Leave museums alone


There is an argument that if it were not for the largesse of the National Lottery since 1994 our museums and galleries would still be trudging knee-deep through the Dark Ages. I happen not to subscribe to the view that the experience of visiting my favourite museums and works of art has been improved in any way by having hundreds of millions spent on the buildings and galleries housing them; in fact the reverse is often true. It is unfathomable to me why museums bother wasting massive sums in the delusion that these often tackily refurbished places will suddenly become miraculously more appealing, and particularly to those who are anyway demonstrably uninterested in culture, history or objects. For my own part, the pictures, sculptures and artefacts which have become a part of my life are still there, the same as ever, revered the same as before.

In many ways I preferred those more civilised Dark Ages before museums became playgrounds and refectories flogging food the low paid can’t afford. Those were the golden days when galleries were escapes from barbarism. Is it really too much to expect school parties to keep their mouths shut when they enter museums and galleries? And why aren’t they promptly kicked out when they do? The National Gallery, for example, is no longer a place of retreat, for concentration there is now virtually impossible.

The record of the Lottery is a grim one in the visual arts. Only a collection of fools could have got it so wrong. Courtesy of the Arts Council-administered Lottery the Ashmolean has been converted into a department store; the British Museum has received a hideous swimming-pool roof and some fraudulent stonework; and new galleries of wince-inducing ugliness and irrelevance to their local communities have spread across the country like a pox (see page 12 for the latest of these). And don’t forget the cool billion that was wasted on the Dome – no one now mentions that disgrace. Then there have been the stillborn basket cases. New words are required for the chronic incompetence and waste represented by the Earth Centre near Doncaster and the Popular Music Museum in Sheffield, both of which are dead, and The Public in West Bromwich that is only nominally alive. There are, to boot, currently running sores in Newcastle and Colchester and more bailings-out than were ever managed by the brave crews of Bomber Command.

Many changes to museums have been carried out not because they were necessary but for the singularly rotten reason that money was available to be spent. Also, a new belief – one which among politically correct jobsworths is treated as Holy Writ – spread through the land deeming that museums are dull places which can be made “more accessible” to those who don’t care for museums and won’t enter one even when they are free. The theory is that if you take an object which is marvellous anyway and anywhere and put it in a new place which looks more like a Bond Street shop, and then you surround it with information boards, films and painted narrative scene settings as if it were playing a walk-on role in a period soap opera, it will come alive and be instantly worshiped by an idiot. Such treatment actually achieves the opposite: it more often kills artefacts stone dead, because their special aura of mystery is neutralised and our imagination is prevented from working with their peculiar secrets.

This theory is doubly flawed because art is not truly understood or appreciated, or loved, because of what you read about it but because of the enigma of what it is and what it signifies beyond words. The way to encourage a fascination with history and a precious appreciation of the beautiful is not achieved by ‘context’ or ‘explanation’ but by looking; hard looking pure and simple. Filling visitors’ heads with parrotable sound bites impedes the slow-burn of appreciation. Deciphering for oneself is the springboard of all genuine enquiry and enduring interest. Following on from that comes naming, further discovery and, perhaps eventually, scholarship. A great work of art will always speak for itself more eloquently than the words of any interpreter, especially those manglers of language who seem to find job security in galleries and museums. Yes, information helps but it isn’t essential and it should be kept inconspicuous and to the point.

Museums should not spoon-feed visitors: they should encourage discovery and lifelong interest through observation and the arousing of curiosity. To aim the displays of museums at the hitherto uninterested is wasted effort. Those from any background who want genuinely to be involved in art will first catch on and then catch up.  In the meantime the quiddity of the object must remain sacrosanct and unpolluted.

I am sent on this sad line of enquiry by recent information that one of my favourite haunts, the National Railway Museum in York, will soon embark on a £25 million renovation. My mood fell through the floor when I heard. This museum doesn’t need revamping – it’s not that long ago for heaven’s sake that it was the European Museum of the Year – but a new generation of curators must leave its collective pawprint. The NRM is housed in buildings, both new and Victorian, around extensive sidings that were once home to York carriage and engineering works flanking the great arcing railway station that is the masterpiece of Thomas Prosser.  The NRM is part of the Science Museum and the mainstay of its massive collection is its hundred-plus steam, diesel and electric locomotives and many hundreds of other items of rolling stock. It also houses an astonishing Aladdin’s Cave of evocative memorabilia and models exhibited in that congested Victorian manner of ingeniously ordered chaos. The locomotives cover the period from before the opening of the first passenger railway in 1830 to recent abortive schemes such as our famous tilting train, which tilted at windmills but not much else. The collection is either working on heritage lines or loaned to sibling museums up and down the country, including at Shildon, the NRM’s informative annexe in rural County Durham.  The Main Hall in York, opened in 1975, is laid out like a steam-age roundhouse with a working turntable – the only one left of four originally on this site – which enables easy movement and storage of locomotives in radial bays. Parked in its spokes, it contains up to two dozen locomotives. Here is as comprehensive an introduction to the improving design of British engines, as form and shape were altered and streamlined to meet enhanced performance, as can be witnessed anywhere. To my mind this is as absorbing a display of sculpture and social history as any in the Tate.

