HC Deb 08 April 1954 vol 526 cc520-4
29. Mr. Hollis

asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether his attention has been called to the serious situation of the British Museum as disclosed in the current Report of the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries; and whether he will make a statement.

30. Mr. Jay

asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether his attention has been called to the Report of the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries about the present condition of the British Museum; and what action it is proposed to take.

31. Mr. K. Robinson

asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer if his attention has been drawn to the Report of the Standing Commission on Museums and galleries, and in particular to the Commissioners' references to the British Museum; and what action he proposes to take to remedy the unsatisfactory state of affairs revealed in this Report.

33. Mr. Wyatt

asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he will make a statement on the Report of the Standing Commission on Museums and Art Galleries.

37. Mr. E. Fletcher

asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether in view of the Report of the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries, he will increase the current grant to museums and art galleries; and, in particular, take immediate steps to remedy the deficiencies of staff and accommodation at the British Museum.

38. Mr. M. Stewart

asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he has studied the Report of the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries, describing the position of the British Museum as disquieting; and what measures he is prepared to take to remedy this situation.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The Fourth Report of the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries spans the years 1949 to 1953. Despite the difficulties of the time, the Report recognises that considerable progress was made by the national institutions during this period and it is unfortunate that some comments on this Report, while emphasising the needs of the museums, have tended to overlook its many references to important developments.

In the period covered by the Report, net expenditure on the Votes of the national institutions, excluding the cost of buildings and equipment borne on the Votes of other Departments, rose from £1,256,000 in 1949–50 to £1,468,000 in 1953–54. Moreover, while the size of the Civil Service generally was reduced, staff in these institutions rose from 2,255 in 1952–53 to 2,348 in 1953–54. Steady progress was made both with the restoration of severe war damage, and in providing new accommodation. Notable developments were the opening of Ham House, Apsley House and Osterley Park, as off-shoots of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the reopening of the London Museum, which had been closed since 1939.

The Estimates for this year show a further increase of some 12 per cent., to £1,644,000, in the net provision; and staff will go up by some 4 per cent., from 2,348 to 2,451. I am glad to be able to announce a further increase in the grants-in-aid for purchase of works of art. These were increased by 25 per cent. last year and will be increased by a further 20 per cent. all round, making an increase of 50 per cent. since 1952–53, in addition to special grants made from time to time. For example, a grant of £82,000 was made to the British Museum in 1951–52 towards the purchase of the Holkham Hall Library and the Helming-ham Hall "Orosius" Manuscript. [HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."] I am sorry, but this is the answer to six Questions.

Mr. Ross

The Scots would not get away with that.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

More recently, the National Gallery has been enabled to buy Gainsborough's "The Morning Walk."

Mr. Follick

On a point of order. As the answer is so long, would it not have been better if the right hon. Gentleman had answered these Questions separately, and saved time?

Mr. Speaker

But for that point of order, we might have come to the end of the answer.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am glad to say that I agree with you, Mr. Speaker.

With regard to the British Museum, including the Natural History Museum, the Trustees sent to my right hon. Friend in October last a comprehensive appraisal of the museum's needs. Regard was had to this when the provision for the current financial year was settled, although I should not claim that we were able to provide for all that the Trustees would have wished to see done. Nevertheless, the net provision this year, at £740,000, shows an increase of 11 per cent. over 1953–54 and of 48 per cent. over 1949–50; staff numbers will be increased by 42. Building work will begin on the reconstruction of the Greek and Roman Rooms at the British Museum and the East Wing Herbarium at the Natural History Museum.

Though a good deal has been done, we realise that there is a great deal more which it would be desirable to do, and we shall continue to deal with the claims of our national museums and galleries as sympathetically as the general economic situation allows.

Mr. Hollis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the House is extremely grateful to him for his comprehensive answer? Is he further aware that it is not a mere matter of convenience but of national economy in the broad sense that there should be a place in this country where everyone can conveniently get access to any printed material? Will he not also agree that it is a danger to the national economy if, owing to circumstances not due to this Government but due to the inevitable dislocation of war, a cataloguing system, which would fill that need, should fall into dislocation?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is very important work to be done here, and it is for that reason, despite the needs for national economy, that we have made increased provision in the current estimates, a subject to which I have already referred.

Mr. Fletcher

The right hon. Gentleman has read out a lot of figures which are very difficult to follow, but does it not remain true that the Commission stated that unless more funds are made available our national institutions will not be able to maintain the standard of prestige we expect of them in these days, when cultural and artistic appreciation is increasing?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is a field in which very large sums of money can be usefully spent, but it is a case of holding the balance between the needs of national economy and providing some necessary increase, as we are doing this year.

Mr. Robinson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that public opinion has received this Report with a great deal less complacency than he and his Department? Would he not agree that it was abject folly on -the part of his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to cut the grants to the museums in 1952, as we on this side of the House said at the time?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I hope the hon. Gentleman is not going to try to make a party point about the findings of the Commission which covers a period 57 per cent. of which was during the late Administration's term of office. So far as the hon. Gentleman's first point is concerned, this Report was written before those concerned could have seen the Estimates for the current year.

Mr. Jay

While it is quite natural for the Financial Secretary to need a lot of time to defend himself on this issue, is it not quite clear from the Report that great damage was done by the foolish and futile efforts of the Government to save a small sum of money two years ago?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Neither the Report nor the facts justify any of the right hon. Gentleman's adjectives.

Sir R. Perkins

Are the Government going ahead with the British Museum Bill, which was introduced nearly three years ago, or are they waiting for the British Museum (Amendment) Bill?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I know of no such Bill in the present Session.

Mr. M. Follick

Is the Minister aware that the British Museum was founded on the results of a national lottery, and as Gibraltar has a licence under the Crown for a lottery, could we not have one in this country to supply some of these needs?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

That is almost the only question on this subject which is not on the Order Paper.

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