The best argument in favour of state funding of the arts was made in the middle of the 18th century. In 1753 an Act of Parliament established the personal collection of Sir Hans Sloane as a national resource, ‘to be preserved and maintained not only for the Inspection and Entertainment of the learned and the curious, but for the general Use and Benefit of the Public’.
But a dark cloud looms over the British Museum today. Rumour suggests (and ministers won’t deny) that the Chancellor is keen to lop a few million quid from its budget in the 2015/16 spending review which is due to be published this month. Culture Minister Ed Vaizey is being encouraged to fight like a weapon dog in defence of this invaluable cultural asset.
As well he should, because the BM’s annual grant is pretty modest in global terms. It gets half of what the Louvre receives and just a tenth of the riches showered on the Smithsonian Institution. It attracts nearly six million visitors every year to its Bloomsbury HQ. A further 13 million internet users access its website. To most of us the museum is like drinkable tap water or tarmacked roads; it’s one of the bare-minimum amenities of civilised life. You rely on it without giving it a moment’s thought. Suppose you’re hacking away at your Norfolk spud patch and your fork strikes the prow of a Viking long ship buried beneath the topsoil. You know exactly who to contact. The BM will send a task-force of world-class experts to inspect your discovery, to rule on its authenticity and to advise on its future disposition. You expect no less. And although doing a Lord Carnarvon in your backyard may seem a remote contingency, the BM’s Portable Antiquities Scheme deals with close to 100,000 finds every year. Of these, nearly 1,000 are officially classed as treasure. In April 2010 a pot of 52,503 Roman coins was unearthed on a soggy ridge near Frome in Somerset. The BM helped to preserve the coins, assisted the local council in retaining the hoard, and published a book about the discovery.
And the museum’s significance as a global player is hard to overestimate. Just hold in your mind the fact that the ‘ring-fenced’ DFID (overseas aid) budget is over £10 billion — much of it frittered away. Well, quietly, and on a (relative) shoe-string, the BM does far more for our reputation abroad. In a typical year it arranges an astonishing range of overseas loans: ancient Greek vases to Malibu, Vorticist paintings to Venice, Islamic art to Munich, Celtic weaponry to Saarbrücken, drawings by Degas to Toronto, medieval floor-tiles to Los Angeles and Maori neck ornaments to Leiden.
The museum is instrumental in nurturing links between Britain and the burgeoning economies of the East. In 2010 a joint exhibition with the V&A, entitled ‘India: the Art of the Temple’, was staged in Shanghai and attracted over 600,000 visitors. In Abu Dhabi, where the Guggenheim and the Louvre already have branch galleries, the BM is advising on the creation of the Zayed National Museum, which will record the history of the United Arab Emirates. In Iraq, with help from the BM, one of Saddam’s old palaces is being refurbished to house the Basra museum, where Mesopotamian antiquities will be displayed. Britain’s military record in Iraq may be open to question, but the transformation of a torturer’s lair into a cultural treasure-house is an achievement to trumpet from the rooftops.
One particular loan has attracted worldwide attention this year. The Cyrus cylinder, a small clay drum unearthed in 1879, records the imperial policies of Cyrus the Great who ruled Babylon between 559 and 530 bc. The deeds of a 2,600-year-old Achaemanid tyrant may seem rather obscure to modern observers. But Cyrus, like Julius Caesar, is a conqueror whose influence spread far beyond the borders of his empire. His patronymic remains in common use today. Even in Britain. Most of us have bought drugs from somebody called ‘Cyrus’, although the apothecary will probably bear the name in an Arabised form: Qureish or Koreshi. It’s also the family name of the Prophet Muhammad.
The proclamations on the Cyrus cylinder reveal that the emperor’s outlook was unusually enlightened. He championed national sovereignty and was willing to set slaves free. His empire comprised captive peoples from all parts of the Middle East, including Jews, and the cylinder records his decision to allow them to return to their native lands and to worship their ancestral gods. The Jews who wept by the rivers of Babylon were among those he liberated. After the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Jews hoping for the establishment of a homeland adorned their houses with portraits of George V alongside images of Cyrus. When the cylinder was loaned to Tehran in 2010, it sparked a fierce national debate about Iranian values. President Ahmadinejad, in his welcoming speech, claimed an affinity with Cyrus and boasted of Iran’s long tradition of tolerance. His words were not widely reported in the West. The cylinder is to tour the United States this year where it may – just may – help to ease the 30-year-old tensions between Tehran and Washington.
Of course, no one can put a price on such a hope. Or on such a loan. And this is what makes the BM so vulnerable to thrifty bean-counters. A line of figures on a balance sheet will never reveal the ‘profit margins’ generated by the BM. The money that oozes in and out of museums moves invisibly in subterranean channels. One observer put it like this during a debate about museum funding in 2010. ‘Suppose a Chilean tourist arrives at the British Museum to inspect some of his cultural treasures. He gets in for free and he’s got plenty of cash in his pocket so we can fleece him later at the café.’ This flippant remark highlights the elusive value of our artistic heritage and the futility of pricing it as if it were a second-hand car. The speaker’s name, by the way, was Ed Vaizey.