Somebody teach Tristram Hunt some economics, please

He\’s whining that the Wedgewood Museum might be broken up and sold off. Fair enough to whine about that (he is the MP for the area and arguing that everyone else must stump up for your constituents/constituency is part of the job description) but the argument he uses is nonsense.

Ask Britain’s leading ceramics designer, Emma Bridgewater, why she came to Stoke-on-Trent to build her world-renowned business, and she will tell you it’s all about the history and culture of the city. The craftmanship, design and ingenuity that turned six towns in north Staffordshire into the famous Potteries remains apparent some 250 years on.

….

Over the past 30 years, just as County Durham has erased its pit-heads, Manchester its cotton mills and Birmingham its workshops, so the Potteries has cleared its pot-banks and bottle-kilns. But this disdain must end: if we want to re-balance the British economy and wean ourselves off financial services, we should begin with some pride in our industrial history. Not least because the ceramics sector is booming again. After years of job losses and out-sourcing, new companies and young creatives are back at work in north Staffs inspired by the city’s great heritage.

For Stoke, the dispersal of the Wedgwood collection would be an act of cultural vandalism. Its demise would be to strike at the very meaning of the Potteries – the ethos that still attracts, in Emma Bridgewater and others, our modern Wedgwoods.

No, it\’s not the museum which leads to this: flogging off the stock to collectors would make no damn difference at all.

The reason that you open a new pottery in The Potteries is the same reason you open a weird metals business in Rotherham or Sheffield, a chlorine based business in Hartlepool or a wholesale financial one in The City.

What economists call \”clustering\”. Or if you prefer, the actual history of the place, not the representation of it on museum shelves. That all the various specialist suppliers you might want are there: for that\’s where all their other customers are. The workforce is there, trained and available.

For example, holding a job hiring fair for people who can paint the glaze onto the pots in Bridgewater won\’t get you all that many people. Do it in Stoke and you\’ll have a queue around the block three hours before you open.

It\’s the accumulated physical and human capital that makes Stoke the place to put a pottery: not the existence or otherwise of a museum dedicated to it.

8 thoughts on “Somebody teach Tristram Hunt some economics, please”

  1. I guess the arguement could be that current designers get inspiration from looking at the ceramics of the past so losingt he collection will harm the current industry as it is a unique advantage. I note that he isn’t making that point though.

  2. Perhaps the best question to ask would be: “Why do the museum’s curators want to close the museum?”

    Could it be that nobody wants to schlep all the way to Stoke to see a bunch of pretty pots? In which case why the hell should we pay to keep them there? Surely it’s better if the pots do get sold off and taken to place where people are prepared to go and look at them.

  3. No, the curators don’t want to close the museum. If I understand it correctly, this is an unintended consequence of all the pensions-related buggeration of the previous government, which means that the Wedgewood company needs to realise assets to fund pension liabilities (not originally incurred by the company).

  4. Give Hunt some credit:he is a rather posh historian making his mark in a constituency where there was a lot of muttering about outsiders standing for Labour.Naturally he is going to focus on the museum as a symbol of all the factors Tim talks about.But Hunt does talk about the “culture” of Stoke which must include the well-trained workforce Tim thinks paramount.
    Neither is it necessarily true that selling off all the museum exhibits will have no effect as Mr Worstall thinks ,in his standard public-school philistine way .If you type in :Vivienne Westwood historical dress on Google you will find that this ,the most modern of English designers ,bases
    a significant part of her work on centuries past fashions in dress. Northampton has a dusty shoe museum but if only one designer gets inspiration from it ,the museum will do more for the general good economically than post-war capitalism which invented the predatory take-over in Northampton.

  5. No, the curators don’t want to close the museum. If I understand it correctly, this is an unintended consequence of all the pensions-related buggeration of the previous government, which means that the Wedgewood company needs to realise assets to fund pension liabilities (not originally incurred by the company).

    Does not compute.

    Either the museum is, on aggregate, beneficial to the Wedgewood company (by promoting the brand, by bringing in paying visitors, by encouraging people to become potters, whatever), in which case it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference what the company’s ownership structure or financial position is, it’s rational to keep it open.

    Or it isn’t beneficial to the company, in which case it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference what the company’s ownership structure or financial position is, it’s rational to close it.

    My assumption is that the latter is true – and that when the company was profitable, management were able to keep the museum open against the best interests of shareholders because they liked having it.

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