Special Report: Save Burlington House

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The front of Burlington House
The Society of Antiquaries of London is concerned that rising rental rates may force it to leave Burlington House. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Tony Hisgett]

New Burlington House, a large Palladian building in Mayfair, has been home to the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Linnean Society, the Geological Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Royal Society of Chemistry since the 19th century; now, rising rents set by the government may force these societies to find other headquarters. The Society of Antiquaries of London has launched a campaign to contest this.

The Society was founded in 1707 as an educational charity dedicated to the promotion of history and understanding of the past. It originally met at the Bear Tavern in the Strand, and then at premises given to the Society by King George III at Somerset House in 1780, before moving to New Burlington House in 1874, where it has remained for over 145 years.

The tenancy of the Society of Antiquaries and the other societies based at New Burlington House has always been part of a government arrangement, with the current lease agreed in 2005, but changes in accounting rules have recently led to increasing rents, from £4,800 per year in 2012-2013 to £150,000 in 2018-2019. Having spent eight years attempting to reach an arrangement with the government that would allow it to stay at its current home, the Society has now made the campaign public.  

The government has stressed that the Society is currently paying around 30% of the market rent and will not have to pay full market rent until 2085, and responses from some of the MPs who have been approached indicate that they believe the current arrangement to be sufficiently generous. Others commenting on the situation have also suggested that the Society should change its approach and consider other options, such as distributing its collections among other institutions and moving to another location or becoming peripatetic, in order to live within its means. However, the Society of Antiquaries has pointed out the dangers that leaving New Burlington House would pose to its future and its collections.

A 16th century painting of Richard III
The Society of Antiquaries’ extensive collection includes many historically-significant objects, such as a selection of important 16th-century royal portraits (ABOVE), and this medieval processional cross (BELOW). [Images: The Society of Antiquaries of London]

The Society of Antiquaries of London has a collection consisting of thousands of artefacts, artworks, books, and manuscripts, built up over almost 300 years, which includes objects such as a 1491 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, three of the earliest copies of the Magna Carta, an important group of early 16th-century royal portraits, a medieval processional cross from the Battle of Bosworth, and a Neolithic stone pounder from Stonehenge. All of these items, and many more, are currently housed at New Burlington House and, as a self-funded organisation, the Society is concerned about the potential cost of finding an alternative location in which to store these extensive collections safely, as well as the expenses involved in the moving of the collection, which includes many fragile historical objects. The Society suggests that it may even be necessary to sell items from the collection in order to be able to house the rest of the artefacts appropriately.

An ornate processional cross

The Society also argues that the move would detrimentally affect its goals of accessibility and public engagement. A variety of public, academic, and educational events are run at New Burlington House, and it is used to support the activities of many heritage charities, and as well as offering people the opportunity to visit and study the collections.

An assessment conducted in 2019 estimated that the Society contributes over £5.4 million in public value to the UK every year, and that 78% of this (£4.2 million) would be at risk if they had to relocate. By this calculation, the Society argues that the government would lose 44 times what they would gain through the existing agreement if the Society is forced to move.

Despite the debate surrounding the best course of action and the uncertainty concerning how the situation will unfold, it is clear that if the Society of Antiquaries and the other societies at New Burlington House do have to leave the building it will have a significant impact on the form they take in the future.

Further information
Find out more about the campaign here: www.sal.org.uk/save-burlington-house

This article appeared in issue 106 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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