Museums and Galleries - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:35 pm on 23rd January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Rees of Ludlow Lord Rees of Ludlow Crossbench 5:35 pm, 23rd January 2018

My Lords, we should indeed be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for his long-standing commitment to this area. It is a privilege to participate in this debate. I declare an interest as a former trustee of the British Museum and a current member of the Science Museum’s fundraising trust. I am based at Cambridge University, which is fortunate to have several outstanding museums; these are not only key adjuncts to research and teaching, but important cultural assets for the city and the region and, of course, tourist attractions too.

Museums and galleries are a diverse and complex ecology. I will focus my comments on science museums but I reiterate the concern we all share about the vulnerability of all local museums and libraries in an era when local government funding is under extreme pressure. There is a risk that temporary squeezes could lead to irreversible losses to our culture and communities. All museums aspire to be inspirational, cultural, and educational for young and old and they have a duty to conserve the artefacts emblematic of our heritage. However, I think it is accepted that science museums have, in addition, a more explicit educational role than the others. In this sense, they overlap in their mission with so-called science centres. Some of the latter were established with capital from the Millennium lottery fund, and have struggled to sustain an income.

The Science Museum itself has long seen young people as a key part of its clientele. There were 650,000 booked school visitors at the museum last year. Its acclaimed Wonderlab interactive gallery started in London and another was opened in Bradford at the newly revamped National Science and Media Museum, boosting visitor numbers there by one-third. The Government’s industrial strategy depends on a lifeblood of young people fired up by science and technology, and museums have a key role to play here. All too often, the natural enthusiasm that primary school children have—for dinosaurs, space or tadpoles—erodes at later stages. Those who have carried on in scientific careers often attribute their continuing motivation to media and museums, more than to their formal schooling.

As has been remarked, a generic feature of our great collections is that they are London-centric. The Science Museum is unusual here; it is actually a federation. Its flagship institution is indeed in South Kensington, but it has four other museums: the National Railway Museum in York, where there is an exciting redevelopment being planned; its adjunct in Shildon; the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford; and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. This is at least some cheer for the noble Lord, Lord Kirkham, as he explained earlier. More than that, the Science Museum has organised special exhibitions which travel internationally. Science is the most truly global culture. There is currently an “Illuminating India” season at the Science Museum, which has been a tonic for UK-India relations. A special success—achieved through seriously difficult diplomacy by the director—was the Cosmonauts exhibition, which displayed artefacts from the 1960s which had never been seen publicly before, even in Russia. They went to Moscow only after they had been shown here. It was a worthy celebration of the heroism of the early cosmonauts and of Soviet achievements in science.

As a follow-up, incidentally, the museum is acquiring the capsule in which Tim Peake the UK astronaut travelled from the International Space Station; he came down in a Russian capsule. This will go on tour in the UK, along with Stephenson’s “Rocket”—a nice juxtaposition. Incidentally, touring exhibitions obviously engender concern about the safety of fragile artefacts, but the Science Museum director noted that this was the last of his concerns in the case of the space capsule as it had survived, glowing white-hot, during its re-entry into the atmosphere at 5 kilometres per second—so travel to the north of England occasioned zero concern. It will surely attract a lot of interest.

This leads to another important point: the allure of seeing the “real thing”. The web is, of course, a huge plus in spreading knowledge virtually and an important element in all museums. However, it is absolutely not the case that the web erodes the motivation to see actual iconic objects, just as in other fields there is now growing demand for book festivals and live concerts. I have witnessed an extreme example of this in science centres, when a spoonful of moon dust—utterly nondescript-seeming grey soil—always attracts a crowd of wondering young people.

Of course, some artefacts have aesthetic as well as technical or historic appeal—old clocks and astrolabes, for instance. That seems less true, sadly, of their modern counterparts, although an engineering friend assures me that the intricate structures on a silicon chip have a certain austere beauty if you look at them under a microscope. Be that as it may, in an era where short-termism is ever more prevalent, we should treasure our museums and acclaim their successes and initiatives. We need to celebrate and understand our past and be mindful of the heritage we owe to past generations as this should inspire us to reach for a brighter longer-term future.