HL Deb 26 February 1919 vol 33 cc372-8

LORD GAINFORD had the following Question on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government when it is proposed—

  1. 1. To replace the staff of the Board of Education in their permanent offices;
  2. 2. To re-open those sections of the public museums which have been closed during recent hostilities.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope I may not receive from the noble Lord who is going to reply for the Government the ordinary kind of stereotyped reply of which, perhaps, I myself have been guilty in former days—namely, that this matter is under the consideration of the Government, who hope that before long the museums of the country may resume their normal conditions and that the staff of the Board of Education may be returned to their own premises.

I shall not dwell upon the fact that to me it seemed quite unnecessary for the Board of Education staff to be removed from the offices which were built for them and which accommodated them well. Nor shall I dwell upon the fact that, after they were turned out of their premises for many months, several of the rooms were not occupied by any other Government Department, and that there was a very extravagant expenditure in new carpets and other things for the new Departments which went into premises that were very well furnished and adequate for the purposes of the Board of Education in the period of peace. But I should like to call your Lordships' attention to the fact that at the present moment the Board of Education staff is distributed almost all over London. One portion is in St. James's square, another is in Cromwell-rd., another is in Exhibition-rd., a very large portion, together with the records, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, while heads of Departments are in their own premises in Whitehall. It is impossible to administer a great Public Department efficiently if the various branches are distributed and the records are placed in most unsuitable spots—that is to say, in the galleries and courts of a great public museum. I am not going to dwell upon the position as it may concern other museums with which I am not particularly associated; I will leave that to my noble friend Lord Harcourt if he cares to do so after I sit down; but I would like for a moment to call attention to the conditions of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Half the Museum for a very long period has been closed to the public with most disastrous effects on the trade and industry of the country; and that policy is being continued during the period of the Armistice.

Only in the last fortnight two large rooms in the Indian Museum have been taken over, I suppose at the bidding of the First Commissioner of Works, for the purposes of curios connected with the war, with the result that very important classes connected with the great textile industries in Glasgow and in Manchester have been made impossible, and the classes connected with the manufacture of cotton goods—which classes have been held to be of inestimable value in the trade are indefinitely post-posed. A great utilitarian object is therefore removed from the purposes for which these museums were erected, and sacrificed at the bidding of another Minister. I can only express my surprise that a man like my right hon. friend Mr. Fisher should have acquiesed, during a time of peace such as we are now having, in another portion of these museums being taken away from the admirable purpose for which they were intended and being used, in order to store curios.

It seems to me that the Government entirely ignore the great value of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Museum is not merely for the improvement of public taste and for the curious to visit; it is a great institution which was created in order that the people of this country connected with our great trades might study the manufacture, the workmanship, the quality as well as the design, of the various articles which consumers may require. In the pottery and glass trades, in metal work of all kinds, in architecture, in furniture, in wood-work, in embroidery, in textiles, that Museum has done an infinite amount of valuable work, and is capable to-day of doing much more. If you close a museum you put an end to the opportunities of the people employed in industry to go there and see how things ought to be produced, as well as preventing them from securing instruction; and you turn down all possibility of expansion in production at the very time when it is most important to the trade of the country that every encouragement should be given to manufacturers.

The attendance at the Museum is an indication of the way in which this policy has been pursued. Before the war the attendance was 24,000 persons a week; during the war and owing to the closing of the Museum it dropped down to 7,000, but recently it has risen to 9,000. It is obvious, moreover, that the congestion of the exhibits is such that, the public cannot adequately see the objects they want to see. The Colonial troops come here, having heard of the great reputation of the Museum, and ask to see things which are not on view; consequently they go away full of complaints and disappointment. The circulation portion of the Museum has been entirely closed, so that the exhibits which were sent into the provinces are no longer despatched; and there is a great outcry from the provinces that people in the local trades are deprived of the opportunity of seeing those exhibits. There is a great movement in this country for War Memorials, and no better place exists than the North Court of the Victoria and Albert Museum for an exhibition of War Memorials, but there is no opportunity of having such an exhibition. Furthermore, there is no opportunity of utilising the Museum for the international textile exhibitions which I know were being contemplated at one time. It is because the Museum is being misused at present that I strongly protest against the continuation of its use for storing Board of Education records. These records are most inflammable in character, and are dangerous to the whole of the exhibits in the Museum. It is also because I feel so strongly on this subject that I press the noble Lord to name an early day when this condition of affairs will end.


My Lords, I ask your permission for only a moment or two to add something to what my noble friend has said about the Victoria and Albert Museum, something that is within my own knowledge as trustee of the other museums and public galleries which have been occupied during the war by the Government, and are still occupied by many Departments. Take first the Wallace Collection in Hertford House. During the latter part of the war that was occupied by the Naval Intelligence Branch of the Admiralty. That Branch was actually moving out on Armistice day, and thereafter the Government proceeded to occupy Hertford House with the Munitions Branch, Special Investigation of Accounts. This Branch may occupy that Gallery for years to come. It has engaged 175 clerks. Before the collections here can be restored some redecoration must be done. But a further injury is inflicted upon these priceless collections from the fact that, by the occupation of the Government Departments, we are compelled to keep them stored in the tubes underground, where they were put for safety against expected air raids which never took place. Anybody who knows anything about armour and inlaid furniture and ormolu knows that a tube 60 feet under London is not a very suitable storage room, although I am bound to say that the Office of Works has done everything in its power to render the tubes as suitable as possible for storage.

The National Portrait Gallery is occupied by the Separation Allowances Department of the War Office, with 400 clerks. All the galleries are occupied, and redecoration must take place before they can be again thrown open to the public and the pictures rehung. The agreement for occupation made and signed between Lord Kitchener and myself provided that it should be restored for public exhibition of the pictures there in not less than three months after peace. Those are the words used in the agreement—"ready for public exhibition." There is no chance of its being ready within twelve months, and I am sure the noble Lord, who is a co-trustee, would not think that statement an exaggeration on my part.

Then there is the London Museum, what is now called Lancaster House. It is occupied by a mass of small bodies, including the French Shipping Mission, the Allied Maritime Council, the Shipping Intelligence Section, the Allied Maritime Transport Council, the American Shipping Mission, the Italian Shipping Mission, and a staff of about 180. They occupy the whole building except the basement. Redecoration will have to be done there before it can be thrown open to the public. All our collections there have been brought back from the tubes and are ready for exhibition and distribution about the rooms whenever the Government remove their clerks and officials. I think I ought to say here that, both in the case of the London Museum and the British Museum, all the objects that were packed away against air raids in the tubes have now been brought back, and that in no single case has the slightest damage been suffered by any single article. I think it is a tribute to the almost loving care taken, in most cases by amateurs, in the packing, unpacking, and transport of these articles.

The British Museum is also partially occupied by a Government Department. The Registry of Friendly Societies, with a staff of 128 clerks, occupies the exhibit galleries of prints and drawings, and also of the Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities, which are always popular with the public. It is a little ominous to think that the proper offices of the Registry of Friendly Societies is now occupied by the Ministry of Pensions, which is likely to be a permanent body. The Statistical Branch of the Medical Research Committee, with a staff of forty and a mass of card indices, occupies much of the storage space of the British Museum, and the basement is used to store the effects of German prisoners of war removed from German colonies—not, I think, a very suitable use to which to put even the basement of the British Museum. The Tate Gallery is occupied by the Ministry of Pensions (Widows' and Dependants' Branch), which is likely to last some time, with a staff of no fewer than a thousand; and according to the agreement made with the National Gallery by the Government at the time when the Tate Gallery was taken over "the whole of the rooms shall be given over ready for gallery uses within six months after the conclusion of war." That is obviously a condition which cannot be fulfilled.

The last of these public galleries which I wish to mention is the Imperial Institute. Practically all the exhibition galleries of the Imperial Institute are occupied—at first by the Ministry of Food, with over 1,000 clerks. They departed, and were replaced by the Ministry of Munitions. They have now gone. The galleries are occupied at present by the Army Pay Section of the Machine Gun Corps, with 500 clerks; by the Ministry of Labour, with 600 clerks; and by the Effects Branch of the War Office—I think that has to do with tracing the effects of dead soldiers—with over 1,000 clerks. The Institute has really been made a sort of clearing house of flitting departments, and this has had a very serious effect upon the work of the Institute—not only upon the public, who do not go there much for sight seeing, but commercial men have been precluded from seeing the exhibits and resources of India, the Dominions, and the Crown Colonies, and from seeking there, in those exhibits and cases, new sources of raw material for use in this country. The lectures and demonstrations to the public and schools have of course, been stopped, and the scientific, technical, and intelligence work of the Institute itself has been deprived of its access to raw materials, because the exhibits, in order to accommodate all these clerks, have had to be stored away in subways and tunnels. Some of these have now been brought up again out of the tunnels and tubes, and are temporarily stored in houses in Queen's Gate and Prince's Gate, which are not suitable for scientific work.

I do not blame the Office of Works for the occupation of all these museums. I am sure that the whole of the permanent staff have been most anxious to restore the museums to the public at the earliest possible moment. I suppose the responsibility must really rest upon the Cabinet Committee on Office Accommodation, of which I believe the First Commissioner is chairman, but I think the taxpayer has now a right to demand an early re-opening for his own enjoyment, and, if I may use the discredited word, for his own culture. I especially should like to enforce what my noble friend said—namely, that it is most desirable that before the Americans and the Dominion troops return for good to their own shores, they should have an opportunity of seeing something of the treasures of which they have heard so much and been able to see so little, and I appeal to the noble Lord who is going to answer this Question for a definite assurance from the Government that all these museums will be fitted up at a really early and not indefinite date.


My Lords, in regard to the first part of the Question put by my noble friend, affecting the buildings of the Board of Education, I may say that those buildings are now occupied by the staff of the Controller of the Admiralty. This staff is already in process of demobilisation, and we hope that it will be reduced by about a thousand by the end of April. The total number under the Admiralty Controller in these buildings and also in the buildings of the Local Government Board and Office of Works amount to 2,500, and it is intended to replace the staff of the Board of Education in their offices as soon as the demobilisation is sufficiently advanced.

In regard to the second part of the Question, relating to museums, the Cabinet Committee on Accommodation have decided to clear the staffs from the public museums as soon as possible, giving a second priority to those institutions. The first priority is given to some of the large hotels, such as the Victoria, the Cecil, and the Grand, on account of the great shortage of sleeping accommodation in London. It is not possible to say on what exact date these premises can be vacated, but the First Commissioner is bringing continual pressure to bear on the various Departments to release important accommodation of this nature at the earliest possible moment. I wish I could give some more definite date, but I am afraid that is not possible.