Orders of the Day — Umseums and Art Galleries (Closing)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th July 1952.

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Photo of Mr Christopher Hollis Mr Christopher Hollis , Devizes 12:00 am, 14th July 1952

I had hardly expected to be called quite so early in this debate, since my contribution was intended to be a matter of some detailed questions rather than the general survey which might have been expected from an hon. Member speaking first from these benches.

I am glad the Opposition have taken the opportunity to raise this important subject this afternoon, and I am glad that we are having the opportunity to ventilate our views upon it. Naturally enough, I cannot associate myself with every one of the epithets or general animadversions that have just fallen from the hon. Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt), but I am anxious that we shall debate this subject not in order that either one party or the other should obtain any party advantage, but in order that we may find a solution to the problem, a problem which concerns me very much.

I entirely agree with those—I think the Financial Secretary is certainly among them—who think that it is very deplorable that this present situation has arisen. I do not think I need elaborate that point, about which I am sure there is no dispute. Of course, we can all pile up extremely cogent and important reasons why it is a very sad and disastrous state of affairs that these facilities have been restricted, and I do not need to labour the point. The great danger is that this matter should be argued out upon two parallel lines which will never meet and which will, therefore, never bring us to a solution. On the one hand, while dissenting from the epithets and general animadversions of the hon. Member for Aston, I would associate myself with his constructive and cogent argument.

It is very sad that these restrictions have been imposed, and he is right—I do not think the Financial Secretary would deny it—in saying that this problem cannot be solved merely by a mathematical computation of the number of employees in the museums and art galleries. We all well understand that, compared with the figure in 1939, the museums have taken on all sorts of new obligations and, therefore, we cannot deduce the fact that there is no justification for this closure by simply taking the number of employees. I do not imagine that my hon. Friend ever intended that we should do that.

Nevertheless, it is a pertinent fact that we should understand, first, that there are more employees in these museums than there were in 1939, and secondly, that it is by no means all of the museums which have found it necessary to close down on certain days or to close certain departments in order to meet this problem. As the hon. Member admitted, the National Gallery, the London Museum and the Imperial War Museum have been able to take their cuts without closing down. It is not accurate to say of the Imperial War Museum at least, that it has taken on no new commitments since the war, because it has had an addition of some 1,600 square feet of gallery space to look after.

However, what we want to know is how to get a solution. On the one hand, there is the argument of the hon. Member for Aston, and on the other hand there is the Government's argument, the strength of which nobody can deny, which is this: unfortunately, like it or not, there is today a financial crisis, and Government economies have to be carried through. It is easy in this respect and in a thousand other respects to argue that such and such an activity is desirable and, therefore, it is a Philistine thing to economise on it, but we are in a position where we cannot get away with these generalised sort of arguments.

We have these two sets of cases, both of which in themselves are valid. It is desirable, if we can find a way of doing it, to keep the museums open and, on the other hand, these are times when the Government simply cannot afford to be indifferent to economies. Of course, it can be said that £32,000 is the sole extent of these economies, and that is a small economy, but all economies are small if we break them down into small enough figures.

Let us see what is the practical hope of a solution. With that in mind, I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary two questions and to get very clear the answers to them both. First, I am far from certain what is exactly the legal right of the museums to close down in these circumstances. After all, whether they are receiving more public money or less public money, they are receiving public money, and they are doing so on certain conditions, one of which is that of making themselves available to the public. What has happened, I understand, is that the Government have told them that they must have these cuts in their personnel and it has been left entirely to them to decide in what way they shall perform or shall not perform their functions when these cuts have been imposed upon them. I am very far from clear whether the Government have the legal right to divest themselves of their responsibility to that extent, or whether the museums have the legal right to close in the way they have done, without consultation.

When my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Lieut.-Colonel Hyde) raised this matter the other day, he made an extremely important and practical suggestion which I had hoped might lead to a way out of our difficulty. We are all agreed that, on the one hand, it is a terrible thing that these museums should be closed, and, on the other hand, there is a financial crisis. It is perfectly true that the Government have chosen to demand a reduction of staff; but this is not like a war-time crisis, where the essential saving required is that of manpower.

What is required here is not a saving of staff for itself but a saving of public expenditure. Therefore, it would seem worth while to explore, in greater detail than has been done up till now, the question whether the museums could not keep larger staffs and at the same time save Government expenditure by being allowed to charge fees, in the way that the galleries on the Continent, such as the Louvre, are permitted to do. The Louvre charges fees. The Zoo charges fees. If it is good enough for the Louvre and good enough for the Zoo, why is it not good enough for the National Gallery?