I have visited the NRM dozens of times and on each occasion found something unexpected to dwell on. To get beyond mere awe, which is the response of most who are suddenly confronted with Gresley’s Mallard or a Collett ‘King’, requires only a willing attention to detail. I honestly doubt if any visitor, ever, to this marvellous free museum has ever left disappointed or uneducated, or has ever uttered the request for “more thematic displays” and “greater contextualisation”, or whatever.

If ever a museum did not need touching it’s this one, but they are intent on changing it and absolutely nothing is going to stop them.  They will get rid of the turntable and a large number of engines in order to get to grips with, oh yes, some ‘thematic displays’ and ‘contextualising’ which will doubtless reduce the fewer engines to illustrating whatever it is the marketers and schools- and ‘outreach’- programmers have told them they want. The thematic displays will bear the headings Moving People, Moving Goods, Building and Running Railways, Railway Nations and Cultural Concourse (don’t ask; no idea). They should forget about such trash, pack in as many locos as possible, some of them steaming up, and leave people to get on with it, work it out for themselves and take what they can from these gloriously aromatic objects. And leave that working turntable alone for it is the nucleus of the museum’s connection to an atmospheric past.

Four million quid of the twenty five will be better spent returning Mallard and the Flying Scotsman to steam. The latter, the most famous engine and the most perfectly designed, has been scandalously scattered in bits across a workshop floor for years with scarcely a sign of progress in its restoration to full working order. Someone’s head should roll for that.

We are broke. Let us have a moratorium for ten years on all unnecessary museum renovations, refurbishments and rebuildings, and leave exhibits where they are.

Economics and statistics are not State Art’s strong suits. Only a month after the Tate discovered it will lose 15% of its Government grant over the next few years there was an announcement of an imminent £45 million renovation to Tate Britain. (So this is what the gallery’s sixteen directors have been up to. They must be exhausted.) This new development comes eight years after the last Millbank upgrade that gave us the architecturally undistinguished rear entrance complete with dangerous staircase. We are informed that £30 million has so far been raised which means work may commence in February. If no more money is forthcoming construction will presumably cease two thirds of the way through. Either that or the Ministry of Culture will be bounced into stumping up the rest in order to prevent an embarrassing hiatus in the work. We are advised that part of the reason for the need to upgrade is that over the last ten years there has been a 60% increase in the number of visitors. Putting it at its most charitable this is a deliberate misrepresentation of a sort increasingly typical of the Tate.  The last attendance figure available, that for 2009, is 1,595,000; the figure for 1999 is 1,822,427 – a decrease of 12.5%. If you compare the latest figure with 1994’s 2,226,399, the largest ever annual attendance at Millbank, the decrease is 28%! The Tate has deliberately made it seem as though the museum is more popular than ever by using the comparatively low figures after 2000 when, following the opening of Tate Modern in the Spring, attendance at Tate Britain instantly collapsed to half of what it had been in the 1990s. Casuistry with visitor numbers should not be used as an excuse to embark on a building programme.

The economics of the extension to Tate Modern are even more baffling. Of the £215 million required “roughly half”, we are recently informed by the President-For-Life himself, has so far been raised – £50 million of it in a one-off gift from the Department of Culture. The latest donation, by the way, was from the Sultan of Oman who for his generous cheque was awarded a loan of six masterpieces by, among others, Turner, Constable, Gainsborough and Stubbs, for an exhibition in the Gulf. Work behind Bankside has been busily proceeding for six months and resulted in a massive hole in the ground. If no more cash is raised the building will, one assumes, grind to a stop half way up. Only in the quango sector could you get away during a recession with starting a building costing £215 million when you have only sufficient cash for the foundations.

David Lee

The Jackdaw Jan-Feb 2011