HC Deb 21 July 1997 vol 298 cc674-6
4. Yvette Cooper

To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport what assessment he has made of the role of museums in preserving the industrial heritage. [7499]

Mr. Fisher

The industrial heritage is of immense importance to the understanding of our past. Museums clearly have a central role to play in its preservation.

Yvette Cooper

Is my hon. Friend aware of the vital contribution made to our national industrial heritage by the national coal mining museum in the Wakefield district not far from my constituency? Does he agree that the children of Pontefract and Castleford mining families have a great opportunity in that underground museum to learn about their industrial and social history? What can be done to safeguard the future of the national coal mining museum?

Mr. Fisher

Yes, I know of the excellent work of that museum, which I have visited on more than one occasion. My hon. Friend is, of course, right to say that such museums are extremely important, especially for children in understanding the past of their region and where they came from.

My hon. Friend asked about safeguarding the museum's future. I am glad to say that the previous Government provided some money. The Museums and Galleries Commission and local authorities, together with the private sector, have contributed to the museum. The heritage lottery fund has offered 75 per cent. of the development costs of £1.3 million to see whether a way forward can be found for funding the museum.

My hon. Friend will, however, understand that mining museums have problems over and above other museums. Just to keep the underground site going, before one begins to consider the work of the museum, costs £340,000 a year. That is an additional cost over and above any educational, conservation or interpretive work. That is a major barrier. I am sure, however, that the director of the museum will continue the constructive dialogue that she has had with me and with others over the past few years. We are anxious to try to find ways forward so that the museum can prosper.

Mr. Maude

How does the Minister reconcile his two apparently conflicting policy objectives—that admission to the great museums, including the industrial heritage museums, should be free to the public, and that museum trustees should be free to set charges if they wish? Will he reassure trustees that his Department will not discriminate against those who decide, in pursuance of their public duties, that charges are the right policy for their museum?

Mr. Fisher

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that trustees of museums have always decided and will continue to decide whether a particular museum charges for admission. There is no conflict between that duty on trustees and the Government's determination to pursue ways of ensuring the widest possible access for members of the public to the national collections—I emphasise that we are speaking of the core collections of the national museums, which have been collected with public money and maintained with taxpayers' money from all over the country. The two objectives are not in conflict.

Mr. Derek Foster

I commend my hon. Friend's extraordinarily imaginative and progressive decision to give national recognition to the Bowes museum and the Beamish open air museum, both in the county of Durham. May I invite him to go further and to work in his Department to unlock the fund raising that would assist those two museums to enhance the superb work that they are already doing?

Mr. Fisher

I am glad that my right hon. Friend finds those decisions imaginative. It is surprising how people find imaginative the work that benefits them and their constituencies. I am sure that that is shared throughout the House. My right hon. Friend is right to say that the Bowes museum is one of the great museums in this country. To anyone who cares about museums, it is hardly surprising that it was at the top of the list of the first wave of designation. That makes a premier division for museums. In asking how we can add value to that, my right hon. Friend raises an important point that we are currently considering. That must be the way forward for designating museums. They are benefiting from the added status. We must now consider and discuss with them how to add value to that status.