to find the large number of persons that passed through the Museum without any circumstance occurring that could reflect even the slightest discredit on them. The orderly and decent conduct of the visitors to the Museum, even on the most crowded days, must afford the utmost gratification to every reflecting mind. The habit of order inculcated by visiting this institution in this way must have a great moral effect, and this was produced in addition to the gratifying the curiosity of the people. With respect to the admission of young children to the Museum, he would only observe, that they might be exposed to inconvenience and some risk in a crowded day; for instance, on any occasion when 30,000 persons passed through the Museum. So far also, from the trustees not being willing to adopt the recommendation of the committee, he would observe, that they were gradually doing so; and in the present year they had made arrangements to carry out the recommendations of the committee with regard to the synopsis. Again, the public were greatly indebted to the enterprise of Mr. Fellowes for a most valuable addition to the contents of the Museum, in the shape of the Xanthian sculptures; and the trustees of the Museum were about to send out that gentleman again to Asia Minor, to endeavour to obtain an additional number of these valuable remains of antiquity.

Mr. Hume

considered it most desirable that a cheap catalogue of the contents of the Museum should be published. The publication of cheap catalogues of the National and other picture galleries had been productive of the greatest advantage. After many ineffectual attempts to induce the authorities at the National Gallery to issue a cheap catalogue, he had printed a catalogue at his own expense, which was sold at a penny, and the reception which it met with showed how much the public had been in want of such an accommodation. On the very first day of its appearance, while only four of the shilling catalogues were sold, the persons who were stationed at the door of the gallery with the penny catalogues, though they came rather late in the day, sold 147 of them. The catalogues the purchasers took home with them, and everybody must see that such a work, lying on a poor man's table, must at once refine the minds of himself and his family, and operate as an inducement to his neighbours to go and view the works of art which had so pleased him. Similar cheap catalogues had been printed of Dulwich Gallery and other collections with vast public advantage, and it was most desirable that the poorer classes should be placed in possession of an equally cheap catalogue of the contents of the British Museum. The trustees of that institution, however, were most lamentably tardy in meeting the wants and the wishes of the people in this as well as in other respects. The utmost facilities should be given to all classes, including the lowest, for viewing all those public treasures which were calculated to refine and enlarge the mind. As to the damage which it had been the fashion with a certain class of people to predict would be done by the admission of the masses to the treasures in the Museum it was now proved that no damage whatever need be apprehended. It could no longer be justly charged against the English commonalty that they could not safely be admitted to places where foreigners might in all security be trusted. In one day, 30,000 persons of all classes, principally of the humbler ranks, had passed through the various public room of the Museum, and not one sixpenny worth of damage had been done to any of the multitudinous objects which were exhibited. The conduct of the humbler classes, on all these occasions, was stated by the officers in attendance to be most exemplary; the persons who had behaved themselves with the least propriety being precisely what the witnesses before the committee termed the "half-and-half, or would-be gentry;" and this improvement in the character and conduct of the lower classes was attributed, by Mr. Mayne and Col. Rowan, precisely to the greater confidence which was placed in them. Why, too, should the masses not be admitted freely to our cathedrals? Never, he would assert, had the rudest countryman passed through and viewed one of these sacred edifices without awe, without having a higher class of feeling excited in his mind than he was ever before conscious of. As it was, the cathedrals were only open gratuitously during divine service, and thus it happened that the hours which ought to be solely devoted to purposes of piety and religion were broken in upon by the confusion of persons seeking to gratify that curiosity which they were precluded from indulging at any other time. It therefore appeared to him that Westminster Abbey, for instance, ought to be gratuitously open for public inspection two or three hours in each day. The divine service would thus be uninterrupted, and in every other point of view the advantages would be of a most important character. Sir F. Chantry had mentioned to him, but a short time before his death, that it was entirely owing to his having been accidentally admitted to view a fine group of children in sculpture that had directed his own mind to that branch of art from which that gentleman had received, and to which he had added, so much glory. With the single exception of Norwich cathedral, which was open for an hour and a half on each day to the public gratuitously, all the other cathedrals, he believed, were closed, except during divine service, or on the payment of fees, and thus one great means of elevating the character of the people was lost.

Sir R. Peel

said, that the conduct of the hon. Member for Montrose, in printing a cheap catalogue of the National Gallery, was in the highest degree creditable to him; and there was not one word which the hon. Gentleman had said as to the cathedrals in which he did not entirely concur. He believed that access might be given to these edifices to the mass of the people with the most perfect safety, and that nothing but good could result from such access being freely afforded; even if any additional precautions were considered necessary in the first instance, he could conceive no better way in which a portion of the revenues of chapters could be expended. It would be but a very small portion. Since the last discussion on this subject, the House was aware that a vacancy had occurred in the deanery of Westminster. He had filled up that vacancy with a gentleman, of whom he knew nothing personally, but who was recommended to him by his high professional and personal character; and, in speaking with this reverend gentleman, Dr. Turton; on the subject, he had expressly told him that he could not give him a more satisfactory proof of any gratitude he might feel for the distinction which had been conferred upon him, than the exercising all the influence he should have, as dean, in procuring for the public free admission to the abbey. Dr. Turton had expressed his entire sympathy with him on this subject, and he had every reason to believe that the rev. Gentleman would actively co-operate with him in carrying out this most desirable object.

