Simon Jenkins talks of objects remaining “trapped in the storehouses of museums and galleries, guarded from sharing or dissemination by statutes and protocols” (Museums are not the proper home for our greatest works, 17 August). But great museums recognise their great responsibilities.
One is to make their objects as freely accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Among other things, that means loaning material far and wide, and making it available in virtual formats as well. Vastly more people see British Museum objects around the UK and the world than they do in London. A second responsibility is to conserve everything, so that it can be studied and enjoyed by future generations forever. A third is to encourage new ideas and scholarship, and a fourth is to show the connections between the different cultures in the collections, to help us understand the world we live in today and our common humanity.
None of these responsibilities is recognised by Simon Jenkins. More curious still is his argument that objects such as the Lewis chessmen represent Scotland’s early history and should accordingly be returned – although as an afterthought he does concede that perhaps they should be sent to Norway, where they were much more likely to have come from.
He will, however, be delighted on his next trip to the Outer Hebrides to visit the Museum nan Eilean on the Isle of Lewis. There he will find a collection of Lewis chessmen looking very pleased with themselves in a handsome case, and on long-term loan from the British Museum.
Chairman, British Museum
• Museum basements do not contain Smaug’s hoard of jealously guarded treasures but artefacts including flints, pottery and glass sherds in their millions: these are the building blocks not only of our country’s history and culture but also those of many other countries that do not have the resources to store, conserve and analyse such objects, let alone wish to see them “restored”. The slashing of government funding over many years has driven museum managements into revenue-earning activities at the expense of the research of, and student/scholar and public access to, this precious resource.
The question of the restitution of such cultural “icons” as the Parthenon marbles obscures a far more pressing issue: the catastrophic decline in curator and conservator numbers in our national museums since the early 2000s – a decline that has been mirrored by a concomitant rise in the philistine bureaucracies that are driving our great museums to deliver their own agendas at as little cost as possible . Many ex-curators such as ourselves feel that the trustees of our national museums are perilously close to ignoring their prime responsibility: the care, conservation and interpretation of our heritage.
Christopher Entwistle and Gillian Varndell
• Simon Jenkins attacks London’s museums and Tate in particular for being “deaf to the outrage that the majority of [their] ‘public’ works of art are in store – some 80% of the Tate’s”. That figure is interesting as it is very roughly the proportion of the Tate collection that consists of what are technically called “works on paper”. That means watercolours, drawings, photographic works and prints. Such works are highly vulnerable to light and there is no museum in the world that displays works on paper other than for short periods of time and in carefully controlled light conditions.
Of those Tate works on paper, about 65% are by Turner. The actual number is 37,463. These range from the very slightest sketches to finished watercolours and are mostly in sketchbooks, which can only be shown one opening at a time. Furthermore, approximately 5,000 of them are blank sheets in the sketchbooks, which nevertheless have accession numbers and therefore count as part of the Tate collection.
Like all major museums, Tate has a prints and drawings room where any of these works may be viewed on request. The entirety of the Turner collection, including every page of the sketchbooks, is available online.
Jenkins also complains that he “pleaded with the Tate to donate some unseen pre-Raphaelite paintings to National Trust houses of the same period and drew a complete blank”. Well, he would have done. What he asked is illegal under the 1992 Museums and Galleries Act that governs Tate. The circumstances in which the national museums can dispose of works are highly circumscribed under that act and do not include donation to National Trust houses.
On the other hand, Tate operates an extensive loan scheme. Any National Trust house that felt the need for a work in the Tate collection, and could satisfy the conditions of security and environment required, could request it on loan. Loans can be long term.
The Tate collection, and its display, is a highly complex issue that cannot be looked at simply in terms of crude numbers. This and the other issues raised by Jenkins need extensive and informed discussion.
Former curator, Tate (1967-2002)
• Simon Jenkins says that “London’s V&A is one of the last museums to retain its cast court, and splendid it is”. The cast court at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris dwarfs that of the V&A, with copies of many French pre-modern sculptures made before acid rain did its worst to the originals.
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