HL Deb 03 March 1988 vol 494 cc275-9

3.10 p.m.

Baroness Strange asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proportion of works of art in museums and galleries are not on public display.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, the Government are keen to increase public access to the treasures in our museums and galleries, but inevitably the proportion of works of art in museums and galleries on public display at any time varies from institution to institution and with the nature of the collection. All national museums and galleries allow access by members of the public to items in their reserve collections and all aim to rotate items between these reserve collections and public display.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his helpful and interesting reply. As he has pointed out that many works of art are not on public display, does he agree that there may be a case for some of the museums and galleries to mount more travelling exhibitions, to lease or lend those works of art where they might best be seen, or indeed to dispose of some of them instead of sitting like dragons on top of their hoards?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for asking a question which highlights what the Government have been doing. The Commission of Museums and Galleries has set up a travelling exhibition unit. As I am sure your Lordships are aware, the Government indemnity scheme has allowed many more works of art to be loaned between museums and galleries without the need for commercial insurance.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, in view of what the noble Baroness has said, I am glad to hear the Minister supporting the lending of works of art and travelling exhibitions. Can he say whether the Government still intend to legislate to empower trustees of the National Gallery, the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery to sell pictures from their collections? Is he aware that the trustees who are the present guardians of these collections are opposed to any selling off and that it would also be a betrayal of the generosity of donors who either have made financial contributions or have given actual works of art? These gifts will dwindle to a trickle if a policy of selling off is imposed.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, it is still our intention to grant to the three English national galleries the enabling power to which the noble Baroness has referred. However, I disagree with her that it would be a betrayal of gifts that were left to such galleries.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that disposing of works of art which are temporarily out of favour may or may not be a betrayal of the people who have left them as legacies but could be a very bad commercial judgment? If our museums and galleries had sold off Victorian pictures a few decades ago we would have lost some of the finest pictures in our collection today. Does he realise that at one time even the Mona Lisa might have been obtained for a song?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, my noble friend is on to a very important point about the danger of disposing of unfashionable works of art, but I am sure that the whole House has confidence in the trustees to exercise the disposal power with care. I am sure that the trustees will be very conscious about changing tastes and values. It would be wrong to restrict this enabling power where there are perhaps duplicates that could be disposed of without detriment to the collection.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, what steps have the Government taken to assess the likely effect on future donors of giving this power to our national collections?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, a number of galleries and museums already have this power, which they exercise very judiciously. All the Government are seeking to do is to extend this enabling power to the three galleries I have mentioned.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, will the Minister explain what he meant by "duplicates"? You cannot sell duplicates of the original. Did he mean that?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, you can of course have duplicates being copies.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that to display works of art requires space and that one of the reasons there is so little space to do so is the philistine attitude of this Government to the provision of extra space for the national museums? That is exemplified, first, by their refusal to be responsible for the addition to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square; and, secondly, in their failure year after year to provide a home for the Turner Bequest, paintings left by that painter to the nation.

Does the Minister agree that unless the Government become more generous about the provision of space, and not leave it to the generosity of families such as the Sainsbury and Clore families, there will be no possibility of displaying the added works of art which are obtained with taxpayers' money year after year?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord's question is a little wide of the one on the Order Paper, but I should be very surprised if one could find any museum that would not like more space.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will the noble Earl give the House an undertaking that when the time conies to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece there will be no question of selling them and that they will be returned as a free gift?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I cannot give any undertakings.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, may I as an Irishman ask a Kerryman's question? Can my noble friend say what proportion of the proportion he was not able to give of the invisible pictures is due to galleries being closed through lack of staff?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, that is not a problem for the national galleries. I can assure my noble friend that at the National Gallery itself 100 per cent. of the items are on display. That can vary down to something like 25 per cent. in the National Portrait Gallery.

Lord Birkett

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many years ago there was at the GLC a plan for a museum to encompass precisely the essence of this afternoon's Question? There was a plan for a display, on a non-permanent and revolving basis, of the reserve collections of the nation. As at the time the GLC unfortunately could not find a suitable site, and since, as he will doubtless have noticed, the GLC no longer exists, he is in an admirable position to take up the initiative himself.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's comments, but the question of a site is very important.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, is the noble Earl prepared either by way of extra grant or by way of direct assistance to help those galleries which are trying to put on show their reserve collections by, for instance, lending them out? Will he encourage the lending of pictures and other works of art so that they may constantly be seen by the public?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am very happy to support the noble Lord in that question. That is exactly what the Government want to do and that is why the initiatives have been taken by my right honourable friend in that direction.

Lord Aldington

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is at least one charitable foundation—and probably many more—which is ready and willing to borrow pictures in the reserve collections but finds when it approaches museums and galleries that there is no willingness at all to lend them? Will he make inquiries to see that the excellent intentions of the Government which he has just announced are being followed through?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we are aware that there is some reluctance, but I hope that the Government indemnity scheme will help in this regard.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that there are probably about 5,000 paintings in store at Kew? Many of them have been bought under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest and many of them have never been seen. One of them was the magnificent Landseer, at present on loan to this House, which had never been exhibited during the whole of this century. Cannot the Government begin to show some initiative and generosity in the way that the French Government have done over the foundation of La Musée d'Orsay where all these paintings, hitherto having been in reserve stocks, are now being shown?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, in my Answer to my noble friend's original Question, I outlined some of the initiatives which the Government are taking to ensure that some works of art are released for viewing by the general public.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend can say how many pictures are on loan to government buildings both at home and abroad. I should imagine the number is fairly high and would include those at present housed at No. 10 Downing Street.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am afraid I cannot answer my noble friend's question without some prior notice.