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12 Jun 2007 : Column GC47

Grand Committee

Tuesday, 12 June 2007.

The Committee met at half-past three o’clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (BARONESS FOOKES) in the Chair.]

Science and Heritage (Science and Technology Committee Report)

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Fookes): I shall give the Committee a few administrative arrangements. If there is a Division in the Chamber, we must break as soon as possible after that and resume after 10 minutes. I also remind noble Lords that they should speak standing.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the ninth report of the Science and Technology Committee on Science and Heritage (HL Paper 256).

The noble Baroness said: Our debate today concerns an inquiry which a sub-committee of the Science and Technology Committee undertook last year under my chairmanship whose purpose was to examine the application of science and technology to the care and conservation of our cultural heritage. Some people were somewhat surprised that we took up this issue because it is, as the government response rightly points out,

Our reasons were twofold. First, it had been suggested to us that this might be an interesting, if hidden, area of science and technology to explore, as indeed it proved to be. Secondly, it fitted well with the theme of sustainability that had been running through a series of our investigations into subjects such as energy and water. This debate gives us a chance both to reflect back on what we said in that report, to consider the Government’s response and to take a look at developments in the past nine months since we reported. In this respect, the committee can feel reasonably well pleased, for this seems to be one of those rare occasions when a Select Committee report has proved to be something of a catalyst for action. Although by no means all our recommendations are being acted upon, it is very gratifying, first, that our recommendations were so well received by those involved in this field of activity and secondly, and most importantly, that so many of them are now being implemented.

Before going any further, I start by giving thanks to all those who helped us with our enquiry; to those who wrote in with evidence and those who came to give evidence in person before the committee and/or participated in our seminars; to the museums and galleries which gave us a chance to see behind the scenes and visit their conservation departments; to the National Trust, which welcomed us to Blickling Hall to see the work that it is carrying out there; and to the Italian Government and the British Embassy staff in Italy who enabled us, on a very brief visit, to gain some splendid insights into how these issues are dealt with in that country. But above all I would like to thank and pay tribute to our specialist adviser, Professor Cassar, and to our Clerk, Christopher Johnson, without whom this report would not have been written or proved so pertinent. As chairman of the committee I, in particular, owe a great debt of gratitude to them both.

There was one central and dominant conclusion to our report. It was that this is an area of science and technology, albeit a highly specialist one, in which Britain has in the past led the world but which has in the last two decades been in decline and which will decline further and much more seriously unless urgent action is taken. Conservation science or—as we preferred to call it, because it actually goes wider than just conservation—heritage science, provides the basic underpinning for preservation of our cultural heritage. As science and technology moves forward, so it is essential that there are those who are not only familiar with the old processes and techniques but can also access and make use of the new. Yet the generation of scientists who moved into the profession in the 1960s and 1970s and led it to pre-eminence are now about to retire, and unless moves are taken quickly to bring on a new generation to take over from them, this vital interface will be lost.

Does that matter? Our answer was an unequivocal yes, because it behoves us as a society to make sure that future generations can benefit from and enjoy our cultural heritage as much as we do. That is what conservation is all about. Yet it was very clear that conservation, let alone the development of new techniques of conservation, ranked very low in government priorities. Indeed, we accuse the Department for Culture, Media and Sport of breaching the Government’s own sustainability code, which asks all departments to,

Conservation gets no mention in the department’s strategic objectives or in the public service agreements that it negotiates with its non-departmental public bodies—organisations such as English Heritage, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the major museums and galleries, to which it devolves responsibility in these matters. Yet with the country’s earnings from tourism, much of it cultural tourism, now running at over £38 billion, the potential loss is economic as well as cultural.

Put that conclusion side by side with our other main conclusion—the fragmentation of the sector—and the recommendations follow rather naturally. Few would deny that the sector is fragmented. There is a central split between the moveable—museums and galleries—and the immoveable—buildings, structures and landscapes—heritage sectors. There is a split between the university and the non-university practitioners, between the public and the private sectors and between the large and the small players. As a result, there is no central strategic leadership in the sector. The DCMS, rather than filling that void, takes pride in the degree to which it devolves responsibility to the NDPBs. Those, the Government note in their response,

As a result, as John Fidler notes in his letter commenting on the DCMS response:

Our prime recommendation was that the sector needs to overcome these divides and get its act together. It needs more resources especially now that the pot of money from the EU framework programmes that temporarily eased things has dried up or, more specifically, been diverted elsewhere, and it needs to use those resources to recruit and train a new generation of scientists to take over from those who led the field for the past 25 years. However, although resources are an important part of this regeneration process, they are not everything. As Professor Randal Richards said in his evidence, which appears at paragraph 4.13 of our report:

The big question remains who that somebody to identify national priorities should be.

