I am the bishop on duty in the House of Lords this week. This means leading prayers at the beginning of each day's business – today at 2.30pm. The business always kicks off with Oral Questions, the four on the order paper having been selected in a ballot.
One of the questions on Monday was asked by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara:
To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the closures of regional museums, particularly in the North of England, and the impact of those closures on the United Kingdom's creative industry and on the educational services provided to local schools and colleges.
Answering for the Government (DCMS), the Earl of Courtown got in a muddle and then missed the point. My question was:
My Lords, if the rhetoric about the northern powerhouse is to have any reality behind it, it has to include access to culture and cultural developments. In the light of that, will the Minister give an assurance that the sword of Damocles hanging over the National Media Museum in Bradford might at last be lifted? Sometimes up there it feels as if London is saying, “Out, damned spot!”.
The Minister replied:
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate referred to the northern powerhouse. Perhaps I should add that DCMS is sponsoring loans to museums at 1,629 different venues. As far as Manchester in particular is concerned – (he was corrected by Lords who had accurately heard “Bradford”) – I beg your pardon; I thought that the right reverend Prelate referred to Manchester. I think that the right reverend Prelate was referring to the Royal Photographic Society collection, some of which has now been moved to London. That move has provided far better access to the collection because the Victoria and Albert Museum has committed to digitising the collection and thus make it more widely available.
Digitisation does not make the collection more widely available, if the originals (which is what people want to see) are in London. This plays into a wider perception that wide availability does not include the north of England.
The Minister was good enough to explain to me personally that he had not fully heard my question and, therefore, not answered it as well as he might.
Later Lord Grade, who chairs the body that runs the Science Museum group gave me a personal assurance that the National Media Museum is safe and in a good place.