HC Deb 19 July 1973 vol 860 cc986-96

5.57 a.m.

Mr. Ernie Money (Ipswich)

I should like to begin this brief debate on Government policy towards provincial museums by paying tribute to what has been achieved over the past three years. It is a heartening and remarkable record.

In the Consolidated Fund debate just over two years ago, almost to the very date, I urged the predecessor of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to make representations about the annual acquisition grant for provincial museums and galleries administered through the Victoria and Albert Museum, which stood at £132,000. Many of us were concerned about it as we considered it to be increasingly inadequate to meet the need to assist with purchases for museums throughout the country. It was therefore most heartening news when in January of this year an announcement was made that the grant would be increased to £400,000, with an additional £25,000 to be administered by the Royal Scottish Museum, and special funds to meet the purchase of documents and photographic and scientific and technological material for provincial museums.

Further, great comfort can be taken from the fact that there has been a vast improvement in the conditions governing the acceptance of works of art in lieu of estate duty, in such a way as particularly to benefit provincial museums. Most encouraging is the recent announcement by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Treasury, that one of the bodies through which the scheme is to be administered will now be the National Art Collection Fund, the 70th anniversary of whose foundation falls this year, and which has always played an important part in encouraging collections throughout the country.

There have also been special Government grants to help provincial museums in the acquisition of works of art. The basis of the museum service has been made much more feasible by the reorganisation of local authorities and in reviewing the ownership and management of museums in their areas there is a good prospect of a more satisfactory structure emerging as a result of the reorganisation.

All of this has built up to the major pronouncement of the Wright Committee, which reported less than a month ago. The noble Lord, the Paymaster-General, was right when he said in his recent speech to the Museums Association at Dundee that all these actions, for which there was no parallel in the 1960s, were designed to prepare the groud for a favourable reception of the Wright Report, which was timed to coincide with the reorganisation of local government. There was also extremely good news that he had to announce there, when he said that there would be an increased grant for the Area Museums Councils, increased from £132,000 to £500,000, subject to parliamentary sanction, over the next few years.

None of this, however, hides the fact that there is considerable need for major revision of regional museum structure in this country. I shall deal briefly with specific points arising from the five major headings considered by the Wright Committee—acquisitions, buildings, staff, common services, and the structure of provincial museums as a whole.

Concerning acquisitions, there can be little doubt that the situation was basically greatly improved by the increase in size of the Victoria and Albert grant. But there is one point that I should like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to stress to the noble Lord, the Paymaster-General. It is some years now since the publication of the Cottesloe Report on works of art in semi-public collections. The dangers all those years ago were substantial. As the Wright Report underlines, out of the 950 museums and galleries considered by the Committee, 73 were university museums, 71 were Armed Services museums, and no less than 338 were private museums, the majority of which contained works of art that could still be disposed of by trustees without need for authorisation either by Parliament or by a local authority.

It would be idle to suggest that considerable disappointment has not been expressed by the museum profession and by many trustees and directors of provincial museums at the fact that the Paymaster-General has not felt able at this stage to announce that the recommendations for a housing-the-museums fund could now be proceeded with. These were, of course, a major recommendation of the Wright Report. But it is right to stress straight away that in the present capital position that the country faces, it would be obviously too much, at this point, to expect that this could be achieved at once. Nevertheless, I hope that some things over and above the present position can be achieved; specifically, that there will be funds available to meet more than the purely non-key sector locally determined schemes, so that middle capital improvements can be done and it will not be necessary to put off some of the improvements which are so badly needed for museums and galleries throughout the country. One thinks immediately of the number of galleries which every time they receive a travelling exhibition have to be closed for some period.

I therefore ask my hon. Friend to stress to the noble Lord the Paymaster-General two points that have been of deep concern to the Museums Association. First, the eventual hope for central Government approval for loan sanction for capital schemes in designated areas without prejudice to and in addition to the locally-determined non-key sector schemes in view of the long-term postponement of so many museum projects; for example, to the Hull museum that has not been rebuilt since the war. Secondly, the need for flexibility in the grant to the Area Museum Council to allow resources for capital schemes such as the establishment of regional conservation centres and in the implementation of the 50 per cent. local government contribution as matching grant.

