Museums for the Madding Crowd

By Moore, Rowan | The Evening Standard (London, England), February 20, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Museums for the Madding Crowd

Moore, Rowan, The Evening Standard (London, England)


ONCE recovered from the snow blindness brought on by its architectural dazzlement, visitors to the British Museum's Great Court keep asking the same question: where are the new exhibition spaces you might expect from a [pound]100-million revamp?

To be sure, there are some antique sculptures in the main concourse, looking as comfortable in their computer-generated surroundings as the unkempt Woody Allen did in the white plastic future of Sleeper, and there are some exhibition spaces to be built in later phases. But, for now, the only new exhibition area is a small carpeted cave somewhere round the back of the Reading Room.

What the visitors may not know is that they are experiencing the logical outcome of the most powerful single force in the visual arts: the escalating imperative to get more and more bodies into museums. It means that already massive institutions, like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, are doubling in size, to dimensions well beyond the capacity of any human being to encompass them in a day. It means Tate Modern, with its five million visitors a year and immense public concourse, is the museum of the future.

Museums are becoming malls, and their architects, like Lord Foster at the British Museum, must concentrate on making great prairies where herds of visitors can roam, and architectural gestures that burn themselves on the public's brain. Just as the Bluewater shopping complex gives itself vaults and arches and pseudo-oast houses so you can tell it from Lakeside Thurrock, the BM has a billowy, curvy glass roof that distinguishes it from the pointy pyramid of the Louvre.

Museum directors are judged by visitor numbers first, their ability to rear new monuments second and some way after that the insight they bring to exhibiting the works in their collection. This and the laudable idea that in a democratic country the purpose of state-funded museums is to reach as many people as possible.

Among the many targets Labour has set itself for its second term is a hefty increase in the number of visits to museums. It's the New Labour, new economy, culturally aware equivalent of Soviet tractor production quotas.

Thomas Krens, director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation in New York, is the Frank Woolworth, Sam Goldwyn and Pablo Picasso of this movement.

Having triumphed with his universally acclaimed franchise in Bil-bao, he wants to do it again, and again, and again. He has plans for a new Guggenheim parked in the river off lower Manhattan that would be 10 times the size of the foundation's original building, the great white spiral Frank Lloyd Wright designed by Central Park.

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