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Heritage conservation should be about more than just being old

What is the real purpose of listing buildings? I asked this question a few weeks ago and received some inconclusive answers. But the one thing we obviously know from their survival in one form or another is that every one of our most precious pieces of historical architecture in the 500-year class must already have survived for five centuries without the aid of English Heritage and its 'knowledgeable local authority conservation officers' (as they are soothingly described in The Times and elsewhere). As well as this, during the first half of the 20th century they at times endured one-and-a-half days of bombing from the air out of every three-and-a-half days.

All of this, it seems to me, adds up to no more than a rationale for the kind of ancestor worship better attuned to the needs of the antique Court of Imperial China than to the needs of a crowded hi-tech island with no secure energy supplies on the edge of a century of climate change.

At that time I had made no further investigation into the identity or constituents of ancestor worship; it was sufficient to have a name for this unspeakable evil. To spell it out in detail seemed unnecessary.

Which was a piece of luck because, unbeknown to me, the government's minister for the arts, the luckless Estelle Morris, was beavering away on the same problem and solving it for me - although of course with a different aim and object in view. Her long-awaited report, Understanding the Future: Museums and 21st Century Life, was published last week to the accompaniment of an unprecedented barrage of abuse from persons the media characterised as specialists and artistic experts, although from press reports they sound more like paid hecklers of the old school.

Morris made her case with a dazzling display of platitudes. 'Museums are, ' she revealed, 'a way that we connect our past with our present'. She went on: 'Consensus is what constitutes quality.' And then her megaton message: 'Too many museums and galleries today hold thousands of high quality works of art in storage and they are not on regular display.' This, they assured the minister, was not true, but the idea of museum storerooms bulging with iconic treasures that nobody was allowed to see proved hard to overcome.

Works in storage in the British Museum, it turned out, totalled seven million, of which only 75,000 were on display at any one time. More than one million of the remainder consisted of collections of flints of dubious artistic value, while another three million items were paintings and drawings too delicate to be exposed to light for long enough to take part in an exhibition.

Thus was another dimension given to Britain's bankruptcy in the Post-Modern world.

Even our 2,000 museums and galleries, which had been believed to be a kind of cultural reserve army of priceless treasures, turn out to be no more than an abundance of old flints, as poignantly useless as the much derided collection of geological specimens that Captain Scott dragged to the South Pole.

There's ancestor worship for you. Or more accurately, there's one reason for the proposed new building for the Tate Modern complex, which will be devoted to the lively arts. Film, performance art, and new media all sound more promising than a collection of old flints.

But apparently that depends on the collection, for as the arts minister sagaciously pointed out in her report: 'Collections are at the heart of everything museums do. They satisfy a very human need.'

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