Magazine article The Spectator

Covent Garden Dinosaur

Magazine article The Spectator

Covent Garden Dinosaur

Article excerpt

Act One, Scene One: Covent Garden, one of the most popular areas for tourists and Londoners alike to visit. Near to several theatres, and opposite the Royal Opera House. The time: half past one on a summer's afternoon. Outside all is noise and bustle - office workers on their lunch breaks, tourists, tour guides and groups of culture vultures. Inside: emptiness, silence. Seven people looking at the exhibits. Some 15 parents and children huddled together to watch a little girl about to be made up as one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's cats. We are in the Theatre Museum.

Back in the mid-1980s, the only place in Covent Garden where you could guarantee getting a seat when meeting friends for coffee was the Theatre Museum's groundfloor cafe - long since closed. Today an institution that should be one of the liveliest and most visited in the capital, given its perfect site and popular subject-matter, instead resembles, in its complacency, dullness and inability to connect with the public, a Soviet museum circa 1973.

Given the wide appeal of showbusiness, that theatre remains one of the few activities in which Britain remains a world leader, and that the Theatre Museum is subtitled the Museum of the Performing Arts, so covers ballet and opera as well, the Covent Garden premises should be a magnet for tourists, students, performing-arts professionals and of course the general public. Yet despite some high-profile acquisitions, such as the Redgrave family papers or Sir Cameron Mackintosh's donation of the H.M. Tennent archive, and the occasional interesting workshop or lecture, the Theatre Museum remains unknown to the majority of Londoners and ignored by almost everyone. Why? What has gone wrong?

There are two fundamental reasons: the strategic problem of the Theatre Museum's subordination to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the tactical one of a lack of imagination and enterprise. The Theatre Museum is part of the V&A for historical reasons. It was, essentially, founded with a collection of theatre costumes and memorabilia which, there being no specialist museum to take the material, went instead to the V&A. Having established the Theatre Museum, the V&A should have given it its independence and concentrated on its own area of expertise, but instead it retains financial and ultimate administrative control. This gives the Theatre Museum's management a perfect excuse for its apparent inability to come up with a proactive approach to publicity and to visitors: `It isn't our fault; if only the V&A gave us a decent budget . . . .'

Yet, as Cassius says in Julius Caesar, `The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.' After all, the V&A has famously described itself as an ace caff with quite a good museum attached; yet the Theatre Museum proved itself unable even to run a prime-site cafe in Covent Garden. It has replaced the coffee shop with a vast, dead, black-painted space, currently occupied by paper chandeliers, bean bags with stuffed figures on them, oversized origami and some puppets in twigs. The whole thing is called `Paperchase' and bears no relation to theatre as generally understood. It does, however, have a list of sponsors, so that's good enough for the cash-strapped management.

This shows a staggering lack of imagination. The foyer should host a frequently changing series of displays of current or past theatre productions, have actors interacting with the public (if Hampton Court and the Museum of Moving Image can manage it, the Theatre Museum surely could) and be an attractive and welcoming area that draws the public in, instead of being a black hole fronted by security guards and a cash till. …

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