Artwatch UK

Betraying Burrell – Shame on Glasgow

24 September 2013

It would seem that the arts (along with sport) have been “nationalised”, or more precisely, municipalised, in Glasgow. Both spheres have been brought under the control of a hybrid entity known as “Glasgow Life” which is both a company and a charity with the formal title “Culture and Sport Glasgow”. The directors and trustees of Glasgow Life are appointed by the Council. Glasgow City Council manages the Burrell Collection and the City’s other museums through this body. In the case of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow Life has established an intermediary overseeing body known as “Burrell Renaissance”, the chair of which is a member of Glasgow Life’s own, Council-appointed board of directors. Glasgow City Council is promoting a private bill in the Scottish Parliament to remove the prohibition on foreign loans that was stipulated by Sir William Burrell when he gifted his entire collection (of some 8,000 works) to the city of Glasgow in a will of 1944 and in a later Memorandum of Agreement.

When we were invited to give evidence to a hearing on the bill in the Scottish Parliament on 19 September we attempted to speak to the curators of the Burrell Collection at the museum itself on 18 September. Contact had to be made through Glasgow Life. After inquiries by that body on the nature of our interest, arrangement was made to meet two Glasgow Life officers (in the event three) at the Burrell Collection with no museum curators present. We had hoped to establish the logic of the development whereby a chronically leaking roof – which requires urgent, immediate action (see right) – had grown into a proposed redevelopment of the museum that would cost £45m and that would require not only that the museum be closed to the public for four years between 2016 and 2020 but that works from the collection would go on foreign tours in hope of raising the profile of the collection and generating “revenue-raising opportunities”.

The private Bill presently before the Scottish Parliament seeks expressly to “remove these restrictions [imposed by Sir William] permanently so that items can be lent and borrowed more freely”. It was explained to us that the purpose of increasing borrowing into the Burrell was to enable curators to put on special exhibitions that would set the Collection’s works into a wider and more scholarly context. However, this proposed move towards what is by now a near universal museum practice is itself problematic because it threatens to disrupt the present unique and very special character of the Collection as bequeathed and as has survived since the museum was opened in 1983 (see below).

The hearings on 19 September were filmed and have been placed in full on YouTube. In the first hearing, the Chair of the Burrell Trustees, Sir Peter Hutchison, and the legal agent of the Trustees, Mr Robert Taylor, presented a case for overturning Burrell’s overseas loans prohibition on a variety of grounds that taken together would cede to Glasgow Life permission to conduct the borrowing and lending policies of the Burrell Collection without hindrance. Both witnesses expressed confidence that a proposed new lending code that has been agreed between Glasgow Life and the Burrell trustees offers sufficient safeguards to “mitigate” (but note, not eliminate) the enduring risks of foreign travel. It was alarming when Sir Peter indicated that while, presently and in compliance with Burrell’s repeatedly asserted wishes and conditions, it is the case that entire categories of vulnerable objects (such as tapestries and pastels) are specifically excluded from permission to travel even within the UK, let alone abroad, in the future (were the Bill to be approved), consideration of what might be loaned both in the UK and abroad would be made not by categories of artefacts but on a “case by case”, object by object basis. This would be done under the provisions of the new lending code which is designed to “harmonise” the collection and to “treat [it] as a single entity”. The justification offered for this radical overturning of previously respected conditions is that within what are recognised as highly vulnerable categories a range of conditions exists in which individual works can vary from great fragility to robust good health. We challenged that notion strongly during the second session and note that in the first session, the Committee’s Convener, Joan McAlpine, pointed out that when the Committee’s members visited the Burrell they had been advised by a textiles conservator how and why textiles are so peculiarly unsuited to the risks of travel.

