HL Deb 27 January 1916 vol 20 cc1099-109

LORD SUDELEY rose to call attention to the statement that the principal national museums and galleries will shortly be closed to the public, and to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have fully considered the relative small saving which can be actually effected at a great educational cost, and to move for a Return showing in detail how the estimated saving of £50,000 is to be effected.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I was hoping to be able to call your Lordships' attention to the very important consideration involved in the Government's decision to close the museums and galleries. It appears, however, that it is desirable that the Prorogation should take place very soon. Therefore I will confine myself on this occasion to putting to the Government my Question which appears on the Paper, and to making one or two remarks thereon. I am anxious to know whether His Majesty's Government have fully considered the relative small saving which can be actually effected, and this at a great educational cost. There is no doubt that at the present moment everybody would acquiesce in any substantial saving. But as we have seen by the notice which hes been issued, the total saving contemplated by the Government is the small amount of £50,000, which is very much smaller than the saving which we were given to understand would be effected. My noble friend Lord Midleton must also have been greatly astonished. I understood that the Retrenchment Committee contemplated saving a sum of no less than £200,000; but we find it is £50,000. And I am told that it is very likely that considerably less even than that figure will be the sum really saved.

The museums have during the last few year's become an integral part of the education of this country, and it is a grave question whether they ought to be closed without further consideration. Already, within four days of the decision being announced by the Government I observe that the Victoria and Albert Museum has been taken out of the scheme, and also the National Gallery I am delighted to find it is so, because I am sure the saving would have been very small. But if that is the case may I not ask whether further consideration cannot be given to the closing of the great British Museum and the Natural History Museum? Nobody knows so well as the most rev. Primate what an enormous amount of good from the educational point of view the British Museum performs; and I am sure he himself must, as a Trustee of the Museum, be very sorry indeed to have been obliged to acquiesce in its closing. Not only have great facilities been given for schools, bet you have there the new and splendid system of Official Guide Lecturers With these lecturers crowds go round every day, obtaining a great amount of educational knowledge and enjoyment. Your Lordships will observe how much this has been a success during the last year when I tell you that during 1915 at the Natural History Museum and the British Museum no fewer than 36,000 people went round with these able lecturers. I am afraid that this system will now be swept away, and with it those very able men and the whole organisation. Surely that is a great pity and ought not to be done unless there is very great advantage to be obtained from it. There are many other considerations, which, however, I will not go into except in a small way. At the present time we have our wounded officers and men constantly going round these museums with great enjoyment. Are they to find the museums all shut to them? Surely that is a mistake.

Then it must be remembered, if it is meant that all museums throughout the country are to be as far as possible closed, that you are dealing with a very large number of people. The returns show that last year no fewer than 15,000,000 people went into these different museums and galleries throughout the country. These people went there for very wholesome and proper enjoyment. Are you going to shut them out and say they must find their way into the cinema theatres and other places of a very different character? Surely those are very serious considerations.

Let us return to the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. In the Natural History Museum a great many scientific matters are dealt with even to this extent, that in carrying on the war it has been found necessary constantly to refer questions to the scientific staff there. Are you going to close all that up and not allow it to be carried out? Surely that is a great mistake. Then I want to know what really is to be the saving over these two great institutions. There is a rough-and-ready way of dealing with it which I have often heard from museum experts—namely, that if you take 10 per cent. off the cost of usual maintenance you arrive at what you will save by a temporary closure. The amount that the British Museum and the Natural History Museum together cost is about £155,000; you therefore arrive at the figure of £15,000. Is it conceivable that the Government are going to take the responsibility of closing these two great institutions, with all the harm that this must do not only to education but to many other things, for the paltry sum of £15,000? I cannot believe it.

What is being done in other countries? I am told on very good authority that in Paris at the present moment the museums are all being opened. They were closed, of course, when the enemy came close to the city; but now — the view of the authorities being that the museums are of enormous use to the population and also of great benefit to science and education—the Louvre is about to open its galleries and many others are already open. And if I may enter perhaps upon rather debatable ground, I may say that in Germany they pride themselves on having the whole of their museums open; and the newspapers, especially in Munich, constantly say what a splendid thing this is and how good it is for the wounded officers and men to have these places to go to. I am told also that in Berlin they are not only doing this but are actually building another museum. Perhaps we do not like following a German precedent, but in matters of this sort I do not think that ought to be an objection.

I certainly think the Government should consider again very carefully how far the British Museum and the Natural History Museum might be left open. The museums of this country are valued at between £60,000,000 and £80,000,000 sterling. Their collections are of enormous value, and you must have them guarded and properly looked after; and heating and lighting must be carried on, do what you will. If in the Natural History Museum any fungus or damp arises the greatest possible damage is done. And so it is everywhere. If the Government adhere to the decision that these two special museums must be closed, although they have given way on the part of the other two museums to which I referred, think that as trustees for education they incur a very grave responsibility. I hope at any rate that His Majesty's Government will allow a Return to be granted so that we may know what the saving on each of these museums would be. The matter is of very great importance; people throughout the country are getting very anxious about it, and it ought not to be neglected.


My Lords, the noble Lord has alluded to the recommendations of the Committee of which I have the honour to lie a member, but I think it would not be fair that your Lordships should not be put in possession of one or two facts which the noble Lord has not mentioned. Of course, we all have the utmost sympathy with the object which he has in view. It was with the greatest reluctance that we came to the conclusion we did, but I would say that the matter cannot be tried out on the simple question of the saving to the Government. There are two other considerations. The first is that the Government will have to arrange—I believe have already arranged—for the use of some of these buildings for national purposes for which they would otherwise have to hire or erect buildings at very great cost. The second point is that it really amounts almost to a public scandal that at this moment, when we are asking for every able-bodied man to take his part in the war, it should be necessary to employ large bodies of police every day to carry out duties in connection with these museums. One other point. It has been thought in some quarters, because the Government took action on this recommendation of the Committee, that this recommendation stands by itself. That is not so. It is one of a great body of recommendations made in the interests of economy by the Retrenchment Committee, and it was backed by the fact that in some of the museums the best exhibits have had to be withdrawn from view and in consequence the attendance has fallen off. At the Wallace Collection, for instance, there were 175,000 visitors in 1912; the number was reduced to 75,000 in 1914, and it went down to 47,000 in the first nine months of 1915; while the admission fees for the National Gallery dropped from £2,223 in 1913–14 to £387 in the first half of 1914–15. It is easy to make a case against any reduction that it involves peculiar considerations, but we have to face the position in which the country is, and I hope the Government will not whittle away one by one recommendations which have been made with the utmost deliberation and in the national interests.


My Lords, there is one aspect of this question which has been only very lightly touched upon by my noble friend who introduced the subject, and that is that in the Natural History Museum scientific work is continually going on. There are a number of students always there working at one subject or another, and there are consignments arriving from all parts of the world every day almost, and some of those parcels contain objects which are perishable. Not only that, but if they are not unpacked and put into their proper places they deteriorate. They must be to a certain extent sorted and classed, and when the ordinary staff is at work they are named, registered, and so on.


I do not wish to interrupt my noble friend, but I think be is under a misapprehension. As far as I know there is not the least intention of turning off the whole of the staff permanently employed; it is only the staff that is necessary to open the museums to the public.


That is exactly the point on which I wish to be reassured. I am speaking in no official capacity, but merely giving my own private view with regard to the Natural History Museum. As I know intimately all the work that goes on there, I was extremely anxious to be assured on that point. So long as studies can go on and so long as there is sufficient staff there to look after the renewal of preservatives and that sort of thing—in short, to take care not only of the collections which are already there but those collections which are constantly arriving and needing immediate attention—I am perfectly satisfied. If the Government want some of the staff to take over other work I should be the last to oppose it, and certainly I should be the very last to insist even on the point of keeping a staff at the museum at all if I thought that by so doing I should be contributing to saving the life of one single German soldier.


My Lords, I am sure the House will not be at all surprised that Lord Sudeley has brought this matter before your Lordships. We all know that there are few men in or out of Parliament who have done more of late years to popularise the museums than has my noble friend, and I think it is to him entirely that we owe the system of providing in the public museums the guides who have been so immensely appreciated by the public.

The answer to the Question that has been put down by my noble friend is, I am afraid, one that will not be altogether satisfactory to him personally. It is that His Majesty's Government consider that the London museums should be closed with the exception of the Reading Room of the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the National Gallery. Those are rather large exceptions, and I hope that the facilities will be taken advantage of by wounded soldiers and others of whom the noble Lord spoke. As regards the amount of money that will be saved by this decision of the Government, it is impossible to give your Lordships a definite figure, but it is calculated that it will be not less than £50,000 per annum.

The decision arrived at by the Cabinet in this matter is based on several grounds. In the first place, as the noble Viscount On the Front Bench opposite (Lord Midleton) informed your Lordships just now, it is notorious that many of the most famous exhibits have already been removed from the walls of several of the galleries and placed for purposes of safety elsewhere, and the closing may facilitate further precautions for the preservation of these works of art. In the second place I think that even my noble friend will acknowledge that expenditure on museums, however highly desirable in itself, is not absolutely necessary for the purpose of beating the Germans. It is considered, in the third place, that considerable economies might be effected by closing particularly in the direction of the very expensive police force which is required when the museums are open to the public. Your Lordships may not be aware that the total cost of the police for the museums in London amounts to nearly £40,000 a year, and although all of this cannot he saved by closing a considerable portion can. It is believed that the closing of the National Portrait Gallery has effected a saving of about £1,400 a year in police charges. The closing of the Wallace Collection saved £3,000 a year in police, and the closing of the London Museum will save over £1,500. In the fourth place the closing of the museums will enable members of the staffs to be free either for military service or for temporary service in other Government Departments which are in great need in many cases of extra staff for war purposes, and the employment of existing Government servants for such work is obviously preferable to recruiting from outside and also results in a saving to the Exchequer. A further saving will be effected by the use of some parts of the museums and galleries to provide accommodation needed for Government Departments. Lord Midleton alluded to that point just now. As a matter of fact the National Portrait Gallery already provides accommodation for the War Office for dealing with separation allowances, which accommodation would have had otherwise to be hired at heavy cost in the neighbourhood of Whitehall. The fifth, and perhaps not the least important, reason which weighed with His Majesty's Government in coming to a decision in this matter is that this was one of the recommendations of the Retrenchment Committee, for whose labours I am sure your Lordships will agree the country ought to be most grateful.

As regards the question of reconsidering the closing of the British Museum or the Natural History Museum, I am afraid I cannot give my noble friend any assurance that will be agreeable to him. If one museum after another was allowed to be kept open on various grounds, we should have a continual list of applications for exemptions. Lord Walsingham asked a question with regard to the scientific work at the Natural History Museum, of which he has been a great benefactor in the past. So far as I am aware there is no intention whatever of interfering with the scientific work going on there. I have not inquired into the point, however, but I will make it my business to do so and inform the noble Lord.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words with reference to the National Portrait Gallery, of which I have the honour of being one of the Trustees. The matter was brought before us by the Treasury, not so much at that time as a measure of economy, although I admit there are substantial grounds for it on these reasons alone, but it was represented to us that the Government Offices had enormous difficulties in providing space for their staffs. I am bound to say that we were very reluctant at first to assent to the suggestion that the National Portrait Gallery should be altogether closed, but when it was brought home to us that in the immediate vicinity of Whitehall there was practically no additional accommodation to be obtained by the Government we agreed. The district was very carefully investigated, with the result that it was proved to us that there was no other building suitable for that kind of accommodation. It has been agreed, I understand, that the Hotel Metropole should be taken over. That shows to what straits the authorities have been driven in their search for office accommodation. In the case of the National Portrait Gallery I am afraid I must say that public interests obliged the trustees to agree to its being used for its present purpose.


