HC Deb 03 February 1986 vol 91 cc94-100

'The Board of Governors of the Museum of London shall not dispose of any of the objects in their collections.'. — [Mr. Buchan.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Buchan

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

In the short time available it has not been possible to deploy all the arguments. However, they can be dealt with when the Bill goes to another place. I have no doubt that that will happen. I look forward with immense confidence to the Bill returning to this place after it has been passed by the House of Lords with new clause 1 added to it.

New clause 3 is a probing amendment. However, it goes further than that. We are anxious about the pressure that can be brought to bear upon the trustees and governors of museums. That is why this amendment has been tabled. We want an assurance from the Government that no objects in the Museum of London will be flogged off without the utmost consideration and care and without reference back to the Minister concerned.

8.15 pm

The Minister will appoint half the governors and trustees of the museum. A rampant and crude commercialism is the ideology and philosophy of this Government. They are cutting grants and support for the museums and thereby compelling boards of governors 10 behave in this way. Furthermore, because of the nature of certain appointments, action is taken that is in line with crude commercialism, instigated by the philosophy of the Prime Minister and this Government.

I have been very disturbed by what happened at the National Museum of Wales. There has been a great deal of correspondence about it, including a report in The Guardian. The keeper of the National Museum of Wales accepted an offer from a body called Brains Trust Incorporated to transfer to Japan one of the finest and best collections of impressionist paintings outside any capital city in Europe. It is an even better collection than the Glasgow collection, which is one of the most important of the provincial collections. Brains Trust Incorporated offered £250,000—although later evidence suggests that it offered £140,000—for the whole collection. It meant that the people of Wales would be deprived of the collection for a year while it was sent on exhibition to Japan. It would not have formed part of an educational tour, involving the British Council. The collection was to be shown inside a department store. It was a further extension of commercialism—the use of impressionist paintings to attract customers into a department store.

Mr. Clement Freud (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the exhibition was to be situated not only in a department store but in a distant corner of the top floor of that department store so that people would have to walk all over the store before they came to the art treasures?

Mr. Buchan

I understand that that was so. It is like one of those puzzles where one has to work oneself through to the end until one comes to the French impressionists, courtesy of Brains Trust Incorporated.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves his point about the Japanese department store, is he aware that Japanese department stores play a lively part in the patronage of the arts, particularly the patronage of living artists?

Mr. Buchan

That is quite true. When they can afford to pay this kind of money they have good reasons for doing so. However, without let or hindrance this collection of extremely valuable paintings went to Japan without the benefit of proper curatorial care. We do not want that to happen to the Museum of London's collections. We want to ensure that if it is the wish of the governors to lend any part of the museum's collections it should be done on a reciprocal basis. That has always been the case with art collections. We want the Minister to assure us that what has happened in Wales and elsewhere will not be allowed to happen to the collections in the Museum of London.

Mr. Alan Howarth

The hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) believes, it seems, that museums should never dispose of any of the objects in their collections. He has referred to his apprehension about the Government's rampant commercialism. I am apprehensive about the rampant reaction of the hon. Member for Paisley, South. He is the Bourbon of the world of the arts and the heritage.

To call somebody a Bourbon in the context of the arts and the heritage is not to disparage him, as hon. Members will recognise, but my anxiety about the hon. Gentleman is that he believes that nothing should ever change.

He reminds me of Charles X of France. The point of comparison is not that, as a young man, that monarch led a life of scandalous dissipation, although that is true, but that to a very high degree he believed in tradition. That was exemplified by the proceedings at his coronation service at Rheims which ran for very many hours. It was part of the antique ritual of that ceremony that the monarch should be pricked by a golden bodkin. It is easy to imagine or to fantasise that if the day comes when the hon. Member for Paisley, South finds that he is Minister for the Arts a similar grandiose and very beautiful ceremony will be performed. Charles X prostrated himself for 12 hours during the ceremony. One can imagine the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) as his acolyte administering the puncture with the golden bodkin. One could also fantasise about the hon. Gentleman attempting to press the bodkin home a little deep. But, be that as it may, if I were to pursue that line of thought no doubt you would rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

However, I want to advance a serious objection to what is being proposed by the Labour party. It is the mark of all good collectors, whether private or museums, that they seek to improve the quality of their collection. It would be a mistake in the case of an important museum such as the Museum of London, which has a serious responsibility to preserve and archive material of great importance relating to the history of London, to rule that neither the directors nor the trustees should ever have the power to dispose of objects that were of trivial or minor importance and not worthy to be in the collection. We should be prepared to advance and to be a little more open-minded in that respect.

