We were fortunate in having enlightened and dutiful parents and as a consequence there wasn't a holiday that didn't involve a day in South Kensington, Bloomsbury or Kennington. Once in, we couldn't be shifted until closing time, parking Mum near the cafe and checking back every hour or so. Our national museums were vast treasure houses crammed from floor to fourteen-foot ceiling with objects. Not here the solitary Ushabti that languished on the shelf of the Ipswich Museum, but a high Mahogany case crammed with a thousand, classified into Old Kingdom, New Kingdom, Theban Recession, Romano-Graecian and thence by stylistic form and convention. In just one case one learned taxonomy, art history, religious schism and the life-long basis of being able to discriminate. The great museums were all free, of course; intended as philanthropic gifts for the education and enlightenment of the English, a few foreigners being permitted to enter and gasp in wonder at the wealth of our culture.
From the foregoing you may imagine I'm wholly in favour of maintaining free admission to our museums. Not quite. You see, curatorially our museums lost their way sometime in the 1980s / 1990s. All these objects, the thinking went, discriminated against the stupid, those who couldn't be bothered to follow up a visit by buying a book or catalogue, or as I did, spending hours in the reference library self-teaching. What the stupid needed, they decided, was interpretation - aimed at a backward twelve year-old. The Mahogany cases packed with Ushabti disappeared to be replaced by a display panel and a single exemplar figure. From now on, the museum would decide what you learned and what objects meant - we were no longer to be allowed the opportunity to do so ourselves.
And so our great cultural treasure houses hid 95% of their collections away in store and replaced them with graphics panels, video screens and unconvincing mannequins. Worse was to come. Under New Labour, they adopted an attitude of abject apology for cultural hegemony; the museums became a giant apology for slavery, colonialism, European expansionism and for ever thinking that our cultural achievements were superior to those of a naked tribe of goat-keepers scratching in the dirt with sticks. The most sickening and kitsch exemplar of the New Museum came from the National Maritime Museum, with an utterly meretricious little tableau depicting two eighteenth century ladies taking tea at a Pembroke table perched incongruously over a ship's deck grating from which protruded a pleading black hand. Really. It was indescribably awful.
From that point my commitment to free museums disappeared. They had abandoned academic integrity for politically driven sycophancy; let them then stand or fall without my tax keeping them open. I even found a loophole; if you introduced yourself as a researcher, then the entire treasure-house was open to you on a bespoke basis. Many a blissful afternoon did I spend in the Norman Shaw building at the V&A being brought box after box of prints and drawings I had ordered up from the store, each day being a personally curated exhibition in which I got not only to choose the exhibits but could spend as long as I liked seated at a comfortable desk gazing on each as I held it my hands for as long as I wished, and without a single interpretive label in sight. And it was free. Sometime soon I shall ask the British Museum to produce a few score Ushabti for my personal delectation, and I shall spend a pleasant afternoon arranging them on the desk according the long-remembered taxonomy of my youth. Without a single interpretive label in sight.