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Fragile state

It would be ironic if we lost these outstanding treasures as the Staffordshire hoard is saved

Your editorial in praise of the Wedgwood Museum (17 May) drew attention to the way in which this outstanding museum "risks being dragged down by a legal quirk". The museum is owned and managed by an independent trust set up precisely to prevent its collections being sold off in the event of the parent company facing bankruptcy. Now that Wedgwood has gone the way of so many other ceramic companies, the museum has, unbelievably, "found itself liable for funding the pensions of 7,000 ex-Wedgwood factory employees and a £134m deficit, an impossible task".

Indeed, Stoke-on-Trent has an alarming history when it comes to demonstrating the legal vulnerability of museum collections held in trust. When the Chatterley Whitfield Mining Museum went into administration in 1991, its collections were judged to be disposable assets that should be sold off to repay creditors. Donors were alarmed to discover that items that they had given in the assumption that they would be held in perpetuity were now lost to the public. To prevent a similar fate overtaking the Gladstone Pottery Museum, the local authority stepped in to assume control. More recently, as the ceramic industry has declined, the city has seen the loss of a number of company-owned historic collections that have enormous local resonance.

The most iconic of these was the Minton Museum collection, which had passed into the hands of Royal Doulton. Like the Wedgwood Museum's own collection, this encapsulated the history and productivity of a globally important manufacturer. It held many unique examples of high Victorian design, including exquisite pâte sur pâte work by Louis Solon, unusual examples of Parian ware, designs attributed to Christopher Dresser and monumental pieces shown at the 1851 Great Exhibition and the international exhibitions that followed.

When Royal Doulton decided to dispose of the Minton Museum in 2002, the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery attempted to negotiate a private treaty sale in order to keep this important historic collection together. Although funding was secured in record time, Doulton withdrew from the negotiations and decided to sell the collection as individual lots at auction. Most notoriously, a dessert service commissioned by the Victorian explorer Lord Milton to commemorate an expedition to the Canadian Rockies was broken up into 22 separate lots; many pieces went overseas.

While we managed to acquire some significant examples of Minton craftsmanship, including a Sevres-style vase shown at the Great Exhibition, a monumental Bacchus vase and a rare life-sized majolica peacock, many major items were lost from the public arena. Royal Doulton then offloaded the contents of its own museum at auction, to offset a small proportion of its debt.

The Wedgwood Museum must not be allowed to go down a similar route. It would be both tragic and ironic if we were to lose its extraordinary collection just as the Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold has been saved for the region. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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