HC Deb 14 March 1991 vol 187 cc1244-59 1.31 am
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

This debate takes place in what we deem to be today, while the rest of the world considers it to be tomorrow. When we reach what will be accepted by them as being today, I think that our yesterday will have been impossible, even on a 24-hour clock. This is an arts debate, so it might be appropriate to sum up the predicament with our hours by recalling the words of Walter de la Mare's "Peacock Pie" poem, "Poor Jim Jay":

  • "Do-Diddle-Di-Do Poor Jim Jay
  • Got stuck fast in yesterday …
  • We pulled, we pulled from 7 til 12
  • Jim too frightened to help himself
  • But all in vain the clock struck 1
  • And there was Jim a little bit gone …
  • At half past 5 you scarce could see
  • A glimse of his flapping handkerchee …
  • Come tomorrow the neighbours say
  • He'll be past crying for, Poor Jim Jay."
I sympathise with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and with the staff of the House who have to stay up this night——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

And tomorrow

Mr. Bowis

Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts and to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) for being here. They have at least one thing in common—both have been recent and most welcome visitors to the Battersea arts centre, in which I must declare a non-pecuniary, if not impecunious interest as a director, unpaid. I also declare my past, even somewhat pecuniary, interest in a company which had an interest in the project for a museum of building.

I am sorry that no Liberal Democrat Member is with us tonight—in fact, none has appeared for any of the five debates so far. I had hoped that one might have come to this debate, because when I was looking at the artwork for the natural history museum logo I noticed a symbol that looked remarkably like the symbol of the Liberal Democrats—the phoenix—and I had hoped that the Liberals would explain that

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

In complimenting people in the Chamber, the hon. Gentleman left out the Opposition Whip, who has a particular interest in the arts. Moreover, when the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) has gone to bed, I shall be here all night as the duty Whip. The hon. Gentleman left me out

Mr. Bowis

I would not dream of ignoring the two artistic usual channels. I should not omit my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden): Dulwich is synonymous with the arts because of its collections and the eloquence of its hon. Member on their behalf.

Our view of museums is conditioned from childhood. From our early days of sticking our pictures up on walls, we come to appreciate that, if something is good, it is hung up for people to go and see. We gradually learn about the past, and our curiosity causes us to want to discover what the past is all about. We therefore begin to visit museums. However, when I was a child, my local museums were predominantly dull and the national museums were overwhelming, if not forbiding.

I have seen a dramatic change in the outlook, presentation and interest in museums. If we visit what the former Minister for the Arts, my right hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Sir R. Luce) described as the mosaic of museums, it is clear how museums have improved, how much more welcoming they are, how much more there is to do in them and how much more understandable are the exhibits. The museums and galleries industry must take great credit for that.

Museums date back many centuries. The first museum opened to the public was the Royal Armouries in the time of Charles II. The British and Scottish museums were opened in the 18th century and there was a great expansion in the number of museums in the last 20 years of the 19th century. There were about 200 local museums by the 1890s. There was a great post-war expansion through the 1970s, totalling 950 museums, and there are more than 2,500 museums today.

There has been a dramatic increase recently in the number of museums. In particular, many independent museums have started up and there has been much innovative work. For example, there is an exhibition of trainers at the science museum sponsored by a well-known sportswear company. It is clear that museum curators and administrators have altered their approach, and that is welcome. It enlivens museums.

When we consider museums, we are not simply considering the most obvious establishments. Galleries and museums in many other areas are connected with the arts. I pay great credit to the south bank, the national theatre and the Barbican for the way in which they and others have contributed gallery space in London.

The Museums Association was 100 years old in 1989; it celebrated with Museums Year, which brought a new awareness to the public of what is available in our museums. There are many types of museum. Some house personal collections such as the Burrell collection and the Greenwich fan museum. Many museums record local history and artistic achievement. Others, like the theatre museum and the museum of the moving image, reflect the performing arts. There are also the national collections, which I would describe as Stanley Gibbons collections, in which the aim is to have one of everything.

The aim of our museums should be to bring together the facts, and often the artefacts, of the past so that we can educate and stimulate the current generation and provide a heritage for future generations. The Government have a good story to tell, and it is because I am confident in the quality of their achievement to date that in this debate I shall press them to go yet further. We have nothing to be ashamed of in our record on funding of the arts. On funding of our national museums and galleries, we have a superb record.

In 1985, we were funding museums to the tune of £81 million. By 1990, that was up to £165 million, with a further £10 million going to the Museums and Galleries Commission. I mention that because when, I served on the Standing Committee on the Education Reform Bill, I and other colleagues spent some time ensuring that the Horniman and Geffrye museums became national museums independent of local authorities. Some of the increase from £3 million to £10 million and to £12 million in a couple of years is to ensure that those museums can flourish. It was a great joy to see them launched with independent status. We wish them well. By 1993, the figure will be up to £193 million, including the £12 million to which I referred.