There must, of course, be safeguards. It is important to provide that a future director should not be able to succumb to the caprices of collecting fashions and dispose of objects at his sole discretion which might, by a wider judgment and the judgment of posterity, be objects of genuine importance that should be in the collection. But one can provide against that by requiring that the trustees should have a right of ultimate decision or by some such procedure. But it would be a mistake not to provide that there should be power to dispose of objects of second-rate importance.

Mr. Freud

In that case, will the hon Gentleman accept that it would be helpful if the governors came from three different stables rather than two?

Mr. Howarth

I do not think that that is essential to the point of principle that I am trying to establish. For example, in America it is a much more widely accepted practice that museums should be free to dispose of minor objects. That is one reason—among many others—why the quality of collections in many American museums and galleries has been enhanced over the years. I do not want to debar that possibility from the Museum of London.

Finally, it is curious that Opposition Members, who are rightly anxious that more funding should be available to our museums and galleries, should want to preclude one minor, but none the less not insignificant, source of possible additional funding.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) told us in his concluding sentence all that we wanted to know in defence of the new clause. One would expect an hon. Member representing the constituency that the hon. Gentleman does to introduce into his speech so many literary and historial references. I can assure him that the people of Newham, North-West have still not finished talking about the coronation ceremony of Charles X.

The hon. Gentleman's last sentence lies behind this new clause. He said that there is this one way of raising money — renting out exhibits to other countries. I am completely in favour, as are all my hon. Friends, of the interchange of exhibits between museums internationally. One would want to see that happen. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) referred to the National Museum of Wales, and we have the feeling that that museum did what it did at precisely that time in order to raise funds because there was a great shortage within its budget. Therefore, its reason was not the high-flown one that we would support. Instead, it was done on a straightforward commercial consideration.

The Opposition have said consistently in Committee and on other occasions that we can see the time coming when the Government, in attempting to cut public expenditure as they have attempted to do unsuccessfully for years, will look to the soft underbelly of the arts, the museums and library services in order to try to make some token savings, forcing those arts institutions into the market place in a way that is conducive neither to the interests of the museums nor to the interests of the consumer—the public who pay through their rates and taxes for the museums and art galleries to be maintained. Just as we saw the National Museum of Wales accepting a pretty measly amount of money for the cream of its exhibits for a year, we can see in the figures that have been released tonight from the Victoria and Albert that it has been forced into introducing a scheme for voluntary admission charges, not because, as one understands from the director of the Victoria and Albert, they want to do it as a matter of principle, but because they have been forced to do it through not having sufficient funds for the museum's activities.

The Minister might say that we are being somewhat alarmist, but it is our duty to look to the future. After all, the future is with us, not with the Conservative party. We are worried that in the short time before a Labour Government are restored and my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South is gracing the Government Front Bench as the new Minister for the Arts, perhaps museums will start selling off some of their exhibits in order to raise cash because the Government have squeezed them.

Those are the reasons for the new clause, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

I must speak on this new clause because it is rubbish. It is greater rubbish than any new clause or amendment that was tabled in Committee. Not only is it nonsense, but it does not even mean what Labour Members intend it to mean. It says that the museum shall not dispose of any of the objects in its collection. Surely, if a person rents out an item he retains ownership of that item, while losing possession temporarily. Therefore, the clause would not debar anybody from renting out property.

Secondly, I wonder just how sterile it is to fetter directors of the new Museum of London right from the start in not being able to dispose of certain objects on display. Not all the objects are ancient artefacts. Some are models which the museum might want to sell to schools for educational purposes or to other museums to demonstrate the history of London.

Thirdly, I wonder whether the new clause is consistent with the Labour party's policy on museums. If the British Museum were to transfer the Elgin marbles to the Museum of London, the Museum of London would not be able to sell the Elgin marbles. If this new clause were to apply to the British Museum, the Elgin marbles could not be returned, which I believe is the Labour party's policy. For those three reasons the new clause is nonsense and I beg the House to reject it.

Mr. Spearing

A few weeks ago I too might have thought that the new clause was otiose or went too far by way of safeguard. But I do not feel that today after having sat in Committee and knowing a little of the extent to which the Government and their representatives and nominees are going in respect of Britain's assets.

The hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) spoke of the Elgin marbles. They are not Britain's assets; they are the assets of Greece. We know that there has been some discussion about their future. Almost by definition any of the objects in their collection"— presumably, at the time that Royal Assent is obtained—relates specifically to London. That is the difference between this museum and the British Museum or the National Museum of Wales.

Therefore, by definition, if anything at all is to be sold it will be sold to either a London organisation for storage or display inside London—the Inner London education authority has been mentioned—or it will be sold outside London altogether. That, almost by definition, would be undesirable, or at least there would have to be a strong case for so doing in terms of sale rather than by loan or overseas exhibit.

Unfortunately, the members of the governing body who would take such decisions will be nominees of the Prime Minister of the day. I do not know how long the present Prime Minister will stay in her position—there have been a number of varying estimates in the past day or two —or who her successor might be, or whether there will be a Tory successor. The other governors will be nominees of the City of London. We have been over this in Committee but I say again that such a board of governors would not enjoy the same confidence of a Labour Government as would the existing board of governors.

8.30 pm

A few weeks ago, one might have said that any reasonable person would not be irresponsible in selling off artefacts or exhibition material from London, for example from some useful and interesting exhibit of the 1930s. The London museum has a 1930s shop —a Boots or a Woolworth—which is well laid out.

The Government are selling off all sorts of national assets. Who would have believed even two years ago that a Government would tell the House that they were expecting to dispose of Land. Rover? If the Government can do that, their nominees can act irresponsibly towards the objects that have been collected to represent London.

Mr. Luce

My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), at an early stage, asked us to use our imaginations to the full, and he discussed issues such as the coronation of Charles X. Tempted though I am, I shall not be drawn into this exciting debate. In the second part of his speech my hon. Friend made the important point, which was backed by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), that we should not fetter the museum. We should not allow the total immobility in the movement of objects of art between museums that the clause would bring about. It says: The Board of Governors of the Museum of London shall not dispose of any of the objects in their collections. Therefore, it is extremely restrictive. It would be wrong and impracticable for an institution such as the Museum of London to have such a clause imposed upon it.

The existing Museum of London Act 1965 has in section 5 a thoughtful and carefully drafted provision, which gives adequate safeguards and provides a sensible flexibility to the board of governors. The 1965 Act allows the board to dispose of objects, but only if the object is a duplicate or if it is not, in the opinion of the board, required for retention in the collection. It goes on to say that at least two thirds of the members of the board of governors must approve of any disposal before it takes place. It makes other safeguards for objects vested in the board under particular trust conditions.

We can count on the board to maintain and enhance the museum's collection, to present a picture of London's history that is as complete and representative as possible. That is one of its main aims, but the 1965 Act rightly allows for a little manoeuvre o dispose of duplicates and certain other objects as well. The present law should stand.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) suggested, at least by implication, that the Government were likely to starve museums of funds. It has now been confirmed that the City Corporation will match our contribution of £2.25 million to the museum, and therefore there will now be a 10 per cent. increase in the budget for the coming financial year. There could not be a better sign of our commitment to the museum. There is no question but that we shall continue basic funding. There is that assurance.

The law has worked perfectly well under the 1965 Act, which has been in operation for 10 years. With the criteria about the disposal of objects of art, it has worked successfully. I see no reason why we should change the present rules. It would be wrong to impose immobility on the movements of objects of art, which is what the new clause proposes. It is better to have the existing safeguard under the board of governors, which is in an appropriate position to make sensible judgments. I ask the House to reject the new clause.

Mr. Buchan

I must express my intense disappointment at the extraordinary way in which the probing amendment has been received. I had thought that the Minister would immediately accept the principle that inspired the amendment and would have agreed to the House of Lords bringing in a more appropriately worded amendment. However, we are dealing with a Government that are very different from that who brought in the 1965 Act. Proper qualifications were written into the 1965 Act, but they are not qualifications with which I would trust this Government. Nor are the nominees that they will appoint necessarily the ones I would agree to.

A Labour Government brought in the 1965 Act. It says that there can be no transfer of objects unless it is approved by not less than two-thirds of the governors for the time being. That was at a time when the board was made up of three separately appointed thirds, but now it is a board entirely composed of Government nominees and, of all "uncommercial" bodies, the City of London. I would not trust my bodkin to such a body. There are good reasons why we put this to the "àl 'outrance", as they probably said at the time of Charles X, because we cannot trust this lot.

There is another reason for the clause. We are not saying that it is necessarily a bad thing for museums to interchange or to loan. There may even be an occasion when such a provision might extend to other sections, for example when there are duplicate copies of instruments. However, we want such movement to be rare, qualified and taken care of by a properly democratic board of governors, not one appointed by this Government.

A final reason for the new clause is that we shall be in power in two years. We are willing to have an absolute regulation, not for all time to come, but a stop placed on the actions of this Government and their board during the following two years. Given the disappointing answer, we can no longer treat this as a probing amendment but as a correct and firm amendment and a moderate assessment of the position that we are facing.

Mr. Tony Banks

Put it to the vote.

Mr. Buchan

I would do so, but I do not wish to summon up the armies of support behind this new clause. The Bill will go to another place, as Joan of Arc had to do at Rheims, so that she could deal with her acupunctured monarch. We shall leave it to the good sense of the House of Lords. Therefore, despite pleas to the contrary, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Tony Banks

Take no prisoners.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Is it your pleasure that the new clause be withdrawn?

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn, Hatfield)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that his vote must follow his voice.

Mr. Murphy

Very well.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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