November 27, 2003

Do museum directors really change the world?

Posted at 8:18 am in British Museum

With his much espoused ideas about the Universal Museum & talk about how it represents all of humanity, it is clear that museum directors have a lot of power in shaping our view of history – and in some cases re-writing history to serve their own points of view.


Behind the scenes at the museum
Forget marches and party politics. If you really want to change the world, become a museum director
Charlotte Higgins
Thursday November 27, 2003

What is the purpose of the British Museum? Or, for that matter, any of the “universal” museums built in the wake of the Enlightenment – those living encyclopedias that once, many moons ago, could claim to contain the whole of human knowledge?

It’s hard to know, even when you get the museums’ own directors to tell you, as happened at a conference at the British Museum last week. Despite these great institutions’ apparent commonality of purpose, you’ll get a different answer depending on whom you ask.

The Metropolitan in New York, for instance, represents the whole world, according to its director Philippe de Montebello. He is terribly keen on “context”, so you get Egyptian remains shown with palm trees. The museum even has its own set of meticulously re-created “medieval” cloisters. In short, if an American wants to see the world, there’s absolutely no need to leave New York.

The director of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Mikhail Piotrovsky, on the other hand, cheerfully acknowledges the ideological purposes the museum has served, from its foundation by that self-consciously Enlightenment ruler Catherine the Great, to its use as a tool of mass education and internationalism by the Soviets. Now the Hermitage is an international wheeler-dealer, forming partnerships abroad with entrepreneurial outfits such as the Guggenheim: this is museum as thrusting player in the market economy.

The Berliners promise aesthetic education: it is only through art that we become truly free. As we wander through Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s chilly temples of culture, we move towards self-perfection. The French, however, apparently exist in a state of existential gloom. Louvre director Henri Loyrette reflected on the fact that “most of our displays mean nothing to people”: when the museum did a survey of visitors, it discovered that 67% of those questioned in the Archaic Greece room could not identify a personality or event connected with the period.

So what of Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum? Museums are political acts, he argues. The BM was created in 1753 not in the name of the king but in the name of the trustees. It was to have no owner, only beneficiaries: “studious and curious persons”, as the original statute proclaimed. Its job was to collect, organise and classify objects – and in so doing, allow them to be compared. Citizens thus had the opportunity to become Enlightenment sceptics who, presented with a range of evidence about the world, could dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy: the BM was “a tool against religious enthusiasm and certainty”. Museums, according to MacGregor, can still “show us how strange we are” – and thus promote tolerance. Which is why the Islamic galleries are about to shut down for a quick tweak – by explaining the true nature of Islamic culture, the BM is doing its bit for peace and love.

It’s a wonderfully idealistic view, and MacGregor is overflowing with charisma and intelligence. But in the end one has to question that idealism’s connection with reality. Do people really go to museums in order to hold a mirror up to their own beliefs, to subject them to critical examination? Surely it is at least as often the case that people use museums to complacently confirm their sense of superiority over “primitives” from the past or from distant lands – a view that tends to be bolstered rather than otherwise by traditional forms of curatorship.

MacGregor is tackling this by some forward-thinking and creative exhibitions: the Wellcome Trust Gallery’s new display, Living and Dying, for example, examines various notions of what it is to be “well”, bringing the process of comparing and connecting that he champions much further into the foreground.

MacGregor clearly believes that most people are the “studious and curious persons” talked of in 1753. If he is right, then maybe museums really can change the world. But if Loyrette is right, and most museum displays mean nothing to people, then MacGregor’s conviction and vigour are in danger of bring expended on a lost cause.

· The Cheltenham festival has a new artistic director. When Michael Berkeley steps down after the 2004 season, Martyn Brabbins, associate conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, will take up the reins, having beaten off a strong rival in composer John Woolrich. Steady, solid and nothing to get too excited about would be the prognosis on Brabbins.

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