Museums are amazing. When we asked readers for their memories of visits this week, the stories poured forth, many of them recalled decades on from school trips or family outings. One wrote: “As a child of around 9 … I was allowed to hold a 4,000-year-old clay oil lamp. My hands embracing the long dead grip of an anonymous ancient woman. It was magic.” These are the spaces where a sense of awe at our place in human history can be awakened for the first time.
So there are two very sad things about the sale of the statue of Sekhemka, a 4,000-year-old Egyptian civil servant, by Northampton borough council. Last night it was auctioned by Christie’s, going for £16m; after the buyer’s premium is taken into account, Lord Northampton will make about £6m and the council £8m. The proceeds will be used to build an extension to Northampton museum and art gallery, where it was housed.
The first sad thing is that the artefact, taken from Egypt by the second Marquis of Northampton, and presented to the city by his son, was sold at all. It may be regrettable that the object ever left the Middle East, but at least it ended up in a public institution. The second is that it had not been on display for four years. Once out of view, it faded rapidly from public consciousness: during that time, no one asked to see it.
Everyone knows that small museums, often run by local authorities, are under huge financial pressure. Essential services, such as social care or housing, are the natural priority for councils faced with budget cuts. Arts and culture are seen as low-hanging fruit. In the Museum Association’s 2013 survey, 23% of respondents said their overall income had decreased by more than 10%. As a result, maintaining access to collections becomes difficult, to say nothing of the refurbishment or expansion that may be badly needed in order to meet demand. Savings can be made by putting pieces like Sekhemka into storage. Unable to cast their spell over new generations, they are forgotten.
Very rarely are they sold. The sector acknowledges that disposing of objects should only ever be a “last resort“. The outcry over this sale is a mark of what a radical move it was. The Arts Council has now warned that the museum could lose its vital accreditation status as a result, putting further funding at risk.
But the council isn’t the real villain in this story. Desperate times call for desperate measures – it’s only money that allows our heritage to be adequately preserved and displayed, after all. In the past, it has been suggested that our thriving national museums, which have been free to visit since 2001, start charging again, with sales used to help smaller institutions. This strikes me as cutting off the nose to spite the face. Taking away entrance fees has given the public a real sense of ownership of extraordinary collections like the V&A, or Liverpool’s national museums. Any place you can stroll into without having to buy a ticket really becomes part of the public realm: a common wealth.
No; it would be better for the money to be raised in a way that will not undermine this boon. Instead, it could be taken from those who have cash to spare. The UK art market, with £10.5bn of exports in 2012/13, is effervescent again. Even in 2009, while the effects of the financial crisis were still being felt, more than 80% of the total value of modern art sales was accounted for by items worth £50,000 or more. This is a luxury sector that could easily contribute more to the public purse. Why not introduce a special rate of VAT, say 5% above the standard, and distribute the proceeds to cash-strapped local institutions? Some will argue that higher taxes will push buyers to other countries, but Britain’s pre-eminence in international art market is based on other factors: its wealth of heritage, and its thriving creative scene.
Let’s give our local museums a slice of the expanding art pie and make Sekhemka the last object to be spirited out of sight of awe-struck visitors.
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