I turn from there to the equally serious question regarding museum staff. The Wright Report is specific about the need for a new type of career structure. At page 22 it says: There is not only a wide variation in the academic qualifications and professional training of curatorial and technical staff already in posts and, indeed in the training and experience expected of applicants for similar posts at different museums, but there is an equally wide variation in the nomenclature and status of posts, even between museums or galleries with collections broadly similar in quantity, quality and importance. The present haphazard system is confusing to members of local authority committees who may be called upon to take decisions regarding the financing of additional posts; it acts against improved recruitment to the profession in the case of those who desire to see at the outset of their careers the possibilities of an ordered progression; and it also acts as a bar to the interchange of staff between small and large museums and between local and national museums, which could do much to widen the experience of members of the profession. The obstacles in the way of movement of staff, coupled with poor promotion opportunities in some museums, result in the institutions concerned being unable to attract good quality staff and this in turn has a detrimental effect on the reputation of the institution. We believe that there would be considerable advantages to be gained by the establishment of a system of gradings, based on common job descriptions, that could be easily understood throughout the profession. The proof of the pudding is there in an appendix to the report which shows that out of a total of 46 curators or persons of curatorial rank who have left the profession in the last three years only 20 have gone to other local museum posts. The others have gone to national museum posts or, more often than not, to teaching, to university appointments, to commercial appointments or other appointments outside the profession. There is also a real need to encourage the profession so that someone going from local authority employment to Civil Service employment or employment in a national museum does not lose his or her position with regard to pension rights.

I propose to mention briefly three points on common services. The first of these is conservation. There is still considerable concern that throughout the whole of the service in the provincial museums conservation is inadequate, and I therefore press upon my hon. Friend the need to encourage, as the Wright report recommends, a common service for calling on advice from national museums and making it available to smaller museums and more advanced training facilities in conservation at selected provincial and national museums for which central finance should be made available.

I also ask my hon. Friend to consider one specific matter. Although a good deal of money is presently available from the Department of the Environment for archaelogical digs, there is far too little money available for work on archaelogical conservation which is needed on almost everything that is brought out of the very sites for the exploration of which Government money is now available.

Secondly, there is question of publications, public relations, cataloguing and publicity. I believe that this goes very much to the root of many of the problems which provincial museums are faced with. I was disappointed, therefore, by the Written Answer which my hon. Friend felt compelled to give me the other day that at present this is to be left entirely haphazardly to local authorities. I hope that the Department can reconsider whether a central grant could be made available, both because of the importance of museums to the tourist industry, and secondly because of the importance of letting the public know exactly what works of art are available throughout the country, and in what museums. It is a saddening reflection that major collections like Leeds and, even to this day, I believe, Bristol have not got catalogue raisonné available.

Thirdly, there is education. I ask the Under-Secretary whether he will encourage local education authorities to accept the recommendations of the Wright Committee with regard to five matters: that local education authorities and teachers should be made more aware of the part that musuems can play in the educational process; that education departments should be issued with synopses explaining the importance of museums in education and making education institutions aware of the facilities available; that they should be involved to a greater extent in the planning of museum services, and these should be run by the museums; that they should be enabled to provide properly equipped accommodation available for educational use; that colleges of education should develop courses in the use of the museum services; and the local education authorities should be prepared to second staffs to museums.

On the question of training, I ask my hon. Friend to stress the need for training posts at designated museums, for bursaries for training posts, for grants to provide staff with training responsibilities and for post-experience refresher courses. No one would expect that all of this can be done immediately. The Government have made immense strides, greater than have been made in any previous period for a long time. None the less, the position remains where many museums throughout the country are still inadequate.

