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Last Updated: Friday, 16 June 2006, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
Museums and the super-rich

By Lisa Jardine

SS Great Britain
Brunel's SS Great Britain is a glorious example of our industrial heritage

Tomorrow's museums may rely on the whims of the super rich, argues Lisa Jardine.

It may seem hard to believe this week, but more people visit a museum or gallery in the UK each year than go to a football match. Museums are becoming amusing.

When I visited the newly restored SS Great Britain in Bristol recently - the world's first iron-hulled, steam-powered ocean going ship, designed and built by Britain's favourite engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1843, and now a crowd-pulling museum - the atmosphere was festive.

Brunel himself would have been pleased. Brunel's visionary idea was that the SS Great Britain would be the culmination of an entirely new travel experience. Adventurous Victorians would take the new Great Western Railway from London to Bristol, crossing Brunel's majestic Maidenhead Bridge over the Thames, hurrying over his 65 foot high Wharncliffe viaduct spanning the Brent valley, and thundering downhill through the two-mile-long Box Tunnel between Swindon and Bath.

Having reached Bristol they would embark for New York aboard his state-of-the-art iron ship - and indeed, the SS Great Britain's maiden voyage, completed in an astounding 14 days, marked the beginning of reliable and efficient transatlantic passenger travel.

The renovated and restored SS Great Britain won this year's prestigious Gulbenkian museum of the year award, and deservedly so. The experience of the ship in its heyday has been vividly recaptured. A brilliant illusion has been created with water over fibreglass, giving the impression that the ship - actually in a restored dry-dock - is afloat.

Cultural enlightenment

After touring the interior - marvelling at the beautifully crafted mahogany fixtures and fittings in the elegant first class cabins, and taking a peek into the ingeniously compact 'conveniences' - you descend beneath the water line to admire the extraordinary iron hull and giant screw propeller as if from the sea floor, the ship towering above you, dwarfing you into insignificance.

Last week leading museums organisations celebrated ten years of what they call 'spectacular' achievements by Britain's providers of cultural enlightenment . Under the upbeat title, 'Values and Vision', they have pledged even greater efforts on their part.

If the government will just continue current levels of support, they will deliver ever more exciting exhibitions and performances. Currently 25 million of us visit a museum at least once a year - that figure, they promise will increase still further, 'placing audiences at the centre of what [museums and galleries] do'.

But concentrating on visitor numbers and access has curious consequences for the future of the wonderfully diverse array of museums and galleries across the country - from the architecturally spectacular Lowry in Manchester to the serene Tate St Ives in Cornwall.

Museums were not originally designed to draw crowds. They were private accumulations of fascinating exotica, assembled with private money for rich men's entertainment: expensive, exclusive and largely inaccessible to the general public.

Lisa Jardine
Lisa Jardine at the British Museum
The London physician Hans Sloane (later Sir Hans), for instance, was already an amateur collector of pressed botanical specimens and curiosities when, in 1687, he was asked to join the household of the newly-appointed governor of Jamaica, as his personal physician. Sloane was immediately attracted by the opportunities the post would afford him as a botanical enthusiast. He accepted the job.

The party reached Jamaica in December 1687, after nearly three months at sea, and Sloane immediately began to assemble a comprehensive collection of local specimens. He pressed the plants and smaller insects between large sheets of brown paper, preserving larger, fleshier items in jars of alcohol. He had those he could not preserve immortalised in pen and ink by local artists.

'When I return'd to England' (he wrote later) 'I brought with me about 800 Plants, most whereof were New, [and] shew'd them very freely to all lovers of such Curiosities'. Showing them 'very freely' meant allowing other gentlemen of his acquaintance to admire his specimens.

A mere year after Sloane and the governor had set sail from England, his eminent patient died. Sloane's last duty as his physician was to use his by now considerable skills as a preserver of specimens to embalm his body for shipment home to England. Sloane never embarked on a comparable adventure again. But he continued to build his collections, while he pursued a successful career as a society doctor in London.