To our fears that the bill effectively seeks to give carte blanche to those in Glasgow Life who will administer the collection, it can be added that it is not altogether clear where accountability might lie. The relationship between the curators at the Burrell museum and the administrators of Glasgow Life is ambiguous and seems unhealthily lop-sided. Sir Peter offers assurances that, on a successful passage of the Bill, he would expect all parties to work harmoniously together and that if displeased the trustees “could make our views quite clear”. Expectations and expressions of displeasure comprise no guarantees. What became clear under close interrogation by the Committee’s members is that Glasgow Life (which as mentioned is the cultural arm of Glasgow City Council – which body is directly promoting the private bill to overturn Burrell’s prohibition on foreign loans) will have the final say and even the right if challenged to have issues determined on the judgement of such “experts” as it might commission. It seemed unfortunate and not reassuring when Sir Peter likened the future role of the Trustees to that of a long-stop cricket fielder rather than a wicket-keeper. (An awful lot of runs can be conceded without balls crossing the boundary – and besides, in modern cricketing practice, the long-stop position is almost obsolete because wicket keepers are expected to stop all balls that comes along.) Sir Peter accepted that Glasgow and not his trustees should have the final say on the fatalistic grounds that “they already perform that function”. It was not made clear why a Parliamentary bill had been thought necessary at all when, as Selby Whittingham of Donor Watch has subsequently submitted to the inquiry:

There is no need to enact bills to allow for loosening of conditions. This can be done through the courts, as in the case of the Barnes Collection and by application to the principle of cy-pres. If it can’t be done in the Burrell case, one may ask if the case for changing the restrictions is really a good one.”

Certainly the essential claim that Burrell’s restrictions on foreign loans can now be dropped because of increased safety has not been substantiated. Even Sir Peter, a former insurance man himself, recognised that risks remain and are inescapable. Under these circumstances, as he put it, the Trustees have a duty to assess and “mitigate risks as far as possible”. This seems a defeatist position. As we have pointed out, in a world where technical improvements in aircraft safety are offset by great increases of volume and velocities in museum world art swaps, a need to mitigate risks would arise only if Burrell’s many times expressed prohibition were to be overturned. That need not happen. It should not happen. The Trustees’ lawyer, Mr Taylor launched a technical sophistry in the Committee hearings by suggesting that lending to the Louvre today was little different from lending within Britain. This was presumably on a belief that travelling under the English Channel by rail is no riskier than travelling by road within the UK. He had perhaps failed to recall that the tunnel has already suffered a number of very serious fires – including one in 1996 when many heavy goods vehicles were destroyed.

The record of accidents, as the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has offered to demonstrate to the Committee, hardly indicates a new, risk-free universe. In 1987 a cross channel ferry, The Herald of Free Enterprise, collapsed and sank in shallow waters, under calm conditions, with a loss of 191 lives and 47 heavy goods vehicles. Three years earlier the Herald’s sister ship, The Spirit of Free Enterprise, had carried two lorries bearing 267 Turners for an exhibition at the Louvre. In 2000, as Dr Whittingham discovered, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston found its Turner oil painting “Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying” to be damaged and extremely unstable on return from a loan to the Tate Gallery. Despite the picture having been glazed and sealed according to modern “best practices” against changes in relative humidity, it had “reacted significantly” to the voyage and had lost flakes of paint. It was established that the injury had occurred on the homebound journey. As a Tate spokeswoman acknowledged:

It arrived here safely where it was examined thoroughly. Its condition was stable”. Incredibly, she added, as if in some exculpation, “Turner’s paintings are notorious for becoming unstable”. Indeed they are – and no gallery knows this better than the Tate. In 1980 the Observer reported that many Turner paintings were too fragile to travel – that barely 100 out of the 279 paintings were fit to “risk being shaken, bumped or dropped in travelling”. As the Tate’s head of conservation, Viscount Dunluce, put it: “Paintings are not designed to travel but to go on a wall. If you send them about in lorries, trains, ships or planes it is bound to have a deleterious effect on them”.

Against Sir Peter Hutchison’s belief that were Burrell alive today he might be happy to “trust his own trustees” to overturn his prohibition on foreign loans, must be set the fact that when two Burrell pictures were sent against his wishes and without his knowledge to Switzerland in 1953, Burrell himself reminded Glasgow Corporation that:

The Memorandum of Agreement with the Corporation only gives permission to lend items from the collection to any public gallery in Great Britain. That stipulation was made to safeguard the items from damage. Had I known in time it would not have been allowed. It mustn’t occur again.”

That accidents still occur in the air as well as on sea, was the principal force of our own testimony. But all questions of risks aside, the proposed changes do not constitute a well-considered appraisal or culturally desirable end. The impact of the already planned increases of borrowing and lending on the character and the aesthetic appeal of the collection as presently constituted and displayed would likely prove detrimental. That is to say, as Glasgow life explained matters to us, the intention of increased borrowing within the museum (for which borrowing must follow the inevitable quid pro quo of increased lending) is to enable curators to make “more sense” of the works that are held in the collection. This seems an aesthetically and culturally unfortunate form of professional special-pleading. The desire of curators to engage in practices that are becoming near universal within the museum world (but with consequently diminishing results in an international scramble to lay hands on the finite number of plum works) misses or ignores the very traits of the Burrell Collection that are uniquely distinctive and attractive.

