PM's plan for 'Britishness' museum consigned to history

Withering criticism of Gordon Brown's bid to promote national identity has seen the project shelved
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gordon Brown's dream of creating a permanent museum of Britishness appears to be over after being savaged by sceptical curators, The Independent has learnt.

The Prime Minister championed plans for the £150m Museum of British History to be built with a mix of public and private funding to act as a centre of national identity.

But now the idea looks likely to be quietly shelved after a highly critical report into the proposal commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

"We found no evidence that a single building in London – or anywhere else in the country – devoted to British history would attract and engage people," said Roy Clare, chief executive of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, which led the inquiry.

"It would have no permanent collections of its own and would draw on the holdings of other museums around Britain, and that would be difficult to sustain."

Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, who was consulted by the report team, added: "A new building wouldn't have made any sense even if we hadn't been in these economic times. It is not the way to make really sure that children care about British history and want to know more about it."

Other opponents lambasted it for being a "museum of back-slapping" reminiscent of Soviet-style agitprop.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said a new museum would have found it a "near impossibility" to secure the loan of objects and documents from across the UK.

Instead, the museums council proposed a more nebulous online Centre for British History to co-ordinate themed access to existing collections held in museums, heritage sites, libraries and archives across Britain.

"It would be a national federated body, including museums, universities, scholars, research institutions and so on, supported by a very small staff, that would pull together research, planning and programming around the theme of Britain's story," said Mr Clare, adding that it could be funded from existing resources.

It is understood that these plans will be accepted by the DCMS and the proposal for a permanent museum quietly dropped. Publicly, the DCMS says it has received the report and may or may not accept its recommendations.

The idea of a museum of Britishness was first mooted by the former Conservative minister Lord Baker of Dorking, who held exploratory talks with officials from Downing Street a year ago. Under the plan explored by Mr Brown, the £150m cost of the new Museum of British History would have been split between the private sector and taxpayers.

"Such a museum in this country would show the position of Britain as a world power and as a European power, and what over the centuries it has given to the world," Lord Baker wrote in The Daily Telegraph just over a year ago. The following day an "excited" Mr Brown wrote an article supporting the idea as a stepping stone to his "Institute of Britishness", where "we can discuss, debate and celebrate the ideas and the writings that made Britain the great country that it is".

"Every day in Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament, I see children proud of their country's past, inspired to be part of their country's future," wrote Mr Brown at the time.

"That pride is something they would certainly feel when visiting the first National Museum of British History. And that pride is also something we can encourage them to feel every day when they study at school."

But early on the idea failed to win the backing of the museum world, whose bosses were reluctant to share resources, collections and limelight.

Alec Coles, director of Tyne & Wear Museums, whose £26m Great North Museum is to open in Newcastle in April, praised existing rich regional collections. "The last thing we need is another building that perpetuates the idea that Britishness only happens in London," he said.

Lord Baker described the setback as "a great disappointment" and said: "What they've put forward instead is a damp squib. There are lots of websites and they're not very exciting; children need a day out they can remember. Nowhere tells the whole story. My idea was a building that would do it on four floors. It's a great opportunity missed."

So was it the right decision to pull the plug?

Yes: Tristram Hunt, historian

I'm very relieved because I think there are lots of other cultural institutions with financial pressures which do not need funds taken away for what I think is a vanity project for Kenneth Baker. State-sanctioned museums of national narratives are dubious projects. Far more successful in our civil society is our pluralism of museums. Because of the richness of our history, it would be very difficult to create a single narrative story in a single museum. If you go down this road of national museums pursuing a political agenda and directors being appointed by the minister of culture, you invalidate the autonomy of our cultural and heritage sector.

No: Trevor Bayliss, inventor

It's foolish to have scrapped this idea. All my knowledge has come from places like museums and I think we should be very proud of our heritage. It's really most important to bring all the parts of our history and our inventions into the equation, in one museum, to reflect on our historical achievements. I believe in teaching youngsters the importance of our heritage and through this museum, children and adults could have got to learn not only how brilliant we are but how appalling we are at bringing these ideas to the market over time. I know there are other museums but this one could have been a place of real learning about history.