Uncomfortable truths

Maurice Davies, 16.07.2013
If Croydon consulted more widely, could it avoid losing Accreditation?
As I find out more about Croydon’s proposed sale of Chinese ceramics from its Riesco collection, it gets increasingly uncomfortable.

On the face of it, it’s a straightforward breach of the MA’s code of ethics and accreditation.

In fact, the proposal doesn’t even meet Croydon Museum’s own collections development policy.

Crucially, the basic idea falls foul of the code of ethics because the money raised from the sale won’t meet the key requirement to “significantly improve the long-term public benefit derived from the remaining collection”.

Far from it, the council intends to put the money towards the cost of refurbishing Fairfield Halls, which are at risk of closure if they don’t receive major maintenance soon.

There are also things wrong with Croydon’s processes (as we pointed out in our official response to Croydon).

There’s no clear evidence that the sale is a last resort and that other possible sources of funding have been thoroughly explored, it’s not clear that the items lie outside the museum’s established core collection and there hasn’t been much consultation. In fact, Croydon haven’t released very much information at all.

So far, so bad. But I’ve been digging a little deeper and found out a few things.

First, Croydon acquired the Riesco collection in the 1950s and has made two previous sales from it, in the 1970s and 1980s – both of them larger in size that the current plan to sell 24 items.

Some of the income was spent on fitting out the gallery that houses what’s left of it (apparently the rest of the money was supposed to be put into a charitable trust, but that doesn’t seem to have happened).

A few days ago I met with representatives of Croydon Council, including one of the deputy leaders, Councillor Tim Pollard. It was a constructive meeting and it was useful to hear things from their point of view.

From where he sits, Pollard believes that the proposal is in the long-term public interest.

Croydon needs to refurbish Fairfield Halls to keep them open. He can’t see any other way of getting the money and selling a few things from an already denuded collection seems a fairly minor price to pay. He takes a broad view of culture and doesn’t see much difference between public benefit from a museum and public benefit from the arts.

That might be a reasonable position for him to take. And, who knows, in a decade’s time might the museum sector think it’s acceptable to sell collections to increase long-term public benefit from culture generally?

It reminds me a little of the Watts Gallery, who came to the MA in around 2005 to propose selling a couple of paintings in order to fund improved collections care. Then, that was completely against the MA’s code of ethics.

However, the gallery made a strong case and after a couple of years of thoughtful discussion, MA members agreed to change the code to allow “financially-motivated disposal” in exceptional circumstances.

Accreditation quickly followed suit. This allowed the Watts Gallery to go ahead without breaking the museum sectors’ rules.

Happily, the Watts Gallery was willing to have a “long dialogue” with the MA and other organisations so that the merits of the sale were clearly established.

Unhappily, this doesn’t look likely in the case of Croydon.

I fear that they will rush to a sale, without even taking the time to see whether the mood in the museum sector might possibly change to accept the sale of collections for wider cultural purposes.

The terrible result will be that a local authority with good intentions towards culture will be deaccredited and its museum will be cast out of the museum sector.

If only Croydon Council would slow right down and consult much more, it might be possible to avoid this tragedy.

What do you think? Should it be acceptable to sell things from museum collections to bring long-term public benefit from culture? Tell us your thoughts below.


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29.07.2013, 15:47
Does anyone - outside Croydon Council & Sotheby's - know which 24 pieces are to be sold, which were sold in the two earlier sales, and what remains? My guess (but tell me if I'm wrong) is that the two earlier sales were of duplicates or secondary pieces, whereas the five pieces published by the 'Croydon Guardian' as to be sold are of star quality. So it's not about 'a few things from an already denuded collection', it's about creaming off the best from an excellent, but inadequately promoted and presented, one. As for the 'good intentions' of the Council, anyone believing in those should have a look at 'Inside Croydon'. There's no parallel with the Watts Gallery, where the funds raised were reinvested in the hitherto decrepit Gallery. Our public collections are a trust for future generations as well as the present, not a disposable asset; we need to strengthen the safeguards against short-term changes in councils' (& other governing bodies') priorities.
Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
28.07.2013, 02:11
It wasn't that long ago that Croydon used to be held up as an example of best practice in the museum sector and the way they had updated their museum was quoted in museum studies classes. How times have changed!

We all know that financially motivated disposals damage trust with our communities and encourage people to think our collections are really little more than a financial asset.

