Museums and Galleries

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:19 am on 14th March 1991.

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Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex 2:19 am, 14th March 1991

On the other hand, in his closing words, the hon. Gentleman, was trying to remind me of the refrain in that poem: But at my back I always hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near. That is precisely why he was telling me to go off to Frankfurt rather quickly.

In the course of yesterday, which already seems a long time ago, I had the opportunity to visit two museums. During both visits I was reminded of some of the points that my hon. Friend the Minister for Battersea has made, but also of our efficacy in dealing with some of the problems about which he spoke. Between my visits to the two museums, I had a short time at the Dulwich art gallery which is well known to my hon. Friend the Minister for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), who was kind enough to be with us during this debate.

The first museum which I visited yesterday was the Horniman. I was there for the opening of the exhibition devoted to Yoruba, a celebration of African art. That exhibition is a remarkable departure for the Horniman. It is unlike the museum's normal ethnographic exhibitions and its well-known exhibition of musical instruments. It shows great enterprise. It will appeal to many people, and especially to the Afro-Caribbeans who live in the area; they will have the opportunity to see an important display of past and contemporary African, and particularly Nigerian, art.

More specifically, I was shown by the director of the museum the lift that is being installed for the disabled so that it will be easier for them to visit the aquarium when it re-opens later this year. The museum has spent quite a lot of money on renovating it. Some of the money was from an improvement grant, jointly funded by ourselves and the Wolfson charities.

The other museum that I visited in the course of the last 24 hours was the Soane museum in Lincoln's Inn, which is receiving substantial repairs to its roof, funded by the MEPC property company and my office—each contributing £.1 million over five years. That work will, among other things, enable the antiquities collected by Sir John Soane to be restored to his study, and for part of the museum's huge collection of architectural prints by Soane and Adam to be viewed by tourists and other visitors in a manner not previously possible.

At both those small but important museums, we are undertaking—with the help of sponsorship, private patrons, or charities such as the Wolfson foundation—the kind of improvements mentioned by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, enabling collections to be better displayed, and allowing the disabled an opportunity to enjoy them more easily.

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in his place, and I am sure that the Whip on the bench will convey to him the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea about the RAF museum at Hendon.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, not surprisingly, made a certain amount of play about lack of museum funding, to which I shall refer shortly. More importantly, he accused the Government of a lack of policy and having no sense of vision. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea referred to a recent change of outlook. There might have been some measure of truth four or five years ago in the observation of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. In the mid-1980s, the museum world suffered a crisis of confidence, which coincided with lengthy consideration by my distinguished predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr Luce), of whether to introduce museum admission charges.

My right hon. Friend reached the conclusion that the decision should be left to the museums' individual management, trustees, or boards of director. It is official Labour party policy not to continue with charging. Setting aside the question of undermining the philosophy behind that policy, what does the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central suggest should be done, for example, in the case of the museum of the moving image, which was specifically introduced as a museum that charged admission, and which intends to meet its expenses as a result? Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that its costs should be met entirely from public funds? If so, that would be a foolish reversal of the policy adopted by that extremely successful museum. The hon. Gentleman seems anxious to get to his feet to tell the House that Labour intends to place yet another burden on the taxpayer, so I will allow him time to do so