British Museum exhibit
Hans Sloane's idiosyncratic collection helped start the British Museum

The funds at his disposal were further enhanced by the fortune he made marketing a product he had brought back from Jamaica - medicinal drinking chocolate. Sloane describes in his Natural History how he hit upon the idea. In Jamaica chocolate was regarded as having therapeutic value for the digestion. Sloane's brainwave was to mix the bitter-tasting raw chocolate with warm milk and sugar and sell it as a remedy for stomach ailments.

The proceeds of 'Sloane's milk chocolate' funded his consuming passion for collecting. By the end of his life, Sloane had bought up practically every major botanical collection, 'dried garden' and cabinet of curiosities in the country - purchasing from any fellow-collector who was prepared to relinquish his treasures for cash, and outbidding all competitors at auction.

By the 1750s, Sloane's collection of specimens from all over the globe was so large that he didn't have space to unpack some of his purchases from the cases in which they had arrived. It comprised 71,000 objects, a herbarium and a library of thousands of books and manuscripts. In 1752 he offered them all to King George II, for 20,000 pounds - a knock-down price, he maintained, only a quarter of its actual value. A public lottery was organised to raise the asking price, and the following year the British Museum was born.

Unsuitable applicants

The founding collections in the British Museum are, then, the product of one man's idiosyncratic interests, expanded more or less haphazardly. Whatever Sloane fancied, he bought. But Sloane's idea of making his extraordinary collection available to the public was not quite what we would understand today.

Entry to the new British Museum was to be given to 'all studious and curious Persons'. You had to apply to the porter for a ticket. Unsuitable applicants were politely turned away. If a request to visit was accepted, after a period of weeks, you were permitted to participate in a closely supervised two-hour guided tour.

So how are our modern museums to cope with the fact that almost all their funding now has to go towards driving those visitor numbers ever upwards, to guarantee government support?

Wealthy collectors like Sloane paid for their habit out of their own deep pockets, from which also came the essential finances for conservation, display and renewed acquisition. The custodians of our museums and galleries today - whether they are national, metropolitan ones, provincial centres, or attached to universities - have the same responsibility to conserve their collections, and keep them up to date by adding important new items.

In many cases this is built into their foundation charter, trust document or ordinances. The dilemma for them is: more visitors, or preserving our museum heritage? That is the conundrum the signatories to the 'Value and Vision' pledge have to solve.

The Lowry
The Lowry in Manchester is a stunning building

Entrepreneurialism and 'bling' have always been the basis for the private collector's compulsive collecting. So we should look to the new rich to help us ensure our museums and galleries are fit for the future. Today's must-have item, snapped up by supermarket heirs and footballers' wives will be tomorrow's priceless museum treasure.

Last Tuesday, at the auction of items which belonged to Princess Margaret, sold by her children to settle death duties, a bidder from China acquired the Poltimore Tiara, which the Princess wore at her wedding, for almost a million pounds.

Just as Sloane spent his new-found wealth on beetles and butterflies, those made enormously rich by China's new commercial success are pouring it into their own pet passions. It is they, surely, who will furnish the world's museums and galleries with the next generation's items to ogle at. Let's hope museum directors worldwide are already courting them.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I doubt that Brunel would have been pleased with the SS Great Britain exhibition. He was a modernist, believing that the achievements of the past were to be celebrated purely as a base for future progress. The veneration of old bits of machinery is not something he would recognise or appreciate.
Gav, Oxford, UK

Let visitor numbers and flashy gimmicks be the preserve of the private sector. Government funding of museums should focus on preservation and education.
Richard Bucknall, Middlewich, Cheshire

I really do hope that the older style of Museum survives into the future. We have lost enough interest in the past already, and to lose our access to displays like the natural history museum would be shameful.

I like the idea that items donated or collected by the current 'rich' would make fine collections in the future, much the same as the items in the V&A we collected by the richey sectors of society in the past, but I do wonder whether this would be as interesting as made out in the article. yes it would be an archive of how the world works today, but the most interesting and attractive collections have been compiled by idiosyncratic individuals with a passion for one or two subjects. The collection of 'bling' from a current footballers wife would not really be either educational or interesting.
Heather, Wolverhampton

Another Jamaican contribution, not only sugar that financed the Industrial Revolution but cocoa that financed the British Museum.
Dr F Diana Dempster, Reading, UK

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