Letter: Cash famine at the British Museum

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Sir: On three occasions during the past four months, which I have spent on a sabbatical in Oxford, I have visited the Assyrian and Mesopotamian collections at the British Museum, only to discover that the relevant galleries were closed to the public. The reason given by the staff at the museum has been a lack of guards; one of them - watching a neighbouring gallery - politely explained that in his view the entire museum was rapidly being closed down, with guards being made redundant for reasons of economy. My colleagues in the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the museum could do nothing more than express their extreme dissatisfaction with this state of affairs.

I hardly need to say that I have myself been very unhappy and indeed angry in these situations, where as a visitor from Denmark I had to leave without having seen what I came for, and where in one instance I could not have access to the reliefs in the Assyrian basement where I had to check details in connection with my work on a forthcoming book. This shows a flagrant disregard of the most essential public duty of the museum.

The situation is particularly bizarre with respect to the Mesopotamian galleries upstairs, rooms which have been newly installed on the basis of a large grant from the American Sackler family. It must be a strange feeling for these sponsors to know that their money has been spent on lavish refurbishment of galleries which are mostly closed to the public.

But the larger question of the museum's duty to display its collections to visitors and scholars remains. I feel certain that the persons responsible for the museum are unhappy about the closed galleries, and that they feel compelled to such expedients because of a lack of funds. In my view it is a public duty which is being disregarded, and I would respectfully point out that the British Museum is a unique storehouse of world treasure, whose significance transcends national considerations.

How funds should be raised or allocated can hardly be my concern, but one hopes that the negative experience of entrance fees at, for example, the Ashmolean in Oxford is taken into consideration. The scandal is that one of the most important cultural institutions in the country is allowed to decline to such an extent that it is incapable of living up to its most fundamental responsibilities.



The writer is Professor of Assyriology, Copenhagen University