HL Deb 10 July 2002 vol 637 cc682-4

2.44 p.m.

Baroness Strange

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How much the refurbishing of the British Museum's new Great Court cost, and how great are the annual costs for maintaining this museum.

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, the museum's Great Court project cost a total of £99.6 million. The Millennium Commission contributed £30 million, the Heritage Lottery Fund £15.4 million, the Garfield Weston Foundation £20 million and the remaining £34.2 million was funded by private sponsorship. The museum's operating costs in 2000–01 were £51.4 million and its estimated outturn in 2001–02 is £57.8 million.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her courteous and informative reply. Does she agree—as I am sure she does—that the British Museum is a splendid, world-renowned and great building? It is the British Museum. That does seem a great deal of money but the Great Court is absolutely marvellous in every way and something of enduring value. Could she perhaps tell us by contrast how much the Millennium Dome, which is beautiful but ephemeral, cost?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, says, the British Museum is a great institution with fantastic collections, marvellous scholarship, wonderful visitor facilities and extremely interesting exhibitions. It is extremely important to Britain's cultural life and it is important that it should continue to operate as a successful institution. I do not believe that the noble Baroness's question about the Dome has very much to do with the future of the British Museum.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, I declare my interest as joint president of the All-Party Arts and Heritage Group. Has my noble friend seen the letter from Sir Patrick Cormack, the chairman of that group, explaining the problems of the British Museum? It is probably the greatest museum in the world. This autumn Neil MacGregor will move from the National Gallery to become the Director of the British Museum. We must encourage him to use his talents in the best way by ensuring that there will be sufficient funds not to close any of the great rooms and to be able to maintain the standards of that great institution. Will my noble friend continue to show her enthusiasm for the British Museum which she has shown in the past?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, my enthusiasm for the British Museum knows no bounds. I shall certainly continue to try to demonstrate it. I have had a number of discussions with Neil MacGregor who will, as my noble friend said, become the Director of the British Museum. He has some extremely exciting and interesting plans for it. As regards its funding, the Government have provided a 4.7 per cent real-terms increase in funding for the museum since 1998. Clearly, I am unable to say what the future holds for its funding until the outcome of the spending review.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, in view of these great financial difficulties, will the British Museum sell off any items from its collection, as I am afraid that it has done sometimes in the past in the case of the Benin Bronzes, many of which were not duplicates?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I do not believe that the British Museum has any intention of selling off any of its collection. Indeed, it is proscribed by law from doing so, with the exception of duplicates. I understand that the Benin Bronzes that were given to the Government of Nigeria to allow them to establish a museum for them were all duplicates.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, is not the problem with the British Museum somewhat more profound than that of the criticism it has received about the Great Court, its cost, its magnificent roof and the other improvements? Those at the museum must have been disappointed about the kind of stone that was used, which was not that which was ordered, but that pales into insignificance beside the fact that, as has been said, it is one of the greatest museums in the world. However, in a way, through no fault of its own, it has riot quite caught up with the demands of the 21st century. After all, it was a 19th century institution. It maintains high standards but it is finding it difficult to balance its books. Will the Government give an undertaking that they will not only support it financially, but also support it in trying to develop a new strategy so that it attracts more people through its portals and thus generates more income to pay its staff, among other things?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, was absolutely right to imply that the Great Court is not the cause of the museum's present financial problems. The Great Court has been enormously successful as an exciting piece of architecture and in providing additional facilities for the museum. I believe that it has also helped to attract more visitors. The museum's financial problems are a result of lower than expected visitor numbers, which are partly due to foot and mouth and September 11th, a downturn in spend per head from American visitors in particular and a poorer than expected trading performance in general. The Government will work with the museum to help it to deal with those problems. I am glad to report that visitor numbers are now on the increase.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords—

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, would my noble friend comment on—

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I think that it is our turn. I thank the noble Lord.

In view of the fact that the British Museum is one of the museums that attracts most overseas visitors, will the Government continue to refuse to allow it to charge for entry to its ordinary exhibitions?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government are convinced that the policy of free entry to our great national museums and galleries is absolutely right. That policy has led to a 60 per cent increase in the numbers of people visiting our great museums and galleries since it was introduced in December last year and to a 65 per cent increase in the numbers of people coming from social groups that do not normally visit museums. We intend to maintain what has been a hugely successful policy.