After 40 years a decision has finally been taken to construct a tunnel to carry the A303 under Stonehenge. I am in two minds. Yes, it will ease congestion and improve the views. But, the work to create the tunnel will do permanent, irreversible, harm to the surrounding landscape. One archaeologist estimates that around half a million artefacts could be lost as a result. UNESCO may also take a dim view of the proposal and withdraw World Heritage Status from the site.
It has taken 200 years for one of the pioneers of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, to be honoured with a statue. Unfortunately, what renowned sculptor, Maggi Hambling, has created is a clichéd image. Would a celebrated male writer ever be portrayed nude? Yet here is Wollstonecraft depicted as a stereotype of female iconography in art. Statues of men outnumber women by 10 to 1 in London and, following months of debate about which historical figures deserve to be honoured, it is disappointing that such an important figure as Wollstonecraft has been commemorated in this way.
Troubling news comes from the Ministry of Justice, which is threatening to destroy papers relating to the composer, Sir Malcolm Arnold, who was a ward of the Court of Protection from 1979 to 1986 due to mental health problems. The Ministry claims that it cannot retain the papers because of the personal information contained in them and has “exhausted all possible options” for preserving the files. This is nonsense, because data protection does not apply to someone who has died and there are several repositories that would be only too happy to accept the archive. An appeal for the preservation of the archive has been signed by many eminent writers and artists. The Ministry is believed to be in discussions with The National Archives, so watch this space for further developments.
The Royal College of Physicians’ has proposed to sell its antiquarian book collection. The college, which was founded in 1518, finds itself in financial difficulties as many younger practitioners are, apparently, unwilling to pay the high subscription fees to join the professional body. The situation has been compounded this year by Covid, as the college’s income stream from hosting events has dried up. The archive is a valuable resource for researchers and the sale of any part of it would be contrary to the wishes of its past benefactors, whilst also potentially imperilling future bequests. Amongst its treasures are a fifteenth century manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, more than 100 volumes from the Elizabethan magician, John Dee, and mediaeval Islamic medical manuscripts.
The president of the college defended the proposal, saying that the sale would be of non-medical works, but this ignores the historic integrity of the library and the cultural role of the college. Sale would be in breach of the Museums Association code of ethics to prevent dispersal of collections to generate short term revenue. Moreover, the collection is accredited by the Arts Council and the Accreditation would be removed if a sale took place. More than 600 of the college’s fellows and members have written in protest about the proposal. The college has not, seemingly, sought to find alternative measures, such as applying to the culture recovery fund or even making a financial appeal to its members.
In the latest tranche of funding from the Culture Recovery Fund, seven museums in England have received grants totalling £15m, which is excellent news. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust received the largest award of £3m. The other recipients are the Design Museum, London; Black Country Living Museum Trust; Birmingham Museums Trust; Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust; Dulwich Picture Gallery; and London Transport Museum.
Sad news today that the Seiyun Palace in the Hadhramaut, Yemen, one of the largest mud-brick buildings in the world, is at risk of collapse. Heavy rains in August severely damaged the palace and a number of other buildings. The seven-storey palace, finished in the 1920s, was the seat of the Sultan of Kathiri, an ally of the British who controlled the protectorate of Aden at that time. It became a museum and tourist attraction in the 1980s and I was lucky enough to visit it on my tour of the Yemen in the late 1990s.
The mud-brick buildings, especially the wind-towers, are an incredible and beautiful feature of the Yemen, but I fear for their long-term survival. The ongoing conflict between Yemen’s Saudi-backed government, Houti rebels supported by Iran and separatists in the south mean that aid agencies struggle to help the populace whilst the cultural heritage of the country suffers not only from lack of maintenance but also from looting and pillaging.
It is a sad indictment of our times that there has to be a Heritage At Risk Register. Historic England battles valiantly to save listed buildings and its notable successes have included Wilton’s Music Hall, London, Liverpool’s former Royal Insurance Building and Kelham Island Conservation Area in Sheffield. In the last year, 181 sites were removed from the register thanks to restoration and renovation projects funded by grants from Historic England totalling £8.96m. These include Newington Green Meeting House in Hackney, St Mary’s Church in Guildford and Cadbury Castle in Somerset.
Sadly, these success stories are counterbalanced by the addition this year of 216 sites to the register, including the Ragged School Museum in Tower Hamlets and Madeira Terrace in Brighton. This year’s pandemic will, no doubt, lead to an even greater swelling of numbers of locations on the list, as resources become even more straitened for everyone.
You can check out sites near to you on the Historic England website and maybe see what you can do to help? https://historicengland.org.uk/advice/heritage-at-risk/search-register/
Yet more disturbing news about museum cut backs as a result of the effects of Covid. Bletchley Park has identified that the reduction of one-third of its staff would mitigate the estimated financial loss of 95% of its income due to the closure, leaving a £2m gap in its budget. 85% of the trust’s staff has already been furloughed. Other cost-saving measures being considered include lowering spend on marketing, exhibitions, travel and IT.
Meanwhile, staff at York Museums Trust, where losses of £1.4m have been sustained, have been warned that two-thirds of their jobs are at risk. About 70% of the trust’s income comes from ticket sales and visitor spend. Although it has received an emergency grant from Arts Council England, and has backing from the City Council, the trust’s chief executive, Reyahn Khan, believes it will not be enough to keep the trust afloat.
Matters are no better in Scotland, where Museums Galleries Scotland estimates that two-thirds of the country’s independent museums will not survive another year without additional funding, despite a £4m emergency fund, part of the DCMS cultural rescue package. The situation is compounded by a number of factors. Many small museums would find it difficult to open with social distancing measures in place and are run by volunteers who are unwilling or unable to return. As costs are scrutinised, University museums are also under threat, because they are not seen as core elements of research and teaching.
With every day that passes during the pandemic we move ever further away from the likelihood that life truly will be able to return to normal.
It was fascinating to hear that the British Museum is missing its visitors in more ways than one. It seems that the exhalations of the 17,000 visitors that the museum received daily prior to lock-down were essential for keeping precious exhibits at the correct humidity levels. The museum has not been closed for more than three days at a time (over Christmas) since World War II. Since the closure in March the relative humidity levels have fallen dangerously below 40%, which means that objects made from wood and bone have been drying out and are prone to cracking and fracture. Museum staff have been monitoring the situation closely and moving the most sensitive objects to their environmentally controlled strongrooms. The re-opening of the museum is eagerly awaited by all!
I was appalled to hear that the National Trust plans to ‘dial down’ its role as a cultural institution and focus on the open spaces in its portfolio instead, claiming that the Covid pandemic has merely accelerated an already difficult situation. Even though the Trust has £1.3 billion in reserves, it proposes to keep only 20 of its 500+ historic homes and castles open to the public, to put its collections into storage and to make properties available to people who are prepared to pay more for ‘specialised experiences’. Furthermore, it plans to make 1,200 redundancies, which would include dozens of its specialist curators in areas such as textiles, furniture and libraries, as well as conservation. As Bendor Grosvenor, the art historian, observes, ‘the Trust’s senior management have been making a mess of their historic properties for some time, dumbing down presentation and moving away from knowledge and expertise’, adding that it was reckless to abandon expertise built up over generations as ‘once gone, it will be impossible to retrieve’. The Trust has been accused in the past of ‘Disneyfying’ its properties and this latest news will do nothing to dispel alarm. The running of the properties should be handed to an organisation willing to run them according to the founding principles of the Trust. In the meantime I, and probably many others, will not be renewing my membership.
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture