Simon Stephens

British museums?

Simon Stephens, 26.06.2013
The impact of Scottish independence for museums with Britishness at their heart
The nature of Britishness is a much-debated subject, and the issue is being pushed into even sharper focus now the September 2014 referendum over Scottish independence is on the horizon.

What would an independent Scotlnd mean for the cultural institutions that have the concept of Britishness at their very heart?

At this week’s launch of the British Museum’s annual review, its director Neil MacGregor emphasised how the institution is a UK-wide organisation with global responsibilities. The museum says it is the world’s largest lender of objects with 4,502 objects lent nationally and internationally in 2012-13.

MacGregor was keen to point out that the British Museum does not get direct government funding for its national and international loan work.

“There is always a danger with cultural institutions that are based in London and are funded by an English ministry, that their UK-wide role and their international responsibilities are not clearly articulated in the funding structures,” he said.

MacGregor said the museum’s UK and international remit was clear when parliament established it in 1753 as the “first real cultural and intellectual evidence of the [1707] union”.

Indeed MacGregor says the creation of the British Museum was clearly a response to the 1745 Jacobite uprising that threatened the union. It was the first institution created by parliament to be called British and was part of a new view of what it meant to be a British citizen in the middle of the 18th century.

So what does all this mean for the British Museum 260 years’ later when there is once again a threat to the union?

Is there any reason to suppose that the British Museum would stop lending to Scottish museums in a post-independent context? What would become of the relationship with the Scottish museum services such as those in Glasgow and Edinburgh that have UK partnership agreements with the British Museum?

It was announced last year that some of the Lewis Chessmen will be permanently displayed in Stornoway from 2014 as part of the redevelopment of Lews Castle.

Will this still be the case if Scotland votes for independence? It’s interesting to note that the Scottish government contributed £75,000 to the 2010 tour of the Lewis Chessmen, which was created in partnership with the British Museum and National Museums Scotland.

What it means to be called the British Museum is already a complex and sometimes controversial issue. Events in Scotland next year might complicate this even further.


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26.06.2013, 12:44
The whole issue is far from clear cut. Aside from any political union the term 'Britain' does also refer to the physical island made up of the nations of England, Scotland and Wales. So what exactly does the 'British' in British Museum really refer to? If it does reflect 'British Values' then these could well remain constant no matter what the outcome the independence referendum. MacGregor is quoted as saying the museum was "...marrying Scottish Enlightenment ideas to the London's global contact.." - something much bigger than transitory national boarders.

Also, whilst DCMS is an "English Ministry" in regard to its responsibilities, it does receive UK wide funding - at least while there is fiscal unity between England and Scotland. Furthermore, the West Lothian Question has not been resolved, and there is currently a Scottish Chief Secretary to the Treasury. To define the BMs remit purely on the basis of its direct funding stream may be overly simplistic.

But there is an increasing cultural policy divide between England and Scotland: just look at the contrast between the recent keynote speeches of Millar and Hyslop. Is it right that the BMs funding can be cut by an austerity fixated Westminster when stakeholders North of the Boarder can see the value of increased investment in culture?