March 19, 2006

Should museums adapt to a changing world?

Posted at 12:35 pm in British Museum

James Delingpole in The Times has a problem with the way that many museums have now adapted to make them more accessible to the public & sees this as dumbing down. Whilst some of the points are valid, the end result of the arguments seems to be that museums should remain as they always were – static, ever expanding collections – something that seems more & more to go against public opinion in a changing world. Why is it not possible for the two paradigms to exist together – allowing people to see the artefacts for what they are, while at the same time encouraging greater accessibility? Should a museum just be an archive, or is it possible for it to be something more?

The Times

The Times March 18, 2006
Ouch! Is this the direction our museums have to go?
James Delingpole

WHY IS IT THAT so often when I visit a museum these days, I leave feeling ever so slightly cross? I’m thinking, say, of those wretched animatronic dinosaurs that we parents have to queue for at the Natural History Museum, completely ignoring the genuine prehistoric skeletons either side. And of that display cabinet at the National Maritime Museum, where nautical objects have been plonked at random in the same glass case to illustrate a curator ’s trendy post-modern point about the hopelessness of trying to extract meaning from artefacts so far removed from our own time and place.

But, hey, why pick on those two? Pretty much everyone is at it: the exhibition at the Horniman, which proudly claimed, though with no supporting evidence, that voodoo was one of Africa’s “great contributions to world culture”; the Gainsborough exhibition, whose curator presumed to judge the mores of 18th-century society by the PC standards of today; almost anything containing the words “access”, “relevance” or “inclusivity”.

What all these diverse irritants have in common is that they are part of the same worrying, hidden debate. “Hidden” because its arguments, though familiar to the point of cliché to anyone who works in the museum industry, are pretty much unknown to the people outside it. “Worrying” because the conclusions reached by these self-serving guardians of our heritage are so often at odds with the needs of the public they claim to serve.

Someone in the audience of scholars, curators and museum professionals made this point rather well at an Institute of Ideas debate at the Wallace Collection on Should We Junk Collections? “Most of us here are quite used to this sort of talk,” she said. “But if it were to be overheard by the people who actually visit our museums a lot of them would be quite horrified.”

She was referring in particular to the argument put by Maurice Davies, deputy director of the Museums Association — that museums ought no longer to consider it their primary duty to preserve collections in perpetuity. Rather, their main job should be to engage audiences with evangelical zeal, taking their collections out of the galleries and into hospitals and schools, to be experienced by as many people as possible. And if one or two objects get damaged, well, so be it.

TO THOSE of us reared on the fogeyish assumption that a museum’s collection is sacrosanct — that the British Museum will always have its Elgin Marbles — the idea of ancient vases being mauled by mobs of schoolchildren is indeed a shocking one. But for the new breed of museum professional, this line of thinking is very much the fashionable orthodoxy. Indeed, consult the Culture Department’s strategy documents Museums for the Many and Understanding the Future, and you’ll find it’s new Labour policy.

At the vanguard of this new movement is David Fleming, director of Liverpool Museums. Fleming crossly denied that he was the enemy of middle-class visitors and traditional values, and suggested I came to visit his recently refurbished pride and joy: World Museum Liverpool.

From the outside the museum still exudes the fading Victorian civic grandeur of its neighbour, the Walker Art Gallery. Stepping inside, however, the impression I got was that I’d entered some kind of super-primary school: a soaring, modern five-storey atrium with each department represented by illiteracy-friendly pictures — a fish, a bug, a dinosaur, a hand, a star.

I visited the Clore natural history wing, a sort of state-of-the-art school biology lab with lots of objects (silicified wood, ammonites, skulls, shells) for visitors to paw and molest. A microscope was focused on a stinging nettle. “Ouch!” said the caption. An exhibit on sea spiders asked: “Are the spiders in mum’s bath going to get this big?” A class of seven-year-olds milled about, opening and closing specimen drawers, pushing and prodding but without concentrating on anything in particular. Two or three young, friendly curators were trying to engage their attention.

Upstairs, in the ethnographic galleries, a video of a man dressed in tribal robes introduced the African section with a lame rap number: “You might think of them as a simple people/But in essence they were truly complex.”

“I do worry that there’s nothing there for people who have that bit of education, who would like to know more in depth,” a curator confided to me. But as he admitted, middle-class museumgoers are going to keep coming, no matter what. The key to expanding audiences is concentrating on C2s, D2s and Es. “It’s why all our promotional leaflets are in simple language and done in reds, yellows and blues like the world Barney (the horrible purple TV dinosaur) lives in. You see in lower-income households it’s the kids, not the grown-ups, who decide whether or not visiting a museum is a worthwhile leisure activity.”