Our record on funding is good on buildings and pretty adequate on the running costs. I shall come back to the purchase grants, which have been more frozen than progressive. Some 80 per cent. of the running costs of our national museums and galleries are staff-related. Staff are tied to the civil service. The commission has recommended in the past that that should be looked at. I hope that my right hon. Friend is considering whether the automatic tie to civil service grades is in the best interests of the museums, particularly at a time when the staff seem to question that link.

We should seek ways of increasing purchase grants. We have almost said that because purchasing costs have risen so much and so quickly, it is impossible to keep up. We must ensure that we can continue adding to our collections. Of course, there are many ways of doing that. But central Government funding, as well as sponsorship, donations and so on, has a part to play.

I commend the work of our national museums in expanding outside their home cities. Often, the home city is London. There are 45 branches of the national bodies in other locations, 11 of which have been formed in the past 10 years. I cite the two satellites—if that is the right word—of the science museum at York and Bradford. I welcome the improvement fund for exhibition spaces, which has enabled much good work to be done. We have seen the first chunk of that. I hope that we shall hear soon that more money is to come from that fund in the next round of contributions.

Of course, there has also been a great increase in sponsorship. It has been a success story. One could list the Clore and Sainsbury galleries, as well as the Tsui gallery—if that is how it is Pronounced—the Chinese gallery at the Victoria and Albert museum. I bow to any experts on Chinese pronunciation. There are other sponsorships of buildings and galleries which are less well known by name. Exhibitions are also sponsored. When I was on my Parliament and Industry Trust with Esso, it was sponsoring some exhibitions of how paintings came to be made—both Italian paintings and Impressionist paintings. Both exhibitions were held at the national gallery. It is great news that such companies contribute to our arts heritage in that way.

We must always remind ourselves of the role of Government in funding and of the need for it. We do not have our resident anti-funder in this debate. However, this is a moment to remind ourselves of one or two areas in which funding is right and should be adhered to. I think especially of the role of funding in enabling our racial minorities to see their ethnic background, history and culture described and laid out in exhibition form. It is good for them to be able to see and understand their culture, and it is good for the nation as a whole to understand the cultures of people living in our midst. We are a multi-ethnic society, so it is helpful for the cohesion of our society if we see and understand the backgrounds of our component parts.

Another reason for the Government role in funding is the need to understand the aesthetics of our environment. If we can educate our young people in the aesthetics of the environment, we shall have a society that begins to put the right pressures on our architects and planners. We might then be able to move away from the too frequent power of the believers in utilitarianism and social collectivism, and return to the priority of a more aesthetic environment. That requires education and the ability to have aesthetic matters set out in visible form in our galleries and museums. We should keep referring to the fact that the arts need the involvement of the Government as nurturer, encourager and promoter of high standards and popular involvement, but not as the piper-payer who calls the tune, and not in such a way that the arts become a wholly owned subsidiary of Government.

We should encourage the arts to lobby. That may seem an odd thing to say, but I believe that this place is woefully lacking in understanding of the arts, which is partly the fault of the arts. The more that we can persuade people involved in the arts to ensure that they keep close to Members of Parliament, the more Members of Parliament will understand the needs of the arts and place them appropriately in their list of priorities for public funding.

This week, of all weeks, we can remind the Treasury of the income that comes from the arts, from overseas earnings and from areas that the Treasury does not recall as being part of the benefits from the arts. Tax comes from the taxi fares and from the restaurants that cater for people who come to this country and attend arts events. They spend not only in the theatre, the gallery or the museum, but outside. Much consequential revenue comes in to the Inland Revenue, which is part of the benefit of the arts to the Exchequer. The Chancellor recognises arts as an ally and a friend. If he wants to repay that confidence, he should examine the subject of taxes on the arts. If taxes were removed from the arts, there might be slightly less need to go to the Treasury for yet more funding. One can fund the arts by removing burdens as well as by positive funding.

One of the many controversies is the question of admission charges to our national galleries and museums. I do not take a strong line either way on that. The Government are right to say that there is and will be no compulsion. There are dangers in charges if they risk deterring people, especially young people, from going regularly to galleries and museums.

On the other hand, the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Brado all benefit from charges. Statistics for the museum of the moving image show that charges do not deter, whereas at the natural history museum they may. Where there has been an impact, it is often a short-term dip from which the museum recovers, as happened at the national maritime museum. The figures are inconclusive. All I say is that we should consider the matter carefully. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that, where charges are made, they should not be taken into account in the Government's allocation of funding. That can be shown if one continues with three-year funding, because that is a sufficient period for it to be obvious if there is a change as a result of particularly successful fund raising.

