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The BBC should know better about university museums

14 December 2015

Perhaps the most misguided art news report of the past fortnight was a confected story on the BBC website, claiming that universities in England have spent £20 million on art in the past five years. That figure provided an excuse for knee-jerk criticism by Unison, the public service union, who accused universities of opting for ‘style over substance’, suggested that art did not ‘enhance teaching’ and indicated that acquisitions were somehow depriving low paid staff of ‘a decent standard of living’.

The article set out its stall by remarking that universities have bought art ‘to furnish their buildings or museums’. That choice of verb could hardly be more ill-suited, for the notion of furnishing buildings insinuates that university acquisitions – however they have been funded – are mere baubles bought to titivate the interiors of some or other ivory tower. In fact, both the lead image and the second featured image showed paintings that had been purchased following major public campaigns and charitable donations, namely Poussin’s Extreme Unction (the Fitzwilliam Museum) and Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus (the Ashmolean Museum).

Both of these works had been deemed to be of outstanding cultural importance by expert bodies before they were acquired by university museums. In the case of the Poussin, the painting was judged pre-eminent by the Arts Council England’s Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) Panel, leading to an arrangement whereby more than £10 million of its agreed value of £14 million was offset against inheritance tax. The exceptional cultural significance of the Manet portrait was established by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art, and subsequently made available to a British public institution for 27 per cent of its market value under the terms of a private treaty sale.

I add these details to emphasise just how significant were the purchases of these artworks, and above all that they were acquired for the British public to appreciate and enjoy in museums that are open to the British public (and, one might add, both free to enter). Both were eventually secured through extraordinary public and private fundraising campaigns, including substantial grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, financial or campaigning support from the Art Fund, and donations from all manner of trusts, foundations and individuals. So it is highly misleading in these cases to suggest that the two universities might have chosen to divert these funds elsewhere. The full list of donors to the Fitzwilliam campaign is published here (on p. 82 of the museum’s annual report for 2012–13); and a breakdown of the Ashmolean acquisition here.

But the BBC article reflects a deeper problem in how museum news is reported and parsed in the general press. There is a worrying lack of nuance in discussions of museums beyond those who have a professional interest in them, and a widespread unfamiliarity with the different foundational models of UK institutions, the current funding arrangements under which they operate, and the opportunities available to them to fundraise or extend their activities. It is imperative, given the culture of complaint in which we live, that funding bodies and charitable organisations, and museums themselves, do whatever they can to explain and justify the richly dappled museum landscape of this country.

As for the university museums themselves, it is hard to see how adding to these collections through such nationally significant acquisitions could be considered anything but substance over style. There are around 100 university museums in the UK that are regularly open to the public, and while there are many more that hold specialist research collections, the university museum is among the most vital points of contact between academia and the broader public in the country.

In 2009, there was widespread opposition among academics to Peter Mandelson’s proclamation that higher education funding would increasingly be allocated according to the ability of university departments to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their research. There were some justifiable and laudable objections to this move – not least that impact was to be a purely economic category, and that its quantification is a matter for bafflement. But it is clear that university museums are perhaps the most important places in which cultural impact, at the very least, is a transparent commitment and something that is constantly registered. These are institutions that furnish the public with knowledge every day.