Museums and Galleries - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:57 pm on 23rd January 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 4:57 pm, 23rd January 2018

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to have this opportunity to draw attention to a subject which is close to my heart and has been virtually all my life. In a brief debate one can touch only on the main, salient issues but I will endeavour to do so. Before I say anything I thank all noble Lords who have agreed to participate in this debate, I thank the Library for the excellent report it has produced and I welcome my noble friend Lord Ashton of Hyde and hope that he will be able to give me a fully understanding and sympathetic reply at the end. I also thank those many people who have corresponded with me over the last few days, particularly Mr Ian Blatchford who chairs the National Museum Directors’ Council. I declare my interest as president and, indeed, the founder in 1974 of the All-Party Arts and Heritage Group. Many of your Lordships are members of that group, enthusiastic members at that, and the very first visit we paid in 1974 was to one of our great national institutions, the National Portrait Gallery.

Put very simply, these museums and galleries are guardians of much of our heritage. To understand whence we came, locally or nationally, we need to go to our great national or our small local museums. No one can really fully understand our development as a nation, or appreciate our sense of community, without some familiarity with our museums and galleries. Of course, our nation and our localities are set in a global context by great national institutions, most of them in London. These include the Victoria and Albert Museum —I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, in his place because his son is now proving a splendid director of that museum—and, perhaps above all, the British Museum. But all of them, individually and collectively, are institutions in which we all can and should take tremendous pride. Yet there has never been a time when our great museums faced greater difficulties or our small museums, particularly our local authority museums, stood at greater risk.

All this was underlined very recently, in November, by the Mendoza review, which many of your Lordships will have read. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, will refer to it when she comes to speak immediately after me. That report underlines forcefully and graphically the importance of museums to our national life. It shows how our 2,600 museums—it is a staggering figure—large and small, ranging from the British Museum to local or specialised museums, are so dependent upon national and local support and encouragement and, of course, upon funding. The Government control or influence some 11 fund-providing institutions, foremost of which is the Heritage Lottery Fund, of which the noble Baroness is a vice-chairman. The Government’s influence includes tax measures, of course, but I remind your Lordships that funding has been stuck at £844 million for the last 10 years, which represents a 13% fall in real terms. That indicates the problems to which I refer.

We await a government response to that report. I do not chide my noble friend the Minister for not having it yet, as it was produced only in November, but I hope that he can give some idea to your Lordships when we can expect a full, considered government response. Another thing that concerns me much, and it comes out in some of the letters that I have received, is that HLF support will drop in this year, 2018-19, from £432 million to £190 million.

I would like to,

“point a Moral, or adorn a Tale”,

as it were, by talking of one specific city, Lincoln—the city where I now live—and the problems and challenges that we have faced. I have had the great privilege of presiding over two nationally important exhibitions in the last three years: in 2015, we commemorated the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta; and last year, we marked the 800th anniversary of the decisive Battle of Lincoln. These exhibitions were made possible because of the willingness of great national institutions to lend and the generosity of mostly local supporters, sponsors and patrons.

It is axiomatic that a national collection should be shared with the nation. The exhibitions that we have put on in Lincoln in the last three years have demonstrated that. Last year, for the first time ever, the Domesday Book—the most priceless item in our National Archives —left London and was on display in Lincoln Castle. Soon, your Lordships will have the opportunity to go to the Royal Academy and see reincarnated the great collection of Charles I; just a few months ago we had one of the stars of that great exhibition, the triple portrait by van Dyck, on the wall of the collection in Lincoln.

This illustrates how very important partnership between the local and the national is, but it is not easy for the nationals. The National Portrait Gallery, for instance, which lent 62 items to 26 different venues, including Lincoln last year, is struggling for funds to enable it to do that. The nationals have an obligation placed upon them by the Government. It is a happy obligation—free admission—which most of us would heartily applaud, but he who calls the tune should pay the piper. I believe it is important that my noble friend and his ministerial colleagues should reflect upon that and upon the problems that face our great national institutions.

The Mendoza report touches on all the major issues, but it does not fully recognise the great burden upon local authorities or the problem of business rates. In January last year, I was suddenly confronted by Lincolnshire County Council which said that it desperately wanted the exhibition to go ahead in the summer, but unless I could raise £150,000 in the next three weeks, it could not. With the help of generous friends, local companies and so on, I was able to raise more than that, but it is indicative of the problem that we face. A culture development fund has been promised, but its resources are going to amount to £2 million. That is a tiny percentage of what is needed.

Before I sit down, I remind your Lordships’ House and, in particular, the Minister that in this field we are discussing briefly this evening, the sums involved are tiny in the context of the national budget, yet our national heritage is at risk. It would be a damning indictment in this 21st century if we did not recognise the glories that we have and do everything possible to maintain and enhance them. I am glad to have this opportunity, and I look forward to noble Lords’ contributions.