Having said that, I hope that we will persuade our museums and galleries to look for ways of making people open their purses once they are in, whether or not they have been charged an entrance fee. I also hope that we can persuade our museums and galleries to open when the public wish to visit them, particularly families with children, which is on bank holidays and at weekends, just when the museum may be under pressure from unions not to open. They must be told that they have to open, because that is part of their duty to the public.

I hope that we can go on pressing our museums and galleries to make themselves available to people with disabilities. There have already been great achievements in that area, but we still need to ensure that doors are wide enough and that there are ramps and lifts and so on. Then we need to make sure that wherever possible exhibits are made available to people such as the partially sighted by allowing them to touch them and by providing Braille notices. People with disabilities should have exactly the same opportunities as the rest of us within their own personal limits to benefit from our great collections.

I hope that we can persuade our galleries and museums to look into their cellars and to bring out items which do not often see the light of a display case and, where appropriate and possible, to send exhibits on tour and out on loan. In that context, I welcome the national indemnity scheme. It now covers some 15,000 items a year, saving museums some £5 million a year in insurance premiums. That is good, and I hope that it can be extended, because part of their duty should be to take their treasures, the lesser-known ones as well, out and about. I hope that we will encourage shops and other commercial possibilities inside museums. Trading income has quadrupled in the past four years or so.

The Royal Air Force museum at Hendon is a national museum, which, as my right hon. Friend will know, the Ministry of Defence controls. I hope that he will ask the Ministry of Defence to bring that museum into line with the rest of the museum world in three ways. First, the museum should have the right to spend its earned income. Secondly, it should have a purchase grant rather than having—as it does at the moment unlike almost every other museum—to put forward items that it wants to purchase before it gets a grant. Thirdly, it is high time the Ministry of Defence handed over the museum and vested it in trustees. All those recommendations have been made by the Museums and Galleries Commission, but nothing seems to have happened yet. It is not my right hon. Friend's responsibility, but I hope that he will put pressure on the Ministry of Defence to bring that about.

Earlier tonight, we debated lotteries. I shall not repeat what has already been said. I simply ask my right hon. Friend to, join my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) in supporting a lottery and take the case, no doubt privately, to the Treasury and suggest that that would be a good way of attracting additional voluntary contributions for the arts from the members of the public in lieu of taxation. That would be a signal benefit.

The vision of Derbyshire county council comes to mind when I think of disposal. I hope that it is ashamed of its appalling policy of selling its assets and collections purely to make a political point. I do not believe that the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central or for Ashfield will support that. No sane person who believes in the worth of our great collections would support what that council is doing, and I suggest that the law needs tightening. Our fairly tight laws on selling national collections should surely apply locally.

I hope that we shall encourage our museums to get together, where appropriate, to prevent duplication. The science museum, the imperial war museum and the Royal Air Force museum all collect aircraft, whereas sensible arrangements are made between the Victoria and Albert museum and the Tate gallery: the V and A limits its sculpture collection to pre-1920 and the Tate covers the period thereafter. That is a sensible way of ensuring that collections do not compete unnecessarily.

One of the targets of my right hon. Friend the Minister is to get buildings in good order for the millenium. Ove Arup is conducting a survey into the fabric of our national museum buildings. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend can say when we might expect some results from that.

If we can get buildings in good order, I hope we shall consider endowment funding so that we can give a generous capital sum, equivalent and more to the present rate of annual funding, to some of our institutions, which would allow them to plan ahead. It would give them the Wandsworth factor—a spending assessment allocated for a period of years to come on which it, with good management, could make efficiency savings and spend the extra money on other things.

The Museum Training Institute of the Museums Association operates an excellent training scheme, and I hope that it will report on its achievements. I also hope that it will consider increasing training for regional museum staff from national museum resources.

I have urged my right hon. Friend for more and have given him much credit for what he has done, but I make three final pleas. The first is that we consider specific grant funding for the arts, down to local government. I know that that is not a matter for my right hon. Friend, but it is a message for him to pass on. Secondly, the BBC, ITV and the satellite companies—one thinks of the Sunday arts programmes on the old BSB Marcopolo channel—are good at portraying the arts, but they have not done museums and galleries proud, and they could do more to popularise those splendid national institutions.

Architecture does not yet have a national museum. The Royal Institute of British Architects has a gallery, but there is no national museum of architecture. I must declare an interest, in that my daughter is a student of architecture. Perhaps her work will one day qualify for inclusion in such a museum. Battersea power station in my constituency might be an appropriate building to house that museum. I hope that my right hon. Friend will pursue with vigour the idea of a museum of architecture.