Our recommendation here was that the sector should not rely on DCMS to provide that leadership. It has shown no inclination or willingness to do so. Moreover, it has been dragging its feet over the appointment of a chief scientific adviser in spite of a clear recommendation from the OST that it should do so back in 2004. It had only got as far as appointing Dr Michael Dixon on a temporary basis to advise it on how it might go about finding someone suitable when we started asking questions about what was happening. Instead we suggested that the sector take up English Heritage’s offer of a temporary secretariat and get together under its own auspices to develop a national strategy identifying key gaps and priorities for research. We felt strongly that given the fragmentation of the sector, this strategy needs to be developed bottom up, rather than being imposed top down, so that the different players can buy into the process. We suggested that, once appointed, the obvious person to chair the group would be the new chief scientist at the DCMS.

Side by side with this exercise, we suggested that the community take up the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s offer—which in its evidence had said that it saw itself, within the research councils, as “the champion” for heritage science—and look to it to co-ordinate the setting up of a cross-research council initiative to galvanise new research activity. In research council jargon, we suggested that it set up a time-limited, directed programme of research aimed at both bringing in other research council money and raising resources from other sources, including the EU. We badly need a champion here. It is notable, for example, that the DCMS did not attend the meeting in Brussels in January this year when the Commission launched its plans for a European research area network on cultural heritage. Yet we know from long experience that unless there is someone at such meetings to speak up for and champion our national interests, we end up drawing the short straw.

What has happened since our report? I have already mentioned the DCMS response, and I confess that we were all rather disappointed at its somewhat lukewarm wording, which essentially endorsed our proposals where others were the prime actors but refused to acknowledge our core conclusion that heritage science was in danger of serious decline and in need of clear, consistent leadership. Its line is clear:

In other words, it sees no problem. And that despite the fact that it had been warned in the OST review in 2004 to make itself,

There is, incidentally, quite a contrast between this approach to heritage science and the one which the department takes towards sports science where its NDPBs are supported by strategic leadership and funding, including the funding of the National Sports Medicine Institute.

Leaving the DCMS aside, however, I think we can be very happy with the response to our report. The AHRC has been true to its word. In conjunction with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council it has already appointed a director for that programme. Indeed, the director is to be our specialist adviser, Professor Cassar, so we have great confidence that it will be carried forward with verve and determination. The programme is to run for five years and Professor Cassar’s key priorities will be to network hard, to lead on the development of the programme and, not least, to establish a baseline level of funding and a comprehensive map of current research—reflecting our finding that no one seemed to know how much money was going into research at the moment.

The AHRC has written saying that support for heritage science now forms a major part of AHRC’s strategy for the next five years, 2007-12. We are strongly committed to this area of work, and the development of the programme already features as a priority for the forthcoming spending review, contingent on the provision of additional funding. It has also—and this too is very reassuring—joined the EU consortium bidding to establish the “heritage.net”, which, if successful, will be the first significant initiative to co-ordinate research and training in the cultural heritage field across the EU.

We have also had a note from English Heritage detailing actions that it is taking following our report. It cleared with the DCMS that it had the statutory authority to provide the secretariat to such a group, but I agree with John Fidler that the department has thrown a red herring in this respect. English Heritage has now convened an ad hoc steering group of the main players and is putting to it a proposal to appoint an experienced individual on a one-year contract to begin work on the formulation of a strategy. That individual will be asked to prepare three separate reports identifying priorities for action in terms of needs, research and training and to have all three prepared by next spring so that the group may work on drafting a strategy document next summer. I stress, however, that these are still proposals from English Heritage and they have to be endorsed by others. A meeting is planned for 17 July to be hosted by the British Library, which will bring the various stakeholders together to discuss these plans.

I end by noting that other good things are happening outside these initiatives—for which we can perhaps claim some credit for pushing people in these directions. I shall mention just three that have come to my attention: the new British Library Centre for Conservation, which opened very recently; the Textile Conservation Centre at Winchester; and the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s new conservation suite, funded through Renaissance in the Regions. All, in their different ways, promote knowledge and techniques of conservation.

