Select committee told that a 'single voice' is needed for UK museums - Museums Association

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Select committee told that a ‘single voice’ is needed for UK museums

After an awful lot of machination the department for culture published its response to the consultation on Understanding the Future last month.
Patrick Steel
Neil Macgregor, the director of the British Museum, has called for a 'single UK voice' to shape UK policy for museums. Giving evidence to the first session of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee inquiry, entitled Caring for our Collections, he said: 'With devolution there is nobody to carry out national policy, and we all suffer as a result of that.'

He said there was a need for UK-wide structures to address the relationship between museums and schools because museums are 'central education providers to the whole country'. He added that the lack of funding available for acquisitions has meant that increasingly museums are looking at joint acquisitions, which was 'another reason for having a more articulate UK-wide vision'.

The lack of acquisitions funding was an issue that Charles Saumarez Smith, the director of the National Gallery, was particularly concerned about in his evidence to the committee. 'If the National Gallery is to remain the National Gallery it must be able to acquire as and when works come on the market. We are getting calls from Sotheby's and other auction houses, but we are unable to acquire,' he said.

'Acquisition is always at the heart of a museum's mandate, and as a nation it is important to be able to acquire great works of art. What we exist for is to provide a legacy for the future.'

He noted the discrepancy between the Scottish Parliament, which can vote to spend money on acquisitions, and the British Parliament, which cannot.

The committee also looked at disposals. Mark Jones, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, said in his evidence that museums should recognise 'not just that there are more paintings in public collections than can be shown, but there are more than we would want to be shown'.

He said that museums needed to be 'creative about finding new uses for objects in store' and floated the idea that in the future museums might be allowed to dispose of, or sell, objects under the same rules that govern objects in the Conditional Exemption Tax Incentive - in other words that they would 'have to show them'.

Giving evidence for the Museums Association (MA), Virginia Tandy, the director of Manchester City Galleries and the president of the MA, also
encouraged 'some flexibility' for disposals, and even selling when other options had been exhausted. However, she stressed that 'the money has to be reinvested in collections, it should not be used for other purposes'.

After the session, responding to scepticism in the sector about the effectiveness of the committee, Helen Wilkinson, the MA's policy officer, told Museums Journal: 'The key thing that we can hope for is that the select committee keeps pressure on the government in the run-up to the Comprehensive Spending Review to maintain funds for Renaissance in the Regions and the national museums.

'It is also a positive way of raising the profile of issues, such as the future of university funding, that don't have a profile at the moment.'

Patrick Steel

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