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Will the Scots sack the British Museum?

If Scotland votes for independence later this year, some very important native artefacts in UK institutions could be heading north

The British Museum plans to lend six of the Lewis Chessmen to the museum at Lews Castle on Stornaway, Isle of Lewis, which is due to open this year

Thirteen years ago, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I raised a hypothetical, if mildly vexatious, question in Scotland’s Herald newspaper. If Scots vote to leave the UK later this year, might they be entitled to assert a pro-rata claim upon any part of the cultural patrimony of Britain as a whole? If so, which major institutions might be vulnerable?

The division of a country, like the dissolution of a marriage, is a fraught undertaking. When the decision was made to end five centuries of shipbuilding at Plymouth in the south of England while retaining two shipyards on the Clyde in Scotland there was a predictable outcry—only this time there was an extra twist in the tail.

If the Scots vote to leave the UK in September, won’t that mean the UK will be dependent on a foreign country—namely Scotland—for its warships? 

With that issue, it would seem that since the UK has been purchasing Trident warheads from a foreign power for decades, albeit a power with which we have a “special relationship”, the question may not be altogether well-founded; but this is not just about who builds the ships for the Royal Navy. A “yes” vote in the Scottish referendum will have implications throughout the public realm. Cultural equity, as well as battleships, will undoubtedly be included in the reckoning. 

Current thinking would appear to be that heads should remain firmly in the sand. The UK government insists that pre-negotiations and position statements are unnecessary. The polls indicate that Scots will vote against independence, so why waste time? More to the point, both Prime Minister David Cameron and his Scottish secretary, Alistair Carmichael, are perfectly aware that if they agree to open negotiations ahead of the vote they will have conceded that separation may indeed be a possibility, and they would be foolish to make that mistake. 

This doesn’t mean that the subject hasn’t been aired outside the political arena. The Scottish writer and commentator Gerry Hassan recently quipped on Radio Scotland that he was looking forward to choosing Scotland’s share of Britain’s pictures if and when independence becomes a reality. He hasn’t been alone in making such off-the-cuff remarks. Former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell has also been thinking out loud on the matter.

The issue seems not to have been raised formally inside the institutions which could, in theory, be affected, but it is clearly a matter of concern. Asked about the implications of Scottish independence at a press conference last June, the British Museum’s director Neil MacGregor declared “we’ll jump over that bridge when we come to it”. He has also made passing reference to a potential “existential threat” to his 250-year-old institution.

His fellow Glaswegian, Tate Britain’s director Penelope Curtis, seems to share his nervousness, and has indicated that it may be necessary to drop “Britain” from her gallery’s name and modify its collecting policy.

Most of the discussion so far has centred around whether, in the wake of independence, partnership agreements between Scottish and UK institutions will be affected. It has even been suggested that an agreement to permanently lend six of the Lewis Chessmen to the new museum at Lews Castle in Stornoway when it opens could be nullified in the event that Scotland breaks away. 

The problem with this prognosis is that England is not the sole owner of the contents of either the British Museum or Tate Britain. Logic and jurisprudence would probably hold otherwise. The clue, as they say, is in the name. The contents, and indeed the real estate holdings, of the British Museum are held in trust on behalf of the people of Britain as a whole, around 8.5% of whom are Scots.

Unlike, say, the British Library, neither the British Museum nor the Tate have equivalent institutions in Scotland. Even the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), which was funded from the proceeds of the 1851 Great Exhibition, can argue that since the National Museum of Scotland was built with proceeds from the same pot, South Kensington should remain undisturbed, while the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square has a more than adequate equivalent in Edinburgh, and the Royal Collection has its superb Queen’s Gallery next to Holyrood Palace.

If we really are talking about a national divorce in this case—and let’s not forget the polls tell us it is highly unlikely—it would be difficult to see how the thorny issue of a division of spoils could be avoided. The pain could, however, be mitigated if the institutions themselves, unlike our politicians, could begin to consider one or two preliminary ideas, at least in abstracto.

The outstanding collection of around 1,400 Old Master drawings and prints that the British Museum acquired from the estate of the Scottish clan chief John Malcolm of Poltalloch in 1895 could certainly be the subject of a cross-border concordat. This single acquisition, which includes important works by Michelangelo, Leonardo and Verrocchio, among others, raised the museum to the same level as the Louvre overnight. There is no reason why these could not, from time to time, be shared with Scotland on an agreed loan basis.

Similarly, the Tate could release a number of drawings by William Blake that have a Scottish provenance. Even the British Library could help out. It is something of an anomaly that it holds the country’s most significant collections of Pictish and Celtic survey drawings, most of them Scottish. It would hardly be much of an intellectual sacrifice to send them north.

On the other hand, even if Scotland does opt for independence, the subject may never come up. I contacted the office of the Scottish government’s culture minister, the SNP’s culture spokesman in Westminster and the Scottish National Party press office in Edinburgh to ascertain their views on the matter. I have yet to hear from any of them. Perhaps they don’t much care—in which case the curators of Millbank and Great Russell Street can probably rest easy in their beds.

David J. Black is a former architecture and arts correspondent for The Sunday Times Scotland. His next book will be The Secret Scottish History of America (1650-1850)

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