HL Deb 08 May 1891 vol 353 cc341-8

in rising to ask Her Majesty's Government to consider whether it would not be possible to increase the educational value to the general public of the national museums and picture galleries by the appointment of lecturers, or otherwise, said: I ask this question, my Lords, in no spirit of criticism and in no hostile spirit to these magnificent establishments. On the contrary, I do not suppose there is any one of your Lordships who feels greater pride or admiration for what our ancestors have done for the country in making these valuable collections of pictures and objects of art in Great Britain than I do; but, at the same time, I should like to know whether it would not be possible to make them of little more use to the masses f the people. I ask this question in all humility of Her Majesty's Government because it may not be possible to do so; but I should be very glad if those in authority would consider the question, for it appears to me there are certain reasons, and very forcibly reasons, why it is for the advantage of this country, if possible, to bring the masses of the people more into contact with the art treasures which are to be found in our museums. Those collections were made and purchased by our ancestors at a time when England may be said to have been governed by the cultivated classes. Every day at the present time England is becoming more and more governed by those who are comparatively uncultivated, and it appears to me there is a certain danger in the future in the people turning round upon the Government of the day, whatever it may be, and asking:—"What benefit do we, the masses of the people, derive from all these pictures and from these art collections that you have in the museums? We have no time to visit them, and if we did visit them we should not be able to understand them. What is the good to us of all these old bones, these musty documents, these worm-eaten papers, these incomprehensible pictures?" Of course, there can be no doubt whatever that there is a very good answer to be made to that, but whether you could instil it into the brains of the multitude and get them to realise its force, is quite another question. Those of your Lordships who have been in the other House have no doubt remarked that those who call themselves specially the representatives of the masses of the people never grudge money which is expended upon their particular class; and I have myself remarked in the London County Council that in my most extravagant moments, and I am sometimes supposed to have very extravagant ideas, I have been supported by those who call themselves the representatives of the masses of the people. There can be no question to my mind, therefore, that if you could at once show the people of this country that all these art treasures for which you are giving large sums are really of some practical use to them and their children, they would not grudge the money. On the one hand, we know that when the country was obliged to ask for £70,000 for the purchase of a picture there was a great outcry among the masses of the people. Yet, on the other hand, we do not hear this outcry if it is a question of education. Although there was a certain amount of objection in the West End of London, there was no outcry in the East End when the School Board wanted to introduce pianofortes in the schools. Again, in the London County Council there has never been an outcry with regard to the expenditure which is going on upon open spaces. But, on the other hand, in Paddington, the other day—and Paddington cannot certainly be called much of a working class parish—when we wanted to have a Free Public Library, we were beaten by 4,000 to 2,000 votes. As your Lordships are aware, Public Libraries are not very numerous from the fact that the people do not yet perceive the necessity for their establishment in their midst. My Lords, I am bringing all this forward as an argument that it would have been wise for Her Majesty's Government to consider whether they could not pay people at these museums and art galleries to explain the nature of their contents to the public, in order to make them of some real practical value to working people and their families. In New York the Trustees of the Natural History Museum are perfectly alive to the fact that they must do something to make that institution of real benefit to the people, or else they will not continue to receive the grants they have received from the Municipal Authorities of New York. They have, therefore, invited the various schools of New York to attend their Museum on certain days, and on those days it is given up entirely for the benefit of the school children of that city. The children are brought there by their teachers to the Museum, and they are met by lecturers who take them in classes and explain to them all that is to be found inside the Museum. Now, I want to know whether something of the same kind could not be done for our Natural History Museum at South Kensington. Our London children are as a rule totally ignorant of everything connected with nature, and with the natural objects they so rarely see in the country. Most ridiculous remarks are made by them when they go out for their, too often, one day's excursion only in the year; and there is nothing that would interest them more than to be told something about the birds and other objects to be seen in our splendid galleries at South Kensington. I can give a striking instance of the fear entertained amongst the trustees of these art collections of ours to expend money, and simply because they feel they are out of touch with the people, in connection particularly with this Natural History Museum. At the time when the collection of birds was in the British Museum there was a lady at work upon the artificial foliage and branches upon which the birds are perched. She was receiving a ridiculously small salary, and she asked for it to be increased. That was refused her, and when I went to New York I found her there at work. I was told that she was the only person able to do this very fine and beautiful work in the world, and the Americans had got her by giving her a higher salary by £100 a year. It did hurt my pride as an Englishman to be told by the Americans that we could not afford a salary of £300 a year for such work as that produced, and which can be seen any day at South Kensington. As an illustration of what may be done in this direction of instructing the public in regard to works of art, I may mention that there is a very enterprising and energetic clergyman in the East End of London, the Rev. Mr. Barnett, vicar of St. Jude's, of whom your Lordships may have heard. He has established an art gallery and museum in his schoolrooms, and he devotes them for three days in the year for the purpose of an exhibition. In the list or catalogue of the pictures which is sold at the entrance, there is a full description given of each picture—a short historical account of it if the subject of the picture is historical, or if it be mythological there is a short explanation of it given, sufficient to let the people know the meaning of the picture and also drawing their attention to the particular points in the picture which are worthy of notice. This gallery is crowded, whenever it is open, with working men. I have been there this year, and I can say that they seemed to take immense interest in everything and to thoroughly understand what they saw in a way which one does not see in our West End museums and galleries. As another example: in Berlin the public parks are made use of for the teaching of botany: the Municipal Council of Berlin has devoted several acres of the parks for the systematic culture of different plants, a certain number of which are sent round every Saturday to the different schools in Berlin for educational purposes. I simply mention all these little instances to show that in other countries they are thinking of this work; and I know also that in some parts of France, lecturers are sent round on certain days with parties of visitors to explain to them the picturers which are hung up in the galleries. I shall not detain your Lordships any further than to express the hope that Her Majesty's Government may be able to suggest some means of making our art galleries and museums of more use than they are at present to the masses of the people.


