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Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Two minds on museum charging

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.    


Anonymous said...

"Will climate change mean more floods?

Changes in our climate will increase the risk of flooding due to sea level rises, and potentially more frequent and more severe storms and rainfall events."

Then of course, there's propagandising children too, appalling.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

R I could not agree more.

Dumbing down has affected everything, from the great museum to the smallest country house.

Have you visited Castle Hedingham recently? If not, don't - it would make you weep. That magnificent bare-walled Norman keep, living breathing history redolent with our past, has been turned into a sort of nursery-school outing.

Warwick Castle is - if possible - even worse.

And the wonderful Glasgow Transport Museum, formerly filled with models from the days when we built a third of the world's maritime fleet here - models which provided an education as recently as to my own children - has been "re-housed" in a swanky new building where you can see little or nothing except "interpretative displays", which are full, naturally, of modish left-wing right-on thinking. The ship models? Just a few, hard to find, harder to see, and no context.

I suppose it's all part of detaching us from our civilisation's achievements, the better to rewrite history and subdue us, lest we remember what we once were.


Weekend Yachtsman said...

Forgot to say that perhaps the worst offender I've seen yet is Colchester castle. Don't, repeat don't, go there. It might induce violence.

TrT said...

Even if the exhibits were as good as they ever were, as a North of Watfodian, I resent my taxes going to your entertainments....

talwin said...

And yet.....and yet.

I recently visited the 'Vassa' (Sweden's 'Mary Rose) museum in Stockholm.

When the ship was recovered so were several skeletons. Of course, the identity of the bones cannot be known. But what the Swedes have done is to examine the bones forensically, reconstruct them into complete skeletons; take into account the location of the bones when found, the artifacts, etc., and to create stories and evidence-based lifestyles around each. And, yes,there are appropriately dressed mannequins and artifacts associated with each skeleton.

My point is that normally I would have agree with everything you say (and to a great extent, I still do): and, had this particular exhibit (there are many others) at the Vassa museaum been described to me before I had seen it, I would have imagined it to be tacky and rather disagreeable. But it wasn't. It gave a feel for some of those who had gone down with the ship those - far greater than had the bones alone been on display.

All in all I found this particular form of 'engagement' rather impressive.

The Vassa itself is hugely impressive: I urge you to visit it if the opportunity arises.

Anonymous said...

Birmingham used to have a Museum of Science and Industry. Whole galleries were devoted to individual trades carried out in this city. The museum was housed in an old factory, situated next to a 'real' canal, plus a purpose-built extension that gave space for the "City of Birmingham" locomotive to move on a short stretch of track. This museum was free.

That museum has been replaced by 'Thinktank', an expensive ball pit for children. Individual trades now have a shelf each in a glass cabinet. The lower shelves are too low for adults and the upper shelves too high for children. The "City of Birmingham" just fits between the walls. A couple of WW2 aircraft are strung up on wires and can easily be missed.

nisakiman said...

It rather brings us to the chicken and egg question.

Did they dumb down the museums because kids were no longer capable of absorbing and processing the information on offer, or is the simplification of information delivery creating generations of kids who have no idea what to do with raw, as yet undigested knowledge.

I have to admit to not having been to many museums of late. When I lived in Chelsea/Kensington/Notting Hill Gate in the late 60s, I regularly availed myself of all the museums that were in the area, but since then it's been only to take my kids to them, and that was 15 - 20 years ago.

They seemed ok then. I suppose The Great Dumbing Down didn't really start in earnest until '97.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

@talwin: The Vasa museum is an honourable exception.

Everything there is intelligently laid out, presented with good detail, great context information, and superb taste.

Most importantly, it is NOT dumbed down and does NOT assume the visitors are all babies.

Oh, and the cafe is fantastic too.

If you're visiting Stockholm (which is a wonderful city anyway) do not miss this museum. Allow half a day. In fact I'd go as far as to say that it's worth the trip to Stockholm just for this, even if you do nothing else.

Anonymous said...

SO yet another glorious New Labour success (free access) that in reality was an utter fuckup (free access to shit content)

More fundamentally yet another aspect of life where reality is distorted to support the lefties viewpoint.

For us righties, what happens when the brainwashed kids reach maturity / voting age?

Anonymous said...

Dumbing down has the side effect that the keepers of knowledge become increasingly "dumb". Its a vicious downward spiral.

Everything is affected. Scientists, even in the supposedly physical "science" of Climate, are not actually scientists but political activists. This dumbs down the debate and the downward spiral continues.

andy said...

Bang on about the maritime museum,I was utterly appalled by what had been done to it compared to my previous visit.
Its whole ethos can be expressed thus;
Global warming is real and not the biggest con trick in world history and every bad thing in the whole history of the world is the fault of those evil white people.