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Reserve Collections

Volume 201: debated on Monday 13 January 1992

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To ask the Minister for the Arts what is his estimate of the number and value of reserve collections in the public sector; and if he will make a statement.

Information on reserve collections is not held centrally, but most major national and local authority-run museums and galleries hold such collections. They are of inestimable value in both financial and scholarly terms.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the collections are vast and have often been assembled at very little cost, but at the same time they are the treasures of the night watchmen? In other words, unless one is a special scholar or a night watchman, one does not see these collections. Is it not time that many of them were made available to schools, colleges, banks and building societies so that the treasure trove of Britain is available to everyone?

I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend is making and I know of his support for museums and galleries in York and in Yorkshire. One of the national museums and galleries for which I have responsibility, the Tate, is making great efforts, by setting up galleries in, for example, Liverpool and shortly in St. Ives, to make others of its collections regularly available for view in the north-west or the south-west. I hope that other galleries will take note of the good point that my hon. Friend has made.

With regard to collections in Scotland and the housing of those collections, may I point out that many of us living in the west of Scotland are opposed to the building of a national art gallery in Edinburgh? I remind the Minister that the visiting of galleries is not a pastime unique to residents of Edinburgh or visitors to that fine city. Does the Minister agree that there should not be such a gallery and that our collections should be dispersed throughout the whole of Scotland?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, responsibility for the national museums and galleries of Scotland rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, not with me. I am aware, from a number of visits to Scotland, of the fine museums and galleries in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. I am also aware of the intention to add a new wing to the national museum of Scotland. That apart, I would hesitate to enter the traditional fratricidal debate between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Is not my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory), who has done so much to encourage the arts in York, absolutely right? As museums keep asking for more public money, should they not heed public opinion, which is that works of art exist to be seen and should not be stashed away in cellars but should be got up and out and on view?

My hon. Friend has a keen interest in these matters. I should point out to him that, thanks to the generosity of the Sainsbury brothers, which has resulted in the building of the new wing of the national gallery, all the permanent collection of the national gallery is now on display to an ever-increasing part of the British public.

I am in favour of somewhat greater powers of disposal being given to some of our national museums and galleries so that if an item was clearly surplus to a collection there would be power to dispose of it, provided that the funds realised were reinvested in the acquisition of other, perhaps contemporary material. Most local authorities already have such powers.