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23 June 2012

OpEd: Musing About Museums

First, a warning for my regular readers that this post is nothing to do with journalism or radio. It's the first in what may become a series of personal 'OpEd' features when I'm wound up enough to voice an opinion; something I could never do in two decades of newsroom duty.

My theme for today then; what is it with museums? When I was a youngster they were places of wonder. Now, more often than not, I wonder what's going on.

I was over on the wrong side of the Pennines this weekend, visiting the Manchester Museum housed in the heart of the city's University campus.

My son was attending an Open Day and, having been drafted in at Leeds Trinity to address a fair few parents about the virtues of Higher Education, I had no wish to hear someone else hammer the same messages at me. We left the lad to discover the joys of Civil Engineering on his own whilst we went in search of  Ancient Egypt.

The University's Egyptology display had been a real discovery when we were doing the rounds of campuses three years ago with my elder son. I've been lucky enough to visit the museums in Luxor and Cairo, but with its half-dozen colourful coffins, assorted tomb treasures and more workaday items like tools and kitchen implements the Egyptian display in Manchester held its own for an enthusiast and was by any measure very impressive.

I was disappointed to find the gallery closed for refurbishment, and I'm looking forward to going back in November to see what they've done. At least I think I'm looking forward to it.

Experience elsewhere in the building (and closer to home) suggests otherwise.

Manchester's Natural World gallery is in the middle of a transformation. On the second floor it's traditional. Stuffed birds in cases. A sperm whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling.

Some of the stuffed birds are missing, however, with ghostly webbed footprints left behind on their wooden plinths, because they've been moved down to the first floor where the curators have been allowed to use their imagination. Big style.

Someone evidently found a catalogue from a neon sign company because the old, traditional wooden cases have been topped off with whizzy illuminated headers giving each area a theme; some like 'Bodies' and 'Weather' are straightforward enough, whilst others like 'Peace' are a little more ... esoteric.

How do you put 'Peace' in a display case? 

The answer, apparently, is to suspend dozens of little paper cranes on wires.

Cranes as in birds. Japanese kids made lots of paper cranes after the Americans nuked Hiroshima in 1945. In the centre of the case, if you look hard enough, you'll find an actual exhibit; a coin-sized chunk of metal and glass fused together by the heat and fury of that atomic explosion. That's it, apart from a token stuffed crane for comparison, borrowed (as previously mentioned) from the taxidermy collection upstairs.

Nothing about the Enola Gay. Nothing about the context of the Pacific conflict.

Next door the case is called 'Disasters'. Pride of place here goes to plaster casts of a young woman and of a dog. The pair were overwhelmed by the volcanic explosion in Pompeii, their body shapes preserved in the ash. Because I've been to Pompeii I know these are not actual fossilised bodies or animal remains but casts made from plaster poured into the empty space left behind in the pumice when their bodies decayed; but there was nothing in the display to indicate this to an inquisitive child or a first-time visitor.

Less is not always more.

It was the same feeling when I went on my first visit to the new Leeds City Museum, housed in the old Mechanics' Institute.

What I saw on that opening day ... was a lot of emptiness.

The main auditorium, the most valuable space in the building, hollowed out and bare with a map painted on the floor. A few touchscreens for looking at old photos. At dress circle level, more slide shows on timed loops .. they've left the seats in up there.

The actual exhibits in the museum crowded into the former bars and public areas of the old theatre. There was a model of the Quarry Hill flats development, the architect's horizontal table-top model, hung vertically on a wall with no interpretation.

The problem with the current approach to curating collections is that it assumes prior knowledge on the part of the visitor.

I actually thought Manchester's 'Peace' display was very clever, looking on from my perspective as someone with A-level History and a degree. The 'Disasters' exhibit reminded me of what I'd seen wandering around the hot and dusty streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum because I've been fortunate enough to be there as has (I'll hazard a guess) the curator of that space. I'm not convinced it has anything like the same impact on someone coming to the objects for the first time.

The ultimate illustration of the problem comes in another gallery at Manchester, where they run a video showing a bunch of museos agonising about whether to put a decomposing moth on display. If they do, it'll fall to bits. If they don't, no-one will ever see it. In the meta-museum world, that debate has become the exhibit.

My simple plea is this; can we have the clutter back, please?  

Display cases full of things to discover shine light on objects that otherwise lie in store from generation to generation. Encourage the joy of personal discovery in showcases, rather than showcasing the joy of one person's clever idea.

When I was a kid the Abbey House Museum at Kirkstall in Leeds was a treasurehouse of everything from monastic mosaics and Roman coins to Victorian toys and penny-in-the-slot machines.

A whole room was devoted to the spooky trappings of mourning, and the crowning glory was a street - an indoor street - with a pub, a chemist's shop, a grocer's and many, many more. I'm not aware of the displays changing in twenty years; they may have done, I never noticed. I do recall it cost pennies to get in during a wet school holiday and however many times I went back there was always something to discover I'd overlooked on my previous visits.

Liverpool have managed it with their fabulous new Museum of Liverpool by the Albert Dock.

That's a collection I'll visit again and again; if I can get in, that is, it's so popular with the kids and families the arts establishment want to attract.

Less isn't more. More is more. Let's explore history, unconstrained by simplistic narrative.

1 comment:

  1. The key problem here is that all these curators are University (over) educated types, far detached from the reality of Mr. Joe or Mrs Jo Public..

    No one can get at them in their (financially subsidised) Ivory Towers.. and if anyone dare criticise the shows they reply that person lacks 'culture'. The V&A in London acts completely independently of public/collector taste, I can testify to that from my 30 years studying and writing on Clarice Cliff pottery.

    To 'take it back to radio', the same is happening now with 'Media Studies' courses. Radio people seem to need to have a degree to be a broadcaster, yet the GREAT communicators of music radio in the 60s and 70s and 80s were the likes of Johnny Walker, Roger Day, Alan Freeman, Roger Scott, Tony Blackburn, David Lloyd, Kenny Everitt, Les Ross, Dale Winton etc = innate talent not 'rote learned' broadcasters....