Lording it over the national treasures

7th July 2000 at 01:00
Matthew Evans, the man who thinks art collections should go on the Internet, discusses his pet topics with Chris Johnston

THE restaurant at Tate Britain in Pimlico, the "old" gallery, seemed like an appropriate place to interview Matthew Evans, chairman of Resource - the council for museums, galleries, archives and libraries.

Then again, he wanted to be close to the Palace of Westminster, as Lord Evans, to give him his proper title, was due in the Lords at 2.30pm.

The life peerage in March came "completely out of the blue", says the man who has been at the helm of publishers Faber and Faber for nearly 30 years. But Lord Evans was very pleased to accept it, more for the privilege of becoming a working peer than for the honour itself.

However, the youthful, cricket-loving 59-year-old admits he faces a steep learning curve. He has no political background and has to learn how the Lords works, as well as determining what role he should play. Fortunately, new peers have a mentor to show them the ropes and Lord Evans has been assigned his old friend, Melvyn Bragg.

His time as a hands-on head of Faber - one of the few independent publishers - is drawing to an end some 37 years after he joined the company. But three or four afternoons a week in the Lords and his new Resource role will more than fill the gap.

Resource, born on April 1 from the ashes of the Library and Information Council and the Museums amp; Galleries Commission, is about to publish a manifesto setting out its plans for the next two years. Evans says a priority will be securing more than the pound;18 million a year it has been allocated so that it can have a greater impact, although he admits that this will require "putting to the Government projects that make sense, fit in with government policy and do some real good". It will also mean finding ways of giving the largely advisory body more power to influence policies in the sector.

Examining the success of institutions' educational programmes is also high on the list, but Evans wants also to look sideways at how they relate to initiatives such as the National Grid for Learning and policies on social inclusion. He has taken time to visit a number of regional museums and insists that it is possible to tell how good a museum is by meeting the person running it. If he or she is "energetic, slightly crazy and has got real enthusiasm, chances are it will be a good museum", Evans explains. "They will have imaginative ideas that are there in the museum, so people want to go see it, and it doesn't seem to matter what is on show."

He singles out for praise those, such as the Museum of Labour History in Manchester, which engages young visitors by getting them to imagine they are in a 19th century workhouse.

The museum he remembers most vividly from his own childhood is the Ipswich Museum, which he visited with hisfather, the oral historian George Ewart Evans.

He adds that museums where children seem to enjoy themselves the most are those where the person in charge of education is part of the senior management team. "The whole organisation is saying that education is of paramount importance, not an add-on."

He is adamant that some of Britain's museums, galleries and archives need to do more to modernise and re-invent themselves to become more relevant to ordinary people. These and other comments from Evans in an address in January caused some consternation. One commentator, The Daily Telegraph's Richard Dorment, deplored his call to make collections more accessible by putting them on the Internet, claiming that it would "blunt our ability to respond to the real thing".

There is no substitute for visiting a gallery or museum, Evans concedes, but he insists there is great value in pupils being able to go online and examine the works being studied. "Technology will be a way, over the next 10 years, of really opening up these places to a mass audience. I don't think that's a bad thing. A lot of critics think a mass audience equals dumbing down, and I think that's bollocks."

A growing number of museums and galleries are putting holdings online. "I think they all realise this is the future, but it's a question of co-ordination, which will perhaps be the role of Resource, and funding."

The National Lottery's New Opportunities Fund is providing pound;50 million for the digitisation of materials and pound;100 million for the People's Network that will link all libraries to the Internet by 2002. Resource hopes to secure funding to bring museums, galleries and archives into the network as well.

A further pound;100 million is available for library authorities to set up information and communications technology learning centres, and he is optimistic that they will help bridge the divide between those who are computer-literate and those who aren't. Lord Evans deals with such issues as co-chair, with learning and technology minister Michael Wills, of the Department for Education and Employment's ICT strategy group.

Just as Evans thinks it is vital for the various ICT projects to be well co-ordinated between government departments, he adds that steps must be taken to ensure the Government and organisations such as the BBC, Granada Learning and Channel 4 are not all trying to do the same thing. Failing to do so will see Britain slip further behind other European countries in the education race.

"The challenge, in a country where Chinese walls are constructed between institutions, is to stand back and say that education is such a priority and something we need to move very quickly on. The Government should corral all the best providers and overcome what statutory obstacles there might be and just go for it."

Resource: www.resource.gov.uk

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