Before the noble Lord's question is answered I merely wish to state as one of the Trustees of the National Gallery, that up to the present time some lectures have been given there, though not very often, but I am bound to say that, although the lectures might have been more frequent, no objection was made to their taking place; but if this is to be taken out of the hands of the Trustees and other people, other lecturers, are to be allowed, only upon condition of getting an order to go in with all their pupils and lecture to them on the pictures, much inconvenience may ensue. I very much deprecate the idea of paid lecturers, that is, paid by Government, and I cannot think for a moment that the Treasury will ever entertain such an idea in reference to the National Gallery. Again, it would be impossible to admit lecturers and their pupils on the copying days, when the galleries are crowded with easels. Another objection might be made on the ground of obstruction: a lecturer might decide that he would lecture on the Ansidei of Raphael, and he might spend an hour or so with all his pupils before that very picture, to the great inconvenience of the public, who wished to look at it themselves. In reference to the interest taken by the people in our art treasures and pictures, I recollect an ancedote which Sir Edwin Landseer told me: on one occasion he put his finger on one of his own pictures in the National Gallery when a working man came up and said, "Do not touch that picture, it is my property as much as yours." Working men, in the event of lecturers and pupils taking up space in the rooms, might want to assert their own privileges. All I can say on behalf of the Trustees is that they are perfectly prepared to facilitate any measures which may be adopted by Her Majesty's Government, but I must say I deprecate the idea of having paid lecturers, and that it would be much better to leave to the Trustees of the British Museum, and the National Gallery, or the proper authorities in the case of other institutions, the carrying out of any arrangements of the kind suggested.


As one of the Trustees of the British Museum I would ask leave to say a few words in answer to the noble Lord, although I must premise that I have not, of course, had the opportunity of consulting the other Trustees since I saw the notice of his Motion. But I can assure the noble Earl there is every anxiety on the part of the Trustees to utilise the treasures of the British Museum to the utmost. If lectures were to be given in a Hall either in that Museum or elsewhere, they might be illustrated by specimens from the British Museum. Specimens would be very much at the service of the lecturers, the galleries ready for further study, and exceedingly good and useful purposes would be served. I would point out, however, that the galleries of the British Museum themselves are by no means adapted for lectures to any large audiences. They have been expressly constructed for the exhibition of specimens, and for their examination by students. The rooms themselves are not adapted for the purpose, and it would be impossible to give lectures on a large scale there without running the risk of causing considerable injury to many of the objects, among and about which a crowd would naturally stand. I do not know whether the noble Earl is aware that there are many parties of persons, numbering from 20 to 50, admitted and taken round the Museum, while full explanations are given to them. The present Principal Librarian of the British Museum has not only encouraged those visits, but has frequently given such instruction to parties of working men who came in the evening. He is always ready to do so, and that is making a very valuable use of the Museum. To properly understand, and really appreciate, the collections in the British Museum, persons must already have had a considerable amount of education. One of the most remarkable and valuable features of these collections. is their classification, which could not come into popular lectures at all. The rarest and most precious specimens are selected and arranged there with scientific care. They are put, of course, in prominent positions, but are of no use there for popularclasses. Then, again, the visits of school children are encouraged in much the same way as the noble Lords says they are in New York, not, it is true, by public advertisement; but it is well known that school managers who make the necessary arrangements are welcome to take their pupils to the Museum, and have full explanations of the objects exhibited given to them. There is, in fact, the greatest anxiety to utilise the Museum and its treasures for instructive purposes, and they are so applied already to a very great extent. The appointment of paid lecturers in the building as it is would, however, involve great difficulties, and would be by no means as useful for public or for ordinary educational purposes as the noble Earl imagines. The British Museum exercises an enormous influence upon education, but it does so by educating educators; by providing on the grandest scale for those who study and those who educate the public. Both at the Natural History Museum and at Bloomsbury excellent guide books are supplied and explanations can be obtained from scientific persons. It is in that way that the British Museum is able to exert its truest influence in the education of the young.


I am extremely glad that the Primate and the noble Lord who has just spoken should have given their explanations with regard to the British Museum and the National Gallery. In reference to South Kensington, which is under my direction, I can state that the noble Earl is under a false impression if he supposes that lectures are not given there for I believe that every Saturday there are at the Museum five or six classes for children; objects are taken out of the cases and shown, and lectures are delivered respecting them. There are difficulties in the way of the delivery of lectures in the rooms where the objects are displayed every day. There are two classes of visitors to the Museum, the serious students and the sightseers, and if lectures were delivered in the exhibition rooms for the benefit of the students, the sightseers would inevitably crowd round to hear what was said, would perhaps get upon the objects, and would impede the work, besides doing a great deal of mischief. Therefore we are obliged to accommodate ourselves to the circumstances, and the only practicable method of lecturing is to lecture in separate apartments to which objects could be brought out of their cases. That can be done with smaller objects, but pictures cannot very well be taken down for such a purpose. I may add that it has been found that in the absence of any special attraction connected with the lecturer himself these lectures are not very well attended. I can assure the noble Earl these matters are not only being considered but are to a certain extent being done so far as they can; and without taking officials from their primary duties of taking care of the valuable works entrusted to their charge, they are always quite ready to give whatever explanations they can. I do not believe that a system under which paid lecturers should be appointed would work satisfactorily. Such a system, I fear, would result in a dislocation of the ordinary machinery of the Museum, but I fully share the noble Earl's opinion that to make the Museums as useful as possible from an educational point of view is very desirable.