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All’s well in the world of museums

A look at the global climate of public institutions

This month I feel like Candide and want to say that the world—the art world, that is—doesn’t look in such bad shape after all. And I don’t mind being thought a simpleton; I am determined to be optimistic when the world of high politics gives more grounds for deep gloom and fear than at any time in my adult life.

Forgive me for talking again about museums, which I have been watching longest, having started off as a museum curator 30 year ago. The prevailing neurosis here is the fear of slipping standards, of dumbing down, of slimy commercial values insinuating themselves. The reality, however, has been vastly improved educational facilities, better housekeeping, more publications, many of them just as scholarly as before, and displays, which if not always completely successful, are certainly extremely thoughtful, signs of a thriving, creative intellectual life behind the scenes. For as Jean-Christophe Ammann, the former director of the Frankfurt Museum of Modern art, says on p.20, some of the old museum displays are like an old marriage where the husband calls the wife “Mum”—very nice, but hardly stimulating.

And even where it looked as though scholarship was being sacrificed to presentation, there are signs that this is correcting itself. I remember the cries of pain from scientists around the world when the Natural History Museum in London shifted its energies in the 1980s from taxonomy to the visitor experience, with roaring dinosaurs and all the teaching paraphernalia we now take for granted. That museum has just announced it is using the very latest in museum display techniques to make all its hundred of thousands of specimens available, not just to specialists but to the public at large. It is taking on many more staff to continue its work in taxonomy, and its galleries continue to try hard to engage the neophyte, so we are all winners.

There is an enjoyable because slightly heated debate between museum folk and star architects on pp.18-19 about the role of branding in museums. One could get into a froth of indignation over the branding consultant who says, rather rashly, that visiting a museum should be more like a shopping experience, but since there is obviously not the slightest danger that it could really be like shopping, one should think about what she really means, and it is simply that museums need to communicate as succinctly and punchily as the big brands to take their rightful place in the modern world (so do the churches, I believe; no organisation is so self evidently necessary as not to need marketing).

Hundreds of delegates meet this month in Buenos Aires at the annual conference of the World Federation of Friends of Museums. It could be argued that, considering the state of Argentina’s economy, this is fiddling while Rome burns, and yet it is right that they should do so because museums play such an important role in creating that dense network of benign influences which constitutes a civil society, a society which is stable and enlightened in its self-interest.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 129 October 2002