One of London’s greatest treasures could be up for sale. The Royal Institution on Albemarle Street, Mayfair has long been in dire financial straits and may now have to sell off all or part of its building to keep afloat.
The organisation got into trouble following a controversial £22 million refit a few years ago. Since then, it has struggled to pay off debts and is reliant on loans and a sizeable overdraft, the terms of which will be reviewed in March. The Institution’s Chairman, Sir Richard Sykes, confirmed that the charity is now exploring several options, which include “sub-letting or disposing of some or all of its Albemarle Street property” and/or a “substantial partnership”.
Why should we care? The building is surely among the world’s most historic scientific sites. Remarkably, around 10% of the naturally occurring elements in the periodic table were discovered in its labs (10 elements out of a sometimes disputed 98). Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 14 of its researchers. South London boy Michael Faraday drew frequent crowds to its lecture theatre, which has been a centre of entertainment and education for over 200 years. And it continues today as an events venue, research lab and small museum, as well as remaining home to the famous Christmas Lectures.
Some institutions can move around without compromising their identities. The Royal Society — the Ri’s even older scientific cousin, for example — has changed address four or five times in its illustrious history, most recently in 1967. The Royal Institution is different. Its very soul — if we dare use that word for a scientific venue — is tied up in 21 Albemarle Street, with its unforgettable lecture theatre and distinguished laboratories. It deserves to be a World Heritage Site, rather than an attractive piece of real estate. We hope a solution (sell the freehold, lease it back?) can be found that doesn’t require removal vans.
If you want to help the Ri, even minutely, take a look at its excellent events programme and buy tickets to see something. You won’t be disappointed.