HC Deb 24 July 1846 vol 87 cc1440-6

On the Question, that 45,406l. be granted for the British Museum,


wished to make a few observations on this vote. The sum now moved for was a very large one, especially looking back to what it was when he first came into the House. It had gradually gone up from a few thousands to upwards of 40,000l. a year. He thought, therefore, the time had now come for the appointment of a responsible board to manage this large sum. He had had a number of applications to know whether he intended, at present, to notice certain dis- putes between the librarian and others. He begged to say that this was not his business at present, although he thought it a question which formed part of the management of the institution, and might very properly be noticed. What he wished to call the attention of the House to at present was, the fact of the enormous sum of 45,000l. being voted annually for this institution without any control on the part of the House over its expenditure. That was altogether in the hands of irresponsible trustees. Those trustees consisted of three classes, namely, of high official men, of persons connected with families who had contributed to the Museum, and of a certain number of elected persons. (The hon. Member read a list of the trustees.) Now, these were all names of very good men; but the question was, did they attend to the duties which were required of them? He (Mr. Hume) had experience enough of public business to know that where there was a large committee—some members attending one day and some another—no member, perhaps, attending two days in succession, and no subject coming before the same party twice—the result was, that the business fell into the hands of a few individuals, who, under the colour of great and responsible names, did as they pleased. In 1836, a Committee of that House recommended the appointment of a responsible board; but up to this hour no attention had been paid to that recommendation. It was quite true that prompt attention had been paid to another recommendation of that Committee, namely, to increase the salaries of the officers connected with the Museum; but he had yet to learn that any other recommendation had been attended to. It did appear to him, as a protector of the public money, that the House was not acting-right in allowing this system to continue. The right hon. Baronet the Secretary of State for the Home Department, on a former occasion, speaking of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, had stated, that in his opinion a change ought to take place—that a board consisting of so many individuals, acting without any check or control, ought not to be allowed to continue; and the right hon. Baronet had assured the hon. Member who brought forward the subject, that he would attend to subject on an early day. He was sorry that right hon. Gentleman was not then present, or he would have appealed to that right hon. Gentleman to support him on this occasion. He was quite sure that the public expected the appointment of an efficient and responsible body of trustees. The Committee of 1841 unanimously recommended certain alterations; but, except one relating to a cheap catalogue, they had not been attended to. One suggestion was, to abolish the regulation which excluded children under eight years of age from visiting the Museum in charge of their parents or others. This was altogether disregarded, Another was, to do away with the regulation which allowed the Museum to be open on Tuesdays and Thursdays to private parties only, to the exclusion of the general public. This was also disregarded. Why should there be private days in any public institution? Considering that the public servants attended on these favoured individuals, he thought it was high time there should be some change in this respect. Then there was another grievance which, in common humanity and decency, ought long ago to have been removed. There was no convenience of any description throughout the whole building for the public accommodation, and that in a place which, in the course of one day, was visited by no fewer than 32,000 people. It was most discreditable and disgraceful that such a want should remain unsupplied. A question was at one time raised whether artisans would attend if the Museum were kept open after five o'clock. But it had been found that after that hour not more than fifteen persons, on an average, visited the Museum. From the 1st of May to the 1st of September last, there were not more than seven visitors from five to six o'clock, and the number was the same from six to seven o'clock. Yet sixty persons connected with the establishment were required to be in attendance, though the number of visitors at that period of the day was so scanty. Artisans would have leisure to visit the institution, if it were kept open on Sundays and on every day of the week. Whenever the gin-shop opened, he would open the British Museum, and he ventured to say he should succeed in drawing from the ginshop a very large proportion of its visitors. By giving admission to the Museum on Sundays, the trustees would adopt a course in every respect subservient to morality and good order. If the Museum were closed between five and seven o'clock during the week in the summer season, he ventured to say that the officers of the establishment would be most happy to attend on Sundays. The public expected that the Government would adapt the management to the circumstances of the time. Another suggestion he had to make was, that the number of trustees should be reduced. Where there were forty or fifty managers, the business was never managed well. High salaries were given to officers who had comparatively little to do, and there was no principle of promotion in the establishment. Strangers were brought in from patronage and favour, and men who had been fifteen years in the establishment found that they had very little chance of rising. Many of those employed there, indeed, were receiving less salaries than a common labourer. No man ought to be in the institution without an allowance sufficient to insure the continuance of his services, and without a prospect of promotion. At all events, the officers should be put upon the same footing with the officers of the National Gallery. Under all the circumstances, he was against voting more money to the British Museum; and next year he should feel it his duty to move for a Committee of Inquiry. He thought he should then be able to show that great improvements might be made, so as to secure advantages to the public which they did not now derive from the institution. The number of visitors had greatly increased. Their numbers were threefold greater than six or eight years ago. He recollected when only seventy-five people were allowed to visit the Museum in the course of one day. Mr. George Rose, afterwards Sir George Rose, then stated that the number could not be increased, and that no more than five should be admitted at one time. There were now sometimes 32,000 in the course of a day. Lord Stanley, formerly opposed to unlimited admissions, had since declared that damage had not been done to the value of a sixpence in consequence of the change; and Sir H. Ellis, who was also opposed to the measure, had stated that events had proved his fears to be utterly groundless. The poorer the men who visited the institution, the more grateful were they for admission, and the better did they behave. It was a kind of half gentlemen—those who had not prudence enough to conduct themselves with discretion when possessed of some wealth, that took upon themselves to treat lightly both the attendants and collection. The number of visitors, which in 1840 was 247,000, went on increasing till, in 1845, it rose to 685,614. There were of the latter 64,427 in the reading-room; but the numbers who attended there had of late years greatly decreased. He did not intend to make any remark on the regulations in that department; but he begged to state that in 1840 the number of those who attended in the reading-room was 67,542; in 1841, 69,303; in 1842, 71,706; in 1843, 70,031; in 1844, 67,511; and in 1845, 64,427. The numbers in the last of those years were less than in any of the six preceding years. The number of artists, visitors of the gallery, was 4,256 less than in the six preceding years. Taking the whole number admitted—artists, readers, and general visitors, no fewer than 760,261 persons passed through the Museum in the course of twelve months; and, looking at the expense of the establishment for last year—47,850l., the cost to the public was only thirteen or fourteen pence per head. If greater facilities were afforded, the number of visitors might be very largely increased. He did not grudge the money expended on the institution, but he objected to the mode of management; and he pressed upon the consideration of the hon. Baronet (Sir R. H. Inglis) and the other trustees the suggestions which had now been thrown out, and which, if they thought fit to adopt them, would, he believed, be attended with great public advantage.


thought it would be of great advantage if increased responsibility were introduced into the management of the Museum, whether by adding other efficient persons or otherwise. He was happy to see that the visits of the public to institutions such as the British Museum, as well as to Hampton-court and other collections, increased every year. But he wished to address his observations, not to the general conduct of the Museum, but to the particular department of the library. A strong contrast existed between the regulations observed in the public libraries of this country and in those of the Continent. In that of the British Museum a restrictive system existed as regarded applications for admissions, which was very objectionable. He found by the printed regulations that the librarian was precluded from admitting persons unknown to him, except on the recommendation of gentlemen holding some official situation of a public kind; whilst in no other country was any such passport required. He considered it a great evil that in such an enormous town as this there should be only one library open to the whole body of the public. In Paris there were five; and other large continental towns, such as Dresden, were also well supplied. If Government would establish libraries in the various districts, Westminster, Marylebone, Pimlico, and others, such a measure would be of great advantage to the public.


remarked, that the great evil, according to the hon. Member for Montrose, was the absence of responsibility in regard to the expenditure of the institution. Now it rested with the Government for the time being to consider the Estimates, and to decide upon all recommendations made by the trustees; in every instance the responsibility remained with the Treasury. His hon. Friend said, the Museum was only open on three days of the week; but he contended, that it was open on five days, for his hon. Friend could not say that the artists, and others who visited the institution for various objects, were not a portion of the public. So far from the regulation with respect to Tuesdays and Thursdays being objectionable, he contended that it was desirable, for the interests of the public, that artists should have facilities for attending the Museum on those days. With respect to the age of visitors admitted, there must be some limit. His hon. Friend who spoke last had said there was great difficulty in obtaining admission to the library; but he thought it evident, from the list of persons with whom was deposited the privilege of granting recommendations to applicants, that sufficient facilities in this respect existed. He thought he might apply to the British Museum the remarks which Charles II. had made upon the climate of England—that there were more days in the year, and more hours in the day, during which a man could be in the open air than in any other country. So the British Museum was open for more days in the year, and more hours in the day, he believed, than any similar institution of equal magnitude in a foreign country. Could his hon. Friend find that any such number as 64,000 persons in one year had been admitted into any of the foreign libraries to which he alluded? He believed, that no man in Paris ever knew a fourth of the number. The visitors to the Museum had increased thirty to one since 1820; there were now three times as many as six or eight years ago. A shorter interval elapsed, he believed, in the production of books re- quired by readers in the library than was known in any other library of Europe. With respect to the facility of entering the British Museum, as compared with foreign institutions, it should not be forgotten that in the public institutions of the Continent there was a police most vigilant and rigorous, whilst in the British Museum there was none, at least of a secret character.

The vote was then agreed to.