What is so remarkable and special about the Burrell collection is that although very large as a private collection, at over 8,000 objects, by its catholic nature it comprises in miniature an easily accessible and digestible cultural “over-view” that is otherwise only available in the grandest “encyclopedic museums”. It should be more widely appreciated (and acknowledged) that nowhere else is it possible to move so effortlessly and rewardingly between great and beautiful artefacts drawn from so many of the world’s great cultures without risking the physical and mental fatigue that so easily sets in when moving through the vast halls and din of traipsing tourist parties of a British Museum, Louvre or Metropolitan Museum. At the Burrell museum, for all its current technical deficiencies and its aesthetically over-asserted means of construction, the building nonetheless has a kind of grace and ease of navigation that is immensely conducive to aesthetic contemplation and enjoyment. The contents of the beautiful classically housed Freer Gallery in Washington afford a similarly high aesthetic payload, but do so on a much narrower palette of art and cultures. The Burrell offers the chance to enjoy, compare and evaluate disparate cultures through a collection of works of remarkably high quality (as is here indicated right without any captions – and without reference to whole treasuries of works in the collection such as tapestries, stained glass, silver and furniture) that is uniquely accessible. This collection should properly and attentively be cherished for what it is and for what it offers and facilitates. It should not be exposed to disruption, adulteration and very greatly increased risks to the works themselves for the sake of turning it, at inordinate costs, into something more common place and altogether less enchanting and special.

ADDENDUM

At the James Beck Memorial Lecture in London on September 30th (see details opposite), the Frank Mason Prize is to be awarded to Nicholas Tinari for his role in opposing the changes made at the Barnes Foundation. (To see his submission to the Scottish Parliament, and those of Donor Watch, ArtWatch UK and others, click here.) In response, Mr Tinari will discuss in brief the lessons for those presently seeking a comparably radical overturning of the terms of governance of the Burrell Collection. Under sharp questioning from the Committee members, led by the Convenor, Joan McAlpine, at the Scottish Parliament on 19 September, Sir Peter Hutchison showed signs of anxiety that money raised by a world tour of works from the Burrell Collection could fall short of that being committed to fund not just repairs to the roof but a greatly more ambitious development of the Burrell’s building. If that were to be the case, could Glasgow City Council be relied upon to pick up a likely deficit of some £40m?

Michael Daley

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Above, the dispiriting dead hand of municipalism hits the visitor arriving at the grounds housing the Burrell Collection. The neglect, as shown here, of a fine gate house to what was until recently a private park and house, does not speak well for cultural pride in Glasgow. (Can no one find a use for this fine, handsome structure? Must it really be left to rats and pigeons?) The firmness of Burrell’s desire for his collection to be housed miles away from the pollution of Glasgow prevented work from beginning within his own lifetime on the museum for which he had provided funds. He died in 1958 at the age of 96. Nine years later, Pollok House and its park was bequeathed by Mrs Anne Maxwell MacDonald to Glasgow. An architectural competition was held in 1971 and it resulted in the opening in 1983 of the present building designed by Barry Gasson.
Below: the problems of a leaking roof in a modern building are not unheard of. Modernist architects have often too “boldy gone” into uncharted technical waters in pursuit of novel technical solutions and forms. In this case the problem appears to be that any leak in the roof glass enters and accumulates within a layer of absorbent foam padding which runs throughout the structure. This padding has, it seems, been absorbing water for years and where the actual breakouts occur within the galleries defies all logic. The solution – which should immediately be applied – can only consist of making good the entire roof, section by section. It inevitably will be a big job in itself and it should not be used as a peg on which to hang additional building projects. Tackling this problem should not be made to wait until 2016 in hope that by that date lucrative international tours of the collection might have provided the means to fund an ambitiously extensive “refreshing” of the entire museum. If made dry, the museum would be fine just as it is.
The staff at this delightful museum are extremely friendly and welcoming, if the visitors may not always be free of larky high spirits.
Above, a sample of the great range and variety of the treasures to be found within the museum.
NOTICE: The 5th James Beck Memorial Lecture
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