The Science Museum Group's (SMG) director Ian Blatchford has called on other national institutions to be more proactive about sharing the best items in their collections with museums around the UK.
In an interview with the Times last week, Blatchford said the nationals were good at lending low-calibre objects but needed to do more to share their greatest exhibits. He suggested that the British Museum should consider lending the Rosetta Stone - or the National Gallery its Leonardo da Vinci masterpieces - to museums outside London.
Referring to the SMG's decision to permanently relocate the rare Stephenson's Rocket from its London site to the National Railway Museum in York, Blatchford said: "There were a lot of arguments in the Science Museum about Stephenson's Rocket because such an iconic thing - it would be very disruptive to audiences. But what we found is that all those arguments against it seemed to be bogus because there are so many wonderful things in our collection that people don't particularly miss it.
"If great things always stay in the same place, people take them for granted and they lose their power. By lending great objects outside London, the person lending benefits as much as the person getting it because suddenly everything is looked at with a fresh eye. It's disruptive in the very best sense."
Blatchford himself has been criticised in the past for moving the Royal Photographic Society collection from its former home at the National Media Museum in Bradford to London's Science Museum, where it opened to the public this year. He defended that decision, saying the collection had "absolutely no meaning or relevance where it was held. About 300 people a year were coming to see it".
"Ever since we concentrated on other things in Bradford, museum numbers have blossomed," he added.
Several national institutions have launched new initiatives to share their collections more widely. The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) announced last month that it was rolling out its DesignLab Nation schools programme, which launched last year, to cities with strong links to industrial heritage, including Stoke-on-Trent, Blackburn, Coventry, Sheffield and Sunderland.
The project has seen the V&A, in partnership with regional museums, use artefacts from its collections to spark young people's interest in art and design, particularly in areas with low uptake or attainment in design and technology subjects.
Meanwhile the National Portrait Gallery announced last week that it had acquired a portrait of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, which it will loan to the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in the poet's hometown of Swansea as part of its new Coming Home project. The initiative will see 50 portraits from the gallery's collection travel to the places in the UK to which they have the closest association.
Some stakeholders have said that a more strategic, centrally-organised approach is required to stimulate a constant flow of lending from national collections.
The Museums Association's policy officer, Alistair Brown, said: “I think that lots of progress has been made on lending from national museums in recent years thanks to the Ready to Borrow scheme and the work of organisations such as the Touring Exhibitions Group.
"But many museums still find it hard to access national collections, particularly to borrow items that are high value or in high demand, and I think we need some braver decision-making to get these items seen around the UK.”
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