Support for the Campaign
Sir David Attenborough calls on Prime Minister to solve crisis threatening four of the UK’s scientific and cultural institutions
7th July 2021, London, UK - Sir David Attenborough has written to the Prime Minister to urge his intervention to safeguard the learned societies at Burlington House, whose contributions to the planet’s welfare Attenborough says are under severe threat from the grossly escalating rent imposed by Government.
The letter comes as pressure mounts on the Government after a public campaign by the four learned societies – The Geological Society, Linnean Society, Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Astronomical Society – led to a Westminster Hall Debate on 8th June 2021. The debate saw MHCLG representative Eddie Hughes MP come under fire from a broad all-party group of MPs, calling on the Government to fundamentally reconsider the way it handles Burlington House and its occupants.
Despite having purpose-built New Burlington House in Piccadilly for these charitable institutions in the nineteenth century, over more recent years the Government has treated the building as an investment property under the remit of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).
Prior to the Westminster Hall Debate, MHCLG had written to the Societies with a proposal for an alternative rental agreement. The Societies say this merely proposed to spread the same increase over a longer time period and failed to acknowledge the fundamentally unaffordable situation they already find themselves in, which diverts much needed funds away from scientific endeavours that make a critical contribution to addressing global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and the energy transition.
Sir David Attenborough is a Fellow of all the Societies with the exception of the Royal Astronomical Society. In his letter to the Prime Minister, Attenborough emphasises that meeting the costs of ever-rising rent imposed by MHCLG – which has already increased by thirty times in the last ten years – has “forced the Societies to divert their charitable income away from scholarly purposes”, and “will severely damage the contribution they are able to make to both the public’s understanding and the planet’s welfare, now and in the future”.
The letter urges the Prime Minister to accept a meeting with the Societies to hear more on the issue, which Attenborough believes could enable HM Government to “quickly find a long-term solution which would safeguard the existence of them all and ensure that they are able to continue their important work for centuries to come”.
Sunday Telegraph Letter
Letter from supporters published in The Sunday Telegraph on 21st March 2021, signed by 67 organisations and individuals.
On behalf of the Royal Academy of Arts, I write in support of our Learned Societies remaining as our neighbours and retaining the current composition of Burlington House. We lend our voice in support of their campaign to convince Government of the merits of finding an affordable, workable arrangement that allows our Societies to remain in Burlington House. Our shared historic home at the core of public life in central London is one of scientific investigation and research, intellectual rigour and artistic excellence. A microcosm for learning and artistic investigation, at the heart of Burlington House, lies the Royal Academy of Arts where our School, the oldest art college in Britain, nurtures the next generation of artists. A stone’s throw away Charles Darwin along with Alfred Wallace delivered their groundbreaking lecture on what was to become the Origin of Species in the hallowed halls of the Linnean Society. Burlington House is a home for artists and architects, scientists, scholars and thinkers, and at this time, it is our foremost challenge to protect the vital strength at our heart. The public value of retaining the composition of Burlington House is clear. These charities have stood sentinel on this site since the 19th century, preserving our histories, furthering our understanding of the world and promoting its study to bring about discoveries and advances in the field of science, history, astronomy, natural history and earth sciences. We must now protect the community and the public that they serve and support the future of Burlington House to remain a home for our heritage, the arts and culture.
Government support for the accommodation of these vital societies has been fundamental to the foundations of modern science in this country even before the move to Burlington House, since the time of George III. To sacrifice this legacy, especially at this critical time, is nothing less than an act of intellectual vandalism. The forced eviction of these societies would undermine subjects that are crucial for understanding climate change, resource use, heritage and biodiversity. I am particularly concerned for the future of their outstanding archives, libraries and collections, which are among the most important relating to science in the British Isles.
The proposed rents are totally unrealistic for the survival of the Burlington House Societies in their current homes, yet the total amount is a minute fraction of what all governments waste every day. The benefit to the UK of the Burlington House gathering of the Societies is worth hugely more than any monetary amount that the government could obtain from the buildings. It is very difficult to imagine what commercial use the listing buildings with their lecture theatres and galleried libraries would actually have, unless the government completely ripped out the listed insides of all the buildings. The government should continue to honour the original agreement of a peppercorn rent, with which the Societies were persuaded by the government of the time to move from Somerset House.
The Government has a duty of care to protect our natural capital and – in my opinion – encourage and support those who spend their life observing and recording natural history in order to make science clear.
Retaining the Linnean Society's presence in central London is essential: it sends a clear signal that the society matters to Britain and is an essential part of our heritage.
The critical legacy, and ongoing work, of these societies at the Burlington House needs to be secured. Their work has been instrumental in the development of science and the preservation of history for the UK. A resolution needs to be addressed by the UK government.
