Nation's hidden art goes on display

From elderly fire engines to Roman artefacts, thousands of treasures long locked away will be liberated from museum store rooms

Thousands of art treasures and antiquities hidden away in museum and gallery vaults for decades are soon to be made available for the first time. Some, including works held by the British Museum, have never been seen by the public.

Among the initiatives are the display of thousands of objects in a "national collection centre" in disused aircraft hangars near Swindon, Wiltshire, extra money for greater schools access to museums and galleries, and curators being encouraged to put the hidden parts of their collections on display.

Some, such as the Science Museum in London, have room to show only 10 per cent of their objects at any one time, and the British Museum displays only 45,000 of its six million artefacts.

The programme to open up the nation's vast storehouse of unseen art and artefacts has already begun. Two hundred primary schools have just received a box of antiquities under a plan for children to discover at first hand some of the realities of Roman life. Meanwhile plans are progressing for some of the biggest artefacts now in storage at museums - including the Science and Victoria and Albert - to be displayed in the giant centre near Swindon.

The drive to make collections more accessible is being spearheaded by Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture. "We have a marvellous opportunity to give the public access to thousands of previously unseen treasures," he said. "I'm very enthusiastic about this."

He has expressed unhappiness at the amount of material held in storage by the national collections and never seen by the public. The Science Museum has about 10 per cent of its objects on display at any one time, the Tate currently has 15 per cent - set to rise with the opening of its new gallery at Bankside - and the British Museum presents 45,000 out of its 6 million artefacts. The Victoria and Albert Museum has only 3 per cent of more than 4 million objects on public display although more are accessible in its reading, study and print rooms.

In one of the most imaginative initiatives to remedy this situation, the Museum of London has given a boxed "mini-museum" of original Roman pottery and mosaics to help teach history to the capital's seven- to 11-year-olds.

It is intended that the scheme will be extended to every primary school in the capital, if further funding can be found. The Department for Education and commercial sponsors such as Talco, which makes the boxes, have funded the initial £50,000 trial.

The articles distributed are from the thousands of pieces of antiquity the museum owns which are historically useless because they were stored earlier this century without details of where they came from.

Each box contains a piece of red decorated Roman pottery, a fragment of building tile and an oyster shell left over from a meal. They also include replicas of items including wooden writing tablets and a pottery lamp. Dr Simon Thurley, the museum's director, said: "We have one of the world's largest archaeological archives and we are determined to maintain as wide an access to our collections as possible. We've had this idea for quite a while. "

Mr Smith said: "This is not my initiative but both myself and David Blunkett [Secretary of State for Education] are very keen and would like to see it expanded throughout the country."

Teachers are enthusiastic, too. Chris Loft, history coordinator at Streatham Wells primary school, said: "The boxes are great because they give the children a chance to handle something genuine and really old. It's also not just history - it's also an art and a science and a geography starting point."

Sylvia Howieson, deputy head of All Saints primary in Fulham, said it gave wonderful first-hand experience and the training pack for teachers had provided excellent background. "We can't believe it's free," she said.

Another initiative still under negotiation is a plan to display thousands of artefacts in unused aircraft hangars at Wroughton near Swindon. The national collection centre is being organised by the Science Museum, but a number of national museums and local authorities outside London have expressed interest in taking up storage space for large objects such as marble friezes.

Instead of them remaining locked away, discussions are under way for public access, either through occasional open days or by appointment. Mr Smith has approved a £1.4m grant to buy and transform the hangars, which are currently owned by the Ministry of Defence. Meetings continue tomorrow.

Meanwhile, as the original Tate gallery at Millbank, London, re-launches itself this week as Tate Britain, the amount of its collection on display at any one time is due to rise sharply this year . The opening of its new gallery, Tate Modern, at Bankside, London, in May, will allow for more than 400 extra works of art to be seen.

Sandy Nairne, the Tate's director of national programmes, said it was estimated that the gallery's rotation of collections every year meant about half the works in storage were exhibited every decade. But fashion and taste contributed to some works not being seen for some time. There has not been great recent interest in kinetic works or the British abstract paintings of the 1950s and 1960s, he said.

Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain, has plans for at least one work which it is thought may never have been displayed to get its chance. The Triumph of Bacchus by a Victorian artist called Cruickshank is currently being restored and will be unveiled next year.

What it lacks in aesthetic terms is compensated for in social history, he said. Cruickshank, a supporter of the Temperance movement, took it around the country to warn of the perils of drink.

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