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.
The impact of the Coronavirus on the heritage sector has hit close to home this week with the sad news that Fishbourne Palace may have to close. Fishbourne, situated just outside Chichester, is a Roman villa on a monumental scale that was comprised of four large residential wings around a courtyard garden. It is the largest residential building from the Roman period found in Britain. The outline of the walls, together with many stunning and elaborate mosaics, survives. It was built around 70AD by Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, king of the Regni, who was granted Roman citizenship and became fully assimilated into the Roman way of life. The site also houses the archaeological collections for Chichester District and serves as an important hub for academic research and both school-age and adult education, because it is a key site in explaining how the newly conquered province of Britain came to be absorbed culturally into the Roman empire.
Fishbourne is one of eight sites owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society (SAS), also known as Sussex Past, that have all been affected by the loss of visitors. SAS says that all its sites are threatened with closure due to a shortfall of £1 million in lost income. Next year marks the 175th anniversary of the founding of SAS and an appeal has been launched, supported by the historian, Tom Holland. Let’s hope it makes it to this momentous milestone.
When Charles II ascended the throne in 1660 he wasted no time in amassing a formidable art collection which, whilst not as celebrated as that of his father, Charles I, nevertheless included works by Bruegel, Leonardo da Vinci and Titian. He also commissioned a portrait of himself that is almost three metres high. The work, by John Michael Wright, is almost three metres high and depicts the king in parliamentary robes and the newly created regalia, displaying the return of regal power. The portraits and other works from Charles’ collection feature in an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery that runs until 13 May 2018 and provide a counterpoint to the larger exhibition of Charles I’s works at the Royal Academy.
Interesting article in The Economist this week about succession planning in American art museums. Accordingly to a survey of the Association of Art Museum Directors by The Economist, more than a third of directors have reached retirement age. The article focuses on the change in priorities that has taken place over the tenure of some of the longest serving and compares the issues facing them today with the slower pace of life of their early predecessors. For example, since Glenn Lowry, the Head of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), took up his post in 1995 the museum’s footfall has doubled and its endowment has quadrupled to almost $1 million. Modern directors have to be not just curators but also CEOs, responsible for the business side of their institution as well as the collections, including fund raising and advocacy.
Many directors have stayed in post for fear of disrupting the smooth running of the service in difficult times. An influx of new blood at the top, however, would provide opportunities to review the role and question assumptions about the way in which museums are run. The Economist believes that new directors face three challenges: engaging more imaginatively with audiences, addressing America’s changing demographics, and negotiating the ever more delicate balance between wealthy donors and the public. In particular, if museums are to make headway in engaging audiences they need to broaden their appeal. Part of the problem is that the potential pool of new directors does not reflect America’s racial diversity. All these challenges should resonate with the heritage sector in the UK.
The Wedgwood Collection, which was under threat of sale to meet the pension deficit of its parent company, Waterford Wedgwood, has been saved thanks to thousands of members of the public who responded to an appeal by raising £2.74 million within one month. Waterford Wedgwood Potteries collapsed in 2009 with a £134 million pension debt and the museum contents, including over 80,000 works of art, ceramics and archives, were threatened with sale at auction to help meet the deficit. The public donations will be added to the £13 million raised with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and a number of private trusts and foundations. The collection will be gifted to the Victoria & Albert Museum but remain on display, as a long-term loan, in the museum at the Wedgwood factory site in Barlaston, near Stoke.
But why did it have to come to this? Why aren’t such pre-eminent collections, which are a key part of Britain’s heritage, better protected? The Wedgwood Collection was held as a trust. Yet, in December 2011, the High Court ruled that the collection could be sold to pay the company’s creditors. Nearly two years later the Administrator agreed a value of £15.75 million for the collection and gave the Art Fund one year to raise the amount to keep the collection intact. Selling the collection would have meant splitting it into lots and being scattered across the globe. How have archives come to be treated as a commodity to be bought and sold in such a cavalier fashion and to have such high prices put on them? How vulnerable are other collections that have moved to trust status, believing that this afforded them some protection?
Following on from my posting about the JWT anniversary and the great website, I’ve recently completed a piece of work reviewing the web pages of a well-known business archive. My research looked at the websites of business archives in the UK and overseas and it threw up some interesting results, not least the number of major businesses which, seemingly, do not allow their archives to have a presence on their website. I looked at almost 30 sites and more than half concentrate on the history of the company or have timelines with only a cursory page devoted to the archive and how to access it. Which is all very sad when the archives can be a great advocate for a company in drawing people in by helping to demonstrate a business’s corporate social responsibility agenda, as well as the longevity of its brands, amongst many other positives.
There are some great examples out there, carrying a lot of information about their service and collections, which are easy to navigate. Even though they are restricted by corporate branding, both Lloyds and BT have excellent sites and Barings is visually attractive as well as informative.
If you’re looking for inspiration, check some of them out!
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture