No secrets for muse of museums

The Poetic Museum
April 26, 2002

Charles Saumarez Smith considers whether the BM should exhibit Saddam Hussein's fascination with Nebuchadnezzar.

For most of the past two decades, Julian Spalding has been one of the key figures in the museums profession, endlessly active in proselytising for a democratic vision of museums built round visitors' needs. He started his professional career in the early 1970s in the Leicester Museum and Art Gallery and was appointed director of Sheffield's museums service when he was 35. At Sheffield, he absorbed much of Ruskin's utopian idealism and he remains closely involved with the Guild of St George. In 1985 he moved to Manchester to run its city art gallery, where he claims to have tripled attendances by abolishing the atmosphere of neo-Victorian abundance that had been so carefully created by Timothy Clifford, his predecessor. Then in 1989 he was invited to Glasgow to run its museums service, one of the largest in the country. It includes Kelvingrove, one of the only museums with visitor numbers to match those in London. At Glasgow, he had a colourful reign, setting up new museums including the Gallery of Modern Art and the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, buying works of art on a scale unmatched by anywhere else in the country, and organising large-scale and ambitious exhibitions.

But in 1998, he lost his job in a round of municipal reorganisation and, since then, he has become a pundit without his tub, railing against everyone else in the museums world for not doing their jobs as well as him. In The Poetic Museum , he describes his philosophy. It is in essence a simple one. In order to survive, museums need to communicate to visitors the original meanings of the objects in their care, to invest them with a sense of the power and poetry that they had when they were made.

Towards the end of the book, it becomes clear which museums he really admires. The first is the Groninger Museum in Groningen, northern Holland, an adventurous experiment in differentiating between the architecture of the collections it houses and that, revealingly, is said to include a large-scale photograph of its director, who is considered to be the hero of the museum's conception. The second is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, a powerful evocation of the narrative of the Holocaust that requires visitors to follow along a single route and to experience everything that is shown in the same predetermined way. The third is the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, built around the wreck of a 17th-century flagship excavated from just outside Stockholm harbour. Each of these museums is constructed around a clear sense of narrative, which is then communicated to visitors through hortatory displays. The complex process of looking, seeing and experiencing objects and works of art in museums is short-circuited by a uniform method of exposition that extracts the narrative from the objects and then is explained to visitors in a way that is superimposed.

Thus far, I am reasonably sympathetic to Spalding. His account has the virtue of being extraordinarily global, describing with the same level of critical engagement new museums in rural Japan, the new national museum of New Zealand, museum developments in Singapore and the experience of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. It is also exceptionally non-partisan in that it scarcely differentiates between different types of museum. Spalding appears to be just at home in the back rooms of the Natural History Museum as he is in the archaeological displays of a new museum in the southern Tyrol. He provides an account of the qualities of natural daylight in the new J. Paul Getty Museum as well as of new displays in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Some idea of the range of Spalding's interests is conveyed by the museums he discusses in Italy: not just the Uffizi, but also Carlo Scarpa's interventions in the late 1950s in the Castelvecchio in Verona, a newly established Museum of Maquettes in Pietrasanta, and the way that Galileo's finger is displayed in the Museum of the History of Science in Florence. He either had a very extensive travel budget when he was director of museums in Glasgow or he has spent his retirement travelling the world.

The other great benefit of Spalding's account is that he describes much of the current thinking in museums. I have never really understood why there is an obsession in official circles with the idea of integrated off-site storage shared between different museums. Spalding makes clear that it is motivated by a desire to provide much better public access to reserve collections - an entirely laudable ambition - with an expectation that this might lead to a more effective rationalisation of collections and to the possibility of thinning out displays in museums themselves. In fact, Spalding is conspicuously contradictory on this issue because he disparages the Tate Gallery for having done exactly what he advocates - separating its collections from its exhibition venues.

Another obsession is the idea of putting objects on display in pubs. One of the best sections in the book is Spalding's account of how museums can be made to work in unexpected ways, including Jonathan Silver's admirable displays of the paintings of David Hockney in Titus Salt's great mills in Saltaire, where they are displayed in a pseudo-domestic setting with armchairs and flowers, and Spalding's own experiments with allowing people in Glasgow to create their own displays in local housing estates.

Overall, the book provides a good account of the tendency in museums to favour narrative displays, beginning with Jeshajau Weinberg's displays created jointly with James Gardner in the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv. Where it falls down is in the final section when Spalding fantasises about what he would like to do with the British Museum if he were appointed its director. Here it becomes clear that his enthusiasm for narrative displays is such that he would like to reshape all the great museums of the world along narrative lines. The British Museum, instead of being organised by cultural and historical categories, would be reordered according to whichever narratives Spalding as director thought would be titillating. Out would go a room dedicated to Babylonian and Assyrian sculpture, in would come an exhibition describing Saddam Hussein's fascination with Nebuchadnezzar - or a display devoted to the relationship between the sexes. At this point it becomes clear that Spalding's tendencies are potentially pernicious. It is not remotely self-evident that the public is going to be more interested in temporary narrative displays - inevitably likely to have a short lifespan - than in a broad and reasonably comprehensive display of the treasures of an ancient civilisation. Nor is it inevitable that the public will prefer theatrical and propagandist displays devoted to politically correct issues of public concern, instead of open-ended and complex displays of objects whose meaning is not necessarily self-evident but that are, nonetheless, beautiful. It seems slightly perverse to describe the "poetic museum" as being one that sacrifices mystery for narrative and replaces exploration with didacticism. An object can surely be interesting for what it looks like and how it is made, and not just for the story that it tells. Indeed, to accommodate all objects from the past into present-oriented, didactic displays rather than allowing them to reveal their secrets silently and with their integrity as works of art intact is profoundly anti-democratic.

Charles Saumarez Smith is director, National Portrait Gallery.

The Poetic Museum: Reviving Historic Collections

Author - Julian Spalding
ISBN - 3 7913 2678 3
Publisher - Prestel
Price - £24.95
Pages - 184

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