Detail from a portrait of Dylan Thomas by Augustus John (1937-38), which has been acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and will be loaned to the Glenn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea. Image: Augustus John/National Portrait Gallery London

Poll: Is enough being done to share national collections around the UK?

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 22.08.2018
Blatchford calls on nationals to lend their top exhibits
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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Comments

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Jonathan Gammond
Access , Wrexham County Borough Museum
23.08.2018, 22:00
Lending national collections to regional and local museums requires long term commitment both locally and nationally. At the local level it requires investment in facilities and staff so you can meet the standards required by nationals and deliver the agreed programmes; while at the national level it requires leadership to prioritize sharing our national heritage with museums outside our various capital cities and to dedicate the staff and resources needed. There have been some great schemes, when the means have been willed to deliver the ends.

At Wrexham Museum, we benefited from the ‘Sharing Treasures’ programme which the Welsh Government funded to cover the costs of bringing national collections to museums around Wales. Consequently we were able to borrow the Mold Cape from the British Museum on two occasions (so far, if we can find the means!), co-curate an Egyptology exhibition, stage two fine art exhibitions involving loans from museums throughout England and Wales, and even burn our fingers enabling people in north-east Wales to take an interest in the indigenous culture of southern Africa. This funding made these exhibitions possible, allowed us to involve volunteers, students and schools, stage events, deliver workshops and attract new (and larger) audiences to Wrexham. Not only were these loans popular with visitors, even the most hard hearted of our stakeholders/purseholders were impressed by a big name and the ‘wow’ factor of a ‘treasure’ coming home or for a first ever visit. ‘Sharing Treasures’ was particularly effective as it was focused on delivering where you knew there would be an audience, you just needed the means to get the show to come to town.

However, it was not just take, take, take on our part. Like any other local museum we have our strengths and the national collections on show benefited from them. The loaned objects were re-interpreted and re-invigorated by appearing in a new setting. I am sure this is the case with every loan to a local or regional museum – it is one of the many reasons why loans are a good thing.

The real issue is finding the money centrally so that our national museums and galleries can put the resources and staff in to increase the number of loans going in and out and also to cover the costs of transport & conservation that easily make any loan prohibitive. Too often it is a few people pedalling very fast, in between servicing international loans that bring in the money and their own exhibitions and programmes. The challenge now is whether in the ‘age of centrally imposed austerity’ what was sometimes initially viewed as more of an add-on than a core service will once again be seen as a luxury, or even a distraction. National collections cannot just be for those who can afford to travel to our capital cities or who live within easy reach. Loans to the locals may not be glamorous, but their impact is long lasting (locally and in goodwill gained by national institutions), and they are much cheaper than opening satellites. Meanwhile, as money is tight, politicians should learn the lessons from past successes.