"A huge wake-up call": The lessons of the sale of Northampton's Sekhemka statue

By Ben Miller | 08 August 2014

Conflict and Community Archaeologist Andy Brockman on Northampton Borough Council’s sale of its Egyptian limestone statue, Sekhemka, for nearly £16 million

A photo of a small Egyptian statue
© Courtesy Northampton Borough Council
“I heard about it because I’d been working on the Battle of Northampton site, which has been an ongoing saga for the past two years as well.

But really I only got involved about three months ago when it was clear that the sale was going to go ahead.

It started to get more traction from the wider world. It’s been clear for some time – particularly when the last attempts to use council procedures to block it failed – that the only thing that was going to have any impact at all was outside pressure.

We’ve seen here almost a replay of the Riesco porcelain case in Croydon.

One of the things that came out of that is that although there’s been a clear breach of museum ethics, and along with that a number of legal questions that remain unanswered.

One of the reasons that they remain unanswered is that none of the regulatory bodies like the Arts Council, the Museums Association or anyone else is able to take action to clarify in law the things that are being done in terms of ownership or procedure.

Community groups don’t have the resources to pay for high-level legal fees. I know that a number of these cases have been subject to Freedom of Information requests to see what’s been talked about behind closed doors and I wouldn’t want to criticise any of them without the full information.

But I think what we’ve got here, at the very least, is a disjunct between what’s actually required to regulate the sector and what those in charge believe are their duties, functions and the way they dispose of their budgets.

I think Sekhemka is a huge wake-up call to the entire museums sector and the regulators of it.

To people who are thinking of doing this again, I think that the lesson is that first of all you can’t do it without people noticing.

Secondly, if you do, you will have a major public relations problem, to put it at its kindest. It’ll be the snowball effect: the more it happens, the more the outcry will be.

The Arts Council had to be seen to take action, particularly after the statements they made in advance, and good for them for doing that. It’s just a shame there weren’t any teeth they could sink in before it happened.

One of the reasons I got involved was because the running of the story was made by a very committed group of local people who cared about their museum.

At some personal cost they have pursued this through lobbying and FOI and all the rest of it.

A lot of the information we are working with is because of their efforts, and that has to be highlighted and applauded.  

I think it’s likely it will happen again. Whether it will be as high-profile as Sekhemka is another matter.

Given the pressures on local council budgets – the fact that we’ve got the worst of the cuts imposed by the coalition still to come – everything is loaded to come after the next election.

There will be local politicians who may think, ‘we’ve got priorities other than museum collections, if we can make a few million pounds to help the deficit...’.

We’re into a much wider argument about what the role of local authorities is in the museums sector, and it’s not one we’re going to solve in one argument.

Anybody who lives as part of a functioning society and sees that their road hasn’t been mended or that their local school has lost a couple of teaching assistants can’t help but sympathise with the local authority officers and councillors who have to deal with this stuff.

The problem is issues of wider and perhaps more abstract values that are embodied in the fact that things like museums exist.

For instance, legally if the trustees of the British Museum decided to do this they wouldn’t be allowed to by law.

But a local authority can, even though the statue of Sekhemka is every bit as important as something in the British Museum. By an accident of history they were able to flog it.

There’s a problem we’ve got in the whole museums and heritage sector in explaining to the public what we do and why we do it, what’s right and what’s wrong.

If it hadn’t been Northampton it would have been somewhere else, but there is just so much money involved.

The Arts Council has tried and others have suggested that in the long run the council will probably lose more from having its accreditation removed than it will in the short term by having a hit of cash. It’s very difficult to make that case – you can’t sell complexity in one message.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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"...in the long run the council will probably lose more from having its accreditation removed..." Do you honestly think so? Having cash leads to more cash. This particular "hit of cash" will enable the council to build its impressive museum extension, which in turn, will contribute significantly to the growth of Northampton's Cultural Quarter, which, in turn, will attract private-sector investment. Yah boo sucks to the Arts Council! Independent, privatized museum services are the future!
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