HAMIDA ALI sets the record straight on the some of the deceits and outright untruths put forward by Croydon Council leader Mike Fisher and others to try to justify flogging off the borough’s heritage
I worked at Croydon Clocktower from 1997 to 1999 and as gallery assistants we were responsible for the security of the museum and all the exhibitions – including the Riesco Gallery, which I opened and closed hundreds of times.
I loved my time at the Clocktower. Even though my career aspirations weren’t to become a museum professional, I developed a deep respect for the team in the Croydon Museum and Heritage Service and quickly learned that the service had a national reputation for its standards and excellence. I didn’t just enjoy the job because I was fond of my colleagues or because I enjoyed welcoming people to the place, but because I felt part of a bigger endeavour to reflect a non-stereotypical image of Croydon back to itself and the wider world.
In 2011, during the public outrage over the council’s proposals to close a number of the borough’s libraries, I shared people’s anger. But I was also disappointed that the same level of concern wasn’t voiced over the cuts to the museum service which took place simultaneously.
So I’ve been really heartened by the number of people in Croydon who’ve spoken out against the latest cultural outrage in Croydon – the proposal to sell 24 of the highest value items in Raymond Riesco’s priceless collection of Chinese ceramics which – alongside his family home Heathfield – he left to the people of Croydon.
Since Inside Croydon broke the story of the sell-off, a number of local politicians have now commented. Now, it is time to set a few facts straight.
Fact: Almost everything in the collection was on display
Last Sunday on Croydon Radio, Mike Fisher, the leader of the council, defended his decision to sell-off these items on the basis that the objects were so valuable that the only alternative was storing them in boxes. This is not true.
The only items that were not on display were for aesthetic reasons. For example, only half of a 12-piece tea set was displayed to help make space for the rest of the collection. The most valuable item in the collection was on display – a Moon Flask which is a white ceramic piece shaped more like a bottle with blue decoration.
It would be easier of course to point you to the webpages which used to provide a catalogue of the collection including a picture of each object, a brief description and its accession number (what’s an accession number? We’ll come back to that), but I can’t since those webpages have mysteriously disappeared from Croydon Council’s website.
Fact: The collection hasn’t been insured for years
Fisher’s other excuse for this sale was that the council can’t afford to insure the collection. This is not true.
The Riesco Collection hasn’t been insured for years.
Part of what makes the collection expensive to insure is not just the intrinsic value of each of the objects, but because they are part of a coherent collection. Since each item was chosen specifically by Raymond Riesco, if one of the items was damaged or stolen, it would become irreplaceable because any substitute wouldn’t have been selected by Riesco himself.
Fact: You can’t just auction off accessioned items
The Croydon Museum Service is an accredited museum – a status awarded by the Arts Council of England. One of the qualifying criteria is operating an acquisition and disposal policy. The objects in the Riesco Collection are accessioned items – which mean that in curatorial terms, their status is special and more significant than any ordinary asset.
To dispose of any of them they must be formally de-commissioned in line with the council’s own policy and the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics.
Both Croydon’s policy and the MA’s code are clear – wherever possible museums should retain items in the public domain. Indeed, Croydon’s own policy states that the governing body (that is our councillors) accepts the principle that, except for sound curatorial reasons, there is a strong presumption against the disposal of any items in the museum’s collection.
Fact: There have been no requests for repatriation
At a recent Croydon Question Time event, Tim Pollard, the cabinet member for children, families and learning compared the status of the Riesco Collection with the Elgin Marbles, suggesting that Chinese collectors may of course see the objects as part of their cultural heritage.
But unlike the Marbles and the Greek government’s case, no requests for repatriation have been made about the Riesco Collection. Indeed, some of the items collected by Raymond Riesco were deliberately manufactured for an export market.
Fact: Croydon Museum’s own accreditation could be at risk
If Fisher, Pollard and Dudley Mead pursue this course of action without proper consultation with the Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Museums Association, the accreditation status of our own museum could be in doubt.
That’s a bigger deal than it sounds. Croydon would no longer be eligible for Lottery funding – which made the redevelopment of the museum possible -– nor would any other accredited museums lend any items to us – which would mean swift returns of objects currently on display in Croydon to the British Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum.
A museum’s role is to safeguard its collections in trust for the public. This latest move by the Conservatives who run Croydon Council fundamentally compromises the very purpose of a museum.
The objects in our museum should be sacrosanct, looked after to preserve our diverse cultural heritage for the public to enjoy – in the long-term.
This proposed sale generates a single cash payment – not an ongoing income. This one-time deal removes the right of the public to enjoy these priceless objects for free forever, and all in order to pay for a refurbishment of a theatre which only benefits ticket-holders.
This is the council robbing Peter to pay Paul – and not for the benefit of everyone.
- If you want to add your name to the gathering protest against the sale of the Riesco Collection, click here to sign the online petition, and share the link with your friends and colleagues
- Croydon’s secret plan to flog £13m-worth of Riesco Collection
- Council’s Mr & Mrs act that defies proper declarations
- Failing Fairfield Halls is limping along on borrowed time
- Croydon arts policy: no librarians, but £1.5m for Fairfield Halls
- Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source that is actually based in the heart of the borough – 267,670 page views Nov 2012-Apr 2013
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