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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot