Magazine article The Spectator

Leave Our Museums Alone

Magazine article The Spectator

Leave Our Museums Alone

Article excerpt

Every cliche eventually meets its nemesis. Sooner or later - in fact quite often more haste actually means more speed. Certain winds really do turn out so ill they blow nobody any good. And, in the last few months, we've seen it happen: someone is slowly going bust by underestimating the taste of the public. Or if the Millennium Dome isn't bust yet, it's getting extremely close. Meanwhile, of course, Tate Modern has turned out to be startlingly, even slightly alarmingly popular, with more than 30,000 people a day entering its mighty Turbine Hall. What can be deduced from these phenomena?

Clearly, one point that emerges from such projects is the huge advantage of having the whole thing driven through by one person of vision. Tate Modern is Sir Nicholas Serota's achievement. He thought of it, he masterminded it. He deserves and, I am glad to see, is receiving - our gratitude and admiration. In contrast, the Dome was a muddled project from beginning to end. Nobody ever knew what it was supposed to be or do, except be popular, and it was put together by committee.

One of the artists involved, represented both at Greenwich and Bankside, remarked the other day that no such project should ever again be run by the government. Perhaps. Though democracy is doubtless best for politics, there's not much doubt that dictatorship is best in the arts. On the other hand, large projects can be successfully driven through by government - as they were in Mitterrand's Paris, and Papal Rome for that matter - provided there is a single, controlling hand.

What is absolutely plain, however, is that government-sponsored populism just isn't popular. And this has wider implications for museum policy. In the Dome we have an improving, politically correct theme park. With the benefit of hindsight it's obvious that wouldn't be a wow, and even in advance many foresaw problems. If you want to go to a theme park, you go to Alton Towers.

But pressures for unpopular populism remain. In January Matthew Evans, the incoming chairman of the new Museums, Libraries and Archives Commission, gave a notorious address (he took up the post at the beginning of last month). The speech left no New Labour button unpressed. Museums, he asserted, must `become relevant to the politicians and to the millions of ordinary people who not only directly and indirectly fund us but are our customers'. They must `modernise' and `reinvent themselves', they must take their collections into shops and pubs, otherwise they risked becoming cultural versions of Marks & Spencer - `symbols of once great institutions that failed to move with the times and are now suffering as a result'.

To say that these sentiments went down badly would be a huge understatement. Very fairly, and under the circumstances mildly, Brian Sewell described the speech as `the thoughts of Chairman Mao couched in the conventional waffle of Islington'. Richard Dorment observed that `most people who heard or read his lecture have concluded that he has only the vaguest idea what museums are for, how they function, and what is actually happening today'.

Among other points, museums and galleries already have embraced new technology, they already have banks of computer terminals and websites (though whether these do much good is another question: the essential experience museums and galleries have to offer is confrontation with the real thing).

Furthermore, the best London museums already are phenomenally popular. …

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