Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Museum of the 21st Century

Neil MacGregor, Director British Museum
Nicholas Serota, Director Tate Modern
John Wilson, BBC
7 July 2009, LSE

I must be in love with the LSE or something - I'm either there or at SOAS. Thing is that I want to catch any lecture that I can while I am still in London, while I am still a student. It has been absolutely delightful to go hear all these academics, intellectuals, bankers, journalists, lawyers, etc.   When next am I going to get the chance to do this? I must soak it in as much as I can. 

I've heard some great talks at SOAS but LSE is a bit of a more happening place. Furthermore, there seem to be events going on even through the summer while there's not much happening at SOAS unless I am not keeping up. 

I was very interested by the title of this talk 'The Museum of the 21st Century.' Museums seem to be more than just public spaces housing art, artefacts, history, exhibitions, dinosaurs and fossils today. For example, one hears of millions of dollars spent on an acquisition or the sale of an art piece. And expensive art is housed in these museums. One reads of weird modern art - spliced cows in formaldehyde, a woman's unmade bed, a huge crack in the floor. Whatever controversy or fascination or excitement that surrounds art is undoubtedly linked to museums as well for that is where the average person usually interacts with art. Museums are as important as art, history and ideas themselves. Then we have controversies such as whether the British Museum has any legal right to continue to keep the Elgin Marbles - the British Museum has said that Greece cannot protect the Marbles, that the Marbles will be better cared for in the UK, etc. The British Museum holds antiquities from all over the world. We often joke that if we have to see pieces of our history, we need to come to the UK. Finally, I think museums as spaces are so interesting because modern architecture seems to be transforming our idea of buildings and spaces where sometimes the building itself overshadows anything within the building itself. As for fossils and dinosaurs and natural history museums, what would our childhoods look like without visits to those museums? 

Museums are littered all over novels and movies. "Squid and the Whale" - the title of the movie comes from one of the character's memory of seeing a display of a squid attacking a whale in the museum. The character of Gwyneth Paltrow in "The Royal Tenebaums" hides in a museum for a few days when she's a kid. Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye goes to meet his little sister in the museum and as we know, Holden is obsessed with things changing and at least the museum represents a place where things don't change. There's "A Night at the Museum" (the first one was great, the sequel was crap, one of the worst possible sequels ever made) and the dumbing down of history and biology for Hollywood. There are movies with robberies of art pieces such as the "Thomas Crowne Affair." 

It could be such a powerful metaphor or symbol in a short story or novel, eh? I am making a mental note of this - if I ever get to writing a story, it will be set in a museum. 

So what was the talk about? Well firstly, seeing the two directors and the director of LSE, all so seemingly English and what's the word, distinguished and gentlemanly, was quite amusing. The BBC fellow was a thorough journalist though - whizzing through his questions and facilitating the discussion.

The talk was to mark 60 years of Thames and Hudson, "the most eminent publisher of illustrated books in the world" according to their website. So there was a short note from the son of the fellow who founded the publishers before the talk started.

The introduction by the BBC journalist, John Wilson, was quite hilarious. He said that having these two directors together was like getting Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together for "Heat!"

The directors were asked why they were still doing their jobs and both were gleeful of the privilege they had, being able to roam around the galleries when no one was around, being so close to the greatest works of art or Ramses II and so on.

Both of them really made the effort to point out how museums and their place in society is quite different from the United States. Public collections in the UK are really public collections and because museums do not charge entry, the relationship that has been forged between the collections and society is very different to that in the US. The cultural realm was depoliticised in 1753 by the creation of the British Museum. The National Gallery is situated for example where it is so that people from the East End could easily walk there. It was amusing to see the directors bashing the Americans in the polite way they did. The Tate Modern fellow said that they actually had artists on their board while this was not the case in America.* 

In response to the question of 'black clouds over public spending' and the ominous danger they might pose to their museums, the directors said they weren't terribly worried about funding. Moreover, they did not think they would come to a point where they would have to start charging people. 

The British Museum director waxed lyrical about London and how it was the greatest city there was. How did he put it? The world was London and London was the world. The UK's multi culturalism came from having different cultures co-exist in contrast to America which was a melting pot or France where people had to 'become' French. This was an interesting way to put it. Furthermore, he said that the distinction between home and abroad does not exist any longer. And because of ahem, the UK's imperial history, the UK has the kind of treasures, antiquities and artefacts it does (making the distinction even more blurred!). He was going on something about trusteeship created by the Parliament. What a great word, or shall I say, what a great SOAS MSc Violence Conflict and Development word! 

The British Museum Director, probably a little more so than the Tate fellow, was really building up a grandeur about it all. As far as collections in museums go and relating to and creating public consciousness are concerned, indeed, that is so. Museums are some of the most significant spaces in society - creating an ever more important link between people and art, history, ideas, biology and so on. As for the British attitude toward these spaces and making them free and public, it is indeed commendable. The British public and visitors are very lucky their government has believed that such access art and history and science should be free. Moreover, as the British Museum director was saying, there is great effort being made to share collections all over the world and to educate people about linkages between cultures and periods of history. 

For instance,  an exhibition on Shah Abbas of Iran was held at the British Museum and Chinese pottery was also shown in the same show. The Museum had also gone to Iran to work with the Iranians to put on this exhibition. Agreements for cultural exchanges were made. The Iranians had actually asked to be loaned the Cylinder of Cyrus but that request is on hold at the moment given the current situation in Iran following the elections. 