In a breath-takingly stupid leading article in The Times, and not by any means the only breath-takingly stupid leading article to have appeared in that newspaper in the last few weeks, on the day following the announcement of the Wright Report on 29th June, the writer said: … an unregenerate minority is not wholly extinct which likes its museums musty. You are in there till the rain stops surrounded by flat-topped glass cases containing meaningless flints to each of which a serial number is affixed; assagais adorn the walls, trophies from the Zulu wars; there is an object labelled 'ducking stool' in the corner; stuffed birds need dusting; corn-dollies of the last century fill a wall cabinet; the town crier's bell hangs by a leather strap. All labels are faded, typewritten from a blue ribbon. No one else is there. The place is a foster-child of silence and slow time. The spell would not survive any rearrangement into the display of 'significantly grouped objects' to ensure that 'the message gets across'. It would not survive a curator who had just returned from a refresher course on conservation techniques. It would be fatal if the premises were in a good state of decoration and repair and having adequate amenities'. Then, coming to a climax of silliness, the article continued: The Salford Science Museum is reported to have been closed to visitors because dry rot has made its building unsafe. That is pushing things too far, but it would be a pity if the Salford tradition were to disappear altogether. What those words are intended to mean one is very puzzled indeed to understand.

It does not need me to remind a Minister of my hon. Friend's literary learning and knowledge of the Victorian period that it is just a hundred years since Samuel Butler wrote the celebrated "Psalm of Montreal", better known, perhaps, as "O God! O Montreal!", in which he describes the presence in the museum there of the two plaster casts, … one of the Antinous and the other of the Discobolus … banished from public view to a room where were all manner of skins, plants, snakes, insects, etc., and, in the middle of these, an old man stuffing an owl. 'Ah,' said the poet, 'so you have some antiques here; why don't you put them where people can see them?' 'Well, sir,' answered the custodian, 'you see they are rather vulgar.' He then talked a great deal and said his brother did all Mr. Spurgeon's printing. The result of this conversation was immortalised in the verses: Stowed away in a Montreal lumber room The Discobolus standeth and turneth his face to the wall; Dusty, cobweb-covered, maimed and set at naught, Beauty crieth in an attic and no man regardeth: O God! O Montreal! Beautiful by night and day, beautiful in summer and winter, Whole or maimed, always and alike beautiful— He preacheth gospel of grace to the skin of owls And to one who seasoneth the skins of Canadian owls: O God! O Montreal! When I saw him I was wroth and I said, O Discobolus! Beautiful Discobolus, a Prince both among gods and men! What doest thou here, how tamest thou hither, Discobolus, Preaching gospel in vain to the kins of owls?' O God! O Montreal! And I turned to the man of skins and said unto him, 'O thou man of skins, Wherefore hast thou done thus to shame the beauty of the Discobolus?' But the Lord had hardened the heart of the man of skins And he answered, 'My brother-in-law is haberdasher to Mr. Spurgeon.'

It is exactly against that concept of the museum, in a world in which I believe the arts mean more to people than they have ever meant before, that one can only congratulate the Government on what they have done and hope that in the next few years they will continue to do a great deal more.

6.17 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) paid a tribute, and I believe a deserved tribute, to what has been achieved in the sphere of museums and the arts over the last three years, and described those achievements in a moderate and constructive speech. With the publication of the report to which he has drawn attention, the Report of the Committee on Provincial Museums and Galleries, Government policy towards museums has entered a new phase.

It would be right for me to pay tribute to the work in this respect of my right hon. and noble Friend the Paymaster-General. Although he is himself such a sophisticated and metropolitan figure, he has shown an unremitting concern for the regions which has given a Copernican turn to the whole of our arts policy. This report is very much his brainchild and comes as the culmination of a whole series of actions brought about by him.

I should like to quote from a survey which my right hon. and noble Friend made during a speech in Dundee on 13th April: Going back to the autumn of 1970, I was able to give the London lobby a fair hearing and then confirm the decision to put the National Railway Museum in York. Later we increased the amount of central funds out of which to help purchaser for provincial museums and set up two new funds, one for the acquisition and resulting expenses of industrial objects and the other for manuscripts and historical documents. We made special grants for the acquisition of exceptional works of art by provincial museums. We improved the conditions governing the acceptance of works of art in lieu of estate duty in such a way as to benefit provincial museums. We increased the grants to area museum councils. We drafted the new Act to encourage the reorganised local authorities to review the ownership and management of the museums in their areas with a good prospect of more satisfactory structures emerging from their deliberations. Lastly, as one of the conditions for the introduction of charges at national museums, I was authorised to set up the Wright Committee to review the needs of the provincial museums. That, as my hon. Friend said, is a proud record for which full credit should be given to the Paymaster-General.

