Press Release - The Firman at the British Museum

I spent the day at the British Museum looking over the St Clair Archive (this includes what was previously known as the Hunt Archive, as well as other material previously in the care of William St Clair). After years of 'issues' over the Archive with one member of staff (let's call him Old Blue Eyes, OBE), I emailed the new Keeper Dr. Fitton and everything seems to be going smoothly. I had never met her before, but she seems like a breath of fresh air, and more interested in access to material rather than politics. She also seems very nice, and I had noticed that the Department seemed quite changed - everyone still working hard, but very happy.

The new Chinese Garden in the forecourt, on a sunny day, also seemed to be very popular with visitors.

It still remains a mystery to me why to British Museum has been so cagey about the acquisition of the St Clair archive. The people working in the field I spoke to did not know that the Archive was in the BM until I told them I had heard rumors, and the first 'news' that the Archive had been bought for the Nation through a combination of public and private money (including, for example, funds from the Society of Dilettanti), was 'broken' on this blogs last month.

I have no idea why Neil MacGregor seems to be sitting on the news rather than issuing a press release. The only 'official' information I could find was pp. 11-12 in this Report for 2006/7 (which until quite recently did not appear when one Googled "hunt archive"+"british museum"), and people at the Museum have been giving me the impression until quite recently that William St Clair still owned the archive. I also had to point out that I had a full catalogue of the items acquired on behalf of the Nation, since OBE initially only showed me a small part of the Archive.

My understanding is that the St Clair Archive was bought for the Nation - not the British Museum - in June 2006. It belongs to the Nation, and anyone can apply to see it in the British Museum's Greek and Roman Department, where it is currently housed (it could also be transferred to the British Library, which might be more practical). The pieces of paper are currently in individual clear shiny plastic holders - I have no idea if they were put in them by Christie's (who brokered the sale) or by the BM - in a large black file box.

OBE rather amusingly had left instructions with someone manning the student room that I should not be allowed to take photos. I pointed out that the papers were owned by the Nation, not OBE, and I didn't think that they could tell me not to take study photos (incidentally, I have heard that a few students were asked to pay to take study photos at the BM, but no-on has tried this one on me). I also said that if this was official policy - no photos allowed - I'd comply, but I'd kick up a huge fuss about it, and suggested that they check if it was indeed official policy (or yet another dubious claim by OBE). Dr. Fitton was fine with study photos, so I took some. Normally I would never repeat an overheard conversation this way but ... just after three o'clock OBE rang up, to make sure I had not taken any photos, and did not seem thrilled that I had. Items in the BM are owned by the Nation, and the point is that people should be given access to them, and ... that's a legal requirement - it's just a little tiring when it takes such an effort to get access. Fortunately this seems to have changed under the new improved Department regime, but I do worry what happens to students who can't push and push.

Since Mr. MacGregor and the British Museum seem reluctant to issue a press release ... please accept this in lieu. The Archive is wonderful, with lots of interesting material - some of the letters are very funny too - and I enjoyed my access today. Hopefully everyone else will soon also get a chance to go through the Archive.

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