On the other side of the Mersey, the Lady Lever Art Gallery could hardly be more different. This fabulous collection of pre-Raphaelite painting and decorative art is not the sort of place to entertain a child. It’s fusty, unglamorous and object-rich; the labelling is austere to the point of dullness. “The Lever does tend to attract the blue-rinse brigade,” admitted its curator of paintings, Julian Treuherz.

Treuherz was too politic to tell me what he thought of his boss across the river, but his worry is that marketing-led, access-driven policies are having a dangerous effect on scholarship. “A lot of museums pay lip service to it but their staff are too busy on access-type projects to do any serious research. If all our museums end up with is interpreters and presenters without any primary experience of the paintings or ceramics in our collection, then we’ re not doing our job properly.”

SYMPTOMATIC of this, he argues, is the trend for hanging paintings lower to make them more accessible for children and the disabled. Thus are politically correct considerations given a higher priority than scholarly or aesthetic ones. “A lot of paintings were made to be hung at a particular height,” Treuherz says. “Hanging them lower just spoils them.” But if — as is often the case among young curators — your MA is in museum studies and not art history, how can you be expected to understand such nuances?

The flaws in this access-for-all argument have been nicely exposed by Josie Appleton in Museums for the People?, her paper for the Institute of Ideas. By endlessly second-guessing the audience’s needs, she argues, museums are failing in their primary function of preserving, displaying, studying and, where possible, collecting the treasures of civilisation and nature.

Resources that might have gone into the maintenance of collections are being diverted to fashionable “access” projects; curators are now so busy interacting with the public that they barely have time left for study; and the harder they try to make themselves socially relevant the less they fulfil their purpose as institutions that provide a refuge from the mundane cares and concerns of ordinary life.

Our museums, it would seem, have fallen victim to the cant of the age: on the one hand the market-driven utilitarianism of the Right, which has forced them to justify their existence in crude economic terms; on the other, the guilt-ridden orthodoxies of the cultural Left. Not even our foremost directors have remained quite immune to this new strain of muddled thinking. Sprightly, charming and impossibly erudite the British Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor , may be, but when I asked what he thought museums were for, I could almost have been listening to the trendy PC orthodoxies of his counterpart at Liverpool Museums.

Yes, he said, a museum has to act as a form of library and to be “about serious engagement with objects and the ideas that they embody”. But at heart, he argued, a museum’s job is to serve a far more radical function: to create the “right level of doubt” in its audience, to cause them to question the very nature of their society and ultimately to “change the citizen”.

MacGregor describes himself as a “relativist — and proud of it”. When he displays an object, his worry is which of the “many truths” about that object he should “privilege”. Should he favour the poetic truth over the historical one? Just how reliable is that historical one anyway? And should it be addressed towards the university-educated audience or should it be expressed in simpler language.

“No solution is right,” declares MacGregor, sagely.

Really? While I wouldn’t question the sincerity and essential decency of MacGregor’s Weltanschauung it nevertheless seems symptomatic of the intellectual decadence that has afflicted our culture. It reminds me of the dispiriting way history is taught in school, where instead of the teacher giving you an idea of what actually happened you’re handed a variety of texts and accounts of the same event and invited to make your own mind up. A nice idea: creating a nation of free-thinking intellectuals. The problem is, it’s predicated on the lamentably optimistic notion that our ailing education system has given the nation sufficient intellectual grounding on which to form such subtle judgments. It hasn’t.

And if even the director of our greatest museum is uncomfortable with the idea of the museum as a superior form of authority, is it any wonder that the whole system is in such trouble? How, after all, can the problems facing our museums — safeguarding collections when budgets are frozen or dwindling; what they can afford to collect for future generations; how far they should capitulate to PC nostrums such as “access”; the issue of repatriation — be sensibly dealt with unless the people in charge have a consistent, unembarrassed sense of museums’ absolute, immutable, cultural importance?

THE QUESTION I set out to answer was: “What are museums for?” To me it seems blindingly obvious. They exist today, just as 250 years ago, for the preservation, collection, display and study of precious objects. If they also bolster their visitors’ education, self- esteem or sense of community, all to the good, but these are merely side-effects, not a museum’s raison d’être.

What I realise now is that the problem isn’t the many different answers that the museums industry is finding. The problem is the question itself. To ask it is already to presuppose that a museum can justify its existence only in some form of utilitarian value; it implies that culture can be measured; that a museum can be submitted to cost-benefit analysis; that it ought to be micromanaged by the State if, according to the political precepts of the moment, it is found wanting. But museums are above all this nonsense.

At least they should be.

This is an abridged version of the essay that won the annual Charles Douglas-Home Memorial Trust Award, established in honour of the former Editor of The Times.

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