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Imperial War Museum

Volume 758: debated on Monday 19 January 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have received about the future of the Imperial War Museum’s library and Explain History service.

My Lords, the Government have received a number of representations about the future of the Imperial War Museum’s library. The museum is considering changes to its library service provision and the future of the Explore History centre as part of its forward review. The department is in discussions with the museum about the review. The museum’s programme of digitisation of core collections is well in hand.

My Lords, I know that the Minister appreciates what a very special place the Imperial War Museum is and how anxious people are that it should not lose its worldwide reputation as the authority on conflict. That is why around 19,000 people have signed a petition asking that the proposed £4 million cuts be reconsidered. Can he give an assurance that scholars will continue to have access to the material in the library in the Imperial War Museum? Is there any hope that the walk-in centre can be retained for public access as well?

My Lords, the Imperial War Museum and the new galleries are an exceptional place. I would very much encourage noble Lords to go to the galleries: they are extraordinary. This is part of the modernisation approach; I spoke to the director-general of the museum about the library and the Explore History service. There is going to be much more digitisation. The core collection is all going to be put in digitised form so that many more people, without having to come into the museum, can look at it. I can assure noble Lords that scholarship is very important. The service will remain open for scholars to come and undertake research, but this is very much about a modernisation.

My Lords, we hear too much about modernisation. Does my noble friend not agree that a national museum without a readily accessible library containing books that people can consult is like a university without a research department?

My Lords, I have some sympathy with what the noble Lord has said, not being very proficient with the modern techniques myself, but this is about ensuring that scholarship can be undertaken by young people of many generations, who are increasingly using digitalised form. But of course books, which are part of the core collection, will remain and will be accessible.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former trustee of the Imperial War Museum. Does the Minister think that these cuts will have an impact on the viability of Imperial War Museum North, which is the one footprint that that museum has in the northern part of our nation?

My Lords, I can assure your Lordships that although tough decisions have had to be taken, there are no plans at all to close any of the five sites. I am surprised that the noble Lord did not mention HMS “Caroline” in Belfast. All five sites will remain open.

My Lords, on the theme of modernisation, I know that all parts of the armed services are providing, for the Imperial War Museum online by the end of this calendar year, details of their soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. I understand that some of them are even cross-linking with National Archives information, including census, to provide as wide a picture as possible of the individual soldiers. I ask my noble friend, first, whether this excellent practice will help the public find out information about their family members, not least online, and, secondly, whether there might be other projects in the future, for example on World War II.

My Lords, what has come about with the commemorations of the First World War is an extraordinary interest in localities and for people. Indeed, the Imperial War Museum has only recently launched its “Lives of the First World War” online programme precisely to help people around the country find their own connection with the First World War.

My Lords, about 10 years ago I took my children to the Imperial War Museum, where, through the digital records, we could see that their grandfathers and a great-grandfather had served in the Armed Forces in World War II. Alongside the World War II exhibitions, this had a great impact. In 15 years’ time will I be able to take my granddaughter to the Imperial War Museum to do the same, for what will be her great and great-great-grandfathers? I know that all this might be able to be found online but, as the noble Lord has just said, the greater, lasting impact is being able to do this in the setting of the Imperial War Museum.

I very much hope that we are going to get the best of both worlds: that the core collection will of course remain accessible but that there is a greater opportunity for future generations who are not able, perhaps, to come to London or attend the other museum sites. I should say, however, that with regard to the educational services, £8 million has been found through the LIBOR fines fund, which will enable the Imperial War Museum to ensure that throughout the commemoration period its formal education services are retained.

My noble friend started by adumbrating the new services that will be available. Will he tell us whether the old services, or the contemporary services, will be curtailed as a result, or whether they will be maintained at the present level.

My Lords, it is fair to say that the changes will reflect a number of changes in the library and Explore History service. That is the whole purpose of what the Imperial War Museum is seeking to do, which is to cut its costs and provide a modern service. As I say, there will be access, but it will also be undertaking a review and consulting, and that is what is currently taking place with the unions and staff.

Does my noble friend agree that we really should commend the Imperial War Museum most warmly for its very significant contribution to the commemoration of the First World War, not least through its partnership scheme linking it to galleries and museums throughout the country?

My Lords, the Imperial War Museum must be congratulated. It has been the catalyst to the partnerships, which have enabled us to broaden our links not only within the United Kingdom but across the world, so that both enemies and allies can work together in commemoration of four dreadful years.