Those museums with large art collections have been the tail that has wagged the dog on disposals for many years and have helped create the wider impression that every museum store contains the solution to its financial predicament. That isn't the case anyway and we have seen the effects as soon as money is tight.
Oliver Green
MA Member
25.07.2013, 11:42
There is a bigger issue here which is going to come up time and again. The sad fact is that an increasing number of local authorities across the country no longer consider museums and other arts and cultural services to be a serious part of their remit and responsibility. With the growing financial crisis in local government this can only get worse and I would lay bets on there being no council run museums in England at all by 2020.
In London local museums have always struggled because local authorities can point to the wealth of nationally funded museums in the capital. Some London councils have already privatised their museums (Wandsworth) or closed them down (Newham). 'Easycouncil' Barnet is busy outsourcing virtually all its activities, closing libraries and actually selling off its former museum at Church Farmhouse in Hendon.
It was great to see Waltham Forest council backing the refurbishment of its William Morris Gallery and deservedly winning the museum of the year award but this is very much against the tide of local authorities generally.
Yes, times are hard but why should Croydon be given the easy (and irresponsible) option of flogging off valuable items gifted to them in trust? There is nothing exceptional about their particular circumstances to justify this and I hope the MA will stand firm on it. This is a slippery slope.
24.07.2013, 19:15
There is a problem with the logic that a building in itself equals long lasting cultural benefit. Some of the most interesting performance at the moment is happening outside traditional venues and in this case it seems that all the collections that might provide inspiration, all the support structures for independent artists and all the exciting ideas that could build audiences are being sacrificed for the sake of what risks being an empty shell.
Judith Martin
Project Organiser, Industrial Buildings Preservation Trust
31.07.2013, 18:10
I've posted on this subject before, to say that I cannot see how anyone will ever bequeathe anything again to a public gallery if that gallery can flog it at will.
But Georgina Young's point about Fairfield Halls is interesting. The National Theatre of Scotland is hugely successful but has no building. It commissions wonderful plays that tour Scotland and the rest of the world. As a buildings conservationist even I can see sometimes that it is better not to have the costs and responsibilities of real estate. The building doesn't look to be a 20th century gem. It certainly doesn't seem to merit what is clearly the thin end of the wedge that will destroy very many local authority museum collections.
MA Member
19.07.2013, 15:16
Sadly it's clear from the Council's report (https://secure.croydon.gov.uk/akscroydon/images/att2420.pdf) that they still have every intention of going ahead with the sale, despite their own acknowledgement of the fact that no-one agrees with them.  I'm sure they are in a difficult position, but why did they commit to a £27 million project at Fairfield when they knew they couldn't afford it?  And how can they try and dress this up as investing in their idea of a 'creative city' when they are selling off their culture and ostracising their museum?

The above report references their own collection and disposal policy and it seems they are not even willing to abide by that.  If the insurance costs are the reason why they are having to sell, then is there any evidence that these items have been offered to other museums to safeguard and display?  Are there any plans to insure the rest of the collection?  It hasn't been insured up until now, so it seems convenient that this is suddenly the issue.  The current security is clearly good enough for the British Museum as they are happy to display their objects there, so I find it hard to believe this is a genuine concern. I'm not sure I see the benefit of insuring the items anyway, as they are part of a unique collection and clearly irreplaceable.  I agree with the point below about the issue of  public trust in museums too, which is why it saddens me even more so that even people within the sector are not willing to take a stronger stance against this proposal.
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
19.07.2013, 14:30
I have a great deal of sympathy with the predicament all elected councillors find themselves in at the moment - they have a big job to do, yet money is extremely tight. And, as the elected representatives of the citizens who own these collections, the Croydon councillors must be within their rights to sell the ceramics. However, that doesn't make them wise, and it doesn't mean they won't come to regret a decision to sell, in all manner of ways. It's up to the MA to ensure that Croydon councillors know what the consequences will be should they go down this path, and hopefully the sale won't proceed.
19.07.2013, 09:28
I am surprised that an elected member does not acknowledge the issue about public trust in donations to a local authority. This seems a basic point distinguishing museum disposals from potential benefits in other arts fields. Maybe the time has come for someone to mount a private prosecution against the authority as acting ultra vires. Not sure if this has ever been done to protect the issue of public trust in a donation but it would be a signal lesson!
MA Member
16.07.2013, 15:24
I think certain Croydon Councillors are very good at talking the talk... It seems to me that if they did have any respect for culture in the borough they would be taking the time to go through the consultation process and not rushing it through in a manner that smacks of hoping no-one will notice. Having already made huge cuts to their arts and cultural services over the last few years it seems they are now trying to put the final nail in the coffin by ensuring the museum will lose its accreditation. Have you looked at what is available at Fairfield Halls? I'd struggle to refer to anything in their programme as 'culture'.

Isn't it also a funny coincidence that at least two of the key councillors proposing these cuts sit on the board for Fairfield? I'm sure there's no conflict of interest there at all...