All human life under one roof

January 10, 2003

In its 250th year, the British Museum faces cash worries, accusations of complacency and questions about its use of its remarkable collections, but its director tells Huw Richards that it remains one of the best of its kind.

When David Lodge wrote The British Museum is Falling Down in 1965, his apocalyptic title concealed the story of a postgraduate student whose worries about the completion of his thesis were exceeded only by those imposed by Catholic orthodoxy on birth control.

To read news coverage of the museum in recent years is to wonder whether life might not imitate art. Its Great Court might not actually have been falling down, but that did not make its refurbishment any less contentious. Then there have been financial worries, leading to redundancies and staff unrest, plus the interminable imbroglio over the rightful location for the Elgin Marbles.

All of this is at odds with Sir David Wilson's upbeat conclusion to his The British Museum: A History , published last year to celebrate the museum's 250th anniversary. "No other museum is held in such respect internationally; no other national museum expends more time and effort in communicating its collections to the public. An exciting place in which to work, an exciting place to visit, it remains the greatest museum in the world," he writes.

The museum opened its doors in 1759, but the legislation on which it was founded received royal assent in June 1753, less than five months after the death of Sir Hans Sloane (January 11 1753), whose bequest of his collection to the nation spurred the museum's creation.

There is no doubt that it was the first public national museum, but whether it is now also the best is a more contentious question.

Neil MacGregor, director since last year, points out that he does not operate with the outlook of a football manager. "There's no point in worrying where we stand in relation to the Louvre or the Metropolitan (Museum of Art in New York) at any moment. But there is no doubt that we are one of the great museums of the world, and probably the most comprehensive in terms of our collections. There is certainly no other single building in Europe that has the whole enterprise of humanity under one roof."

Maurice Davies, assistant director of the Museums Association of Great Britain, agrees. "You would have to regard it as one of the top five museums in the world because the collections are so fantastic," he says.

Whether it makes the best possible use of that remarkable stock is debatable. Davies describes it as "something of a grandame, rather like an Oxbridge college. It does great things but feels rather detached from other museums, and it generally is not seen as an exemplar of state-of-the-art practice."

Eileen Hooper-Greenhill, professor of museum studies at Leicester University, is similarly sceptical. She argues that the sheer range and quality of the museum's collections, as well as its central London location and place on most tourist itineraries, have led to some complacency. "It has not had to fight or try to find ways of attracting a range of different publics," she says. As a consequence, she argues, "it lags badly behind on presentation. Where, for instance, the British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum are offering distinctive new way of relating to objects, the British Museum is still wedded to more traditional styles."

Both she and Davies welcome the appointment of MacGregor, previously a highly successful director of the National Gallery. Davies says: "He was effective both in terms of scholarship and in developing the public face of the gallery." Hooper-Greenhill adds that she was impressed by MacGregor's commitment to access and education.

MacGregor, who took up the post at the end of August, faces serious challenges. The museum's finances were stabilised by a programme of more than 100 staff redundancies put through by his predecessor, Robert Anderson. The sale of an office building off the central Bloomsbury site will clear a £6 million capital deficit. But stability has been gained at a cost. "There are things we now cannot do. It has implications for education programmes, for activities in the regions and for exhibitions and events, all of which are staff intensive. We have had to make a priority of access to, and research based on, the collections," MacGregor says.

He pointedly cites a recent parliamentary select committee report arguing that museums will need extra funding if free entry - a policy that the museum continued through the years of Conservative rule until it was reintroduced nationally by the current government - is to be maintained. More than a year ago, the museum said that it needed at least £3 million on top of its annual government grant of £36 million. Davies believes that the need is clear, arguing that Labour has been little more helpful than its Conservative predecessors in "supporting culture at anything like the level European governments would regard as routine".

MacGregor blames the government for underestimating the financial implications of moving the British Library out of the museum site. He says:

"It left us with a site that had a huge backlog of building work. No thought was given to how we would reoccupy the space vacated by the library, and funding levels took no account of it."

The library's departure also arguably detached potential support - contemporary versions of Lodge's protagonist Adam Appleby agonise in a modern building in St Pancras rather than the famous domed reading room in Bloomsbury - but MacGregor says that it has created opportunities.

Not only has the museum gained, in the spectacular physical space of the £106 million Great Court, a centrepiece that transforms the feel of the site and enhances the magnificence of the reading room dome, but the library has been transformed, too. Previously the confine of ticket-holding readers, it is now, says MacGregor, "an open-access library that allows us to go way beyond the label on an object in what we offer visitors. It is common for people to come in here and be fascinated by an object. Now they can go into the library and follow through that interest in the books there."

MacGregor believes the transfigured library, with its children's section and displays devoted to special exhibitions, epitomises a timely return to the ideals of the founders. "It was always intended as a centre of lifelong learning, open to anyone who wished to learn from it, with no limits on the grounds of academic qualification."

The museum's earlier history also continues to haunt the present in the controversy over the Elgin Marbles, to which the Greek government continues to lay claim. MacGregor points out that there is no question about the museum's legal right to the marbles, although Wilson's history shows that its trustees were less than generous to Lord Elgin - they took ruthless advantage of his impecuniousness to secure the marbles at a knock-down price.

The museum's case was recently bolstered by a manifesto of support signed by other leading national museums. MacGregor says: "It is a vital issue. It is a question of the different contexts in which objects can be seen - in a purely local or national one, or in the context of all civilisations. The marbles are divided, with roughly half in the museum at Athens and half here. I would argue that that is a happy accident of history. They can be seen both in their Athens context and here, where they can be seen against the sweep of the whole of human history - the Egyptians, Assyrians and civilisations since. Each is valuable."

MacGregor accepts that other museums offer lessons in the labelling and display of objects. "Sometimes we need help with what questions to ask. British galleries have been successful in this, and the Museum of Natural History in New York is excellent at encouraging questions. The Natural History Museum in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris takes you through the whole of evolution in a dazzling display of presentation and design."

But MacGregor is very happy with the museum's new Korean and African galleries, and he looks forward to the great event of anniversary year - "the opening of the new King's Library, which will show the whole extent of learning towards the end of the 18th century, at the end of the year".

Displaying the whole span of learning at the beginning of the 21st remains, inevitably, a rather greater challenge.

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