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Arts feature

Wedgwood Museum: At risk

We are fairly certain that the late Robert Maxwell never met the even later Josiah Wedgwood, but Cap’n Bob’s nefarious legacy is now being keenly felt by Wedgwood’s descendants.

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

We are fairly certain that the late Robert Maxwell never met the even later Josiah Wedgwood, but Cap’n Bob’s nefarious legacy is now being keenly felt by Wedgwood’s descendants. For it was in the aftermath of Maxwell’s plundering of the Mirror Group that the Pension Protection Fund was established to compensate pensioners in the wake of insolvency. And now this legislation is being used to asset-strip one of the great museums of England.

On the southern edge of Stoke-on-Trent stands the Wedgwood Museum, dedicated to ‘The People Who Have Made Objects of Great Beauty from the Soils of Staffordshire’. A museum that in 2009 won the £100,000 Art Fund Prize for museums and galleries, with judges praising it as a ‘brilliant snapshot’ highlighting the marriage of art, design, manufacturing and commerce.

Its origins can be traced back to Wedgwood himself who in 1774 wrote of how ‘I have often wish’d I had saved a single specimen of all the new articles I have made, and would now give twenty times the original value for such a collection. I am now, from thinking, and talking a little more upon this subject…resolv’d to make a beginning.’

And so he made a beginning on what is among the finest collections in the world with some 8,000 objects on display — from black jasper Portland designs to bone-china tea-sets and Robert Adam-designed vases — testifying both to Wedgwood’s genius and the company’s productivity. This is a commercial as much as aesthetic history, with succinct guides to earthenware, creamware and then jasper and basalt production as well as to the changing fads of rococo and neo-classical.

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But the museum goes far beyond telling the life of the manufacturer, agitator, inventor, internationalist and salesman Josiah Wedgwood. It describes the advent of industrialisation, the nature of the English Enlightenment, and how the early ideals of the French Revolution reverberated throughout the UK. This is the intellectual milieu of Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men and it recreates masterfully the intellectual and commercial vibrancy of the Age of Equipoise. For it was from Stoke on Trent that pottery headed up the Trent & Mersey Canal to Liverpool, to be shipped to the drawing rooms of Boston and the palaces of Calcutta. Internationalism is part of this story, with the struggle against the slave trade a vital component. One of the most inspiring parts of the collection is the series of ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’ medallions moulded for the abolitionist movement of which Wedgwood was such a supporter.

Down the generations, the Wedgwood family and business had a keen sense of its place in history and in 1906 the firm opened the first museum. In 1962, aware that the Wedgwood business was likely to go public, the family with great prescience decided to separate the museum from the factory, specifically to prevent it being used as a realisable asset by any future predator.

Or, at least, they thought they did. But in January 2009 Waterford Wedgwood plc — as it had mushroomed into under the ownership of the O’Reilly family — entered administration; the company was bought by KPS, an American private-equity firm, which purchased the prize assets of Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and Waterford without taking on board any of the £134 million pension liability of the Wedgwood Group Pension Fund. Here lies the rub.

Current pension legislation means that the Museum — a small charitable trust — is being held responsible for the multimillion pound shortfall in the Wedgwood company’s pension plan because five of the museum’s staff are among the Wedgwood Group Pension Fund’s 7,000 members (who will gain no material rewards if the museum goes into liquidation). This is the ‘last man standing’ principle, which demands the Pension Protection Fund realise all assets to replenish the pension pot — and so we have the madness of a five-person £60,000 pension bill being liable for £134 million of debts, with a priceless collection at risk.

The future of the Wedgwood Museum now rests on a High Court decision, expected in early spring, as to whether the collection is ‘alienable’ or not. That is, can it be liquidated to pay the debts or is it separate from the company? Former Wedgwood employees, local Stoke and Staffordshire enthusiasts, Wedgwood family members, and leading historians, curators, artists and ceramicists are uniformly appalled by the prospect. Sir Neil Cossons, chairman of the Royal College of Art, puts it well: ‘If the court case goes against the museum it will not only be catastrophic for one of the finest museums in the country but blow a hole through all our assumptions about the inalienability of collections held by trusts.’

The arts minister, Ed Vaizey, is listening; the Art Fund is mobilised; the Heritage Lottery Fund is taking a keen interest; Mark Jones at the V&A and Neil MacGregor at the BM have proved unfailingly supportive, but all we can do is await the court’s judgment. In the meantime, the rippling waves of Bob Maxwell’s demise look like sinking another victim.

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