Back in 2006, when the five Courtyard Societies collectively fought the Government in the High Court of Chancery over their rights of occupancy at Burlington House, a debate opened up in Geoscientist’s letters column over whether we should bother to keep our Mayfair palace at all. Wouldn’t something functional, closer to the geographical heart of Britain be more appropriate ‘in our modern age’?
This argument – dubbed the ‘Arthur Scargill Gambit’, in honour of the NUM leader who moved the Union’s HQ away from London’s fleshpots to wholesome oblivion in Barnsley - proved moot when the Trustees discovered that the cost of relocating anywhere would bankrupt us. So we fought on, and after mediation settled on an affordable rent. Years of planning blight were lifted and the Bicentenary refurbishments followed.
I harboured doubts of a different sort. As well as general neglect, I saw drawing pins being stuck in oak doorcases, maps fixed to oil paintings with Blu-tack, gnawed chicken bones dropped onto the Lower Library’s grubby lino; and in my darker moments wondered whether these ragamuffins really deserved a building so evidently wasted on them.
But enhancing the environment really does improve people, and behaviour slowly improved. Yes, I did find chewing gum stuck to the backs of the new seating on day one after the Lecture Theatre’s first major (1999) refurb, but later, the Lower Library’s new carpet imposed its gentle discipline on the bone-chuckers. Visitors realised that Burlington House was not to be treated as though it were some 1960s lavatory of learning.
Organisations wishing to be taken seriously in the wider world have to behave properly. This is a serious point. Maintaining the interiors of a Grade II* listed building, to an appropriate standard is an unequivocal stipulation of our lease. Yes, it’s expensive; but over and above our need to generate income as a conference venue, it is worth it solely for the inestimable status-boost we get from occupying a nationally important home, on the ‘world’s most famous street’.
With the refitting of the Council Room (see review, p. ??) Phase Four of the refurbishments is finally complete. It is a tribute to the Trustees – and above all the Executive Secretary, who has brought continuity and personal commitment to this long-term project - that the Society has been prepared to budget for, and spend, the sums made available by our improved finances on maintaining the national heritage - despite other demands that might, superficially, seem closer to home.
Not so. Outsiders may finally conclude that geologists are not the oiks they might once have taken us for.