Problems with British Museum acquisitions summed up in new show 'Collecting the Twentieth Century'

An exhibition at the British Museum makes Brian Sewell question whether it should be buying twentieth-century material at all


When the British Museum was founded in 1753, it was much mocked for its appeal to anyone who loved spiders the size of geese, one-eared sharks, and hippopotamuses—but then the primary collection had been accumulated by a doctor with a penchant for the bizarre.

Of course within the Museum’s walls now there are also acquisitions that have changed the course of scholarship and art: the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the treasures of Xanthus, Ninevah and far off Oxus, and even what little remains of those Wonders of the World, the Temple of Ephesus and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Such substantial marvels set the tone of the Museum well into this century, even if Emil Torday, the distinguished Hungarian ethnographer, still thought of it as “the Old Curiosity Shop of Bloomsbury”. It is at this level, within the limitations of the market, respect for the heritage of other nations, and an absurdly small purchase grant, that the Museum continues to work—at least until it reaches the art and artefacts of the twentieth century.

The trouble with collecting material produced in this century is that all the factors that influence our clarity of mind about the distant past do not apply: time has not taken its toll of quantity to make the vulgar rare; it is too soon to make a keen distinction between quality and fashion; the great rich patrons of the past have no contemporary peers to give the high-flown and extravagant commissions that engender great works of art, and nothing that any artist or craftsman now produces is as obviously of museum quality and interest as must the works of Michelangelo and Cellini have been in their day. Above all, the problem is one of quantity, for objects that at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution were produced in hundreds, and are now rare, today are made in millions to please enormously enlarged populations.

Is it the business of the British Museum to collect representative examples of everything ever produced anywhere in the whole wide world? This may have seemed a proper objective in the Age of Reason, when the new encyclopaedias embraced all knowledge, and new-born museums were their visual equivalents; when Australia lay undiscovered, Africa, the Americas, and the Far East were only half explored and exploited, and the sum of human knowledge was still within the grasp of any man of intellect and education. Now such a practice merely makes sorcerer’s apprentices of the Museum’s curatorial staff, and as the rate and range of acquisition increases to cover all men’s endeavors, however transitory and foolish, so too must its resources be spent on storage, conservation and all the other chores of museum work. Eventually (and that must mean quite soon), it will seem absurd for the Museum to waste space on new ethnographical objects that merely repeat old forms and patterns, to say nothing of such new material as the life-size paper effigies of men, motorcycles and typewriters that the Chinese burn to propitiate their dead. Eventually the Museum must fragment into smaller specialist museums in which such acquisitions may perhaps make better sense, as happened when the Natural History department decamped to South Kensington.

In the current exhibition, “Collecting the Twentieth Century”, the prints and drawings make a brave show with Kupka, Kiefer, Kandinsky, Kirchner and Chinese woodcutters whose work resembles Kollwitz, confirming my belief that the Print Room is an absurd irrelevance in the British Museum and ought to be divided between the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate. In all the other departments that have willy-nilly become the Museum’s concern, many visitors will recognise, not objects of great distinction, but the commonplaces of their own homes and the Portobello Market, and the souvenirs of holidays in foreign parts, some ghastly enough to illustrate the truth of the traveller’s rule that the worst kitsch makes the best memento. I am not at all convinced that such negligible ephemera as plastic button badges urging Polish Solidarity upon us are the proper material for the Museum, nor those with the smiling faces of Reagan and Bush and the hortative slogan “Prouder, Stronger, Better”. I cannot understand why the Museum should collect hideous oil paintings that formed the kick-plates of Bangladeshi rickshaws—objects of execrable nastiness matched only by painting sold from the railings of Hyde Park. As for household goods, it seems that most of us possess things that we have long thought ordinary and undistinguished, but which to the British Museum are exciting targets for their curators. Junk jewellery from Woolworths, old coffee percolators, wine glasses, cutlery, dinner services in the crudest pottery (remarkable only for having been produced in multi-millions over a decade during and after the war), and any object made of silver or plate in which style overwhelms function. Style, indeed, seem to be the key to the Museum’s interest in these fields. One wonders, of course, where the borderline lies between the British and the Victoria and Albert Museums, for most of these objects, objectionable in the context of a museum renowned for its antiquities and the archaeological value of domestic finds from Greek, Roman and medieval times, could pass without adverse comment into the V&A, which has been perceived since its foundation as the national museum of art and design. Sir Roy Strong, former Director of the V&A, once described it as “an exceptionally capacious handbag”, and as that is how most of us have seen it also, it is difficult to understand why the British Museum, barely two kilometres away, should bother with irrelevant bric-à-brac and baubles.

(“Collecting the Twentieth Century” continues at the British Museum until 16 February)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The prints should be in the V&A and the Tate, and send the hideous rickshaw kickplates back home where they belong'