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Stuff stuffy museums

Museums have to modernise to survive, says a former head of web projects at London's Victoria and Albert.

Nizami Cummins

Topics Politics

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Tiffany Jenkins argues for a spirit of the arts honed to ‘create quality and excellence and show it to the world’ (1).

To achieve this, she says in her spiked article of 30 May, museums and galleries should return to the core business of art and the artefact mediated through curatorly knowledge. And she demands an end to anything beyond this core business. ‘Drop the non-artistic utilitarian criteria’ is a cry for a purity in the arts full cycle from the museum crisis of 1999.

While I was head of web projects at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1999, the millennium, the Dome, the identity crisis of museums, the waxing of Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) power, and the importance of the internet as a medium of cultural and educational inclusion, all loomed on the horizons of arts institutions facing a paradigm shift.

Part of Jenkins’ case voices a legitimate concern: that politicians should ‘stop trying to hijack the arts’. Throughout 1999 and early 2000, the DCMS, through the National Audit Office, made an exhaustive inventory of spending in all publicly funded museums and galleries.

I remember being quizzed about what percentage of content on our forthcoming website (launched in October 1999) was directly connected to core museum business. ‘All of it’, I said, meaning presence on the web was certainly core business for the museum. Beyond that, one had to get to the heart of the matter and address what exactly the core business of the V&A was.

Neither museum (poor information presentation) nor gallery (not a single white wall), the V&A skates on the thin ice of its own legacy. It has always been rambling, both physically and ideologically. A vast amount of stuff has been collected together for the sakes, Jenkins will be pleased to hear, of excellence, design, aesthetic inventory, scholarship, and the display of these to the world.

Every now and then the V&A, or rather its more upbeat commercial arm V&A Enterprises, does a bit of soul searching – what to put on the carrier bags, etc. But the V&A’s grand vision has become a bit clouded since the good old days of Aston Webb, William Morris and Grinling Gibbons.

With the fall of Empire and the diversification of culture and community the V&A can no longer claim to ‘inform taste’, as the Great Exhibition apparently did. But the sheer size of its collection – with 90 percent of the 10million items remaining crammed away in the Battersea crypt – still allows the museum that essential superlative: ‘the world’s largest museum of the decorative arts.’ Superlatives are important in the museum world.

The V&A has always kept its superlative collections at the forefront. In fact, the collections are the counter behind which museum staff remain distant from that necessary evil – the visiting public.

But, as with all museums, it’s the visiting public that keeps the V&A afloat. The current £5 entry fee levelled at adults goes some way towards upkeep – but also, visitor numbers must reach a certain set levels before the DCMS will hand over all-important funding.

The visitor numbers, and the level of central funding, had been falling steadily for 15 years up to 1999. And the problem, as I saw it, was that the V&A was following the kind of agenda that Jenkins is so keen on: concentrate on the collections – put the curators in charge – trust the audience to rise to the occasion.

Being a museum curator is a competitive business. The big museums are a very tightly packed crucible of academic wannabes, for whom the only success is academic peer group success. That means superlatives. That means being the world’s finest authority. On something. As with the Guinness Book of Records, dedication is most effective in niches. Somebody at the V&A is the world authority on bronze figurines from 1800-1900, 7-9 inches high. You find your niche, publish, and the rest is art history.

This sort of excellence has never interested me. And nor, as the V&A’s declining visitor numbers seem to testify, does it interest most people. It takes niche interest to make an afternoon of the V&A’s eighteenth-century ceramics galleries. You need a highly specialised art history education to follow the development of style in motifs, monograms, lips or handles. There is a well-to-do, substantially transatlantic core V&A audience apparently well versed in such lore. But the majority of taxpayers do not have such an education or interest.

So why should they finance the intellectual careers and pastimes of an exclusive elite?

The spirit of the arts is not about Jenkins’ superlatives, which thinly echo imperial times. It is about change. I propose, as I did in 1999, that museums and galleries enact a transition from treasure houses to cultural temples; that their mode of communication shift from broadcast to multicast; their online presence shift from brochureware representation of the museum to online museums; that their didactic role lean from education towards learning; and that their relationship with visitors, Virtual & Actual, aspire to involvement rather than washed-out ‘interactivity’.

The agenda for a public building somewhere between musuem and gallery is complicated enough without a political aspect. But until we can enjoy something as simple as Berlin’s Museums Night, where museums and galleries stay open into the small hours, packed with open-to-all parties, performances, talks, interventions and spin-offs, those of us with only a passing interest in eighteenth-century bronze figurines (7-9 inches) will wonder why we should bother visiting at all.

Nizami Cummins was head of web projects at the V&A Museum from February 1999 to July 2000. He currently writes and consults as http://www.preject.com

(1) See spiked-proposals: Museums and galleries, by Tiffany Jenkins

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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