February 4, 2013, by Rosamund Aubrey

A tale of two debts

A tale of two debts

The Royal Institution may have to sell its Grade 1 listed building in Albemarle Street, Mayfair its home since 1799 to pay its mounting debts. The RI underwent a £22m refurbishment completed in 2008, and this has left it with a £7m debt and insufficient income to cover its running costs. The RI’s chairman, Sir Richard Sykes, said that the scale of the challenge facing the RI was significant. “Over the last two years, we have been working hard to secure major funders and partners. We have many loyal supporters, but we have yet to establish a robust endowment that would put us on a firm financial footing.”

Material scientist Mark Miodownik, said he planned “to galvanise the engineering and science community to take ownership of the fact that this is the heritage site that is all of ours.” Miodownik has organised a coalition of more than 20 former Christmas lecturers – and in a letter to the Times argued that the RI’s famous Faraday lecture theatre, where hundreds of scientists have delivered the annual Christmas lectures started by Michael Faraday in 1825, was as precious to the UK as any ancient palace or famous painting. Faraday had little formal education, but became an important scientist and the first and foremost Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution.

Harry Kroto, the Nobel winning chemist, is also campaigning to save the RI’s home and wrote: “Make no mistake, if this building is sold the institution will be lost forever and it will be a loss fully commensurate with the one hundred and sixteen plays of Sophocles burned (only seven survive) and the wanton destruction of the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan as well as countless other priceless cultural icons of human creativity deliberately destroyed. In this case the act will not be by ignorant philistines but people who profess to be guardians of our culture. Sale of the building will be the death-knell of the greatest shrine to not only British science but to the scientific culture of the world, and we must not let this happen.”

UNESCO seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity, through the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage . UNESCO acknowledges that scientific heritage is under represented and while the Royal Institution is not recognised, the Wedgwood Museum is part of UNESCO’s Memory of World Programme.

Josiah Wedgwood, 1730-1795, came from a family of potters in Stoke on Trent where fortunes were made, but bankruptcies were common. Chinese blue and white under glaze porcelain was exported to Europe from 16th century, but the secret of their hard paste porcelain only reached Europe in 1708. Unlike China, where ceramics technology was a sophisticated industry by the 14th century, European ceramics technology was under developed and a complete kiln of porcelain could be ruined. There was a need to reduce the financial risk by producing a cheaper product; Wedgwood made 5000 carefully recorded trials over 35 years, overseeing firings, trying new glazes, clay bodies and designs. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1783 for the development of the pyrometer to measure the temperature in kilns.

His pots had an international market, but half might be broken by the time they reached a port, such were the state of the roads, and so he invested in the development of canals. His factories were run on an industrial system, he rented houses to workers, he was an astute business man and was a member of the Lunar Society. He was also a supporter of abolition of the slave trade, and mass produced cameos depicting the seal for the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and had them widely distributed, and they became a popular and celebrated image. So it is not surprising that the Wedgwood Museum’s archives holds over 100,000 manuscripts on a wide range of topics far beyond the world of ceramics. The Museum also has paintings by Stubbs, Reynolds and Romney and thousands of ceramics.

But this is a tale of two debts, and the Wedgwood Museum’s debt is not of its own making. The high court ruled that the collection was an asset of Waterford Wedgwood Potteries, which went bankrupt in 2009, and could be sold to pay their creditors, the largest of which is the Pension Protection Fund. The ruling was an unintended consequence of legislation to protect employee pensions after the Robert Maxwell scandal of the 1990s. The Museum had not been linked to the company for almost fifty years, but has been penalised because five of its employees were part of the Pottery Group Pension Plan’s member scheme. The Museum, which is a charity has been placed in administration, and if sold, is expected to fetch £15m, a drop in the ocean to the £134m pension deficit. However, PPF told the Financial Times in December 2012, “ …we would not want to see the museum’s collection needlessly sold off and we are working with the administrators and others to find the best way forward.”

David Dawson, who was responsible for listing the museum on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, described the collection as “one of the most complete ceramic manufacturing archives in the world”.
“The nation cannot afford the loss of this piece of its heritage,” he said. “[The Wedgwood collection] was selected as one of just 20 items on the register, along with objects such as the Bill of Rights and a copy of King Charles I’s death warrant.”

Both the Wedgwood Museum and the RI are of immense scientific, technical, social and cultural importance, but while the RI may lose its current home, the Wedgwood could well see its collections dispersed, in the worst case scenario, internationally.

If it were to be dispersed it would be twenty first century vandalism greater I think, than Harry Kroto’s description of losing the RI’s home.

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