October 30, 2008

The comercialisation of the British Museum

Posted at 3:05 pm in British Museum

The British Museum has in recent years made much of its global reputation, arguing that it represents the best place for artefacts such as the Elgin Marbles to be seen in the context of artefacts from other cultures. From these recent letters in The Times though, it would appear that not everyone is completely sold on the current approach taken by the Museum.

The Times

October 27, 2008
British Museum gripe
Commercialisation of British Museum needs to be stopped

Sir, Passing the British Museum last Thursday, I decided to pop in during normal opening hours. What an awful shock. Tickets for the Hadrian exhibition had sold out, and when I tried to visit the Reading Room it was shut — because the Hadrian exhibition was in there. When I asked when the Reading Room would be open again I was told perhaps in 2012.

It turns out that this famous iconic heart of the British Museum, recently restored at public expense, has been hidden and refitted as exhibition space. Why? Because so much exhibition space has been handed over to shops and cafés.

I decided to visit the basement galleries of Greek and Roman scultpture. They were closed. I’ve been trying to visit these galleries for ten years or more. They are always closed. I also noticed that the huge main staircase off the entrance hall was also closed for no reason that anyone could explain. I suspect it was to force everyone into the Great Court and more shops.

The British Museum is one of the top two or three tourist attractions in the country and most people there did seem to be from abroad. The experience was of a messy, crowded shopping arcade with some galleries and cafés attached. I can think of no greater advertisement for the educational incompetence and utter philistinism of the current British State. Who manages this horrid shambles of a museum these days?

Duncan Fallowell
London W11

The Times

October 30, 2008
Is the British Museum resting on its laurels?
Standards at the British Museum are dropping and reasons for it are not adequately justified

Sir, I was delighted on reaching the Letters page on Monday to read the letter titled “British Museum gripe”.

My granddaughter and I were visiting the museum’s Hadrian exhibition that same day from Glasgow. While I have been a visitor there from time to time for 70 years, she has only been there on several occasions. Like Mr Fallowell, we both noticed deterioration in some aspects. Not one, but several galleries of interest have been closed without any stated reason. Indeed the best display of reliefs showing Amazonomachies (Bassae sculptures) has been shut for several years: our attempt to ascend the lit stairs to the gallery caused an alarm to sound. In the ensuing animated discussions with attendants they either displayed plain ignorance of the reason for closure or guessed staff shortage.

Surely an apology and reasons for the closure should be prominently displayed near the affected galleries — while the printed guides at the information desk should state clearly that they are closed.

Surely the visiting millions are also entitled to assurances that any closures will be as brief as possible, and that closures planned to last years ought to be quite unacceptable to all.

We agree with Mr Fallowell’s other gripes, to which I add that the old museum shop stocked a much wider and better range of replicas of ancient artefacts than do the present arrangements. This was demonstrated when we left the museum and crossed the road to a shop selling such items where we found much more of interest to buy.

Douglas Maclean

Sir, Further to your correspondent’s complaint (Oct 27) I should like to add mine, about the user-unfriendliness of both permanent and temporary displays not only at the British Museum but worldwide.

Objects are placed either so near the floor that the viewer must grovel, or so high that serious examination is impossible, or too far back in deep cases. (Why, in heaven’s name, is a minutely decorated scabbard in the V&A’s new Islamic gallery placed about two metres behind the glass?)

Objects are identified with the smallest possible — or even smaller — numbers, relating to distant captions, at floor level only, presumably because it is difficult to place them any lower.

The kindest explanation seems to be that the curators can remove from the cases any things they wish to look at and, not needing captions themselves, are unaware, or, I fear, do not care, that the public do.

Display designers, furthermore, need to acknowledge the practical requirements of their work and not see it merely as creating pretty pictures.

Richard Benny
London SW12

Sir, I very recently visited the British Museum with my partner’s 13-year-old daughter and we were both extremely disappointed by the manner in which the artefacts were displayed. We both found it uninspiring and did not stay long.

The only interesting (free!) gallery was the Egyptian one and this was spoilt by the cards describing the contents of the display cases being positioned at ankle height in font size 12.

We love museums but how come this one is rated higher than the Science, Natural History or Imperial War Museum?

Alan Nugent
London NW1

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1 Comment »

  1. Michelle said,

    11.03.08 at 5:41 pm

    I am doing research for the debate about the Parthenon Marbles (not Elgin!) on the side of Greece. Our argument pulls for the Marbles being returned to Greece. I am currently researching the British Museum and trying to gather facts on why it does not “better house the Marbles”, especially now that Greece has built the New Acropolis Museum. I’d like to hear any more qualms that you have about the BM.


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