Is the British Museum Falling Down?

By Weideger, Paula | New Statesman (1996), October 3, 1997 | Go to article overview

Is the British Museum Falling Down?


Weideger, Paula, New Statesman (1996)


What's come over the dusty dowager of Russell Street? Suddenly the British Museum is bright with diamonds, rubies and sapphires. Spotlit cases are filled with necklaces, bracelets and tiaras, with accessories such as a black lacquer compact across which a diamond panther stalks, and a set of translucent agate ash trays. Each of the 227 items in this testimonial to glamour, conspicuous consumption and design is the output of a single firm, Cartier, which also owns most of the exhibits.

It's clear why Cartier, celebrating its 150th birthday, is supporting the show. But why is the British Museum staging it? Indeed, should it?

The British Museum is promoting the work of a business with 165 boutiques around the world, one of them not far away in New Bond Street. The museum is joining the growing line of eminent institutions that don't merely blur the distinction between art and advertising, but act as if no such distinction existed.

There are many examples. In 1994 the Royal Academy displayed George Ortiz's collection of antiquities. In the heated debate about the sale of ancient objects that may have been illegally excavated or exported, the provenance of some of the Ortiz acquisitions has been questioned. By staging the show, didn't the RA act as a reputation-laundry?

Then there's the RA's Sensation show, surely the most notorious example of ethical amnesia yet. Should it have escaped anyone's notice, the Royal Academy is now exhibiting the private collection of the ad-man Charles Saatchi. Precisely because Marcus Harvey's huge portrait of Myra Hindley is hanging in Piccadilly, heart of the establishment, the outrage, the merit of the work and its money value have all been magnified. This in turn raises the market value of the rest of the Saatchi stock on view.

The V&A's Faberge exhibition in 1994 drew more than 150,000 visitors, but owing to the events of 1917 Faberge was hardly in a position to benefit. Wedgwood, however, is still very much with us and in 1995 its wares were also featured by the V&A. When asked if the gallery was worried about hyping a commercial brand, its spokesperson, Tracy Williamson, replied that this doesn't "sway the decision either way. The V&A was founded to forge links between art and industry. Almost everything we deal with has commerce attached to it."

Andrew Hamilton, head of press and public relations at the British Museum, argues that "we are seen as a museum of archaeology and ancient artefacts. …

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