National museums in Britain have complex histories and there is no single foundation pattern. It is unusual in Britain for national museums to be established by a government as part of the state making process. There are a few exceptions such as the Imperial War Museum set up during the First World War as a memorial to the suffering of the ordinary civilian and combatant; not as a celebration of victory. However; many national museums owe their origins and developments to wealthy aristocrats and members of the middle classes who donated their collections to the state; thus coercing the government of the time into funding an institution in which to display them. The Tate; the Wallace Collection and the British Museum all fall into this category and are the result of the persistence of a few well-connected benefactors. The state accepted these donations for a variety of reasons; which will be discussed in the case studies. The role of the nation in promoting the arts was slow to be established.
This paper will focus on the following key institutions: The British Museum; the V&A (Victoria & Albert); the Imperial War Museum; the National Gallery and the Tate. The earliest national museum is the British Museum. Irish physician Sir Hans Sloane left his collection to the nation provided his heirs were reimbursed with £20;000. An Act of Parliament in 1753 led to the opening of the Museum in 1759. For most commentators; the British Museum is an Enlightenment project; designed to preserve and promote knowledge of the world. The V&A was the product of the enthusiasm of one or two individuals; supported by Prince Albert; and of the Great Exhibition that funded its establishment. Here; the motivation was an educational one and a desire to improve the quality of the design of Britain’s manufacturing industries.
Britain’s vast empire enabled her to acquire an unparalleled collection of material from around the globe and much of this was deposited over time in national museums. However; we should be wary of reading all such material as entirely or mainly the result of a desire to own and regulate the world. Individual explorers and connoisseurs interested in the pursuit of knowledge and the appreciation of fine and decorative arts acquired much of it. National museums such as the National Maritime Museum now tend to avoid any attempt to boast about the Empire; preferring to focus on trade and exploration and the horrors of the slave trade.
Britain’s identity was firmly attached to the idea of itself as a democratic nation (even when most people did not have the vote) and thus national museums were part of the notion of an open civic society. Over time; the idea that everyone could and should have access to culture developed as the franchise was extended.
After a relatively long period of stagnation and neglect in the twentieth century caused by economic depression and two world wars; as well as government indifference; in the last fifteen years national museums have undergone something of a revival in the UK. Many have secured large capital projects partly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund; which includes new buildings and sites such as the Imperial War Museum North and new displays such as the British Galleries at the V&A. They have established outreach programmes and promoted educational activities. Many of them regard themselves as international rather than British and look to the rest of the world for comparators rather than to Europe. Some; like Tate Modern; represent a confident Britain; punching above its weight in international cultural affairs; enjoying cultural capital and expanding it. Others such as the British Museum promote world cultures rather than national ones partly as an attempt to avoid disputes over ownership of material that could be understood to have national significance for other countries.
National museums and galleries in Northern Ireland; Scotland and Wales are governed by their respective devolved parliamentary institutions and are dealt with in separate reports. There are no specifically English national museums; nor has there been any attempt to establish one. Research by Watson (2006) suggests that some members of the English community resent what they see as their icons (here Nelson) being interpreted as British rather than English. Surveys of attitudes to national identities in Britain ‘suggest that if anything the decline in adherence to Britishness over the last decade has been more marked in England than it has been in either Scotland or Wales’ (Heath et al 2007: 11). Gordon Brown; anxious about a perceived lack of national unity and the rise of Islamic extremism; briefly promoted the idea of setting up a museum of Britishness but this received little support from national museums and academic consultants; and was abandoned before Labour lost the election in 2010. Thus; existing British national museums currently do not promote an overt comprehensive narrative of British history; culture and values; though individual institutions deal with some aspects of this.
Post colonial immigration and global migration has affected the ethnic makeup of Britain and has led to lively debates about the nature of Britishness and whether it can encompass loyalties to other peoples and places. The Labour government of 1997 – 2010 promoted Britishness as an all-encompassing umbrella under which a multicultural nation could enjoy separate cultural identities. National Museums in London have promoted this idea in a range of ways; foregrounding ethnic minority contributions to the state and encouraging the idea that minority groups have lived in Britain for centuries. Such exhibitions are as much a result of liberal professional enthusiasm for multiculturalism as of direct national government influence.
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