Sir B. H. Inglis

was not prepared to expect a discussion on cathedrals, on a question as to the estimates for the British Museum. He would, however, not shrink from it. The hon. Member for Montrose seemed to consider that all the sacred edifices of the country ought to be open freely to the curiosity of all men. He held a contrary opinion: and did not wish to make them mere exhibitions. The chief object of attack was Westminster Abbey. Now, whatever was the case formerly, that sanctuary is now at least sufficiently open. He could call the hon. Member, perhaps, indeed, the House generally did not know the fact—that every man, woman, and child in England might enter Poet's-corner for nothing. Every person might see the nave and north transept for 3d. Mr. Hume: Every person had not 3d. to spare.] And, for another 3d., 6d. in all, he might now see every thing in the Abbey. No more was charged than was sufficient to maintain the number of attendants now required for this purpose. An unlimited and gratuitous admission of all persons could not take place without mischief, and, unless a regular inspection were maintained, injury and nuisance would be committed. He thought, that the hon. Member must have forgotten the evidence of the rev. Sydney Smith. To that evi- dence he could add, that very recently one of the attendants, conducting a party of six persons, missed one, and, returning, found him committing a nuisance near the shrine of the confessor. The Dean and Chapter desired nothing but to keep the sacred edifice, which is entrusted to their care, free from such scenes, and from being made a common lounge. They desire to make no profit by any charge for admission, and to collect no more than is sufficient for the payment of the attendants throughout the year; but, on the other hand, they do not feel that they are called upon to maintain this establishment at their own cost, to gratify the curiosity of their neighbours. He was sorry to hear his right hon. Friend, the First Lord of the Treasury, after all the dismemberment of cathedral revenues, intimate an opinion that no better appropriation of the income of a chapter could be made than so to provide not for the devotion but for the curiosity of the people. What, in the case of Westminster Abbey, is the special ground of this? Why, that it contains public monuments erected at the expense of the nation. What is the fact? It contains seven monuments, and no more, so erected; placed there on special application to the Dean and Chapter; and received by them without any fee or charge whatever. This gratuitous admission of the monuments does not involve, as a fair consequence, the gratuitous admission of all men, to see them; and, still less, to see every thing else in the Abbey around them. Yet this is something like the ground, on which the claim of the public, as it is called, rests. Where is the abstract right of any man to enter the Abbey, except for devotion? There is no charge for devotion. [Cheers and Laughter.] You charge a fee not upon those who go to worship, but upon those only who go to gaze. The hon. Gentlemen who cheered the observation, may enter the choir, for the purpose of worship, free of any charge; but if they go to see Sir Francis Chantrey's monument of James Watt, they must be content to pay their 6d. There is a great mistake in supposing, that continental churches are always open freely for the curiosity of all men. They are, in many places, closed, except at service times; or for money. [No, no!] Well, it is a question of evidence, in relation to a fact not necessary for the present point; and he would not discuss it here. He would rather proceed to the more immediate business of the vote at issue for the British Museum. He appealed to the hon. Member for Lambeth (Mr. Hawes) against the hon. Member for Montrose, whether the suggestions made by the committee of 1835 and 1836 had not been fairly considered by the trustees, and fairly carried out. The number of hours during which the Museum was open was greatly increased; it is open, in reality, five days in the week; since, in addition to the three days on which the public generally are admitted, it is open on two other days to artists and men of science. He believed, that the British Museum was open more hours in the day, and more days in the year than any other institution of the same class in the world. He trusted, that the Sunday would never be added to the number. He would only add, in reference to the observation of the hon. Member for Montrose about the catalogues, that it was the intention of the trustees to print cheap catalogues of each division of the collection, as well as the present synopsis of the whole.

Viscount Palmerston

was highly gratified at what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet opposite as to Westminster Abbey. For himself, having been long acquainted with Dean Turton, and knowing his high qualities, and the liberal character of his mind, he was well persuaded that the rev. Gentleman would use all the means in his power to carry out the intentions of the right hon. Baronet. It was not a feeling of mere ordinary curiosity which drew people to Westminster Abbey, but feelings of a far higher kind.

Lord F. Egerton

was of opinion, and he had had some experience of the matter, that the mass of the people might be admitted to public, and, he might say, to private institutions and collections of various kinds, even of the most valuable objects, with entire security. The only persons whom, as far as he had had opportunities of seeing or hearing, bad misconducted themselves when admitted to collections and institutions, public or private, were precisely the half-and-half gentry that the hon. Member had referred to—people who, many of them, indeed, of a superior class in life, when they were admitted to view objects of art and science occupied themselves with rummaging over your books, or rocking about on your chairs, or trying to open doors that were locked, whereas the humbler classes contented themselves with looking at those objects which they came and were admitted so to see.

Mr. Acland

feared that some observations, which had been made in the course of the discussion, might unintentionally have the effect of casting some reflection on those whose duty it was to act as trustees of the buildings in question, and who, he believed, had performed that duty in the most praiseworthy manner. He knew that this was the case with regard to the chapter of Westminster, the Members of which took every pains to afford every facility for the admission of the public to the abbey, consistent with a regard to the preservation of the valuable monuments and relics committed to their care.

Dr. Bowring

said, that the cathedrals, and instanced that of Exeter, were now more difficult of access than they used to be.

Colonel T. Wood

would ask the hon. Member for Oxford what more important moral lessons the people could learn, than those they received from viewing the interior of such places as Westminster-abbey.

Vote agreed to.

House resumed. Committee to sit again.