Museums and Galleries - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:07 pm on 23rd January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 6:07 pm, 23rd January 2018

My Lords, in hyperactive mode, I will continue along the line of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. Everybody has mentioned money in this debate. The other thing that has come up constantly is all the exotic places where people can give personal accounts of museums that they are familiar with. We could have had a tour of scenic Britain with our eyes shut: Lincoln, Wales, York, Inverness, Yorkshire, Gateshead, Cambridge, Hull and Manchester—but, of course, no culture west of Bristol. This has borne testimony to the fact that all of us have our rootage in the cultural heritage expressed in museums and galleries.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, not only on bringing this Question to our attention, but on his pertinacity in ensuring that the future of our heritage is constantly held under review. I have a little experience in this field. For more than 20 years I bore responsibility for the Museum of Methodism, situated at Wesley’s Chapel on the City Road here in London. Clearly this is a niche museum, although we developed it in conjunction with other religious museums, especially the museum of Judaism. The curator spares and finds time to chair the group that presents to the public the interests of the small historic houses of London. Yet, for all that it is a niche museum, it has global significance and attracts tourism by the tens of thousands for the 70 million Methodists scattered around the world. It is a place of pilgrimage, where John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, began his work. It is where he lived and died and where his last remains are buried. It is an important destination for faithful Methodists from everywhere and, since it is open at times when other museums are not, for non-Methodists too.

These responsibilities I shouldered made me more than aware of the key questions we are addressing in this debate and that are put forward in the Mendoza review. We needed to fund a major refurbishment costing millions of pounds. A small part of that came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the rest from trusts, personal contacts, philanthropists and the international Methodist family. Equally, we sought to ensure sustainability and good leadership. We appointed a fully professional and experienced curator who was far better than we might have found in normal times, but these were not normal times. We were able to get this person simply because, due to local authority cutbacks, a brilliant man trained at the Victoria and Albert suddenly became available, made redundant from the gallery he was running. We added a training and development officer and these two professional people are aided by volunteers—as was said by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles—who keep the place open every single day of the year, except perhaps three days around the major festivals. In addition, we have developed an ambitious outreach programme to schools and other institutions as we seek to broaden the base of those interested, bring more people in, change the exhibitions around and appeal to those interested in religious history, 18th-century history, architecture, social development, the world mission and metropolitan history.

Running a museum is more than just keeping the budget balanced. It is interesting to know that there are well over 2,000 such small museums scattered around the country. As has been said by many noble Lords, their contribution to community life, social cohesion and identity cannot be overestimated. Such museums, of course, are miniscule in comparison to the great national museums which come immediately to mind in a debate of this kind—miniscule, but no less important.

The noble Lord, Lord Monks, mentioned the People’s History Museum. I had quite a discourse on that and I will abandon it because repetition is not a good thing in parliamentary debate. However, I hope that as much attention will be given to the non-elitist aspects of British social history as to the great showpiece places in the great museums we can all think of. It was astonishing to read some of the accounts in the briefing papers about the Minister’s great-aunt; a suffragist, a pacifist and, supremely, a nonconformist. I was delighted to read that: he must meet my wife, whose great-aunt was a suffragette, a nonconformist and a Pankhurst. I am indeed married to a revolutionary woman; it is in the genes. Therefore, I hope that the People’s History Museum will receive the attention it is due and be visited by the all-party group of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The Mendoza committee did not have a chance to visit it: it needs visiting and this is a good year for it with the centenary of the Representation of the People Act being celebrated appropriately, centred in Manchester.

I noticed in the Mendoza report—the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, mentioned it—that DCMS will facilitate the development of a museums action plan with the Arts Council, HLF and so on, to deliver on these priorities this September. It is my lot in these debates to be able to anticipate the Minister’s response by saying, “We will see how we will proceed with the questions we are debating when this report comes out”. It is not the first time I have been snookered in that way, but I hope we can put pressure on those facilitating this development action plan in order that they may catch the idea that money is needed. We can get some money by making economies and by greater efficiency: that is one way of getting more out of what we have got. The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, missed his chance to speak, but I want to say what he has revealed to me in a courteous revelation of his speech, which is that other money can be gained by taking away the charge for images and illustrations that museums impose on anything that people want to include in publications, publicity and educational materials. That has the effect of narrowing down those who might attend our museums or be aware of our collections. I commend the noble Lord for that idea for enriching the resource base of our museums.

This is where we must draw things to a conclusion. Money is and will continue to be a problem. We can hope only that the study about to be done will look squarely at it. I hope that there is more money to be squeezed out of the orange. A clear responsibility rests with the DCMS in this regard; we must hope that it comes good. With all this in mind, it seems that we must keep these matters on hold yet again, and anticipate a further discussion once the forthcoming study has been completed. We count on the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, to ensure that it happens.