It is good to know that those things are happening, but—and I come back to where I began—they are for the moment but a drop in the ocean of a world that remains, as the current position of the Textile Conservation Centre illustrates well, uncertain. In making our recommendations, our hope was to suggest an infrastructure of greater coherence and greater certainty for these developments. We are much encouraged by the degree to which our report seems to have proved a catalyst for action within the cultural heritage community, and we shall go on urging the Government to be a bit more positive and less grudging in their support. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the ninth report of the Science and Technology Committee on Science and Heritage (HL Paper 256).—(Baroness Sharp of Guildford.)

3.46 pm

Lord Howarth of Newport: I willingly congratulate the noble Baroness and her sub-committee. They asked a good question, formulated an important issue, made a vigorous case for action and have provoked some responses—some more satisfactory than others, but that is not bad going.

I underline how important this issue is. We have an extraordinary heritage, and we ought to care for it as best we can. Our heritage, in important measure, defines who we are personally and our common identity. It is important for the economy. Heritage has been under pressure: the wear and tear of mass tourism, which tends to destroy what it comes to enjoy, and pollution and under-funding. We ought systematically to mobilise and develop scientific resources to care for the heritage.

The traditional approach has been that central and local government distribute money to more-or-less independent institutions at arm’s length. They have conservation at the heart of their responsibilities, English Heritage evidently so. Collections-based institutions such as museums, libraries and archives are there, importantly, to conserve our heritage. The view has been that trustees and professionals should be allowed to get on with their jobs, as ought academics; professional and expert interchange will occur spontaneously, and the problem will take care of itself. The trouble is that this has not worked well enough. A shortage of money has meant that conservation has all too often been deferred, and the priorities of institutions have varied. We read that the Natural History Museum spends a significantly larger proportion of its resources on conservation, for example, than does the Science Museum. The Government’s priorities have emphatically been for access and education. Stewardship features in the funding agreements that DCMS makes with the institutions it funds, but not in the public presentation of the DCMS. We need a coherent, purposeful drive for conservation, using the best science available.

That is not inconsistent with also urging some degree of caution. We need a systematic use of science, but not a gung-ho one. In their time, Reynolds, Goya, Goethe, Delacroix, Ruskin and Morris all pleaded for restraint on the part of those exulting in the application of new technology to restoration. Every age imposes its own vision on heritage. In the eighteenth century, restorers used to lighten up pictures; in the nineteenth century, they darkened them down. In the twentieth century, they made them look like photographs. Every restoration risks a trauma and irreversible damage. The notion of a return to the authentic may indeed be illusory. As with medicine, so with conservation; we need self-aware, self-disciplined, self-critical science. There have been disasters: the restoration of Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” by the National Gallery and the treatment by the Wallace Collection of some of its Watteaus.

In 1962, the ICA staged some debates on conservation. The National Gallery technicians were led by Helmut Ruhemann. The case against radical cleaning was led by Professor Gombrich. Gombrich accused Ruhemann of ruining the Titian; Ruhemann accused Gombrich of liking dirty pictures. This story is well told in a plangent polemic by Sarah Walden, The Ravished Image.

Many lessons have been learnt about impetuosity and excess, but bad reasons for intervention abound: if money is available, we had better use it; activism attracts money and official approval; if a sale or an exhibition is coming up, we had better smarten up the picture and make it more appealing to today’s taste; the public want novelty, so if we have not got any money for acquisitions, we had better dress up one of the pictures we already have. There is always the temptation to use your virtuosity and to show off.

We must use science, but use it wisely and well. The Select Committee is right that we need leadership, organisation and a strategic drive in our application of science to the heritage. The question has arisen as to who should do what, and the committee has proposed various remedies and a distribution of responsibilities. But it has found some reluctant debutantes.

