I'd been looking forward to one of the Victoria and Albert Museum's spring exhibitions for quite some time. Indian Mughal painting is something I adore without knowing a great deal about it, and would always hurry to see an exhibition of the subject.
In almost every way, the V&A's bringing together of many of the paintings commissioned by the Emperor Akbar in 1556 to illustrate the stories of the Hamzanama is a revelation. It is a fascinating moment in Mughal painting, when the traditional Persian court styles start to interact with wilder innovations, and the museum has done extremely well to get so many of them in the same place at once. I recommend it to anyone, with one appalling caveat.
As you go round the exhibition, your attention keeps wandering to a strange noise in the background. If you are as old-fashioned as me, and used to quiet in museums, at first it is slightly difficult to believe what you are hearing. The exhibition, which, with its excellent catalogue, is about as serious and enlightening as it is possible to be, is accompanied by a soundtrack of twanging on a sitar. It is the sort of thing you used to hear in curry houses on a Friday night.
The V&A tell me that the decision to include this music, which I can't quite believe is even historically appropriate, was that of the designer of the exhibition. Well, they have done a good job deciding the colour of the walls and arranging the lighting, but someone ought to have told them very briskly that they weren't entitled to start damaging the whole impact of the exhibition. In my view, as soon as you add a soundtrack to an exhibition, you turn it into "The Mughal Experience", and make the pictures much more difficult to look at.
As yet, this is a limited phenomenon, but one which is spreading fast. I had heard horror stories about American exhibitions of Canaletto with loudspeakers in the corner pumping out Vivaldi, but didn't quite believe it until Tate Modern mounted their Century/ City show. Incredibly, we were asked at the Tate to look at Picasso to the raucous accompaniment of Petrushka, and the bold modernism of Rio in the 1950s was accompanied by some fairly nondescript Brazilian pop.
Since then, it has been spreading steadily; I blame the rise of the ghastly recorded lecture which galleries keep trying to foist on you. At the Aztec show, between the paragraphs, they had stuck in some fairly embarrassing jungle sound effects. That sort of thing is not so bad if it is restricted to the hired tape, which you can avoid, but when there is no escape it damages what may otherwise be a first-rate exhibition.
Is this just personal taste? …