The Government have already welcomed the report and have undertaken to give its recommendations full study in the light of the national resources which can be made available for the arts. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will give the closest attention to all the points which are raised in the report, and will pay particular regard to those which my hon. Friend has stressed.

It has already been possible to provide additional resources to meet some of the committee's recommendations. The fund administered by the Victoria and Albert Museum to assist purchases by local museums in England and Wales has been increased from £150,000 in 1972–73 to £400,000 in the current year. An entirely new fund of £150,000 has been set up in the current year to assist local museums to purchase material which is of interest in the technological and scientific fields. This fund is administered by the Science Museum. I have noted my hon. Friend's remarks about the Cottesloe Report.

Area museum councils have proved their worth since they were established in 1963 and, in recognition of the important part that these councils play in assisting the care and conservation of collections in provincial museums, their grant has been increased to £132,500 in 1973–74. It is proposed, subject to the approval of Parliament, to increase the grant up to £500,000 per annum over the next few years, in the hope that this will enable museums to gain the strong technical assistance they need.

The smaller museums cannot supply these services for themselves, and, as my hon. Friend said, they want help with conservation, they need help with display, with cataloguing, with temporary exhibitions and so on. The larger museums need extra funds with which to improve their own performance and to assist the smaller museums in their area to do likewise.

In addition to the increased financial aid for area museum councils, it is necessary to consider how best their organisation can be improved in order that they may develop in the way envisaged by the committee. The Department is about to enter into discussions with the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries with a view to exploring this issue further.

The report makes a number of sensible remarks about museum staff, and the Government share the view expressed by the committee, to which my hon. Friend referred, about the need for a proper career structure in the museum service. However, the recommendations are addressed to the employers of the staff, who are not the Government but the local authorities and a number of private persons or trusts. They alone can act upon these recommendations in the light of the overall conditions under which salaries can be raised, which are at present subject to the national incomes policy.

A number of other recommendations are addressed directly to those responsible for maintaining museums, and the Department has drawn the attention of local authorities to the report in a circular which invites them to study its contents carefully.

My hon. Friend went on to raise the issue of the connection of provincial museums with the educational process. I was glad to see that a section of the report is devoted to the part museums can play in the educational process. I think that there is a significant potential for development here and I should like to see the links with the educational services strengthened in the way the committee envisages.

Accommodation is a major problem and there is clear evidence that a backlog of building projects exists. However, the report has come out at a time when the Government have to cut down their own capital spending to make room for industrial investment, which I am glad to see is at last expanding. My hon. Friend recognised the restrictions which this situation places upon the Government. In addition, it must be remembered that the basic responsibility for housing their museums must rest with the authorities which maintain them. A sense of local involvement and responsibility is necessary and it is vitally important that the support of the authorities and the local community is enlisted in any campaign to improve the museum service.

For these reasons, the Government do not favour the proposal to set up an entirely new fund for housing the museums. It is no good setting up a fund unless there is adequate cash to put in it. To set up a fund without adequate cash would be counter-productive, because it would serve merely to stimulate demands which could not be met.

I know that this has caused disappointment to some people. The Government are prepared to assuage this disappointment by considering with the local authorities whether some form of central Government assistance, within the arts programme, would be justified in special cases of more than local significance. I hope that will go some way to meet the point raised by my hon. Friend.

It is intended to examine in detail ways in which such a scheme might be implemented in relation to institutions which have a national or regional significance. If a suitable scheme could be devised, it could serve as a means of encouraging a number of institutions to develop on the lines of the centres of excellence recommended in the report. These would then be able to undertake pastoral duties in relation to neighbouring institutions.

To sum up, the Government welcome the report wholeheartedly. It will prove a textbook for the future in this restricted but important field of provincial museums. We have accepted a number of the recommendations and we look forward to discussions with the local authorities and the museum authorities with a view to seeing how the recommendations in the report can be effectively and fully implemented.