Stop unethical sale of internationally significant rare books collection

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In October 2020, the Royal College of Physicians announced its intention to auction a large number of items from its rare books collection.

The RCP’s rare books collection is one of the most internationally significant collections in the medicine, science and knowledge in the UK and beyond. The core of the collection, The Dorchester Bequest, was donated to the College by the Dorchester Family after the library burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The books were considered at the time to constitute the finest ‘philosophical’ library in Europe and the collection has grown over the centuries. 

The RCP have signed up to the highest UK ethical standards of collections stewardship as an Arts Council England Accredited Museum and Archive, but they are not following these regulations. 

This sale is wholly financially motivated and proceeds of the sale will not be directed back into the collections as stipulated by best practice guidelines, but instead act as a band-aid to systemic budgetary shortfalls. 

A letter has already been sent to RCP President Andrew Goddard by over 600 Fellows and Members condemning the proposed sale which has not been done in consultation with College membership. 

Sir Mark Walport, former chief scientific advisor, calls the College's plans 'a serious dereliction of duty.' 

The College's historic collections are currently publicly accessible and are a part of a modern and active library and museum service which is widely used for research and public engagement, including award winning free exhibitions. The museum, library and archive collections are treasures at the heart of the College's identity and have been invested in and cared for by the College and its membership for five centuries. 

There is still time to save this collection for present and future physicians and researchers!

Urge the Royal College of Physicians to stop the unethical sale of this invaluable collection and to consider alternative routes to address budgetary shortfalls. 

We call on the RCP to:

1.     Immediately halt plans for auction until a publicly evaluable consultation and evaluation plan has been put in place in collaboration with professional heritage bodies.

2.     To only proceed with any financially motivated disposals after a rigorous collection rationalisation and research project, including a professional significance assessment, which includes consultation with historians with expertise in early modern medical and scientific practice. 

3.     To seriously and demonstrably consider other systemic institutional changes or cost-savings to safeguard the collection in the RCP’s care for present and future generations of physicians and researchers.

In time of great financial strain, such as we are all experiencing now with COVID-19, too often our heritage is seen as an expendable financial asset. The RCP's rare books collection is an essential resource both for the profession of medicine and for the public. It is heavily used by researchers in the history of medicine, science, and culture, and it has been the basis of many well received public exhibitions, including the incredible 2016 'Scholar, courtier, magician: The lost library of John Dee' https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/events/scholar-courtier-magician-lost-library-john-dee 

If we allow the RCP to go through with the sale, no UK collections are safe from a quick sale to plug 2020 income loses. This sets a dangerous precedent for every single historic collection and museum - we cannot let this unethical sale go unchallenged!

For more on the sale:

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/doctors-ready-to-revolt-over-royal-college-of-physicians-book-sell-off-txqfvncql

For more on the collection:

https://history.rcplondon.ac.uk/collections/library

Thank you for your support! 

- Kristin Hussey and Emma Shepley, former Curators, Royal College of Physicians