Saturday, July 5, 2014

So Mr Hunt, when did you last go to the British Museum?

Yesterday's Evening Standard carried an article by Tristram Hunt MP, Shadow Secretary for Education, everybody's favourite left-wing historian and all-round pontificator on matters educational and cultural. He was apparently replying to the Director of the British Museum, Neil McGregor, who has indicated that the famous domed room might be turned into a permanent exhibition gallery.

Do not do this, says Mr Hunt, do not destroy this great institution, where such people as Karl Marx read and studied (not necessarily a recommendation), especially as libraries are closing down all round the country.

Setting aside the argument about local libraries, many of whom spend more money on computer outlets than on books, the article seems to be a little out of date as is the one in the Independent. It is quite true that when, after the British Library's move to St Pancras, the Reading Room re-opened in its refurbished form, it retained the old desks arranged in spokes and the shelves, which housed a large collection of books that could be consulted.

For some years now, however, the room, domed as it is, has been occupied by various large exhibitions, such as the one about Pompeii and Herculaneum. The desks and bookshelves that Mr Hunt and other commentators are talking about have not been there for all this time. (Though Allan Massie seems to be aware of this fact.) The reason the subject has now come up again is because the British Museum has acquired a large new exhibition space where the Viking ship and artefacts were displayed (a dull exhibition, in my opinion) and other blockbusters will be as well. The Reading Room is no longer needed for those special exhibitions and some thought needs to be given as to what is to be done with it.

It can be restored to its original design and turned into a kind of a library though that will not be a substitute for local libraries which might have closed down or might simply have forgotten that libraries should be about books. But one thing is certain: it is not and has not been for some time a library or a reading room.

So Mr Hunt, Shadow Secretary of State for Education and all-purpose pontificator, when did you last visit the British Museum?

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