The Linnean Society is an extremely important global forum for the promotion of natural history, both among the academic community – fostering scientific excellence – and through engagement with the wider public to inspire new generations. Burlington House is a centrally located, purpose-built space for this role, providing both a venue for gatherings and a secure repository for internationally important collections. Furthermore, together with the other learned societies within, Burlington House forms an important cultural and scientific hub. Potential loss of these rooms and foreseeable associated impacts, which you have outlined in your campaign, would be detrimental to the longstanding positive impact of the Society and may be perceived as a de-valuation of learned societies in the UK. We at Kew hope the UK Government will positively consider your proposal with the due attention which it deserves.
I hope that the Government will see the importance of retaining this focus of academic excellence in the heart of London and act before it is too late. The Linnean Society's premises and library are a gem, and witness to the place of Britain in the classification and study of the world's wildlife since the eighteenth century. A rent increase of 3000% in a single decade is manifestly unfair. At a time when Government is pledged to stop biodiversity loss it is also more than a little ironic.
If passing economics and reckless greed are allowed to dominate this beautiful meaningful and historic quarter of old London, you not only lose the heart of Piccadilly but show deep disrespect for science and learning. The world is changing and we need to pass on our great libraries and collections. We absolutely do not need any more luxury accommodation. Those wishing to turn a quick buck on a property development should perhaps be encouraged to fund existing treasures for kudos instead.
My connection with the Linnean Society has been through my research into the activities of Henry Seebohm. Seebohm was one of the leading evolutionary ornithologists of the 19th Century. His standing was recognised by his election as a Fellow of the Society. He subsequently became a member of Council.
On my first visit to Burlington House, I was greatly struck, as others have been, by the rare atmosphere of the rooms, particularly that of the library, and their sense of timelessness. One feels a connection with the great episodes in the history of the natural sciences that were acted out within the Society’s rooms.
The Linnean Society is one of the Crown Jewels of the scientific community in London. Its history and that of its accommodation in Burlington House are indivisible.
In summer 2015, I led an evolution-themed study abroad program to the UK. During their coursework, my students explored the historical framework of biological classification, Darwin’s development of natural selection, the refinement of evolution theory, and the critical role that formal communication and professional societies play in the dissemination of new ideas (and the challenging of old ones). In addition to field trips to Down House, The Natural History Museum, Christ College (Cambridge), and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences (Cambridge), my students and I spent an afternoon at Burlington House. While there we stood in the very room where natural selection was introduced to scientific world, we toured the meeting space and library where natural history is discerned and shared, and we viewed a first edition of Linneaus’s monumental Systema Naturae. The sense of history and meaningfulness the students experienced as they examined and discussed the treasures housed in the Linnean Society vault is difficult to convey. Easier to convey is the welcoming atmosphere my group of American University students encountered at Burlington House. The staff and fellows of the Linnean Society in particular were warm, friendly, and eager to share their passion and expertise.
For many of the students, the afternoon spent at Burlington House left a deep, lasting understanding and appreciation for the important work performed by the societies housed there. If the Linnean Society were in a different location, separated from its remarkable collections, separated from its proximity to the historic space of the first public reading of the Darwin-Wallace papers, and separated from the very structure that serves as a center for the study of natural history, that understanding and appreciation would not have been possible. It is my fervent hope that arrangements can be made to keep the Linnean Society at it’s logical and most beneficial location, Burlington House.
I have been a Fellow of the Linnean Society since about 1970, and it has played a very significant part in my working life. In the 1970s and 80s, I used the library extensively for research, as it was not only an excellent resource, but borrowing books was possible. From 1975 onwards I was involved with managing first, Fauna and Flora International, and then the founding and directing the World Land Trust. The meeting rooms and lecture theatre played a significant role in the development of the latter, and I also helped organise symposia on behalf of the Linnean (in the impact of Roads on Wildlife. Having convenient, centrally located meeting rooms for hire has been critical for the development of the World Land Trust. I have served on the Library Committee of the Linnean Society, and while I can see that library usage will change, with the changes of technology, the facilities to actually consult original editions will remain, and most important of all, the importance of face to face meetings, will remain. For those Societies without central London offices or facilities, the Linnean Society provides a critical resource. While firmly based in its historic past, over the past decade, the Linnean Society has demonstrated an ability to move forward, and as part of its future, a central London locus as part of the Learned Societies grouping is critical. It will be a huge loss to the cultural life of London if only the Royal Academy, which has an ability to generate significant income, was to end up in isolation.
Finally, I would point out, that the Linnea Society holds what is almost certainly the single most important collection of natural history books and specimens in the world. The loss of this to the capital city would be a disaster, for science, and heritage.