Azara Blog: Macclesfield Psalter

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Date published: 2005/01/25

Cambridge University says:

Following the launch last September of a high-profile Art Fund campaign to save the export-stopped Macclesfield Psalter, this remarkable medieval manuscript has been secured for the University of Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum.

£1.7 million had to be found February 10 2005 deadline, and the money has finally been raised with just two weeks to go. If the Fitzwilliam's bid to buy the Psalter had failed, it would have departed for the Getty Museum, Los Angeles. The Fitzwilliam has now made a matching offer to the owner, and the Getty has gracefully withdrawn its interest.

The campaign was kicked-off with a £500,000 grant from the independent charity the National Art Collections Fund (Art Fund) and captured the public imagination. ... When the Art Fund launched a public appeal on the BBC's Culture Show, people responded enthusiastically with donations ranging from £1 to an anonymous contribution of £15,000.

The public appeal raised £180,000 in all. The National Heritage Memorial Fund - the Government's heritage fund of last resort - also played a crucial role, awarding a major grant of £860,000 which gave a tremendous mid-way boost to the fundraising attempt and brought the target within reach. The Fitzwilliam and its Friends allocated £150,000 from their own funds, and many other trusts and foundations generously added their support.

Well of course it's always nice to have such manuscripts. But was it worth the money? For most people the only access to it would be if it were scanned and put on the internet, and whether the server is in California or England does not matter. For the few British people who will be allowed to view it by hand, of course it is easier to do this in Cambridge than in Los Angeles, but that is a lot of money to spend for the benefit of a handful of people.

The real problem is that 80% of the money was raised via government quangos (excluding the Fitzwilliam's own contribution, some of which might also have come from the government indirectly). So the psalter was not really saved by people willing to hand over their own contributions. Instead as usual this is the (unelected and unaccountable) British ruling classes deciding how the public's money should be spent. Perhaps there is no other way.

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