My Lords, I think I ought to say a single word with regard to the matter which the noble Lord has brought to the attention of the House and the country, because I happened to be, as one of the Trustees, in the chair both at the Natural History Museum and the British Museum when the communication from His Majesty's Government had to be considered and debated by the Trustees. The responsibility in this matter is of course a Government responsibility and does not rest upon the Trustees of these institutions; but I can say that the greatest care was taken by the representatives of His Majesty's Government, some of whom were themselves members of the Standing Committee of the Trustees of the British Museum, to look into all the details to which allusion has been made to-night. If time permitted I could give interesting particulars about a good many of these details, but this I should like to say. It is indisputably true that there will be not merely general inconvenience but a great deal of serious disappointment to those upon whom we should least like loss and discomfort to fall—I allude specially to those occupants of our hospitals and convalescent homes in the neighbourhood of the Natural History Museum, who have in large numbers taken advantage of the facilities which that institution affords. The Natural History Museum has been frequented by hundreds of soldiers at a time, and the loss and inconvenience will be great indeed to them. I want to assure your Lordships that these matters have not been lightly passed over either by the Trustees or by His Majesty's Government. The Trustees took great pains to lay before His Majesty's Government the details as to the inconvenience and disappointment which would be caused to many by the action that was contemplated, and the Trustees necessarily left with His Majesty's Government the ultimate decision as to whether on grounds of public safety, public economy, and, what has not been alluded to to-day but ought to have been, public example—whether on those grounds the closing should take place. It has not been without the greatest possible disappointment that the Trustees of the Natural History Museum and the British Museum have been obliged to acquiesce in the demands of the Government, but they have not felt justified in protesting against: a decision deliberately taken by the Government with all the facts before them. I should like to assure Lord Walsingham and others, with regard to the carrying-on staffs, that nothing of that kind will be interfered with; it is only those connected with the admission of the public who will be affected.


My Lords, my noble friend behind me (Lord Hylton) has stated so clearly and accurately the attitude of His Majesty's Government towards this question that I can do little more than confirm what he has said. I can assure your Lordships that we all greatly regret that it should be necessary to close these institutions. You may regard them, as some people do and very rightly, as of educational value, or you may regard them as harmless and excellent places for public recreation. In whichever light you regard them I think it is a misfortune that they have to be closed. But in these clays we have to address ourselves very seriously indeed to this question of public economy.

There are three tests which you can apply to the question of keeping open institutions of this sort. You have to consider the money that they cost; and that, as my noble friend has shown, is not altogether negligible. But far beyond that is the question of the staff which they require; and you have to consider not only the fact that a number of men who may be valuable in other ways are engaged in time service of these museums, but that even those attendants who are not themselves of military age would very likely be able to take the place of men who are of military age and liberate them for service in the Army. The third question is that which was touched upon just now—I mean the question of time premises. His Majesty's Government have been in very serious straits indeed in finding accommodation for the great mass of official employees whose services have become necessary during the war, and in the case of these museums we have to consider that they afford a means of finding accommodation for a great number of these public servants. And let me add this, and I think it is relevant. Whenever we are considering these questions of retrenchment somebody will always find a good reason for not giving effect to proposals such as those made by my noble friend Lord Midleton and his Committee. It is absolutely necessary that we should to a great extent harden our hearts against these appeals ad misericordiam.

As to the extent to which this policy of closing has been carried out, your Lordships have heard that the Reading Room of the British Museum remains open and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Both of those are really indispensable to students of different sorts. There remains the National Gallery, in which I may be allowed to take a particular interest. The case of the National Gallery was very closely gone into, with the result that we were able to show, first, that the saving of money to be effected by closing it altogether was a very small saving; next, that so far as the staff was concerned we had already reduced the staff to something like fourteen members, of whom only two were of military age and both already included in Lord Derby's groups; and finally we were able to show that half of the premises of the Gallery had already been placed at the service of one of the Public Departments. We were therefore able to make quite a good case for leaving the National Gallery open; and I think it is strengthened when one remembers its central position in London, and the fact, which is undoubted, that it is much frequented by the soldiers whom one meets every day in the London streets. I think the point raised by my noble friend Lord Walsingham has been answered. I imagine that in the case of all these institutions, even if they are closed, there will be enough staff left to attend at any rate to the opening of letters and parcels, and that the dire consequences which he anticipated from the possible neglect of parcels containing perishable specimens need not be much apprehended.


My noble friend did not state whether the Return for which I asked will be granted. It is of great importance that we should know how this amount of £50,000 is allotted, and how much saving there is on each museum.


I am afraid it will be impossible to grant the Return. It would involve a great deal of clerical labour. At this moment I cannot definitely say the exact sum that will be saved, but it is estimated at £50,000.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.