So the British Museum director spoke about the Elgin Marbles. Sure, the Greeks had now built a brand new museum which could house and protect the Marbles but that was not really the stand of the Museum. The Marbles belong to the world, they are part of a shared human culture and history. It is a matter of how you see them - as cultural inheritance of national self? Moreover, this is not the European way; Europe's great works are housed in various museums across the continent. The real question here is how can we show these Marbles and other collections to China and Africa. Let's not politicise culture. Let us remember that it was only when the Marbles came to London that people were really able to study them and seem them clearly because before at their height no one had really looked at them closely. 

I was thoroughly amused by the British Museum director's train of thought. Gee, we are global citizens. It does not matter where history or art is kept as long as the world can share and enjoy it. We are now beyond these national boundaries and limited way of thinking. How can he speak like this? Everyone knows that the 'excuse' the British Museum had in keeping Greece's national treasures was that Athens was too polluted and the Marbles were better off in London. Now that the Greeks have built a new museum, it is not about pollution but about shared culture and history. Well why don't we uproot the Parthenon and bring it to London so we may more fully appreciate the Marbles in context. I mean, would it not be more of a fantastic experience to actually see the whole thing together as it once was? 

When it came round to questions from the audience, none was asked about the Elgin Marbles. I don't know whether there was not enough time or people thought it pointless. A question was asked on whether the museums would prefer to have an endowment rather than yearly funding - both the directors agreed they liked the present system which forced them to think about their finances and spending and activities on a frequent basis. 

A few questions were asked on how the museums were going to harness the technological/digital age. The directors stressed that this was indeed the future and their curators would have to spend as much time online as otherwise. Whether numbers of visitors would decline if they could just visit the museums online, the directors were not so sure. What was exciting was how having content online could provide access to people in other countries. For instance, students of Ramallah were able to view Islamic calligraphy online as they could not visit the Museum in London. The Tate Modern director said that in this new age, it was a question of whether museums were going to be authors or publishers. 

I found his remarks and over-excited emotions so thoroughly smelly. How can he conveniently change arguments - once it was about pollution and adquate housing for the Marbles and now it is something as noble as global citizenship? How can he talk about global citizenship in the way he did? Sure, it is nice to imagine ourselves as global citizens when one thinks of universal values, the Olympics, the UN, and global warming but this added layer of consciousness is in addition to national citizenship. The truth is most of us are still national citizens of one kind or the other. He should bear in mind that it is becoming increasingly difficult to travel across these borders which are physical as well as symbolical as well as colonial as well as imperial. Borders that we see today were messily carved by imperial Europe. The borders that we see today keep out poor immigrants who try to escape poverty in the South and make desperate attempts to come to Europe to earn a better living. Forget economic migrants, even students find it difficult to come to Europe and American to study. So what the heck is he one about? Bless his imperial - sorry, global - soul.

Someone asked what the directors thought cultural vandalism was. I wonder whether at all this was a hint hint vis a vis the the Marbles but I can't be sure. The British Museum fellow said that he considered the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas, historical sites in Iraq by the Americans and the recent destruction in Gaza as cultural vandalism, the 'destruction' of history. UNESCO was going to work to address the destruction in Gaza but had got nowhere so far. 

There was something about acquisitions. The Tate Modern fellow said in such non-chalant manner that 'we don't need to have every Turner out there.' The last one we got was very important though and we needed to complete the collection. The guy was talking about it as if it was his own house he was decorating. The British Museum guy said they were busy collecting Ghanaian cloth as these are made to mark important historical events. 

Some fellow called Richard York asked whether booming attendance figures would end up becoming 'bad for art.' Isn't this a bit contradictory? On the one hand, people are thinking that the digital age will reduce numbers and this fellow was saying that there was a time when museums and galleries would be virtually empty. He'd once asked the security guard why it was so empty and the guard had said, 'director likes it this way' - this got a lot of laughs from everyone. The response was that in such a case, opening hours could always be extended. 

The grandeur kept building up - collections can now be moved around, they don't have to permanent anywhere. Moreover, we need to re-configure our information for the benefit of non-Europeans. We need to de-Europeanise everything. What noble intentions! No, I am not being sarcastic - this is the first time I hear some sense! 

There was an interesting question from a girl - she wanted to know what the directors thought about the taking of art outside museums and whether this was an exploitation of art to lure visitors or just plain exploitation. Gee, I never knew art was being exploited! She was trying to get at the idea that art should only be seen within museums. But that's not entirely true. Aren't sculptures all over the place and are frequently commissioned and displayed in the public? 

There was a question on architecture! The Tate Modern fellow said that in some cases architecture indeed was superseding art itself. However, he felt that the most interesting buildings out there were done by artists acting as architects. Gee, how snobby. 

Well anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this mostly snobby talk. These two directors went on about as if they were royalty, legs crossed, reclined in their chairs, talking - no drawling about art and history, going on as if the museums were their living rooms. The Tate Modern director was really arrogant I think. It seemed as if the two have never done any real hard work in their lives. Oh well, bless their delicate souls. 

On an end note, it would haven been interesting to ask a question on the future of art itself. What would modern art look like in the 21st century and how will that shape art's relationship with museums as spaces which display art and allow people to interact with it. 

PS. I am really excited about going to see Amartya Sen on 27 July at the LSE!! 
PSS. This makes really want to visit a museum!

*This is something I found extremely amusing when I was an undergrad here. Having been schooled in American Int'l schools, naturally, I was more loyal to the US (never having been though) and thought the idea of coming to study in our former imperial masters' country a bit ridiculous but come here I did. I used to find it so contradictory how the Brits love and despise the Americans. I used to buy these movie magazines and found it absolutely hilarious how no matter how crap or average the movie would be, the editors would never have anything bad to say about a British movie (you can find all the industry can actually fit into one movie) yet British actors are clamouring to make it big in Hollywood. 

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