Good to hear some positive news on the heritage front that plans for the creation of a new History Centre for Staffordshire have been approved. With the award of nearly £4 million earlier in the year by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, the proposed centre will house the collections of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archive Service, the County Museum and the William Salt Library. A glazed link will be created between the Georgian building that houses the library and the record office, which will form a new entrance and exhibition space. Reading areas, research labs and extra storage that will accommodate up to a further 55 years of additions to the collections are part of the overall £7.1 million plans.
The V&A museum is proposing the merger of a number of departments based on material specialisms in order to create cross-disciplinary teams organised around chronology or geography. Under the proposal around 20% of curatorial roles and 10% of conservation roles are at risk. This is a similar action to that proposed by the National Trust last year, which was decried by critics as ‘dumbing down’. Some current and former V&A staff have told of their fears of a ‘brain drain’ at the museum. Curatorial staff argue that they are already stretched with the turnaround that the museum has with exhibitions. Inevitably, director Tristan Hunt cited the Covid pandemic as ‘one of the most significant financial challenges in the V&A’s long history’ and hopes that the changes will save £10m per year. But no price can be put on the knowledge and expertise that will be lost if the changes go ahead.
In addition, the museum is planning to review National Art Library services with a view to merging the library, together with the V&A’s registry and archives, under the V&A Research Institute, to create a single, integrated research and information directorate. Consequently, the library will remain closed until December 2021. Given that these services have already been closed for the best part of a year this action hardly serves the needs of researchers and fails to meet the V&A’s mission aims to create a world class learning experience and to expand its international reach, reputation and impact.
News earlier this month that the Wallace Collection, London, was consulting on the closure of its library and archive to the public led to an outcry and online petition. A campaign to try and prevent the closure was launched by a group of archive professionals and trade unionists working with the Wallace Collection staff and the Public and Commercial Services trade union. The Wallace Collection’s library contains about 30,000 books and periodicals relating to the museum collection, some of which are not held by other art history libraries, whilst the archive includes the papers of the Wallace Collection’s founders and other records and is designated as a ‘Place of Deposit’ for public records under the 1958 Public Records Act. The closure plans, which were described by the campaign’s organisers as ‘short-sighted and ill thought out’, would have meant redundancies for two full time members of staff. The petition argued that Wallace Collection director, Xavier Bray, ‘wants to orientate the museum to income generation and does not view the library and archive as part of this’. Moreover, questions about archives that were donated on the condition that they were publicly available, and on how curatorial staff would manage the book and archive collections that require specialist skills, have not been answered.
By the close of consultation on 11 February, the petition had attracted almost 30,000 signatures. On 17 February it was announced that the library and archive of the Wallace Collection would remain open to the public following an internal consultation, although Bray warned that a difficult road lies ahead for the institution as it counts the cost of the pandemic.
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.
The government has said that museums and galleries in England can open from 4 July provided that safety measures are implemented. Guidance developed by the National Museum Directors’ Council sets out nine considerations that need to be in place before re-opening to support the safety of staff and visitors. They have also created a suggested timeline to help museums plan their re-opening.
National museums in London have said that they are phasing their opening, but should all be open over the summer. But, how many smaller museums and galleries will be able to meet the requirements of social distancing...? As I’ve already reported, many well-known smaller venues have already announced that they are struggling. The Museums Association says that substantial financial aid is still needed to help the sector, but will the government see the necessity?
The National Archives has also produced guidelines to help archives plan for re-opening that include links to a checklist and risk management template:
But it is very odd that archives and libraries are still scheduled to be closed when shops, often far smaller spaces, are allowed to open and some archives already operate a booking system, so why not extend that? Most archive staff that I know have not been furloughed and there has to come a point where they simply have no more work that they can do from home. The benefits of access to libraries, museums and archives are well-documented so, for everyone’s well-being – staff, visitors and users – let’s see them re-opened sooner rather than later.
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture