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Museum of the future debate
Transcription of 'A living building: how could the British Museum best deliver its constant purpose for a changing public?' on Thursday 11 September 2014
LF Liz Forgan
NM Neil MacGregor
JC Jim Cuno
AG Antony Gormley
NK Nicholas Kenyon
WP Wim Pijbes
BG Bonnie Greer
NC Nicholas Coombe
HG Helen Goodman
KR Keith Raffan
DS David Shamash
SA Sharon Ament
BK Brenda King
PC Pascale Vassie
NB Nicholas Barber
DW Dorrie Wilson
PV Paul Vick
AM Arifa Malik
HC Helen Casey
WH Wim Hance
IS Imogen Steinberg
LF A very, very warm welcome. My name is Liz Forgan. I am a trustee of the museum and I am chairing tonight’s session. On the panel beside me are… is a group of the most distinguished people; some of whom you will know and some of whom you may not. Starting at that end, Dr James Cuno, president and chief executive of the J Paul Getty Trust. Next to him is Sir Antony Gormley, who you will know as a great… one of our great sculptors. You will recognise his body because it’s on display in many places. Next to him is Sir Nicholas Kenyon, who runs the Barbican and lots of other things. Next to me here is Wim Pijbes, who is general director of the Rijksmuseum, which has just triumphantly reopened and taught us all how to really make a
museum look completely brilliant again. And on the far side is Bonnie Greer, who is a former trustee at the British Museum, a passionate advocate of what goes on here, and also a passionate critic. She gripped me by the arm as we came in. She said, I just want you to know… is it all right if I say radical things? I said, Bonnie, that’s the terms of your engagement.
This is a very important moment for the British Museum. It’s – amazingly enough, I think – the first time in the 255-year history of the British Museum that we have ever opened a great public debate on how the museum looks after its extraordinary objects, how it engages with the public, how the people who come here want to come here and use it, scholars, public, old, young… we are starting on a process of radical thinking about how the museum best delivers its constant purpose in a completely changed society and we are very grateful to you for coming to help us. This is a genuinely open engagement and this is the first of three debates but the beginning of a many-month-long dialogue with the public, with scholars, with our colleagues about what we should be doing in the future.
Three things really prompted us. One is the digital revolution, which changes completely the way in which we can communicate with our visitors. The second is that this year we hit 6.8 million people through the front door, which kind of makes us have to address the physical arrangement of the place. And the third is that we have just opened a new building, the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, which has given us a temporary exhibition space dedicated for the first time and has released the round reading room for a new purpose. We want as many people as possible to take part in this. Social media is everywhere. This is being recorded. There will be a blog. There is a hashtag which should be up on my head; @museumofthefuture. Please tweet as much as you want to. The purpose of all this is to enrich our thinking and to help you to join in and get your voice heard.
We’re kicking off the debate with three panels. Not to… I don't want this to be a conversation between experts, but we have here experts who will crack open our thinking. They will each say something perhaps quite different about their own thoughts about the British Museum. It’s just intended as an opener of a conversation together. We can talk about absolutely anything from cuneiform tablets to cafes, but I’m going to steer you away if we go too far down the digital route because the next debate is specifically focused on that and I’m going to steer you away if the whole conversation starts to be about the round reading room because I want us to think more broadly than that. And two more things… or one more thing I’d like to agree: we all know the lavatories are terrible, so can we just not use that as a great subject for discussion?
To start us off, it’s a great delight that the director, Neil MacGregor, is here. He’ll have to disappear at the end, but he’ll be back again. He has other duties as I explained to you at the beginning. So, I’d like to invite him now to come and start us off with a few words.
NM Thank you, Liz, very much. The purpose of the British Museum… the constant purpose when Parliament created the museum in 1753 was perfectly simple: every citizen was to be able to explore the whole world in one building. In Montagu House in the building on this site which Parliament bought in the 1750s were to be gathered things from all round the world. The collection was to be aimed at universality and it was to be open free of charge to all studious and curious persons native and foreign. Perfectly simple… whole world could study the whole world in one building in London. That remains the purpose. That’s what it’s about. It’s one of the very few buildings anywhere in the world where you could even think of studying the world, thinking about the whole world… certainly the only place in Europe that the whole world is still under one roof.
1750s… the only way you could think of this was really as a private house and what the British Museum was was effectively the library of a gentleman’s house where you had prints and drawings, you had coins, you had antiquities, you had everything that – books of course – that you think about the world and so they bought a private house – the Duke of Montagu’s house – on the edge of London and decided that anybody could ask to come to see it. You simply had to write to ask and an appointment would be made and you’d get your card and it would tell you when you could come to see the collection, when you could call on it, and it reminded you very firmly that this was in no sense to be a monetary transaction and no money was to be given to the servants and… which is still the case today and you were received at the house – as you’d expect – by the housekeeper and here is the first employee of the British Museum, Mary Bygrave, who let you in and then you were taken round by the curator. That was then. It was totally revolutionary; the idea of a collection that the citizens could see as a right whenever they chose in the terms then prevailing.
Everything changed of course after the 1815… the new post-Napoleonic view of how a society should organise public collections and Montagu House was pulled down and the new building put up [unclear] and open to everybody and everything was here. This is what you found inside just to remind you that this was the whole world. It was natural history as well as everything else as well as the library. This caused a great problem of course. The stuffed giraffes were particularly popular with children, who pulled them apart. So, the British Museum didn’t allow children in to start with because of the damage they did to stuffed animals, but that was changed later by having better brought-up children and – that’s what the Victorians were for – and sending the stuffed animals off to South Kensington, where they remain in the National History Museum. The museum was now recognisably a public museum in the way we could imagine it today and the public was of course well behaved – as you
can see a beautifully brought up child admiring the antiquities of Egypt – and it went on until of course… the great change was 1851 – the great exhibition – and for the first time mass tourism of a cultural sort hits Britain. In 1851 all the London museums’ attendances soar and it has continued. This was then.
This is today; people queuing up to get into the Egyptian Gallery in the Great Court and – you can see through the window at the top – queueing up to get on further into the Parthenon galleries. This is a perfectly ordinary summer day and once you get into the Egyptian gallery, this is what it now looks like and this of course is wonderful. The world is coming to look at the world as was always intended and they’re coming to look at this unique assemblage of the cultures of humanity and the building is stretched and this is of course the question. We have always existed to enable people to look at objects carefully, to think about them, to discuss them, to draw them, to admire them, or to walk past them and neglect them; whatever they choose. To use this collection as the private collection of every citizen… that’s what it’s about. This is not a royal collection in the continental sense graciously opened to the citizen. This is the private collection of every citizen who wants to come and use it and last year nearly 7 million did.
The building – you all know in the summer – is really struggling to handle these crowds, but what experience are the crowds getting of the object? How can they interrogate the objects? What do we do about this to help them better engage with the collection that the trustees hold for them? The building has changed steadily over the years. The crowds not only come to visit the collection. They come – as you can see – to have lunch on the steps and this will become even worse – I suspect – once we move onto any kind of free Wi- Fi. The steps will become impassable and what we’re looking at is really, how do we go to the next stage of a building that has constantly had to rethink itself to achieve its purpose? From Montagu House in the 1750s to the first Smirke building of the 1820s with the classical portico that you know today and the rough rectangle that you can still see to the building by the end of the 19th century with the reading room in the middle of the courtyard and greatly expanded at the north. The library followed the stuffed animals in 2000 and the reading room is now – as you know – no longer a reading room. The space that was in the middle is available for other purposes and the latest change in the buildings earlier this year we opened on the north side of the building new spaces for conservation scientific work and for the research collection.
That’s a very brief overview of the history of the building; a building that has changed steadily in 250 years but always with the same purpose of allowing people to look at the collection held for their benefit. How we go on doing that is the question for the next few months. So, Liz, thank you very much.
LF Thank you very much, Neil. That’s a great start for us. Now, I want to crack on immediately. I should have reminded you… could you just turn your phones to silent? Because otherwise it’ll play havoc with the recording. I’m going to ask the panel to be tremendously disciplined and speak for five minutes each so that we have lots of time to talk. Jim, start us off, please.
JC Thank you and in the spirit of discipline I’m going to read a text because that’s the only way I can keep to five minutes. So, forgive me. The British Museum opened to the public – as you’ve heard – in 1759. It had been founded three years earlier when Parliament acted to accept for the nation Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of more than 70,000 books, manuscripts, natural specimens, and a few antiquities. A year later George II gave the museum the old royal library and together the two gifts formed the basis of an Enlightenment-era institution dedicated to the investigation of the world in all of its natural, scientific, and cultural diversity. Although the original museum didn’t use the terms the museum uses today, it very much was even then a place where people from everywhere in the world could explore the history of what it is to be a human. Sloane and the museum’s earliest trustees were confident that encounters with things representative of the world’s natural and cultural diversity would not only provoke curious minds to propose, examine, and re-examine new truths about the world but would promote a greater understanding of and tolerance for difference in the world.
If that was necessary and beneficial then, it is all the more so now for today we live in an age of resurgent nationalism and sectarian violence of a degree and a kind not experienced for centuries. Anything that promotes a better understanding of the intertwined histories of the world’s many and different peoples and cultures is to be encouraged. Museums like the British Museum do this by building and researching their deep and diverse collections, preserving their collections for the future, and installing and interpreting them for the public. Everything the museum does is… in this respect is for the public. The British Museum was given to the nation and not the Crown; its collections are held in trust for the public. Today’s museum public is greater in size and more diverse in interests and educational preparation than ever before.
It is the great thing about museums: they open their doors to the public without discrimination. The public is not examined on entry or on exit. The public comes of its own accord and exercises its own agency following its own interests and curiosities. Of course the museum assists the public by providing intelligent and coherent installations of and information about its collections, but it allows the public to draw its own conclusions about them. The museum must encourage this by installing its collections in ways to provoke the public’s curiosity about them and then to provide information about their various meanings and histories. In today’s world such information can be provided both in print and online, downloaded onto handheld devices,
stored in the cloud, retrieved from home, and filed with information drawn from other websites, blogs, and the full range of digital resources.
The only limit to the museum’s ambition in this regard is time and money. Supporting continuing research of the museum’s collections, the provision of educational materials, and sufficiently flexible space to accommodate the public, install the museum’s collections intelligently and provocatively, and build the digital infrastructure to support all of this is not without cost. It is for this reason that the British Museum is embarking on this open building development framework discussion. It has got to know what it needs to do and what it can afford to do to meet its expanding public obligations and it is right to begin with an assessment of its existing and available spaces.
Perhaps the most difficult question is what to do with the reading room. It no longer serves the purpose for which it was built and it is in – as we have seen – prime public space. I know there are strong feelings about this. The reading room is both a functional and symbolic space. My great-grandfather, a young lieutenant of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, en route to the United States to set up the new general council of the first international in 1872 stopped by London, met with Marx, and went sightseeing, visiting the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, and St Paul’s Cathedral; all of which – he later wrote – did not impress me as much as the sight of the chair at the reading room at the British Museum, where for years Marx sat reading and taking notes, preparing to write the immortal Das Kapital. It was Eleanor – he reminds us – Marx’s youngest daughter, who showed me that chair. I can’t help but feel that Marx, that great dialectical materialist, would turn in his Highgate grave if the public promise of the reading room were compromised by nostalgia for circumstances that no longer exist. Marx may have sat in that chair, but he worked with materials now in the British Library on the Euston Road. The reading room should be explored for every possibility of providing for temporary installations from the museum’s collections, public debates and conversations about their meanings, and digital access to information about them and the larger world of which they are a part. It should be able to do this while keeping its architecture and some of its furnishings for the historical value they represent. The reading room is at the centre of the museum and it could be better used to introduce the public to how the museum and how its collections can help them explore the history of what it is to be human, which of course is and has always been the ultimate purpose of the British Museum.
LF Thank you very much, Jim. Antony?
AG Well, it’s just really great that you’re in your museum. This is your museum. This is an exciting moment for this museum. I think this is a possibility of real change. I think Neil has given us – all of us who love this museum and that’s the reason that we’re all here tonight – a rubric under which it can renew and re-examine its purpose; a museum of and for the
world. Extraordinary ambition, but it puts on us all an extraordinary responsibility. This museum is the fruit of Enlightenment thinking. It behoves us as the inheritors of the rationalism that the Enlightenment spawned, which is really modernity, modernism, with its promise of social justice, of an equitable distribution of resources, to re-examine what a museum is and might be. I think what that means is a re-examination of what culture means. Culture in the time that this museum has been in existence – I think – has shifted. That word has shifted and it has shifted from – in a sense – the history of civilisation that underpins an assumption about western hegemony to an understanding of culture as being really a holistic story of the whole of humanity and that those cultures that did not possess writing, that did not possess armies, or a sewage system that allowed a city to exist could coexist with those that did.
So, the intellectual challenge that is for us all to decide is whether we love this museum as it is because it represents in a way a historic idea of the history of humankind as the history of civilisation or whether we can take that responsibility and do something radical and fold the history of humankind that is hitherto fore been under the rubric of anthropology, ethnography, the study of material culture… in fact, use that idea; material culture. Replace the history of civilisation with material culture – the history of the world through objects that Neil has so beautifully synthesized in the history that he presented through the BBC – but what that means is that all of that stuff… all of those bits of our collection that used to be in the Museum of Mankind need to be associated and meaningfully put in dialogue with the history of Mesopotamia, the history of the Mediterranean, of the classical world… this is an incredibly exciting but necessarily intellectual activity that will demand the reorganisation of both the departments, the way that the things are displayed, and indeed where they are displayed and I think, you know, just to put an oar in, this is the idea of Hugo, the present keeper of prints and drawings. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if this really is a history of the world for the world? To replace the history of the word with the history of the origins of humankind and use the reading room to get Africa out of the basement and put it at the core of this building and allow the history of the evolution of human mind through objects to then filter through the entire fabric. This is a very important, critical, and extremely exciting moment for this place. Thank you.
NK Well, thanks, Liz, and I entirely agree, Antony, that this is an absolutely exciting and critical moment and I should say that I am a complete interloper here. I am not from the museums and galleries world nor have I ever been on the British Museum Board, but coming from the Barbican I do at least share with you a slightly intractable building and the really… the one point I want to put into this discussion is, yes, we are talking about a museum of and for the world. My question is, how do you connect physically with the world? And I
think that’s a question that you need to open out a bit as you move forward with this plan because it would be such a shame if you were only looking at the inside as you do that and not the whole experience by which people access this museum.
Liz told me not to bring any slides, so I haven’t brought any slides, but what do you see when you approach this museum? That is what you see. Now, there are all sorts of good reasons for that, but what you have here is a temple and there are all sorts of temples to the arts around our great cities, but the fact is that since those temples were erected, people’s experience of interacting with the arts has changed seismically and totally. You know, just to take an example from London, in the past we were all prepared to slog through the puddles on the South Bank in order to get to our art and enjoy our Bruckner symphony in the festival hall. That does not happen anymore. The South Bank is an absolutely transformed scenario which invites people in. The Barbican – alas – was built as an enclosed community and we are now in intensive discussions with Sharon and the Museum of London about how we can actually open the place out to connect with the public in a more welcoming way.
Now, you do not want to throw away in doing that the specialness of the experience of coming here. There is a huge balance to be made between the wonderfulness of the Rijksmuseum and the setting in which it sits. Anybody who has been to Proms over the last few weeks… the amazing building of the Albert Hall… is that an attraction? It is undoubtedly a special thing to be in. Does it put people off? There is a balancing act there between what I would call aura and awe associated with a building and accessibility and welcome and I see no reason why here you should not be looking at what you do outside the building as a way of connecting more fully with the public. The whole forecourt area could be completely reimagined. Just suppose you were able to get rid of that one set of fences between here and Great Russell Street. If you look at what has been achieved in Exhibition Road around the museums, if you look at the South Bank, if you look at what has been achieved in Trafalgar Square outside the National Gallery; could there be actually a whole plaza which closed Great Russell Street to traffic once and for all, put back the two-way system on Bloomsbury Way one block down, and actually opened that out so that it is something far more like the relationship that you get at the Pompidou Centre between space and the art. I just put those physical things on the table as one perspective and I think the question is, how do you connect with the way that people actually receive this stuff now?
LF Thank you very much, Nick. Fantastic. Wim, you’ve got a bicycle track through your museum. Tell us about how that goes.
WP I love it. It’s great and it’s indeed the same energy as just described. I mean, to open up to the city, to the environment… the question today or tonight is, how could the British Museum best deliver its constant purpose for a changing public? And open is – I think – the key word to do that. I am asked to respond and to answer this question based on our experience – this has been said already – with a refresh of the Rijksmuseum. The Rijksmuseum indeed is open. It’s open and it is the key word for us, has always been, but even now it’s really the key word for everybody working at the Rijksmuseum.
As a director my main task first was to open the building that has been suffering from very big problems, a neighbourhood always against everything, building regulations… everything went wrong. My first thing to do was to open the building, but that was not enough. I wanted to open the collection and I wanted to open the institution and that’s what we did. The Rijksmuseum is open 365 days of the year including Christmas and New Year’s Day. The building is open. The day-lit atrium is free accessible. The museum gardens are open, free for all, with summer exhibits, a terrace, children’s playground, a sculpture garden, coffee, and even champagne. You may pick your own chair, relax, read a book, or enjoy people… watching people doing the same thing. And people love that. People go to a museum for many reasons and one museum director colleague in the Netherlands once said, there is no wrong reason to go to a museum, and I couldn’t agree more for that.
Every visitor to the Rijksmuseum as well as the British Museum starts not by entering physically the building after the ticketing control. I think the visits to the museum starts in the head of the visitor as soon as he or she wakes up that particular morning going to the museum. I want to make that visit to the Rijksmuseum everybody’s highlight of the day. So, with that in mind I decided to stretch that time of the visit to the maximum. So, even long before you enter the building, as soon as you see it, even if you think about it, you are already in the spell of it and this in fact is nothing new. The best example of managing expectations in a highly dramatic way is St Peter’s Square in Rome. Here Bernini made an open-air foyer, making you feel you are in the church, but you’re not. You still have to walk hundreds of metres before entering the actual cathedral and Bernini opened St Peter’s Cathedral. You know all these… you’ve been at the place. By adding these welcoming arms of Jesus, this whole colonnade, this whole baroque ensemble of architecture, you think, I am in St Peter’s. You’re not. You have to pass the whole square and then you’re finally in the church itself. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you could open a building and the same formula can be done here in the British Museum. How can you stretch the experience? How can you play with the visitors’ expectations? And indeed in my view the modern museum is more than a building as such.
So, we also opened the building, but not only that: we opened the collection and we… and it’s reaching far beyond the brick-stone walls and that’s thanks to the Internet and I have to say a few remarks on the Internet though there is… the next session is about the Internet, but it’s really important. As the World Wide Web turns 25 this year, we now realise to its full extent that it’s more than just technology. Open access lies in the heart of the web and open access – to my opinion – is the way to go. The web is becoming a state of mind and a dream of participation. The web is a call to freedom and transcends geography and this actually makes the web the ideal partner for art institutions since art is a global language now within reach for the modern connected world. So, please check our website by yourself. Stroll through it. Use it. Everything is free. High-resolution images, downloads, whatever you like… use it. Print it. Make your own products. Even sell them. The Rijksmuseum now has over 200,000 works available free to use; no copyrights; no restrictions. Over 150,000 people worldwide made their own Rijkstudio and our images are used in fashion magazines, campaigns, shop materials, T-shirts, DANONE yogurt, wine and cigar labels, cars, and much more all for free. So, I’m sure that any time anywhere in the world somebody is somewhere in touch with our collection and that’s great.
Now, we opened the building… we opened the collection, and a third thing we want to open is the institution. Major museums like the British or the Rijksmuseum have been established in the 19th century as a kind of national tribune for good taste. As the Germans say, [German]: institutions dedicated to the real, the good, and the beauty. This of course was a very top-down 19th-century attitude, but in our times – at least in the Netherlands and I’m sure in the UK as well – the absolute authority of institutions like banks, politicians, accountancy firms, but also museums is no longer unquestioned. Everything in our time has become flattened; this also thanks to the Internet. Museums are places where people encounter art and history, it has been said tonight earlier, and we all might look at the same piece, but our demands nowadays are more and more individual. No longer one size fits all but one size fits nobody. In the Rijksmuseum we engaged all these new different audiences and all these new different people with an open mind. Ladies and gentlemen, open access not only to my opinion is the future for the Internet. Open access to the building, the collection, and the institution also is the future for the museum. Thank you.
LF Thank you, Wim. And lastly, Bonnie…
BG You know, I feel like I’m in church. I just want to say amen to everything Wim just said. I just kept going like this. On that spirit, hashtag, everybody, museumofthefuture… so, please be tweeting. I am a playwright. I write plays. I bring stuff from the ether and so nobody in their right mind would have me run anything, so I’m not going to talk to you from the perspective of my distinguished panellists because I’ve never run anything. I’ve just been here. So, I want to talk to you about the theatre of the British Museum. I came to see… after eight years on the board here, four of them as
deputy chair, and I’m… you know, once you’ve been in this institution, you have to actually be away from it for about a year or two so you can just get, you know… I see people going like this. Yes. You have to wean yourself away from here because it’s so fantastic.
That every museum large or small is an ecosystem… it is the objects, the physical building itself, the curators, other staff, the visitors and then that ecosystem is the things that cannot be seen. The scholarship, the energy of everyone involved, the connections with the museum’s various communities… and a museum is also the point. The point to me at this moment in time, in this age of asymmetrical warfare is to defend the west where we are. The west at its highest, the west of its dream self, an entity of individual freedom, the free flow of ideas, the equality of men and women, ethnicities, abilities, and sexualities… we ain’t there yet, but I’m just talking about the dream.
In a new age of enlightenment the British Museum also means the strong embrace and the very becoming of what Wim is talking about: digitalisation. This is not simply the wiring of the museum but an understanding of what a digital edifice is: one that exists not just onscreen or increasingly in digital wearables. A digital museum understands and is the Internet of everything. It gives away the collection [unclear] in which every object – even the space itself – interacts with the visitors. The concept of the visitor itself will become a multifaceted experience; increasingly one that will not just be in situ. It will be everywhere because the museum must face everywhere. I really don’t think… this is my other thought. I really don’t think that ethnicity – BAME, which… I hate that term – and ethnic diversity and whatever is going to exist in 50 to 100 years’ time simply because the question will be, what is ethnic diversity diverse from? Because the from will no longer be the norm. It will no longer be the reference point. It will no longer be the end-all. We are… in the west… in the world are blending. We’re becoming a new people. So, the museum should become a kind of staging post for this new world and also a way station in which objects, ideas, and experience will document, even encourage the movement towards this cohesion and perhaps point toward possible futures.
This institution is called the British Museum and – who knows – maybe in the future the word British might mean something old and lost, archaic and nostalgic, or it could mean something new. Whatever British is now and become to my mind has to be about values and the museum must embody values old and new. Then, in doing that, the museum becomes two things. It becomes positional. It becomes a place that is constantly alert to the change… to change in the local community, constantly alert to change in London, constantly alert to change in the UK, and the world. It’s putting itself where ideas can be shared and debated and extended. It becomes an agora. And the second point in that is what I call justification. Justification is the act of discovery of the reasons why we hold the objects we do and that has to be
constantly explored, constantly challenged, constantly investigated, constantly celebrated because, ladies and gentlemen, we will have to be able increasingly in this new century to justify keeping a frieze from the Parthenon. We will have to justify holding the Benin bronzes. We’re even going to have to justify why we’ve got the Lewis Chessmen. We are in an age in which a sales slip or a deed or a gift will not do because the young will ask us why and we must know the reason why. We must know the point.
In conclusion, it will be our values forged in the best of the past but also in our understanding of the world in which we live and work with our determination as a museum to go forward; not backwards, not into nostalgia, but forward. That will enable the young to support us, to defend us, and help us keep admission to this museum, this 21st-century agora, free always. Thank you.
LF Ladies and gentlemen, I think our panel has given us a most wonderful start for a conversation. Please, will you start putting your hands up if you want to speak so that we can get microphones to you? And while we do that I will try to both point and talk at the same time, which is tricky. Can you… who has got the microphones? Please say who you are if you can. Some themes have been coming out of what our panel has been saying. You don’t have to stick to them, but it seems to me that they’re rich and one of them is about openness; physical, intellectual, attitudinal. One of them is about the story of humankind that we tell in this museum. Have we got it in the right order? Has it the right priorities? Has it the right ingredients? Is Africa in the place it should be in that story or not? And the idea of the museum as a place for ideas shared… the scholar finds it a place for ideas. The yogurt pot designer also finds it a place for ideas. Are they both real, proper, and truthful uses for a museum? And then Bonnie’s extraordinary conclusion, the museum as the dream, as the place where Enlightenment values find their new expression for a new society… this is exactly the sort of conversation I hope we will have. Please don’t be inhibited if you want to talk about something a bit less elevated, but, you know, if you have big thoughts, now is the time. Has somebody got a microphone?
NC Yes. I say, my name is Nicholas Coombe. I’m a friend of the museum. Something that I find very irritating is… they mentioned earlier… Neil MacGregor mentioned that they moved out the natural history collection in the last century and the British Library a few years ago and I… they moved in the Museum of Mankind into the museum 20 or 15 years ago and I think that’s a mistake because as a boy I remember this was an archaeological collection – albeit of the world, which was great – but I think… I see now lots of things. It’s very disjointed. You’ve got a lot of Museum of Mankind stuff sort of crushed in with the rest of it, which… now you’ve got more visitors. There’s not enough space. At the same time you’ve got a lot of galleries in the basement that are locked off and you could disperse some of the people and reduce the pressure. The Townley galleries… one of the great collectors and it’s all been
locked off for years, which is dreadful. The new extension, which is great… the World Centre… but then it’s not going to be open for regular galleries. It’s only going to be open for exhibitions. So, I think if we want a 21st-century museum, could we please reopen galleries that were closed and make them accessible for disabled people – whatever they need to have – and could we also make the reserve collection, the collection that’s in store not just available online but see the physical pieces in the reserve storerooms in the exhibition centre? People can go round in special groups and at least see it. And I think that’s important; that we don’t just see things online. We see the actual collections; the full collection.
LF Yes. Thank you very much. I’m going to move onto the next one. We’re going to take two or three points and then we can come back to people here if they want to… the woman in the pink shirt should have the microphone and that one there should go to… who on this side wants to say something? In that case bring it down the front, please. Off you go.
HG I’m Helen Goodman. I’m Labour’s shadow culture spokesperson. I want to pick up on what Bonnie said. I’d also been interested in the fact that this is the British Museum and like the previous speaker I don't think we can expect people who live outside London simply to look at things online, so I’m interested in what the museum can do to develop its relationship with museums in the rest of the country to improve accessibility. I mean, obviously under Neil’s directorship a lot has been done with the History of the World in 100 Objects and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, but that is also – I think – about professional leadership and I wonder what the panel thinks about professional leadership and developing what’s going on across the country.
LF There’s an answer to all these very interesting points, but I’m going to resist giving it because we’re going to save them up and have them at the end. The next person has a… yes.
KR Yes. Keith Raffan. I’m a friend of the museum. I come here about three or four times a week. Of course there may not be anything resembling Britain a week tomorrow – I can say that as a Scot – but I do think… I do echo the point made just before that I think it’s very important that the collections do get out to regional museums and indeed national museums in Scotland; whatever happens there. I think that is very important. I also echo the point about reserve collections. I think access behind the scenes where that is practical without disrupting the work of curators and so on… I think that’s important, but I think the reading room could be used for reserve collections and with rotating exhibitions. I think that would be very good.
Thirdly, just the… second-last point… I think that some of the exhibits at the moment like the Amaravati sculptures, which people may not be aware of, but are one of the prize exhibits in the museum, are appallingly badly displayed.
There was actually a conference here last Saturday about it. Most of the academics are very unhappy about the way it’s displayed and I think, you know, that is… along with the Assyrian reliefs and the Parthenon marbles and Benin bronzes, it’s one of the great exhibits of the museum. Finally, I do think… I don't want to end on a negative point, but I think the whole point of overcrowding has to be addressed. There is actually a major security problem, I think. I know the security people within the museum find it impossible to check people bringing bags in and sometimes in the height of summer it’s up to seven or eight deep around the Rosetta Stone. So, actually, the visitors’ quality of experience is actually not what it should be and it somehow has to be addressed and…
LF When you say addressed, what do you have in mind?
KR Well, I think, you know, somehow… I mean, in two days earlier this year and once last year in my experience the museum had to be closed because there were too many people in here.
LF But are you suggesting we should simply have a cut-off point after…
KR Well, I think you’re either going to have to have a certain number allowed in at one time by ticketing… I think… I know the director disagrees with this in terms of, you know, the price of tickets. I think students and children should definitely be allowed in. I personally could pay a lot more than I do.
LF Thank you. Look. Will the people who own the microphones just give them to somebody to save all this delay, please? Thank you very much. Woman in the front row…
LI I was just… on that point actually of what could be done with the overcrowding… it might be used to look at other industries. Sorry. I’m Lindsay. I’m head of digital at an agency, but the cruise industry for example have to do a lot with overcrowding because obviously when it gets busy in one area of the ship, they can’t just tell people to leave the ship and so things like using the staff to direct other people to other areas or just making them aware of other areas… I mean, I came to the museum… I’m a member as well, but I brought guests to the museum during the summer and it was one of those days where it was just unfortunately really crowded and it was disappointing to see so many of the staff standing around and just sort of watching people bulge around the Rosetta Stone and not making suggestions of, well, where else would you like to visit, and directing people around.
LF Thank you. Somebody over here…
DS I’ve got a microphone and I’m [overtalking].
LF That’s the man.
DS My name is David Shamash from Covent Garden. I’m a friend also. A couple of suggestions briefly about overcrowding… obvious one… the shops stay open until 8:00. Why does the museum shut at 5:30? Let’s have longer opening hours. Secondly, yes, it’s great that the whole world comes here, but I would guess that at least 80% of visitors to the museum are foreigners. Why not have an entry fee for the museum with the same principle as the freedom pass but that is available to any UK resident can have a free pass to come in? I’m sure there’s lots against it, but I’m just chucking it up as an idea.
LF I don't want to spend the whole time talking about overcrowding. Is there anymore… anyone wanting to say something about that? Have you got a microphone? Two more questions on overcrowding and then we’ll go onto something else. Put your hands up if you’re talking about overcrowding. No. Right. Anybody else on overcrowding? No. Right. In that case we’ll go to a new question.
SA Hello. Sharon Ament from the Museum of London. I think that as this is a collection for the world I would like to see better connectivity with other museums that also have collections for the world so that there is a collective response to a culture. There certainly… the British Museum doesn’t have… there will be gaps in the collections and there are things that are constantly, you know… culture is constantly evolving of course, so I would like to see the ambition of the British Museum lift up to a global scale with other partners. It can’t do it by itself and nor should it. So, the collective heritage of the world…
LF Just to amuse you while we go on, I’m going to read out a couple of tweets we’ve had. Kirstie Watson says, we should have a social media vote on things to include in galleries. That opens a serious issue, I think. I mean, that may have been a slightly frivolous suggestion, but the question of the choice of what we show, what we put on show… and I’m not going to lose Antony’s point echoed by you about the ethnographic collections. Antony says they should be in the forefront. The questioner first of all said we should give them back to the Museum of Mankind. I think the question of what we show and why we show it and who decides is an interesting one. Who’s got the microphone? I’ve completely lost track of this. Right. Speak.
VI My name is Vivian and I’m a friend of the museum. I think that there are going to be an enormous number of practical problems for you to resolve and there’s [unclear] best practice all over the world you can draw on, but I think you need to fall back on… what is the basic principle of the museum and the main purpose that you’re trying to achieve? And I would hope that you would think about what the museum can do that no one else can do because of its unique position and the unique position that this country has had in the
world. The collection reaches out to almost every part of the world, but what it doesn’t do to my mind is bring it together in any sort of coherent way. Like, where does Africa fit in, you might say. The fact that there are other cultures besides the British one… and I think that if somehow you can start to think about how – when someone comes into the museum – they can actually see how these major things that have happened to the world have related to one another through the objects that are in the collection… I think you’re probably attempting the impossible, but it would be worth trying. Does that make sense?
BK I have the mike, so I’ll speak next. My name is Brenda King. I run a small educational charity with British children of African and Caribbean heritage and we have been lucky enough to be part of your community preview. So, I want to thank the panel and I especially want to thank Sir Nicholas for bringing up the subject of openness, inclusiveness, and accessibility because we get a… when the museum first approached me, I thought to myself, would black teenagers really want to give up their Sunday afternoon to come here? But, yes, they do and these are people… youngsters who have never been to the museum. So, this community preview event has opened it up for them, but interestingly – and this is Sir Nicholas’s point – one young lady who turns up every time… she said to me, when I passed this place… for years I passed this museum on the bus and I never felt as though I could come in. So, it’s about addressing that so people who are passing feel that they can come in. It’s clear that the members are coming in. People who are friends are coming in three or four times a week, but they are British people who pass here who don’t feel that they can come in. So, I really want to pick on that point. I think that’s an excellent point. On the second point about the story of humankind, I think because we are seeing that humankind started in Africa, we should have something showing the development of humankind. So, it would be – I guess – more inclusive and open to others as well and there would be a pattern to this. So, I just want to make that point to you. Thank you.
LF Thank you. Can I just now break my own rules? Could we focus for a minute on this question of the balance between awe and welcome that somebody rather – I think it was Nick – made to pick up on your point? Undoubtedly there are people who pass in front of this museum, look at it, and think, it is not for me. Do people have thoughts about how the place could be made more welcoming? Bonnie will start us off.
BG You know, I just… since I’m the one who can be the maverick on here and can be a little bit angry, I’m going to say this. When I joined this board eight years ago I wanted the railings down and I know other people on this staff did, too. We can’t take them down. It’s… the community… some of the members of the community won’t let us take them down. I think it’s a listed building. We can’t take them down. Now, maybe something has changed
since I’ve been off in a year, but we can’t take them down. So, if you walk past here and you see railings… I don't like coming to a place particularly with railings, but we can’t take them down. That’s the first thing. The second thing… so, you have to work within what we’ve got because that’s what we have. We can’t do anything about it until something changes because there are people who don’t want the railings down; full stop; period. You can’t talk to them and that’s it. The second thing… no. I’m serious.
AG I think you can, Bonnie.
LF Just for…
BG No. Listen. No. No. I…
LF Bonnie, just for the sake of the argument, let’s just imagine we’re in an ideal world where all things are possible.
LF Seriously, I want to know. If people really think the railings are a barrier as opposed to a glory, it would be really interesting to hear that. I don't believe that anything is absolutely impossible ever to change.
BG No. I didn’t say it was impossible. I’m saying that this idea of not being able to… feeling that you can’t come in has been addressed by everybody always and that is one of the literal – for me – issues. It may not be for other people, but for me… I didn’t come before I came on… was invited to be on the board because I didn’t like this in front of me and the second thing about overcrowding is… it’s not like we don’t think about that. We do, but the museum is free. So, there is a level at which you decide you’re going to let everybody in here or we’re going to control people. I think… again, I haven’t been on the board in almost a year, so I don't know what… how the board has moved forward, but there’s an issue about how to do that. That’s the two things I want to say. So, it’s not like nobody has thought about it.
LF Can we stick with awe and welcoming for a minute or two if there are more people who would like to talk about that? There’s somebody at the back there. Anybody else? Wim, I’d quite like to ask you about that, too. Can we get a microphone to the person with their hand up on that…
PV Can I say something about that?
LF You’ve got it.
PV My name is Pascale Vassie and I’m the director of the National Resource Centre for Supplementary Education, which follows from the school
talking over there is [sic] we’ve been very involved with the British Museum’s programme to bring in supplementary schools, which are community-led schools working out of school hours mainly teaching mother tongue or different culture or different faith and over the last six years to start with the British Museum did things like… they approached us and said, can you invite Chinese supplementary schools to come to our Emperor of China exhibition? Can you invite Persian supplementary… Iranian supplementary schools to come to our Persian one, etc.? Can you invite madrassas and Islamic supplementary schools to come to the hajj exhibition?
And indeed over one weekend I believe 1,800 families came from madrassas to the exhibition, but what the museum has done which is brilliant is that now you have a… within your community programmes you have the dedicated team – Sean and Emma, who may be here, and their colleagues – who have been working to invite supplementary schools and this notion that Bonnie was saying about barriers whether they’re physical or barriers of language undoubtedly or whether the colleague from the supplementary school was saying… the idea that this is not for us… we can’t come in. these are UK residents, but this British Museum and the barriers don’t make people feel welcome and what we’ve seen by inviting people in… by asking children and young people to engage not just with whatever notion some people might have about what they might be interested in but in everything…
I’m going a bit all over the place, but this one point I wanted to make was… Sean said, do you think… can you tell people about the horse exhibition? Nobody’s coming. I don't know. The Shakespeare and the Horse exhibition… and we invited supplementary schools and they came and the children loved it and then the Ice Age exhibition… the feedback that we got from the ice age exhibition which was really exactly what all of you distinguished people have been saying… exploring culture, exploring social justice, exploring what it means to be human…
LF So, I’m going to wind you up there, but you’ve made the point very strongly. Active invitation is…
PV Getting people in for the weekend, forgetting overcrowding, inviting them in…
LF I’m going to ask Jim and Wim both to join in that argument. I think Antony wants to. The panel is getting restive. They have to have a go. Jim, have a go.
JC No. I think there are sort of conflicting things that at least I as a non- resident am hearing and one on the other hand is a kind of… a sense of not welcoming people into the British Museum and the other of course is a sense of overcrowding because there are too many people in the British Museum
and so there’s got to be something there that resolves this… what seems to be a conflict and it may have to do more with how one is welcoming people into the British Museum; not the fact that the grates or the barriers are keeping people out because clearly they’re coming in great numbers and ever increasingly great numbers.
So, it may be more about how one… one calls it, you know, visitor service. I mean, how is it that one greets people, welcomes people, and makes people understand that this is really their museum, reinforces that notion so that they have people who… rather than wearing uniforms as guards and security personnel at the entrance to the museum, that there are … perhaps the British Museum does this and I’m just not aware of it, but perhaps there are people just like at retail stores, you know, who sort of welcome people in and give a sense that this is really your museum and we’re here for you and we’re grateful that you’ve come and thank you very much for coming, but clearly people aren’t so awed by the British Museum that they’re not coming in greater numbers than ever before. So, it’s just something about an attitude perhaps.
LF Wim, what is your experience? I mean, it seems to me that people certainly of Amsterdam – maybe of the whole of the Netherlands – feel very proprietorial about the Rijksmuseum in a way that perhaps the British Museum isn’t. What was your thinking about welcoming and giving new…
WP Yes. Well, we tried… well, open – as I said – is the key word and the barrier… I mean, some notes on that… I mean, we also have a barrier – a great one – just complete protecting in a way the building and the museum and it seems to keep the world outside, but I don't think this beautiful fence [unclear] – this one is even more beautiful – is a problem. I mean, what we did is to have immediately within that fence – and the fence is part of it – to make a beautiful garden and to make it attractive, to have a fountain where kids play, and you have to go there and people do. So, that’s not a problem. What you should do here… I mean, that’s a quick win to get rid of the cars and all those… all this garbage that is going on. That’s really… it’s a horrible place. Sorry, Neil, but… I mean, that’s easy and it is very formal square. I remember there was an exhibition a few years ago on South Africa if I’m well and there was a South African…
WP Garden… that worked perfectly and I still remember that because we took that idea to have… I mean, people love green in public spaces and green combined with culture… I mean, that’s an easy combination and people love that. Go sit there. And that’s another thing. They think they are in the museum. They’re not, but they feel they are in the British Museum. So… and you have that fence. It’s also protecting the people who are already in. If you
have beautiful green space… the Metropolitan in New York is doing the same if I’m informed well. I mean, they have this whole site at 5th Avenue, which is also a very messy place nowadays. They want to change it and they want to stretch Central Park to 5th Avenue and doing that… the Metropolitan is not on the street. No. It’s inside a green lawn. It’s part of Central Park and Central Park is bigger. So, you can do the same thing here. That’s quite easy to do.
NK And although you’re not in the museum, you are in part of what differentiates a museum from the rest of the city.
NK And has that character of the oasis, the reflective moment whether you are inside or outside and it’s that whole sense of transition from the business of the city into this place of reflection. I think it’s really powerful.
WP And indeed it’s good, I mean, to have a difference between the world and the world of the museum. They are different worlds. So, to have a kind of differentiation between the two… I think that’s good, but here you have a beautiful square. There is a lot of space around the building. So, use that and make that attractive.
LF Antony has to say something. He’s been thinking and talking about this for absolutely ages.
AG Well, it’s lovely to – I think – feel that this desire for… I mean, we’re talking about porosity and the degree to which… in a way, people know in an advance what it is that the museum both contains but also stands for and I think there’s sort of… I think there’s a porosity of identity, which at the moment… I think in the way that the front of the museum presents itself… it’s a very stern, isn’t it, and rather dark and very serious front that it presents to the world and I think that there are ways in which – through the Internet – what it contains can be shared and people can be pre-informed about what they might want to go and see and the journey they might want to take within it. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be some evidence of the wealth of what we have inside the building at least intimated on its outside.
There are objects that could resist this terrible climate that we live in, but there are also ways in which certain objects can be displayed in glazed vitrines that could be lit at night that would express – as it were – in that inter-realm between the street and the contents of the museum something about what goes on in here, but I think there’s an attitude shift that I think has to involve
the use of social media and the Internet which will allow people to – in a way – plan their journeys more carefully and then obviously if the museum does wish to present to the world this more open attitude, I think it’s got to have more doors. We’ve only got one door. Well, we’ve got a south door and a north door, but essentially we’ve got a front door that everybody wants to come in at and there’s absolutely no reason why there shouldn’t be a door in the east wing and a door in the west wing that would lead people straight into the Enlightenment gallery or straight into Assyria, Egypt, and Greece. I just like the idea that actually that inter-realm… I’m open-minded about both what the… what that fence means and how effective it is as a filter. I like the idea that there should be this embrace that Wim talked about. I love that idea that actually… that you want people to feel embraced and – in a sense – having crossed the threshold into this community of interests and participation in our common history.
So, I’d like to carry on the debate about whether we can or cannot remove those railings or how they might become more porous, but I think the main thing is, how do we allow the life of the museum… at the moment you have to go through five different thresholds before you actually arrive at the Great Court when the great confusion about which direction you’re going to go and, you know, which of the banners and which of the information boards and which of the desks you might go to in order to actually start planning your visit and it seems to me very clear that with the Internet and with perhaps two kiosks for instance in… out there in the front, people could begin being intelligent about how they approach the building before they’ve actually entered it and go in through the right door. Anyway, I mean, this is the beginning of a bigger conversation.
LF I want us to move one step further forward if I can. We’ve got ourselves through the five thresholds. I’d like to talk a little bit about the experience of being in the museum and engaging with the collection because that is after all what we are… in a sense the focus of what we’re thinking about. I’d really like to hear from people. A number of points have been made about the museum… the story the museum tells. Whether it’s the story of humankind, whether it’s the story of tolerance and the way cultures work together… and it there is a question about how those stories are told. Are they told in the mute juxtaposition so that visitors find their own story? Does somebody tell you in your ear? Is there enough didacticism in the experience of the visitor of the museum at the moment? Too much? Too little? Does social media change that? Is there a way that we can refresh and change the way we tell that story? There’s a person in the middle. Who’s got a… now my system has broken down. He’s got a microphone. Wonderful. And there’s somebody here, too. Please start, sir.
NB I do think there’s a real opportunity to make the gallery displays more fun.
NB Objects… clay [?] objects is one thing and our labels do a very good job of telling you that this is Assyrian something, 3000 BC, but actually objects also tell stories and I don't think we sufficiently tell stories either to make connections with similar objects in other galleries. I must say I do feel and I’ve always felt coming here… I’m a friend. I should have said, my name is Nicholas Barber, a friend. I have felt the departments are highly departmental and I could give you examples of objects in, say, the Greco-Roman gallery where you even have the photograph of one of the objects in one of the Egyptian galleries and neither label makes the connection. The photograph does not say, by the way, you can see the real thing round the corner. Again, I think objects are exciting for the story of their provenance. How to come to be here is often much more interesting than the fact that it’s a proto-geometric pot. Again, the story of the scholars thanks to whom they are here… now, Neil told a lot of these stories wonderfully well in the 100 Objects and some museums… some exhibitions do likewise, but the galleries themselves fail that test – I think – very comprehensively. Just to take a simple example, where in this museum can you find a display about the Silk Road, one of the great arteries of human history? And I would totally echo the point made about Africa in that same context.
LF So, you’re advocating a rather radical departure from either…
NB I would like to see the galleries made much more interdependent between the different departments so that they tell stories across their cultures so that China… China and India are in the same gallery, but you wouldn’t see the connection through Buddhism in the story told in the gallery.
LF Who has got the microphone over here?
DW Can you hear me?
LF Yes. Off you go.
DW Hi. I’m Dorrie Wilson. I’m from the European External Action Service. I want to just go back to the first woman who is doing school access with the museum through high school. I mean, I think… as Bonnie kind of alluded to in her statement, I mean, the question really and truly as a museum of the future… the question has to be, what is considered the British Museum? Who is that? And the fact that people feel outside has often somewhat to do with whether or not they’re perceived as British… I mean, I know this is, like, a volatile area, but I think, you know, living… I live in Brussels and that’s something that’s a constant, you know… who first is defined by the label? And then as Wim was saying before, I mean, if a museum was… has been a taste master, then how do you, you know… how do you bridge these
situations where people are trying to get access but not perceived as being welcomed or – for that matter – should have access to it quite frankly?
One of the other points which I’m really… and it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for decades is that one of the ways I believe that this conversation can happen in a more representative and effective way is the fact that the leadership is not reflecting the population it is expected to serve. That… whether it’s women, disabled, people of colour, whatever, the leadership has to begin to provide access to communities by reflecting the community that they’re serving because that’s how you… the woman here was talking about, well, we have an Assyrian exhibition. Bring them… bring, you know… bring the community in. Well, you know where that community is because you’ve got somebody on your team from there or in that community and this is something that allows liaison, but it creates more efficient access to these communities and not feeling like these communities are siloed and you’ve got to send a messenger to go get them.
AG Good point.
LF There’s a gentleman just behind you and there’s a woman in the third row down.
PV Hello. My name is Paul Vick; Paul Vick Architects. I spent a couple of years working here putting together plans and ideas for the next 50 to 100 years and I think this conversation is absolutely fantastic, I have to say, and the difference from when I was a child to how it is now is incomparable as a fusty old place and just some of the issues that I’d like to sort of bring to the fore really are that there’s this idea about sort of what origin is, you know? There’s this argument about the falsehood of origins because origins… beginnings change as interpretations change. There’s 10 million objects here, a million square feet, a thousand staff… there’s talk from the interpretations department that if they had enough time they could reinterpret the world in ten different ways if they had that time to do it. I think these are really powerful ideas, but the key sort of thing to my mind is how you address relevance to everybody that we think might find this useful and what’s very powerful – if you like – to distinguish it from a theme park is the fact that we’ve got kind of true histories and provenances that we can draw on and Neil MacGregor did something fantastic several years ago where he had… I think it was the Washington ambassador for the US and he had David Dimbleby and he put a statue on the table and he said, this is a statue of 1,000 years old from Persia. Let’s talk about the Middle East. This is all about redefining identities, redefining constituencies. This is really powerful stuff and the use of an object around which constituencies sort of hold up as their own is the real, fantastic, physical merit of the museum and if you can spare me talking a little bit more…
Yes. So, I just think it’s this notion of relevance, value, and the power that brings from our histories that can all be rewritten if we want to grasp them based on, you know, the experience, the history, the excitement of conflict, exploration, all these things that we know Hollywood has grasped and will pull in people… we’ve got it in spades in real life and there’s that sort of phrase sometimes that’s [unclear] around that, you know, most people don’t have the imagination for real life, you know? We’ve got it all here in spades and it’s beyond what perhaps we know and imagine. I would just think that is a message of the museum really. It’s a hugely powerful institution with beginnings of debate, ideas, and history that, you know, is very rare probably, you know, and that is, you know, something we should be pushing as why we’re relevant and fantastic really.
LF Thank you. Who’s got the mike now? I’ve lost track of you. If nobody has, there’s a woman there. And who’s on this side wants to speak? All right. This woman first and then that one…
AM Hello. My name is Arifa Malik and I am chairman of the…
LF A little bit louder… that’s it.
AM Chairman of the myDeen Foundation. Our school… supplementary school has been lucky to be involved in the supplementary programme that you run here and the fantastic thing about it is that we’ve been coming back time after time. So, there’s been a layering of the education that the children have received. So, for example, you were talking about things being relevant and there being an attitude shift. Originally we had teenagers from all sorts of walks of life and all sorts of cultural backgrounds and within the Shakespeare weekend we had teenage boys sitting there with a real attitude saying, you know, Muslims don’t do Shakespeare, but the actual person who was running the event was Muslim himself and he said, well, I’m a Muslim and I’ve made Shakespeare my life and so I guess they do. Complete attitude shift and he had them eating out of the palm of his hand and that happened because of the weekends that you provide the supplementary schools to come to. The Pompeii exhibition the children absolutely loved and there was actors who were playing out a scene just before the actual ash cloud came and a seven- year-old boy of Nigerian origin whispered to me, can black people be actors? And he’d never realised that and then we obviously put him straight. Yes. And the ice age exhibition was fantastic because you also provide creative craftwork facilities for the children. So, using the ice age tools the children actually got to make sculptures out of soap and everything else and it brought it right down to a personal… you could put yourself in the mind-set of that ice age person and what they had to do and the skill that was involved. So, when the children actually went around the exhibition itself, they saw the creativity. So, if you’re looking at how to engage people who walk past, it’s bringing it right down and making it relevant to them and so you actually do have a
whole generation of young children who have been coming time after time to these supplementary school weekends and they are slowly passing on and it’s almost like a free PR campaign for you.
LF I think that’s a really interesting distinction between the ability of exhibitions to tell a story in a really engaging way. It has a point to make. It has a focus. The challenge is to inject that same absolutely alluring quality into the collection as a whole if you don’t have somebody sitting beside you telling you stories. Somebody over here… I’m going to let us run on a little while since we were so late getting you in. Please go.
EL Hi. My name… hello. My name is Eleanor and I’m a friend of the museum and I wanted to say that I’m really delighted that the museum has opened up their paid-for exhibitions that it’s having so that they’re not so Western-focused. In particular, the recent exhibitions over the last few years on Afghanistan and Persia – to show that actually these countries, some of which now obviously for political reasons are war-torn… they actually have the breadth of culture that Western countries have, but unfortunately as they’re paid for, not everyone is able to access those exhibitions. So, I feel that some of the galleries in particular the Mesopotamian gallery where there are some really stunning artefacts – for example, the Standard of Ur… I think there needs to be more storytelling about the fact that these objects come from modern Iraq and from archaeological sites that have been destroyed now and no longer are in existence because of the war that’s happening there and I think the museum can play a role… maybe a subtle role but in sort of redetermining attitudes about culture and where civilisation began. So, in terms of, you know… some people don’t realise that the written word, bureaucracy, the monetary systems actually started in ancient Iraq and I think the museum can play a role in breaking down those barriers.
LF You’re a didactic lot. Is there anybody who feels that we should leave these objects to speak for themselves? It is a strongly held view in some places. Think about that. This woman… she got the mike. Hooray.
HC I have. Hi. I’m Helen Casey. I’m a video maker. I’d like to talk a little bit more about fun. I was really interested to hear what I think the museum isn’t doing… I was walking around earlier and one of the objects in the Parthenon gallery… quite a lot of them are missing heads and the little thing underneath tells you where the heads are and at no point was I able to lift up my smartphone above it and see the head, a 3D image of the head, a story about why the head is separated from the body… there were so many questions that came out of the object. I’m very happy for the objects to speak for themselves, but should there not be a gateway using the technology that we have to bring the stories in, to bring in the other objects that relate to it? Because each one of these objects – using technology – can be the start of a journey of your own story throughout the whole museum if you use the
technology in a clever way to link up different things which you can ask the public to curate by themselves. They can offer suggestions because you’ve got a whole online world in your pocket. Should the objects not be a starting point and an opportunity to begin a journey; each one?
LF There’s a gentleman three rows behind you and is there somebody over here with a microphone yet? What’s happened to the right-hand microphone? You’ve got it again. Speak. Well done. Now you know how to work it. Excellent.
NC Yes. Sorry. Yes. Nicholas Coombe again, friend to the museum. Sorry to…
LF A bit short if you will…
NC Very short… I want the objects to speak for themselves and I think some museums have tended to go down the route of political correctness and I don't want to be preached at. I want to see the objects because everyone sees them in a different way and they should be allowed to see them free of any political message. Let people… let the objects speak for themselves. That’s all my plea here.
LF No messages…
NC Thank you.
JC Very quickly, I do think that’s a danger if we try to tell… every object in the museum tell a story. It tends to be the story the institution wants to tell and I think there’s a difference between the permanent collection galleries and installations and temporary exhibition galleries and installations, which are manifestly about stories. So, there’s a kind of a balance as if they were two registers on an organ. There’s a difference between what one sees in the gallery… in the permanent collection galleries and what one sees in the temporary exhibition galleries.
LF I’m going to do two more questions and then I’m going to ask the immensely patient panel to sum up or say what they want to do. You’ve got a microphone. Speak there. And somebody over here, please…
WH Hello. My name is Wim Hance and I’m one of the volunteer guides of the museum. I’m part of the volunteer team here. The museum does actually give tours of various galleries and so on, but my question is not about that. It seems to me that you can’t… you’re not responsible for taking down the railings in people’s minds, you know? If people… once people are in the
place, then you have them and you can offer them information and you can offer them a staff of extraordinary people with expertise in areas that the people off the street would never get access to ever and one of the nice things about being a guide here is that we’ve had access to those curators talking about their subjects in a sophisticated way. You don’t need to simplify to your public. Your public will rise to the occasion. I think that’s what’s being missed here in terms of addressing the vessel and addressing the technology; is actually that you’re slightly missing a trick in terms of the value of the people that you have here.
And I also know that the museum is involved in so many things that we never hear about as the public all around the world and yet we never see that displayed in the building and we never get access to that information. It’s as important as your permanent collection and I think you undervalue the people and the contribution that people have to make. We’ll make our own editorial. We’ll decide what’s appropriate to us and our histories and it’s a complicated history, you know, a product of the Enlightenment, but enlightenment not always. Those were difficult times and the building reflects that and the building reflects the country outside the doors. You’re not always responsible for making it accessible for people. People have to bring something to it and if they have a problem bringing their own editorial to it, that’s not your responsibility, but when they’re here you should be able to help them.
LF It is the greatest privilege in the world to go and look at stuff in this building with one of the keepers or one of the scholars in the British Museum. Unfortunately they have their own work to do and there’s no… I mean, one of the challenges is to find a way and maybe new technology will help us – to bottle and capture that encounter between somebody who has spent their life studying and learning and who is filled with a passion for an object and a story… that encounter with somebody who has come in who just simply wants to find out. That meeting is a magical thing, but it’s a very hard thing to reproduce not in real time. I must stop talking because I promised we would get you to speak. You’re the last person on that side.
IS Gosh, responsibility… Imogen Steinberg. I’m still not very important yet. I would say that… two points I just wanted to address… firstly, let’s not go down the way of the white cube because we’re not in a white cube. Yes, let’s give people some information, but I think it’s more about enabling people to find their information. So, that may, you know… maybe that’s on your smartphone. Maybe that’s in a large print or braille or whatever on the side on the wall. However you access your information, we need to make sure the information is there, but that we don’t necessarily push it on people that don’t want it if they just want to look at the objects, but we need to make sure it’s there and in as many diverse properties so we can get a hold of it. Secondly I would definitely echo the point about staff. I thought the thing about, you know, moving people round the gallery if it’s busy is really logical. Also, you
have, like, hundreds of 21-year-olds who are working in the gallery for nothing or nearly nothing and would definitely do anything that you asked them to do. So, get them to do stuff because they want to do stuff and, you know, don’t give them any money because it’ll make them more creative and you probably don’t have it, but, you know, let’s make them do stuff and give them opportunities and platforms and I think that you would find actually it would really increase visitor engagement and probably help them as well as staff. So… yes. That’s all.
LF Ladies and gentlemen, we could go on talking a very long time, but… we will, but not tonight. I’m just going to ask the panel for some thoughts and you can pick… we have ranged over many and various subjects and I am not and nor should you try to sum it up, but please just share with us the thoughts that have been sparked by this and we will capture all this and feed it into the thinking at the museum. So, Bonnie, why don’t you start since you were the last one?
BG Just really quickly… just three points… access… and I love what someone said about the railings in your mind. I didn’t really want to get hung up on those things. I do know when I came here there was a big kerfuffle about it, so that’s why I brought it up. Of course, if you know how to walk through railings, you can. So, I like the idea… Wim’s idea of making the interior that more welcoming if it’s possible, but it is about being able to feel welcome within the museum. I know – being here eight years and seeing it over eight years – that people are trying to do that. Secondly is an existential question here that I’ve tried to bring up. It’s whether we want the museum to get bigger or whether we want the museum to get smaller. There is the smaller route.
I grew up in the United States. I grew up in Chicago in a very pretty rough neighbourhood and the reason I went to the Art Institute of Chicago – by the way, which you have to pay to enter – is because I was educated to go there. The only reason that I went to the Rijksmuseum was because I was educated to go there. The people in my neighbourhood would not go to the Rijksmuseum and they couldn’t go to the Art Institute of Chicago. They couldn’t afford it. They can come here. So, that’s the question – I think existentially – that the museum has to ask itself. Is it going to get bigger or is it going to get smaller?
And the third thing about reaching out to the other museums… the museum is always trying to do that. There’s a question of the museum not bigfooting. It’s very important that the museum not bigfoot particularly in a museum that’s got its own trajectory. It’s got its own narrative. Particularly when you’re talking about a town… when the British Museum comes to town, all the press jumps in and all of this. That’s all good, but the museum is always trying not to be a bigfoot institution but to try and learn how to be a partner. It’s always doing
that and I would say to the present board to try and continue your efforts to create mechanisms in which the museum can be as much of a partner as possible with local museums because it adds enormous value and we also get enormous value. The exchange is very important. And the fourth thing I want to say because I’m pissed off is that all the people who worry about too many people being in the museum… there’s one way not to have a lot of people here. Charge them. That’s what we’re not going to do and I hope the museum never does that.
WP Yes. A few remarks… the first… if you put – let’s say – 300 people together and a panel with professionals talking about a future of a museum, it seems that the museum is a very sick institution or almost dead. So, I heard many things that could be better or are really problematic, but I think the British Museum is one of the great museums in the world and it’s a fantastic institution, so don’t forget that, people, and there is a growing audience every year and year. So, to start with that… I mean, yes, it’s overcrowded, but let’s not forget that people love to go where many people love to go. People love people and that’s why people live in cities. So… and specially in big cities. So… but… and there is a problem, but you can easily solve that by stretching the opening hours. I don't know if the British Museum is open every day. We are open at 9:00 in the morning until 5:00, but we could even stretch it until 6:00 or 7:00. So, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam… very small place but 1.5 million visitors almost. In summertime they are open from 9:00 in the morning until 10:00 in the evening. So, I mean, just by opening up the hours… I mean, a museum is never sold out. It’s not a concert hall. So, that’s easy to stretch out the hours and, yes, you can stay open and stay open for free and if you want to have – let’s say – kind of luxury moments limited or within just a few thousand people at the same time, you can always charge – let’s say – between six and eight or whatever. I mean, you have all kind of price models to solve that. So… and I think in future with… also with the Internet, a third of our visitors has e-tickets. It’s very easy nowadays to address that. So, I think that’s a solution to have and the masses of people by daytime and to have a more exclusive people who want to have, well, a kind of splendid isolation moment. Yes. If you want that, you have to pay.
LF Ladies and gentlemen, I should point out that is deep heresy in the British Museum. The idea of special luxury evenings is the end of the world. However, we are here for radical thinking. Hooray. Very good. Nick…
WP No, but the money can be used for different things.
LF That’s a terrible temptation. Let’s not go there. Nick…
NK I love what you said. In people’s minds, the railings are down and the railings are down in all sorts of ways in terms of the way that people relate to museums and other areas of the arts. I think what you really have to think about now as you go forward is, what are the connectivities that are possible there? My wife sent me just today a really interesting thing that the Maritime Museum working with Punch Drunk the theatre company to bring those objects to life in a new way and I think you should consider the whole area of how people relate to the objects in a more engaged and participative way than they have in the past because that’s how people are relating to the arts. They want a voice. They want a part. They want to participate and I think it could even get to your overcrowding issue if you’ve felt that the relationship with the world’s cultures that was expressed in this building could also be expressed through performance, putting some spaces aside for performance, creating some spaces for performance, which would encourage people to diversify their activity and their dwell time around the building. I think there’s an enormous palette of possibilities for you to think about as you reinterpret what Neil has so brilliantly defined.
LF Thank you. Antony…
AG I think what characterises this extraordinary community of objects and people is a shared passion. I think everything that has been said about the importance of the staff that work here that in some way have this skill of allowing dumb things to speak and speak to us often more powerfully than words and I really loved what the young person who said she wasn’t important yet – but you are – said, which was that actually this is already a platform. It’s a platform in which each one of us can discover our own meaning and connectivity. I think it… we are past the time where museums are instruments of instruction. We are in the time where a museum is an instrument of discovery and self-identification. What is the job that each of us is doing most importantly for each other and for ourselves? We are creating a self; a persona in the world. The residue… this equivalent… this physical equivalent of the memory of the journey of human mind is for each of us this objective correlative of our subconscious that can become increasingly conscious. I think we need to feel that this resource is common, that it is a common good held commonly, and it needs to be held in an instrument that is porous in which the passion of those that live every day of their lives allowing these dumb things to speak becomes the passion of all of us. Anyway… and I think that this initiative tonight is the beginning of this process and I just hope it goes on. That’s all and I wanted to thank you all for being here tonight.
LF Thank you. Jim…
JC There were some comments midway through tonight’s sessions that I heard to say that the… referring to the British Museum as British and perhaps reflecting a British sense of the world or sense of itself or something and I
wanted to emphasise to all of you – being not British myself – to the extent that we don’t – who are not British – recognise that when we come to the British Museum on the terms that I think I heard being expressed, which is to say… and it’s one of the things that Neil always likes to point out and to say, which is that many… most… one of the most surprising things for people coming to the British Museum is how few British things there are in the museum and it is… if there is something of which I think you ought to be enormously proud, it is the legacy that informed this museum that it is in the public trust for the public, and for inquiring minds to address their curiosities about the world to the world and for all of us who work in the cultural sectors who are concerned about the world today and its compartmentalising itself at great military pace, it is that we come to the British Museum to be inspired by the vision of its founders, which is an Enlightenment vision. So, this is an Enlightenment institution which you say gratefully or graciously share with the world. So, we thank you for that, but I want to remind you that those of us who come from far to the British Museum don’t come to learn about Britishness. We come to learn about the world and you’ve given us that great opportunity, so thank you.
LF Thank you, Jim. Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have had a rather remarkable conversation this evening. It’s remarkable for the people who have taken part in it and it’s remarkable for the reflective and thoughtful tone of what it has said. It’s remarkable for its range and it’s remarkable for – I think – a real demonstration of something that we all recognise, which is that the curious as opposed to the learned who are the constituents of this museum are in some way gradually asserting a power that they have not asserted in past generations. We’re doing it very nicely, very politely, and with some shyness, but we’re doing it and that is causing everybody in the museum to think again about this profound question of how our objects and our duty engage with the users of the museum in all their many forms. The scholarship in this place will always be its heart and soul. What is… what we need to improve is the engagement with the curious, the people who come into this museum willingly or unwillingly, knowing or shy, and diffident and not knowing, and we’re very good at some of it but not nearly good enough and that’s what this conversation is about. You have given us immensely valuable things to think about and I thank you really for coming and for taking part in such a spirit. I also think our panel have been inspiring and wonderful and have helped us to think. So, thank you.