Bloomsbury grouping set fair for millennium

April 19, 1996

The British Museum has edged closer to its cherished aim of housing its collections in one location after receiving Pounds 8.1 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Elaine Williams reports.

The British Museum was awarded Pounds 8.1 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund two weeks ago, taking it a step closer to its "grand project" of gathering all its main collections on to one site by the end of the millennium.

When Norman Foster's design for the Great Court of the British Museum is complete, with its vast overarching glass roof, three things will have been achieved. The opening up of Robert Smirke's 19th century inner courtyard with its neoclassical porticos at the heart of the building will give architectural pleasure and orientation to the museum's six million annual visitors, saving the King's Library and the Egyptian galleries from being thoroughfares. Those who just wish to see the museum's five most famous objects should be able to find them more easily without turning galleries into highways, a permanent disturbance to those who wish to study or draw the collections.

It will herald the return to Bloomsbury of the museum's ethnographic collections currently exhibited in the Museum of Mankind in Burlington Gardens and outhoused in Shoreditch, and it will provide the museum with a desperately needed education centre.

To complement this, the museum has acquired a major site nearby to meet its storage needs for the next 25 years. The Royal Mail sorting office on the corner of Drury Lane and New Oxford Street will be transformed to house collections, curators, study rooms, a textile centre and the museum's archaeological processing, presently in Olympia, which will be opened to the public in a permanent display.

Embodying this vision will cost about Pounds 80 million which will be drawn from various millennium funds, other lottery money and private donations, including Pounds 6 million from the Annenbergs to create an information centre in the Round Reading Room - a reference library and multimedia database of the collections - and Pounds 4 million from the Sainsbury family to create a suite of permanent galleries in the Great Court for the museum's African collections, which are presently displayed as a series of temporary exhibitions in the Museum of Mankind. The Pounds 8.1 million lottery money will go towards developing the sorting office.

More than Pounds 20 million has yet to be found and planning permission has to be obtained, but Robert Anderson, the museum's director, behaves like a man who will see his vision fulfilled.

The museum's announcement of its timetable puts pressure on the British Library - already ten years late and Pounds 350 million over budget - to move into St Pancras by the set date of 1997. This would mean the removal of the bookstacks surrounding the Round Reading Room, providing the museum with 40 per cent more space. In his worst moments Brian Lang, the British Library's chief executive, has visions of books in skips as the library remains unopened, bogged down by further mishaps, while the museum ploughs on with its great scheme.

The scale of the museum project is breathtaking which is why, no doubt, it attracted an architect like Norman Foster who had almost forsaken this country in despair of its conservatism.

"We will be able to increase the number of conferences we hold at the leading edge of research, across subject boundaries," says Anderson, adding that the museum could also run more adult education courses.

Britain is becoming a much more visual society. The national curriculum demands that children study from primary sources and the handling of objects has become an increasingly important educational tool. John Reeve, head of education at the museum, says universities underuse museum collections, but is certain that trends set by the national curriculum will work their way through to higher education. The museum has to be prepared for that.

There will be room for large international academic conferences to split into smaller groups and researchers will have improved access to the collections and curators. Facilities for object handling are also very limited. For example, Camberwell Art School often asks museum staff from the department of prints and drawings to set out a selection of work for students to look at. "So there they are, teaching from Durer," Reeve says, "in a room which is also used by many others. Conditions are extremely cramped." The prints and drawings department alone is visited by 30,000 people a year.

The return of the ethnographic collections (they were moved out to the Museum of Mankind in 1970) will put an end to an awkward hiatus in the museum's development. Sandy Heslop, dean of the faculty of world art studies and music at the University of East Anglia, says: "It appeared to make the objects housed in the Museum of Mankind a separate entity, not part of mainstream culture, the sphere of anthropologists rather than archaeologists and art historians."

This separation, he believes, has had a significant subconscious effect on the way such collections are valued nationally. He says: "A typical response in a provincial museum is to put African art, in particular, next to stuffed animals and geology, as something quasi-natural rather than cultural."

Duncan Robinson, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, agrees. "I think the distinction made between ethnography and archaeology is a dubious one. It has tended to encourage beliefs in the primacy of western culture. Moving the collections back is merely taking full cognisance of what is happening in research."

It is hoped, however, that gathering all the collections and curators into Bloomsbury will lead to further cross-fertilisation between departments. Robinson firmly believes this will be the case. He says: "The decentralisation of records in London is a researcher's nightmare." Facilities in the Round Reading rrom, which will house part of the library of the Anthropological Society, are also being designed with cross-referencing of the collections in mind. The information centre, which will occupy 50 per cent of the space, will combine a reference library, including the museum's publications, with a multimedia database which will allow visitors to explore the collections in different ways, for example surveying the technology of different peoples during the same period.

There are those who baulk at the Round Reading Room, the haunt of scholars, never before accessible to the public, being used for such general purposes. John Reeve is categoric. The reading room will still be a library, it will not be open to rampaging hoards of children eating their packed lunches, and it will serve the needs of teachers, art students, sixth formers, undergraduates, the informed enthusiast - who want comprehensive access to the collections.

All of these highly commendable initiatives nevertheless create some sense of unease. What will happen to the museum's services when all of this expenditure is taking place? Art students have ever been frustrated by statues remaining under wraps for months because cash shortages drag out maintenance and rearrangement. Running costs for the Great Court will be covered by reduced costs in other areas, notably the closure of the Museum of Mankind, but also on increased trading revenue.

The British Library must surely stand as a warning of how the public can quickly fall out of love with ambitious over reaching projects done to the detriment of services. Nearly 10 per cent of the library workforce is to go, services slashed and opening hours cut, largely due to the horrifying catalogue of mismanagement in building the nation's largest and most expensive public building, much of it revisited in a damning National Audit Office report published this month.

The advent from September of John Ashworth, director of the London School of Economics, as chairman of the board, will provide the library with a high profile spokesman at a crucial time.

For the moment the museum needs no champions. But proof of this ambitious scheme's suitability will be tested by the quality, efficiency and sensitivity of its execution.

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