The Museums and Galleries Commission said in its report: The national museums are a magnificent inheritance, held in trust for the future; they are a national and international asset of unrivalled quality and also a significant economic asset. That is right. It is also right that Members of Parliament are the trustees of those assets on behalf of our children and our children's children. We have a duty to ensure that they flourish. We also have a duty to ensure that our national museums fulfil their duty, set down by the Museums and Galleries Commission, to promote public understanding and enjoyment. If we combine those two purposes, the galleries and museums will be doing their job, and we shall be doing ours.

2.1 am

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) on his good fortune in securing this debate and on his good sense in selecting this subject for debate. Once again, he showed that he has a real knowledge and understanding of and an enthusiasm for the arts. I agree and sympathise with much that he said. I was particularly glad that he mentioned the needs of architecture, a subject to which I shall return. I suspect that the Minister is also grateful for this excellent opportunity to present to the House his policy on museums, something that until now he has been unable to do.

The Minister's inheritance is very interesting. It is a mixed inheritance, but much of it is extremely good. We have a superb range of museums that rightly enjoy an enormous international reputation, due to the quality of their curators. They are a match for anyone in the world, and they are admired and respected throughout the world for the scholarship, range and quality of the collections. Our reputation in international circles is growing, due to the quality of our exhibitions.

During the last few years, some of our national museums have been restored to their former greatness. Alfred Waterhouse's natural history museum has been restored to its original form and colour. When I was a child, I regarded it as a black, frightening and rather depressing building. It is now a joy to see the original pastel colours of the brick, which enable us to appreciate a great piece of 19th-century architecture.

Compared with 10 years ago, the number of people visiting our national museums has increased. The Tate in the North and the national museum of photography, film and television in Bradford are most welcome developments.

Given that the Minister has inherited a collection of national museums of such range and quality, that should offer him the basis for exciting expansion. Unfortunately, over the past few years the Government have tended to see it as an excuse for neglect. Our national museums are in an appalling state of repair. I differed from the hon. Member for Battersea when he seemed to say that the Government's record on buildings was good. It is a disgrace.

The hon. Gentleman should know from talking to any of the directors of the national museums—the Tate, the Victoria and Albert and others—that the money needed runs into millions of pounds. The Tate identifies its need as £27 million or more. The V and A estimates that it needs £100 million just to put the building right. The Government have been in office now for 12 years, and the fact that they have allowed this state of affairs to develop is not to their credit.

The hon. Member for Battersea recognised the Government's poor record on acquisition funds, many of which have been frozen for seven years. It is self-destructive to deny museums the ability to keep their collections up to date and to turn them into living organisms rather than just historic collections.

The hon. Gentleman seemed to misunderstand the problem of staffing and core funding of museums. He said that 80 per cent. of costs were staff-related. Because of the squeeze on museums' funding, museums such as the Victoria and Albert are finding that almost 100 per cent. of their grant in aid from the Office of Arts and Libraries goes on staffing costs. That is why staff numbers have been cut. There are unfilled vacancies in the British museum and the natural history museum. Posts in the museum of London have been terminated——


I was thinking of the £189 million that has been allocated for buildings for the next three years. As for staffing, I echoed the recommendation of the Museums and Galleries Commission to the effect that staff pay was unfairly tied to civil service pay rates. The commission made a plea that the system should be loosened up, although it understood the difficulties that that might cause. I accept, however, that a high proportion of running costs are staff-related

Mr. Fisher

The fabric of museums, acquisition funds and staff costs all present the Government and the country with a problem. Unfilled posts affect the services that museums can provide—in scholarship, in skills and in the management of their collections. It is because these elements of our great museums are under such pressure due to inadequate core funding that morale in many of them—I instance the natural history museum—is at such a low ebb.

The Minister's challenge is to put all this right. He will not have many weeks or months in which to do so, but he can at least make a start by putting right the financial neglect that is the legacy of his predecessors in office. The real problem has been—I hope that the Minister will discuss this—the fact that the Government have not had a museums policy. Rather, they have a hands-off financial policy that restricts public expenditure wherever possible, and passes on responsibility to others.

The Government claim that it is up to the trustees whether they charge for admission. The hon. Member for Battersea fell into that trap, when he said that there was no compulsion to charge, as though museums were looking for opportunities to charge. I challenge him to find a single director of a national museum who says that charging improves the quality of his museums, and that, no matter how well the Government fund it, he wants to charge for admission because it enriches its cultural, educational and scholastic skills. Both the hon. Gentleman and the Minister know that that is not so. Trustees of museums such as the science museum and the natural history museum have had to charge because they have had no other option. Inadequate Government funding is an implicit compulsion, and it is disingenuous to suggest anything else.

It is not good enough for the Government to pass on responsibility to the trustees and say that they have nothing to do with what goes on. They should accept responsibility for the core funding of our national museums, and not leave it all to sponsors. There are some good sponsors. For example, British Petroleum has done magnificent work in helping with the re-hang of the Tate. Nor is it good enough to leave it to earning income through shops. That does not address the scale of the capital and revenue needs of the national museums.

The Government's problem is that they have not formed a coherent view, because they do not appear to have a cultural view and valuation of museums or an educational view and valuation of museums. If they do have one, it is at odds with that of the Department of Education and Science. The hon. Member for Battersea will remember, because he served on the Committee that examined the Bill, that the Education Reform Act 1988 put a squeeze on school visits, and that has damaged museums.

The science museum does excellent work. Its education department has a superb and imaginative programme and 7,000 schools visit every year, but organised museum visits by schools are in decline because of the Government's education policies. I fear that the local management of schools will make that more rather than less acute. If the Government do not understand how crucial are museums for the educational future of our children and our country, they are misunderstanding the role of museums.

It is curious that the Government—who, to their credit, are saying through the GCSE syllabus and the national curriculum that children should have hands-on experience in science, history and the social sciences and go to prime resources to see the objects about which they are learning—are also perversely initiating policies that reduce the number of school visits and are so reducing the finances of national museums that they cannot expand their education departments to take the opportunities that those education policies are opening up.

What is most perverse is not that the Government do not have a cultural or educational perspective of museums but that they do not have an economic policy for them. One would have thought that this Government—the great proponents of the free market—would at least understand the economic impact of museums. The Policy Studies Institute and others have done plenty of work in this sector. Cities such as Bradford demonstrated in a condensed and clear form what an enormous contribution—not just through tourism but generally—the museums of this country make to economic life and employment.

One would have thought that that would commend itself to the Government and the Minister, and allow him to make a positive case for expansion in investment in museums, but that does not seem to be the case. The Government do not understand their own free market economic case. That may not be anything like as important as the cultural case, but it is still a potent argument, and one that the Minister's predecessors have not deployed sufficiently or effectively, because investment in museums has not increased as it should.

I ask the Minister to examine the opportunities that have opened up for the Government and for whomever is in government in the 1990s. He could make a start. I am sure that he has visited Glasgow, a city which has invested substantially in museums, including the Burrell, Kelvingrove and the People's Palace. The city has a coherent cultural, educational and economic view. It has deemed it worth while to put a large proportion of ratepayers' money into its museums and has changed the image and reputation of the city as a result, or substantially so. If the Government had had the same positive and imaginative approach towards the national museums that Glasgow has had to its city museums, the cultural reputation of the United Kingdom would be very different, and much higher.

Perhaps the Minister should travel a little, and not only to Glasgow. He should visit Paris, for example. I am sure that he would enjoy the visit enormously. The French Government have grasped the opportunities that were available in the 1980s for national museums. They have opened up the old Gare d'Orsay into the Musée d'Orsay. They have opened a huge new science museum at La Villette, which involved vast investment. They have created the Pompidou centre, which is visited by 7.5 million a year. To take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Battersea about architecture, they have opened in the Asenal a huge centre that is effectively a forum arid museum for study and for focusing debate on architecture.

They have contributed considerably to greater interest and enthusiasm in public architecture, and in its quality too. The private sector is included, as well as the public sector.

The Minister would enjoy visiting the museums and centres to which I have referred. I believe that he would return inspired. If he takes a trip to Paris, he should extend his journey by travelling to Frankfurt. There he would see the most spectacular example of a city where the commitment to expanding its cultural sector and its museums is reflected in almost every street. Frankfurt has an extremely good architectural museum. It has commissioned new architects such as Richard Meier to create new museums such as the kunstandwerk museum and the museum of ethnology, which will open in 1992. There is Hans Hollem's museum of modern art and Unger's ikonmuseum. The Rothschild mansion has been converted into the Judisches museum. There is the museum of antique sculpture and Josef Kleihner's museum of pre and early history. If the Minister visited Frankfurt, he would see a city that has a pride in its past and a confidence in its future. It has invested in museums and is reaping the benefit in the number of visitors that it is attracting. The museum sector is making an important contribution to the identity and cohesion of the city.

We have a much stronger starting base in our national museums. If only we had a Government with the confidence to invest, we could grasp the opportunities that are available to us. When we compare what has happened in Paris over the past 10 years and what is happening in Frankfurt with the national museums in London, we see that our record is a bleak one. The only two substantial museums that have opened in the past few years in London have been the design museum and the museum of the moving image. Neither has received a penny from public funding.

The design museum is preparing plans and an argument—this is, if it is to develop and fulfil its enormously exciting potential—for public investment. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic. Sir Terence Conlan and the other trustees who have set up the museum have created something in which we as a society should invest. They have given us the opportunity, and we should grasp it. Similarly, if we are ever to revive our film industry, the museum of the moving image must be recognised as worthy of public support.

There is something for the Minister to go at as well. He has a superb base to start with, but he also has a great deal of work to do to recover the lost ground which has been allowed to slide away in the last 12 years in buildings, in the frozen nature of acquisitions and in the crisis in staffing.

The Minister has probably only a few weeks left in office. Perhaps he could start on that agenda now and enjoy himself by going to Paris and Frankfurt. He could come back inspired to make a better stab at it in future.

2.19 am
The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Tim Renton)

We have had a short, entertaining and useful debate. I am flattered that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) wishes me to spend, as he put it, my last few weeks as Arts Minister touring Frankfurt and Paris. Perhaps there is malign intent. Perhaps he feels that if I did that he would have a greater chance of taking my job than would otherwise be likely.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) for arranging for us to have the debate, even at this unfriendly hour, and I thank him for his elegant and well-informed words on museums and galleries. He quoted Walter de la Mare in regard to the sense almost of timelessness that one has when debating at 2 o'clock in the morning. That sense of timelessness is perhaps appropriate to the subject of museums. As he was quoting Walter de la Mare, I was thinking of the lines of Andrew Marvell in introduction to his short poem, "To His Coy Mistress":

  • "Had we but world enough, and time,
  • This coyness, Lady, were no crime
  • We would sit down, and think which way
  • To walk, and pass our long love's day.
That is a good way to consider how to fill a debate at 2 o'clock in the morning. At that moment we were disturbed by the arrival of the hon: Member for Asfield (Mr. Haynes)—I am sorry that he has left the Chamber, but in no sense could the word "coy" ever be applied to the hon. Gentlemen, so my thoughts of Andrew Marvell disappeared quickly

Mr. Fisher

The Minister should reconsider his incitement to the House to go along the lines of Andrew Marvell. He will know that the rest of the poem is about fornication, or seduction leading to fornication. I am not sure that the House should indulge in that poem, if that is what he meant

Mr. Renton

On the other hand, in his closing words, the hon. Gentleman, was trying to remind me of the refrain in that poem: But at my back I always hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near. That is precisely why he was telling me to go off to Frankfurt rather quickly.

In the course of yesterday, which already seems a long time ago, I had the opportunity to visit two museums. During both visits I was reminded of some of the points that my hon. Friend the Minister for Battersea has made, but also of our efficacy in dealing with some of the problems about which he spoke. Between my visits to the two museums, I had a short time at the Dulwich art gallery which is well known to my hon. Friend the Minister for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), who was kind enough to be with us during this debate.

The first museum which I visited yesterday was the Horniman. I was there for the opening of the exhibition devoted to Yoruba, a celebration of African art. That exhibition is a remarkable departure for the Horniman. It is unlike the museum's normal ethnographic exhibitions and its well-known exhibition of musical instruments. It shows great enterprise. It will appeal to many people, and especially to the Afro-Caribbeans who live in the area; they will have the opportunity to see an important display of past and contemporary African, and particularly Nigerian, art.

More specifically, I was shown by the director of the museum the lift that is being installed for the disabled so that it will be easier for them to visit the aquarium when it re-opens later this year. The museum has spent quite a lot of money on renovating it. Some of the money was from an improvement grant, jointly funded by ourselves and the Wolfson charities.

The other museum that I visited in the course of the last 24 hours was the Soane museum in Lincoln's Inn, which is receiving substantial repairs to its roof, funded by the MEPC property company and my office—each contributing £.1 million over five years. That work will, among other things, enable the antiquities collected by Sir John Soane to be restored to his study, and for part of the museum's huge collection of architectural prints by Soane and Adam to be viewed by tourists and other visitors in a manner not previously possible.

At both those small but important museums, we are undertaking—with the help of sponsorship, private patrons, or charities such as the Wolfson foundation—the kind of improvements mentioned by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, enabling collections to be better displayed, and allowing the disabled an opportunity to enjoy them more easily.

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in his place, and I am sure that the Whip on the bench will convey to him the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea about the RAF museum at Hendon.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, not surprisingly, made a certain amount of play about lack of museum funding, to which I shall refer shortly. More importantly, he accused the Government of a lack of policy and having no sense of vision. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea referred to a recent change of outlook. There might have been some measure of truth four or five years ago in the observation of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. In the mid-1980s, the museum world suffered a crisis of confidence, which coincided with lengthy consideration by my distinguished predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr Luce), of whether to introduce museum admission charges.

My right hon. Friend reached the conclusion that the decision should be left to the museums' individual management, trustees, or boards of director. It is official Labour party policy not to continue with charging. Setting aside the question of undermining the philosophy behind that policy, what does the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central suggest should be done, for example, in the case of the museum of the moving image, which was specifically introduced as a museum that charged admission, and which intends to meet its expenses as a result? Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that its costs should be met entirely from public funds? If so, that would be a foolish reversal of the policy adopted by that extremely successful museum. The hon. Gentleman seems anxious to get to his feet to tell the House that Labour intends to place yet another burden on the taxpayer, so I will allow him time to do so

Mr. Fisher

The Minister has not been long in post, but he ought to have read his background briefing. Our criticism of charging for admission relates to public museums, for which the state has a responsibility. No one disputes the right of independent museums throughout the country, such as the museum of the moving image, which are not part of that network, to make admission charges. We argue only against charging at nationally funded museums for which the public have a responsibility, and in respect of which the Government have a duty to widen access, not diminish it. It is the decline in access that is the consequence of the imposition of admission charges that we so deplore

Mr. Renton

The hon. Gentleman is playing with words. The museum of the moving image is part of the south bank centre

Mr. Fisher

It is independently funded and does not receive public money

Mr. Renton

The south bank centre is not totally privately funded. It gets a large part of its funds from the Government, from the Office of Arts and Libraries, from my Department, and there is that important space available which, if it were not used for a charging museum, could be used for something else.

However, I do not think that that is a proper line for us to pursue at the moment. As with so many issues, I do not think that the Labour party has worked out its policy clearly on this.

The directors of both the science museum and the natural history museum—the two most evident museums which decided, with their trustees, to introduce charges—pointed out to me, in discussions that I have had with them since becoming Minister for the Arts, the improvements in service and display that have derived from charging in their establishments. They do not think that charging is a backward step. They reckon that, for example, it has prompted them to provide much better services within the museum for their customers.

I do not think that the directors of those two museums would wish to recoil and depart from the charging principle. Charging gives them financial flexibilities, which derive from self-engendered funding because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea asked, the moneys that they bring in from charging are not deducted from their three-year funding but are in addition and they have flexibility as to how they are used.

As regards the broader point, the decisions that flowed from charging brought about the new atmosphere—the change in outlook to which my hon. Friend referred. Now, we have a far greater sense of confidence in many of our national museums—a sense of direction, or knowledge in where they are trying to go to—than was the case five years ago. We see that in the exhibitions and the displays that those museums are putting on.

Much publicity has been given to the new ecology gallery at the natural history museum. It has been described in exciting terms: One end of this 50 yard long chasm is a life-size replica of a patch of rain forest, made of plastic. At the other, mirrors and a square-shaped wall of 20 video screens are combined to give the illusion of a huge animated hemisphere. The on-screen images trace the hydrological cycle of rainfall, evaporation and cloud formation. What is the purpose of that? It is to show off in the natural history museum the basic history of ecology in a manner that is exciting and scientifically correct, but will stimulate interest among families and children.

It is that evolution towards exciting, often "hands-on", displays at the natural history museum, the science museum, the imperial war museum—with their recently opened "experiences" which go by the names of Blitz and Trench—and increasingly at the national maritime museum, and the determination to show off their collections in a manner that the public will find attractive and interesting, but that will not detract from experts' interest, that is giving a new sense of confidence and determination to so many of our national museums.

They are not all there yet. Here I agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. Some of our major museums are still in some doubts as to the direction in which they should go, and have difficulty in making the decisions as to how they can both win over the family with interesting exhibitions, yet keep the interest of the experts who have used access to their museums for so long.

By and large, however, the pattern is clear now and there is a far greater sense of determination in our national museums—a sense of where they want to go—which is reflected in the attendance figures. Last year, the estimate for attendance at national museums and galleries—for which I am responsible—was more than 20 million, 5.7 per cent. up on the year before. I believe that that trend will continue, and that more and more people will visit the museums and galleries as they solve the problems with which they were faced in the 1980s.

An important trend, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, is represented by the decision of my predecessor—my right hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham—to improve training, through the Museums Training Institute, for all who work in museums. In January 1989, my right hon. Friend announced the establishment of the institute, which would be responsible for the strategic development of training by establishing standards, validating courses, and providing training in selected areas. I consider that an important priority, which is emphasised by our commitment to provide significant support for the institute's activities—£400,000 in the current financial year.

