A home fit to house our nation's history: Moving the Public Record Office to the London suburbs shows a lack of vision, says David Starkey

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T S ELIOT wrote: 'A people without history / Is not redeemed from time.' Eliot, an American who chose to become British because of his attachment to English history, could never have envisaged that his adoptive compatriots would become 'a people without history'. But within a few decades of his death that moment threatens.

Normally, of course, we are told the reverse; that we are too time-bound and have too much history. Certainly, we have too much history of the wrong sort; too many Merchant/Ivory British Country House films; too much Crabtree and Evelyn In-My-Lady's Chamber smelly scent and soap.

Even worse, we are replacing real history with theme- park fantasy. The most recent example is the reconstruction, by the Historic Royal Palaces Agency, of the medieval King's Chamber in the Tower of London. Each element copies from something real. But the resulting ensemble is a cross between Victorian neo-Gothic and a Hollywood film set: you half expect Charlton Heston to burst in and exclaim 'Forsooth]'

I am thus positing a version of Gresham's law: bad history drives out good. And the forces of darkness are about to secure their most notable victory yet. There is a scheme, now probably unstoppable, to close the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, central London; transfer the remaining medieval and early modern records to Kew, west London, and abandon the building itself to an uncertain fate.

This is more than a battle lost; it is a war. For the records are history. With the closure of the Chancery Lane building, the materials of English history are expelled from the heart of the capital. It is an act of breathtaking vandalism - breathtaking even for a government that has sold County Hall to become a Japanese hotel and can contemplate closing St Bartholomew's Hospital.

St Bartholomew's was founded in 1123. In comparison with that the public records, I suppose, are mere newcomers to Chancery Lane. For it was not until 1377 that the former House for Converts, now no longer needed since the expulsion of the Jews by Edward I, was given to the Master of the Rolls. The house with its chapel was to provide accommodation for the Master and the records of Chancery. It was was both government secretariat and law court for the next 500 years. It is (or should we say was?) a record of continuity unparalleled in any other capital city.

Just as the English public records are themselves without equal. As one of their greatest custodians, Sir Francis Palgrave, proclaimed in 1852: 'Whether we consider them in relation to antiquity, to continuity, to variety, to extent, or to amplitude of facts and details, they have no equals in the civilised world.'

In the earlier 19th century, however, this extraordinary inheritance had been scattered and sometimes scandalously neglected in a series of different repositories: the Tower, the Treasuries and Chapter House at Westminster, as well as the Rolls Chapel. There, as the Record Commission of 1807 lamented, the records were 'unarranged, undescribed and unascertained'. It is a situation familiar to anyone (at the risk of sounding like Michael Portillo) who has worked in most foreign archives today.

The reason the British archive is different and still best is the Victorians. The early Victorian years have been called the Age of Improvement. This is too tame a label for a period of heroic reconstruction: even as the railways were built, the civil and military apparatus of the state was radically reformed. Including the public records; in 1838 an Act of Parliament consolidated the various collections of records and their depositories into a single organisation, of which the nominal head was the Master of the Rolls. There was also a Deputy Keeper, who increasingly did the work.

And what work] During the next 100 years, the vast collection was consolidated, classified and conserved. The system of referencing is itself a monument to the Victorian genius for classification. Each document has a prefix letter, a class number and a piece number. The prefixed letter indicates the department that produced the document; the class number indicates the type of document, while the piece number refers to the individual document within the series. The result is archival Mendelism.

And just as the Victorian achievements in biology were embodied in Alfred Waterhouse's magnificent Natural History Museum, so the public records were given their monument in Sir James Pennethorne's Public Record Office, built on the Rolls Estate in Chancery Lane. Externally, the building is 'drainpipe Gothic'; internally, it is a triumph of engineering applied to fireproofing. The vaults are of brick, the beams and internal fittings of cast iron, and the shelves of slate. In view of the experimental nature of the building, it was decided that it should be built in sections in case there were problems. There were none. The combination of economy and efficiency is an instructive contrast to the debacle of the present British Library building.

We have lost not only the practical skills of the Victorians, but their sense of vision as well. Where once we led, we now fall behind. The early 19th-century problem with the archives was the multiplicity of depositories; the 20th-century problem is the multiplying of government paper. The problem is common to all countries. Here we have decided to solve it by moving the archives lock, stock and barrel from expensive land in central London to cheaper land in the suburbs. The Americans and the French have taken a different approach.

Both Washington and Paris have monumental archives buildings. The Americans, free-market Anglo-Saxons too, have decided to move the records out of the capital's centre. But they are keeping the monumental face of the records. This consists of a Pantheon-like shrine, in which the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are displayed as relics on an altar. Only Magna Carta is deemed worthy of a place beside them. It is a sobering thought that a document of English history is treated with more ceremonious respect in Washington than in London.

The French, of course, do it even more differently. Unconcerned by cost if prestige is at stake, they have constructed a new archives building directly behind the old. And the old, the magnificent, pre-Revolutionary Hotel de Soubise is home to the Museum of French History.

For once we should not be ashamed to follow the French. Thanks to Pennethorne's fireproofing, the Chancery Lane building is almost unconvertible to other purposes. So why not make a virtue of necessity by turning it into a Museum of English History? There is an incomparable collection of documents, from the Domesday Book to the D-Day landings. There is a massive public interest in the history not only of the nation, but also of individuals' own families, houses and towns. And there is the coming millennium and the Millennium Fund. It would be hard to think of a more worthy object. For, as Eliot argued, a nation that is ignorant of its past is going to be unsure of its future.

James Fenton returns next week.

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