Last week news broke that the Royal Institution (RI) is looking for buyers for its hallowed Albermarle Street headquarters in London as part of a plan to ease its financial woes. These amount to £7million owed to creditors according to various reports.
There’s plenty of coverage of the affair in the UK media and a campaign is up and running – lead by various science luminaries - to keep the building from falling into the wrong hands (my words). But I thought I’d share this piece from Australia just to prove the fact that people care about these things well beyond our own shores. And so they should.
However, I confess to feeling in two minds about it. I remember visiting the RI shortly after its infamous refit and feeling distinctly underwhelmed by it. The building’s public thoroughfares seemed to have been turned into a rather low-budget hotel with lots of hard plastic, eating spaces more suited to a Burger King, and over-priced food. It all smacked of mission drift.
Yet two other visits shortly after this reassured me that it hadn’t completely lost the plot – the first a debate with the Science Minister, David Willetts, during the spending review. And then, with my children, to one of their Saturday morning hands-on science fairs – great fun! They loved it. And the staff were brilliant. There is no doubt that the RI is at its best when bringing people together.
In my opinion, the RI’s past experience is a telling reminder if ever we needed one that institutions can all too easily become over-obsessed with rather costly and grandiose statements of their value and worth. To the detriment of a more considered plan for how they use their privileged position and space to cultivate national interest and debate which reflects how society has changed and is changing around them. A world that is less and less about bricks and mortar that’s for sure.
I would put the Royal Society’s Chicheley Hall in the same camp I am afraid. It was acquired with great fanfare during its 2010 celebrations yet I still can’t quite see the connection between its acquisition and serving the public interest. Maybe that’s just a failing on my part. All I would say is that there are many of us who lead research-focused organisations who are quite happy to hire rooms at NCVO or the King’s Fund with no detriment to the events or debates we have there as far as I can tell, and at a far lower cost.
I’m all for a fundraising drive to save Albermarle St as long as the deeper questions about its future mission are also addressed. For me The ‘R’ in its name should stand for ‘Relevance’ as much as ‘Royal’ and certainly not for a sense of misplaced ‘Romanticism’ or, worse still, protecting its ’Real-Estate.’
I wish it well.