Art treasures to be stored in wartime aircraft hangars

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THOUSANDS of paintings, sculptures and ancient artefacts unseen by the public for decades are to be displayed in a new national centre for art and culture based at a former aerodrome. Giant aircraft hangars, built during the Second World War, will house exhibits from the storerooms of leading institutions and stately homes.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, has approved a pounds 1.4m grant to a consortium of national museums to buy and transform the hangars, currently owned by the Ministry of Defence.

The scheme is designed to give the public and students access to the full collections of major museums and galleries - only a tiny proportion of which are now on permanent display - and to create a new storage centre for Britain's cultural heritage.

The move also marks a victory for the village of Wroughton, outside Swindon, which has fought for months to prevent the hangars being used by the Ministry of Agriculture as giant storage bays for ground-up meat and bone meal - the remains of cattle slaughtered because of BSE.

"It's wonderful that after having to fight to stop the nation's waste being stored here we are now going to house the nation's treasures," said Julia Drown, Labour MP for Swindon South.

The hangars were built at the beginning of the war to store newly built planes while they were being fitted out for battle. After the war ended they were the site of an RAF dismantling yard for aircraft no longer in use. They were then used by the Royal Navy to store and repair helicopters before being put up for sale last year.

"After the war everything was taken off the planes and they went to scrap except for one Lancaster," said David Hayward, a retired RAF squadron leader who is chairman of Wroughton Parish Council.

"The hangars are no longer used by the Ministry of Defence. We have fought several planning applications over the years. We are delighted by the thought that they will be used by museums and open to the public and that Wroughton is to become a national cultural centre."

Museums seeking a place to store and show their unseen collections found that the hangars were big and secure enough to keep massive marble friezes, paintings, historical medical equipment and historic aircraft in safety.

The consortium is being led by the Science Museum, which already uses some nearby hangars to store and display some of its historic aircraft - and also includes the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum.

Galleries such as the Tate will be able to store their art in the new national collection centre while switching exhibits or rearranging their permanent collections. The art will be arranged in themed areas so that the public can easily walk round.

The hangars will be open during peak periods of the year to more than 100,000 visitors. There are plans to allow companies to hold corporate functions, including themed parties, in the buildings.

"A lot of museums, galleries and National Trust properties have a lot of large objects in their collections that they don't have room to display," said a spokesman for the Science Museum. "They require storage of a size that cannot be found in London. The new national collection centre will be a credit to the nation's cultural institutions."