Although the institute has not been going for long, it has already made significant achievements. It has been accorded official status as the lead body for the museums and heritage industry; it has established a steering committee that will develop a standards framework; and it is establishing 12 functional groups that will deal with the provision of training in a number of important areas such as collections and management, exhibition design, fund-raising and sponsorship, technical work, research, conservation, education and retail sales.

The aim is to ensure that anyone who enters the museum service—whether at the young age of 16, or later in life—not only has the opportunity to be trained upwards, so that he can progress from being, say, an attendant to becoming a museum director or curator, but has a certificate to give him the chance of a professional qualification that will give him better job security, or make it easier for him to transfer from one museum to another. That aspect has been neglected in the past, but I think that our aim is important and that even Opposition Members will wish it success.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea said some kind words about the increase in our funding of museums and galleries, which—inevitably—were contradicted immediately by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. I should not have expected anything else, but I remind hon. Members that, in the financial year that we are entering, our grant in aid for the national museums and galleries will increase by 8.5 per cent., from £99 million to £107 million.

Building and maintenance are a problem. That stems from the fact that so many of our great museums and galleries were built at the end of the Victorian age. The Victoria and Albert museum, for instance, was not very well built. Its construction involved experimentation with new materials. Because it was regarded as a museum for manufactures, it was considered appropriate to try out, for example, new types of concrete which were not always successful. Now, however, we are well aware of the problems of building and maintenance, which is why we are allocating £59 million for that purpose in the year ahead. That represents an increase of 115 per cent., after inflation, since 1979–80, when we came into office. Over the next three years, the allocation will be more than £189 million.

It was to review and assess the total building and renovation needs of our museums and galleries that, soon after taking up my post, I appointed Arup Research and Development. It is a problem because of the age of the buildings involved, and it is for that reason that the advice to be given to me Arup, who will report by the end of the summer, will be very useful indeed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) also asked me whether I proposed to continue to tie the wages and salary conditions of museum staff to civil service grades. This is an area in which I keep an open mind; I have not yet reached final decisions on the future pay regime for national museums and galleries staff. I have no immediate intention of making changes. There is now a wide range of pay and personnel flexibilities, as my hon. Friend will know, available within the civil service arrangements. It is nevertheless an area where it is worth keeping an open mind, always remembering the possibility that there should be changes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea also asked me about disposals from collections. He will know, because he is very much an expert in this area, that disposal of items from national museum and gallery collections is a matter for the trustees of the institutions concerned; they must always consider whether it is within the constraints of their governing legislation. We would all feel that benefactors of museums and galleries should be confident that their wishes will be treated with respect by the institution concerned. If there is any increasing threat that gifts and collections are likely to be disposed of, I can imagine nothing that would make it more certain that a particular museum did not receive further gifts; donations to it would totally dry up.

It is against that background that I, like my hon. Friend, am very worried to note that Derbyshire county council has recently sent 17 works from its museum service to be auctioned. This will cause a great deal of distress to many people in Derbyshire. I have no statutory power to prevent that, but it would be wholly contradictory to the Museums Association code of practice if the proceeds from the disposal of those items were used for any purpose other than the purchase of additional items.

I would add for the future that, if this were to continue to happen, and if the Derbyshire museums were registered—as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea will know, we are proceeding with registering all museums through the Museums and Galleries Commission—but then disposed of items in this manner, they would be de-registered and thus not be eligible for any of the moneys or grants available through the Museums and Galleries Commission, either from my office or from the Wolfson charities. That would be a considerable penalty and inhibition for them.

Mr. Bowis

I wonder, in that case, whether that should be made clear to all such institutions which may wish to benefit from registration in the future?

Mr. Renton

That is an interesting point. If it is not already clear to them as they apply for registration with the Museums and Galleries Commission, I will make certain that it does become plain to them.

I very much agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea when he quoted the words of the Museums and Galleries Commission on our duty to ensure that the museums flourished. I note that, in the recent booklet put out by the Area Museums Council, the Museums and Galleries Commission is quoted as saying: In the present boom in museum popularity"— I remind the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central of those words— two things are vital, the setting of standards and achieving the most with the least. I do not know that I would have used the words "the most with the least", but I think that museums are now very much more aware of giving the public enjoyment combined with value for money, and that both are perfectly correct aims for them to try to achieve.

In my view, three particular duties fall on the museums—to maintain the standards of education, to show off their collections to the best possible advantage, and to provide opportunities for new enjoyment for family and recreational interest. While I am Minister for the Arts, I shall certainly seek to ensure that the museums for which I am responsible pursue these policies.