The DCMS says that a national strategy for heritage science is entirely appropriate and agrees that it should have a chief scientific adviser, although it points out that, given the ragbag of its responsibilities, he would have to be the kind of polymath that we do not these days produce. If sport, which so preoccupies the DCMS, were to be taken away from it, perhaps that would help the chief scientific adviser and the Secretary of State. We are all tempted to play these parlour games about reconstructing Whitehall. We shall see what happens in two or three weeks’ time. Meanwhile, the DCMS is coy. It says that it distributes money to bodies at arm’s length, and trustees are independent. But the department is quite happy to lean on the institutions which it funds when it suits it to do so. Perhaps fairly, it doubts whether its own expertise and direction would be a good substitute for those of the institutions that it funds, but that is not quite the point. Heritage—both the moveable and the immoveable—and the heritage of science need a champion and a strategic co-ordinator. That role needs articulation, which is lacking in the key documents from the DCMS and lacking in its diffident response to the Select Committee. The DCMS has been enthusiastic to take the lead on creative industries or sport and science. Why is it so reluctant where heritage and heritage science are concerned?

The MLAC is even more of a blushing violet. It is chaperoned by the DCMS, which says that it should not join this particular dance—that is for Icon. But we look to the MLAC to be a facilitator, a sign-poster, an encourager and a standard setter. This cannot be left to Icon, the Museum Documentation Association or the National Preservation Office. The National Museums Directors’ Conference and the Museums Association cannot take the role that the Government and their agencies need to fill.

The predecessors of the MLA did take responsibility. The MGC had its conservation unit. In 1980, the Standing Committee on Museums and Galleries, as the body was then known, published a document, Conservation—Museum and Galleries. It concluded that:

It is well worth reading its study of the ethics of conservation.

English Heritage has paddled usefully under water, but also abjures leadership, taking the view that no single body has both remit and capacity for a directive leadership and that the appropriate model is collaborative partnership and shared ownership. That view is also reflected in the response of the British Library, which, while it says that it is “absolutely fundamental” that we should have a comprehensive national strategy for heritage science, continues to endorse the distributed, federated, collaborative system. English Heritage at least is helpfully willing to provide co-ordination and a secretariat and, as it puts it,

in the form of one post for a one-year exercise. But what lies beyond?

In striking contrast is the response of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which has been splendidly positive, eager to grasp this torch and to make heritage and science a major part of its forthcoming strategy, if only it can get past the CSR. The CSR is a sort of Cape Mogador of Whitehall. Medieval cartographers used to write on maps where they imagined there were oceans south of Cape Mogador, “Here be monsters”. If the AHRC can get past the CSR and float into well-funded waters, it is more than happy to use a significant share of its resources for heritage and science. Moreover, in the mean time, it has been mobilising the other research councils and the Office of Science and Innovation. Research Councils UK’s response to the Select Committee in the addendum attached to the Government’s response is really magnificent.

The AHRC should be congratulated—as the noble Baroness did—on making the running to secure funding for cultural heritage from the European Union seventh framework programme. It has, with the EPSRC, created the new post of director for heritage research and made the wise appointment of Professor Cassar. I understand that there are further staff for research and co-ordination and an immediate allocation of additional resources of £1 million for work in this field. It is working on establishing the baseline, mapping, consulting, networking and co-ordinating. If it could bring the NERC back onto the turf, that would be particularly important for archaeological science. The AHRC is strongly committed to promoting the transfer of knowledge to public and charitable organisations as well as to private enterprise. The AHRC, with its unabashed interest in science, may be able to help to generate the scientifically literate humanities scholars and the arts literate scientists that the British Library expressed a desire to see on the scene.

The AHRC cannot do it all, any more than Icon can. The issues remain how we get leadership, how we energise the system and how we are to be effective. Those questions need answering by the Government. There is a need to create a permanent forum through which the situation can be assessed, strengths, weaknesses and gaps can be identified, priorities set, strategies developed, tasks distributed, money secured, all the necessary centres of excellence promoted, knowledge disseminated and people recruited and trained. Ideas on those and on many other matters should come up from the bottom, but, pace the committee, the leadership must come from the DCMS or its successor. Only at that level will we get a national overview and drive, co-ordination within Whitehall, between Whitehall and the devolved Administrations, between this country and others and co-ordination of the sector. The DCMS says that its writ does not run in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Luxembourg’s writ does not run in Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania; but you have a common secretariat and you rotate the presidency. It is too easy to find reasons why X or Y should not lead. We cannot muddle along with swathes of our heritage decaying. Where there is a will there is a way.

3.57 pm

Lord Waldegrave of North Hill: I declare an interest as the chairman of the National Museum of Science and Industry, which presented two memoranda to your Lordships’ inquiry and gave oral evidence through Hazel Newey. I will speak, if I may, with the perspective of a chairman of one of the great national museums and galleries, but of course I do not represent my colleagues.


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