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.
5 thoughts on “I’ll be honest, I’m in two minds about the Royal Institution (RI) issue.”
I dunno, if we can plow trillions into our financial sectors when they messed up because they “were too big to fail”, can we not try and salvage our cultural and scientific heritage (even if it was the RI and its previous director who were responsible for the current crisis)?
I’d agree with your last paragraph, although I’m under the impression that the RI is doing a better job at being more relevant in recent years.
Thanks for reading my blog. Your point is a fair one. As I say, I do feel conflicted about the issue. I too think these things are worth saving for the nation but it is hard not to also feel that some of the decisions they make are profligate especially in the current climate. Perhaps I would feel more comfortable about them if I knew that the public were more involved in their governance and accountability structures and, indeed, in the way they operate generally.
Excellent post, and I find much to agree with here. People romanticise the location far too much. In this increasingly digital world, the importance of physical locations is surely diminishing. There is still tremendous value in hands-on events; but as you say there is little advantage in having a grandiose location over just renting space somewhere a little more modest.
I personally don’t see a pressing need for ostentatious structures, and feel that the money could be far better spent elsewhere. If a fundraising drive could ‘save’ Albermarle (‘optimistic’ unless a millionaire philanthropist steps up), then so be it. Yet I would still rather see that money go towards actual engagement projects!
Thanks! Think what we could do if that sort of money was put towards public engagement…..
I’m not really sure its necessary to get into a philosophical debate on the importance of physical structures. We could easily get into arguments about why to a gig, cricket match, art gallery, museum…
The function of the RI could easily be achieved, and to a degree already is, without the physical presence of its HQ; even the lecture theatre could be recreated elsewhere. That doesn’t mean Abermarle St, and with it a significant part of the history of science in the UK, should be lost to the public. I don’t really see a problem in the maintenance for the public of historically important “ostentatious” buildings, nor non-ostentatious ones for that matter.
As for how any money raised will be spent- I don’t think the campaign will just hand over a cheque and then business as usual:
” In order to attract potential donors, there will also have to be a forward-looking “business plan” that is both compelling and imaginative in addressing the scientific and science educational needs of a country that must compete in the technologically advanced modern world. … In addition, given the controversy surrounding the recent management, a new form of governance may be necessary.”