Trustees 'let down' museum by using wrong stone

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The Independent Online

Trustees of the British Museum were accused last night of a "dereliction of duty" over their handling of the £100m Great Court refurbishment which used the wrong kind of stone.

Trustees of the British Museum were accused last night of a "dereliction of duty" over their handling of the £100m Great Court refurbishment which used the wrong kind of stone.

And English Heritage called for the Heritage Lottery Fund to withhold "an appropriate part" of its £1.7m funding, a move which may prompt a financial crisis at the museum.

Sir Neil Cossons, chairman of English Heritage, issued a lengthy statement, in which he said the spectacular new Great Court was "let down" by the South Portico, which had been built not in the approved Portland stone, but in a cheaper French alternative.

"The trustees and management of the museum have allowed the South Portico... to fall short of this standard," he said. "This is a dereliction of their duty to the building which we do not condone."

The statement went on to criticise as "highly regrettable" the museum's failure to undertake all the remedial works recommended by English Heritage. "It would not now be possible to improve the quality of the portico further except by demolishing the structure and rebuilding it," it said "However, we do believe that the completed portico fails to meet fully the standards required for grant aid, and have advised the Heritage Lottery Fund that its grant award for the South Portico should therefore be reduced."

The Queen's planned opening of the Great Court next month, which was billed as one of the year's most prestigious occasions, now threatens to prove a serious embarrassment.

The report is also an embarrassment for the museum's chairman, Graham Greene, as well as its trustees, who include the Duke of Gloucester, Sir Claus Moser, and Sir Matthew Farrer, the Queen's former private solicitor. They decided that the portico project should continue, despite being built in the wrong stone.

The museum had initially discovered that it had been "duped" into using cheaper stone in August 1999. Suzanna Taverne, the museum's managing director, admitted afterwards: "We were mugged."

No one from the museum was available for comment yesterday. But a statement from the museum said: "We are pleased that - following remedial work done on the South Portico - English Heritage has confirmed that they will be advising Camden Council that enforcement action is not appropriate."

Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, said that an independent assessment of the South Portico Project was being carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the results were to be finalised in the next few weeks. He said the report would be published in full.

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