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Monday, 17 June, 2002, 15:54 GMT 16:54 UK
On the British Museum's picket line
Denis Calan of Public and Commercial Services union
Union rep Denis Calan shows where he lays the blame

Tourists eager to see the famed Elgin Marbles were turned away as picketers manned the gates of the British Museum protesting against extreme budget cuts.

As part of a belt-tightening regime to prevent a 5m deficit, management at the London landmark has announced 150 jobs must go.

But the unions were not going to take this lying down, despite realising the museum is in a desperate financial position.

Members of two unions, Prospect and the Public and Commercial Services Union, were balloted about industrial action and there was an overwhelming vote in favour of a one-day strike.

We cannot see this being resolved without additional money from the government

Alan Leighton, Prospect union
As the sun shone down, strikers from all levels from curators to shop staff waved banners citing "cultural vandalism" and "The British Museum is crumbling".

Picketers endured sweltering heat as they handed out leaflets highlighting the plight of the museum and hoping to appease the disappointed visitors.

As they held banners and posters there were cheers as cars and vans beeped their support as they drove past the closed building.

"We never wanted it to come to having to strike but we have to do it to safeguard the future of the museum," explained one striker.

They fear the budget cuts will lead to galleries closing, lack of purchasing power for new exhibits and a drop in educational resources.

Visitors - which can number up to 20,000 a day - were handed leaflets explaining why they could not visit the museum, some not pleased about their disappointment.

The reason for the cuts is being blamed on a number of factors including years of government underfunding and a disastrous year for tourism in 2001.

Gareth Williams is curator of early medieval coins as well as a union co-ordinator.

British Museum strike
The staff tell visitors their trip had been a wasted one
He strongly believes the planned cutbacks will have an adverse affect on the effectiveness of the museum and its reputation as a protector of history.


The loss of curators and conservators is a major worry for those responsible for the collections.

"We have very high demands on establishments that want to loan our collections but we are unable to meet these demands ourselves in terms of costs and care that we can offer," said Mr Williams.

"This means our reputation as a centre for excellence will be lost and we will not be able to loan pieces from other galleries or museums."

He said there has been massive support for the strike by the majority of workers.

According to Mr Williams some of those who could not take part in the strike, perhaps because of their senior positions, displayed their solidarity by working from home or donating a day's pay to charity.

Genuinely sorry

It is estimated that up to 10 staff had crossed the picket line by 0730 BST, the cut-off time for working staff to be inside the building.

A meeting has been fixed between the unions and management for Tuesday to discuss how the dispute can be resolved.

British Museum strike
Leaflets were handed out to tourists and passers-by

"We have balloted for a series of one day strikes but we hope more won't be necessary. Staff do not want to lose pay and they are genuinely sorry about the effect it will have on tourists," said Alan Leighton, national officer for the Prospect union.

"But we cannot see this being resolved without additional money from the government."

Mr Williams also believes the government should take more responsibility.

"The museum always resisted charging an entrance fee but did not receive any extra money in support," he said.

"When there was the move to make entrance charges free everywhere, galleries and museums were given an incentive for this, we received nothing extra so have been effectively penalised twice."

But management says there is no alternative to the cuts if it is to survive financially on the money it receives now if it is to ward off the prospect of being 5m in debt in the next few years, with little chance of getting back into the black.

It hopes that as many of the job cuts as possible will be through voluntary redundancy but accepts many will have to be compulsory.

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See also:

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