Thursday, October 20, 2011


Is the British Empire’s legacy under threat?
British Empire and Commonwealth Museum plays down growing fears about the condition of its collections

By Gareth Harris | From issue 228, October 2011
Published online 19 Oct 11 (Conservation)

The collections at the Bristol-based British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM), which include artefacts, photographs and films, may be languishing in damp and humid conditions, according to sources close to the museum. Fears are also growing about the condition of the Grade I listed building, which closed to the public in 2008.

“There are particular problems with the building which is old and prone to leaks and burst pipes,” says Katherine Prior, a freelance consultant who worked at the museum. “Previously, when the museum was well-staffed, there were regular humidity and temperature checks on the stores, insect monitoring, etc. I worry that there are no longer the staff [there] to carry out these checks and vital building maintenance. I’m anxious to know what the current situation is.”

The trustees now intend to carry out an independent audit of the collection, which are currently in store and number more than 553,000 items. But there are concerns about the upkeep of the collection. Anne Lineen, who was responsible for collections care, was made redundant in June. The Art Newspaper also understands that earlier this year pallets of documents were removed from the stores and laid out to dry in the former exhibition spaces of the museum.

But John Mott, the interim chief executive who last month replaced the former director Gareth Griffiths (Griffiths was dismissed in February following allegations of the unauthorised disposal of objects from the collection), says there is no reason for concern. “The Grade I listed building is sound and dry, having had £8m spent on it by the BECM in recent years. It does not leak and much of it is used as a conference venue,” says Mott. He stressed that material affected by a leak from a water cooler in an office above the library last April was treated by a conservation company.

Annamaria Motrescu, the film archivist at the museum prior to its closure, is also worried that the film archive, which contains around 1,900 items dating from the 1920s onwards, may be at risk from high levels of humidity and vinegar syndrome (cellulose triacetate degradation). Mott added that there are no curatorial staff currently employed by the museum but “the film archive is under the care of a part-time expert film technician...these films are kept under constant review by [the] technician and there is no sign of any vinegar syndrome being present.”

Plans to transfer the museum to Southwark, near London Bridge, were shelved last month. An investigation by Avon & Somerset police into the missing objects is ongoing (The Art Newspaper, September).

The BECM, which opened in 2002, was the only permanent museum in the country that charted the story and legacy of Britain’s Empire. It raised £8m to convert the listed Temple Meads railway station designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. According to a 2006 prospectus, the museum houses unique records such as the Palestine Police archive (1919-47) and the Colonial Survey archive, a photographic overview of former colonies donated by the Ordnance Survey.

The National Archives, the UK government’s official archive, said that it is monitoring the situation. “[We have] a statutory responsibility for public records, such as the Ordnance Survey collection, and [we] have an advisory role in all types of archives,” says a spokeswoman. “We are working with the museum’s trustees to find a suitable solution that will safeguard the Ordnance Survey collection and provide access to it in the future.”

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