Science Museum's financial crisis may force library sale

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Independent experts are to investigate the finances of the Science Museum in London after it warned that it would have to break up its world-famous library, close more galleries and cut staff without extra government funding.

The museum's leaders agreed to set up an independent review of its financial situation after meeting Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, to appeal for more support. The Science Museum claims that a decade of below-inflation funding has cost it £7m and that it needs an extra £3m a year on top of its £32m annual grant to get back on to a proper footing.

It has been forced to bring forward the closure of some galleries due for refurbishment because there was no revenue to keep them open. The Flight Lab gallery has been closed because there are insufficient funds to repair, maintain and staff it, the museum claims. Some positions have not been filled as staff have left and curators, conservators, managers and security guards are in the middle of a dispute with management over a 2.5 per cent pay offer and cost-cutting measures.

Furthermore, its library is under threat of being split up between Imperial College, the British Library and others because the museum says it has inadequate funds to keep it open. The library, which contains about a million books and manuscripts, including first editions of Galileo, Newton and Einstein, is housed in a building owned by Imperial College and is regarded as the best collection on the history of science in Britain.

But the college has just increased by more than 400 per cent the annual service charge the Science Museum pays for this - from £65,000 to £288,000.

Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, the former Tory cabinet minister who is chairman of the museum's trustees, warned that it could not absorb this increase. "The finances of our museums are therefore facing crisis," he said in a letter to The Daily Telegraph.

As it is not allowed by Government to run at a deficit, the museum has prepared plans to disperse the library as a fall-back option.

An extra £200,000 from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the last spending round is to be used as a one-off sum to keep the library open pending the outcome of the independent inquiry.

Lord Waldegrave said: "Unless we are given more funding, either there will be more gallery closures and reductions in events for visitors in London, York [which houses its sister museum, the National Railway Museum] and Bradford [home to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television], or the library will close."

A spokesman for the Culture Department said the Science Museum had been treated exactly the same as the other national museums and galleries and had received, in real terms, a modest percentage increase in funding since Labour came to power in 1997.

It is understood that the museum has proved less successful than some of the other major museums in attracting sponsorship and generating income through its shops and other commercial activities. But it also claims to have more expensive wear-and-tear than some rivals as many of its displays involve up-to-the-minute interactive technology.

The Science Museum also points out that nobody expected there to be such a big increase in visitor numbers when the Government scrapped admission charges and that the money it was given in compensation for the lost entrance fee revenue does not pay for the extra visitors.

However, it has also spent money on some expensive expansion and redevelopment plans in recent years such as the Dana Centre, which is intended to provide a more cerebral view of the relevance of science for an adult audience.