`The erosion is catastrophic'
A new report claims there is a serious decline in scholarship in our museums, says John Parry It is a disturbing thought that a nation which so often claims to be able to show others what being a civilised country is all about, and which thinks it can tell 'Johnny Foreigner' why his life lacks real quality, is actually a nation which is allowing its own standards to slip at an alarming rate. A new report on the serious decline of research and scholarship in British museums and galleries is a typical example.
For instance, the report Lifting the Veil from the Museums and Galleries Commis-
sion says that 80 per cent of museums can- not do as much research as they need. It claims that there is not enough money to train a sufficient number of new curators and that today's specialists will be hard- pressed to find talented young successors to whom they can pass on their invaluable knowledge and expertise. If, like most museum staff, you accept that research and scholarship should continue to be a core function of museums, then surely we should all be concerned. Or am I over- reacting?
For reassurance I turned to Sir Neil Cos- sons, the highly regarded director of the Science Museum who takes over at English Heritage next year. A frank and straight- forward man, not known for holding back when something needs to be said, he responded very directly: 'The erosion is catastrophic!'
There are some 1,800 museums in Britain — around 2,500 if you add those that are either privately or corporately owned. Between them all, they attract more than 80 million visitors a year. As for the annual cost of it all, they receive around £700 million from central and local government, Lottery awards, sponsorship and visitor income.
The main national museums tend to fare rather better than. their regional cousins, many of whom are beset by the problems of being under the control of local authori- ties. They are usually led by the person who is the local director of recreation and leisure and has control of swimming-pools as well as museums. Sir Neil Cossons said that many of the museums had suffered grievously under this arrangement, losing both professional leadership and identity. While such museums were smaller than the nationals, their need for strong curatorial leadership was no less important if they were to survive.
You might think it would be a good idea if at this stage, given the seriousness of the
problem, the Culture Secretary Chris Smith might step in. He has been making all the right noises about wanting to support museums and sees them as some sort of catalyst for urban regeneration. It will not happen, though. His remit does not embrace local authority museums, with the result that he has precious little contact with them. And it was Dr Alan Borg, direc- tor of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who pointed out that, as far as museums and galleries were concerned, although the rhetoric of this government might be differ- ent from the previous administration's the funding position had not really changed.
Chris Smith beats the drum for what in museum jargon is called access and out- reach; in other words, strongly presented and advertised exhibitions that will attract new visitors and taking the show on tour to widen audiences even further. While this is absolutely fine, there is the worry that too much emphasis is being placed on presen- tation and not enough on the scholarship and research that must go into an exhibition.
Dr Borg, who strongly supports Lifting the Veil, is concerned that the government is coming to see scholarship as a luxury whereas it is really the bedrock on which everything is built. He believes that, while regional museums may be suffering the brunt of the problems, there are serious
warnings here for their national counter- parts.
However, at the V&A, Dr Borg is enjoy- ing an exciting ride at the moment. He has £16.1 million of Lottery money to spend on re-displaying the 16 British galleries for a special exhibition opening in 2001. There will be 3,000 objects on display from the period between Henry VII to the end of Queen Victoria's reign — Chippendale, Wedgwood, Adam, William Morris. It will be the size of a major museum on its own and a huge amount of research has been built into the budget, including research into what audiences will expect from such an exhibition.
While this may seem to be bucking the trend, it is absolutely in line, supporting another contention of the Museums and Galleries Commission's report. This is, that it is always easier to raise funding for research into short-term projects such as exhibitions than it is to find the money for full-time curatorial posts. There has been long-term attrition of curatorial staff as museums and priorities have changed, according to Jeremy Warren who launched the report for the Commission. Curatorial posts have become marketing or fund-rais- ing posts in a shift towards 'front-of-house' presentation. Museums are following the trend already set by universities in bringing in short-term contract staff for research on particular projects. In itself, that may be no bad thing but it does have a downside. Unlike the national museums, many regional museums cannot afford to print a catalogue to go with an exhibition. When the exhibition is over and the temporary researcher moves on, the knowledge moves on with him or her. The museum would have to be highly organised to capture it all — and most are not.
There is, without question, a perception among some people, both in and out of government, that a museum curator sits in an ivory tower leafing through dusty tomes and has no contact with the real world. It is certainly true that some of them are a little unworldly and do not appreciate the need to sell themselves and let people know what they are doing. But times are chang- ing fast and in some cases the research work of museums translates directly into public benefit. For instance, the Manch- ester Museum has a fascinating collection of live tropical frogs which they milk for toxin. Bottles-full go directly to Queens University, Belfast, where there is a cancer treatment project that needs the toxin. Before Manchester acquired the frog col- lection, the Belfast researchers were relying on tiny amounts coming in occasionally from the jungles of Costa Rica. • Elsewhere, the Natural History Museum in London has an important collection of bird skins that go back 200 years. They are telling scientists a huge amount about the physical make-up of birds and animals before the farming revolution and the widespread use of pesticides.
In spite of their stronger funding position, though, even the national museums are finding it increasingly difficult to bring in young people and to allow them sufficient research time to build up their knowledge and expertise. The established experts in their forties and fifties are wondering where their successors are going to come from. Dare I suggest there is an answer? There is actually plenty of money available. The Lottery has something like £3.5 billion of unspent funds sloshing around, much of it allocated to projects which will never mate- rialise. A tiny proportion of that money would solve all these problems in perpetuity.