Baker's new challenge

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Diane Spencer reports on a former Education Secretary's vision of a British history museum.

Kenneth Baker, the architect of the 1988 Education Reform Act, is busy plotting a new megastructure: the first Museum of British History.

"It will not be history from the Tory shires," the MP for Mole Valley in deepest Surrey, told The TES this week, pointing to some members of his project's advisory council: Lord Healey, Lord Jenkins and Lady Antonia Fraser.

The Millennium Commission is now considering an application for Pounds 50 million towards the estimated Pounds 110m cost. Its decision on whether the scheme is shortlisted is due in another week.

The preference for St Bartholomew's hospital, near St Paul's Cathedral in London, for the site may prove problematic. Labour has promised an immediate halt to its planned closure followed by a full review if it wins power.

"It is the most imaginative site," said Mr Baker. "We decided that the museum must be in the capital if it is to attract the widest audience."

One of the greatest challenges was to distill more than 2,000 years of history into 161,000 square feet of display space. A solution was reached by planning five galleries:

* Britain's people - explaining invasions, events, immigration; * politics and the monarchy - highlighting key personalities, institutions and milestones; * language and culture - focusing not only on authors and playwrights but also on art, music and the development of popular culture; * British landscape - from primaeval forest to industrialisation; * invention, science and technology.

A sixth gallery, at the hub of the museum, will provide an overview. The 300,000 sq ft building - "bigger than the Science Museum" - has been designed by Derek Walker, architect of the Royal Armouries in Leeds.

Mr Baker said he was "very concerned about how poorly history is faring in our schools. When I was in the department it was taught up to 16, now it's 14. And at least one exam board has dropped Tudors and Stuarts, so children only study some of the 19th and 20th century".

The former Education Secretary has been working with a team of historians and advisers for the past year. Jeremy Black, professor of history at Exeter University, is on the board of trustees and leads an editorial panel of 21 historians.

Mr Baker said the museum would appeal as much to school children and historians as to tourists. "It will be a modern, hands-on, interactive experience." The museum will concentrate on displays, including live performance areas, cinemas, and video walls, rather than objects. "The museum will provide a much-needed impetus to the teaching of history in Britain, " he said.

If approved, the building will open in April 2001. It is expected to attract 1.3 million visitors in the first year. "But we might fall at the first hurdle because of Greenwich," said Mr Baker, referring to the Government's decision to proceed with the Millennium exhibition.

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