Magazine article The Spectator

Crisis in Bloomsbury

Magazine article The Spectator

Crisis in Bloomsbury

Article excerpt

Martin Gayford believes that the present state of the British Museum is a national disgrace

Just under 250 years ago, in 1753, the British Museum was founded. In the words of its historian, J. Mordaunt Crook, it was `the first museum in the world which was public, secular - and national'. There was opposition, as there always is in this country, to expenditure on cultural projects. George 11, who like his father did not care much `for boetry and banting', was indifferent or hostile. The prime minister tried to throw cold water. But the speaker, Arthur Onslow, managed to push it through.

To fund the necessary expenses, a lottery was established. Any person of respectable appearance - later amended to `with clean shoes' - was allowed in, although it could take weeks to be issued with a ticket. Attempts to charge were fought off in the House of Commons. Altogether, it was a remarkable achievement of our Georgian forefathers.

A new director of proven brilliance, Neil MacGregor, has just taken over. What is he taking on? Enter through that austere portico in Bloomsbury these days, and you still don't have to pay. Nobody checks the state of your footwear or the respectability of your appearance (otherwise quite a few visitors would be barred). But inside you find yourself in an institution that is visibly in a state of crisis. Key galleries are closed except for a few hours in the late morning. In others - the one containing the Nereid Monument from Xanthos, for example paint hangs off the walls as in an ancient station waiting-room.

Once the first among the great museums of the world, the BM now lags far behind its rivals and successors. The Met is a gleaming emporium of world art. The Louvre has undergone a complete revamp. There are several new and splendid galleries in Bloomsbury (devoted to Africa and China, for example). But I can think of no comparable institution - not even the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, recently emerged from decades of management by the East German government - that is as dingy as several prominent bits of the BM.

The greatest glory of the collection many would say the most important works of art in Britain - are the Elgin (aka Parthenon) marbles. But these supreme sculptures are housed in a hideous and deadening space built in a sub-fascist neoclassical style in the 1930s at the behest of an art dealer of dubious reputation, Joseph Duveen. It is a space, as the late David Sylvester wrote, of a `bullying pomposity' that seems to diminish any person or thing that enters it. This structure was helpfully demolished by the Luftwaffe (but perversely rebuilt by the trustees).

Part of the moral justification for keeping those and so many key items of other cultures - from Iraq, Nigeria, Egypt and Turkey - is that they are better cared for and more readily available to the public in London than they would be where they came from. …

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