Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Loving Our Museums to Death

In the weekend I took the kids up to the British Museum for their Day of the Dead celebration.
We had a great day, but didn't get to see everything because it was insanely busy. We got there early (eleven in the morning or so) and were able to leap right in to mask making, but we queued about half an hour for face painting, then another half an hour for making (extremely cool!) Day of the Dead portraits in the digital suite. When went up to the Grand Court for the procession but could only see the guys on stilts.

There was more to see - an exhibition and the altar - but by then the kids were getting fractious and - to be honest - I too was ready for a bit of fresh air, so we left at about about three-thirty. By this stage there was a massive queue just to get in stretching around the front courtyard and through the gates and on to Russell Street. The queue was making slow progress and it looked like a good twenty to thirty minute wait for entry.

This brought to mind a trip we'd made to the Natural History Museum a couple fo weeks before. It was kind of off the cuff thing - we hadn't been for a while, and the kids like the dinosaurs, so we hopped on the train and off we went. What did we find - queues! Massive queues just to get in the front door (although the back door didn't have a queue so we cunningly got in quick) but we queued for dinosaurs for twenty minutes or so shuffling slowly through like shades shuffling around Hades. I'd wanted to take the kids around some of the more obscure bits, but by the time we'd done this they were fed up. Isbo's verdict on the Natural History Museum was "it's hot and boring".

I think one of the great things about living in London is the easy availibity of these fantastic resources but I'm beginning to feel crowded out of these places. Admittedly, the dinosaurs at the NHM are possibly the most popular museum display ion the city, and the Day of the Dead thing was a special occasion, but dear god, the idea of queuing just to get in fills me with horror.

I think that a great museum needs to give you space to share with the exhibits. In crowded museums I spend more time resenting my fellow curiosity seekers than in relaxed contemplation of the richness of human culture. In the interests of justifying their funding, I'm sure they have to reach out and attract people, but they've become part of the tourist treadmill now, filled with people ticking off a page in the guide book rather than pursuing an interest in the objects on display - bored looking gaggles of Italian, French or German school children and oddly dressed gangs of Japanese stopping in front of everything and taking a photo (a stereotype, I know, but if you want it confirmed just follow them around!) The only ones that that are getting a real kick out of it are the roving patrols of Bible Study tours, and they should clearly be forbidden entry unless they can prove they aren't Creationists.

I'll admit, I don't get this scalp-hunter approach to tourism. When I'm on holiday there's nothing I hate more than "doing" a museum in an afternoon or something. I'd rather not go than race around in a lather out of a sense of obligation - it's supposed to be a holiday for Christ's sake!

The same thing's happened to South Bank and the Royal Festival Hall - it used to be (like, a decade ago) a nice, slightly underdeveloped out of the way place to have a drink buit it's turned into a circle of Hell. It's hard to find a place to eat even on a Wednesday night these days, and cool in-the-know type things like the Meltdown sell out completely before the catalogues even hit our doormate.

So, what's to be done? I think the Museums are doing their job too well and need to introduce a greater level of elitism and incompetence into their public communications. Tourists need to examine their priorities - will filing past the Elgin Marbles really improve your life? Why not mill around Harrods and get your photo taken with Kylie's bum at Mdme Tussauds like you really want to. And finally, I'll be changing nappies at the Wallace Collection or the Wellcome Institute in future, I suppose.


  1. I also hate queues... waiting in line has put me off visiting places on several occasions. Oh, and don't get me started on subject of tourism! I mean, what's wrong with all those people?

  2. I like going on holiday, and I think there's something refreshing about exploring some place you've never visited. What gets me is that Tourist Trap instinct comes from a desire not to explore (by and large, although I'm not a mind reader) but to tick things off in the book. It's travel as consumption, I guess.


  3. Ah, the British Museum.
    "This is basically a collection of stuff you guys have nicked from around the world, isn't it?" said my wife.

    She's certainly picked up the vernacular, at any rate. I pointed out that most of the items had been legitimately bought overseas but without inquiring too deeply into the identity of the genuine owner. Like when you go DVD shopping in Jakarta.

  4. On the one hand, it exposes the kids to a broad range of artistic traditions from across the world. On the other, it communicates a somewhat ambiguous message regarding property rights. Perhaps the plaster cast room in the V&A is a better source of instruction all round...

    Plus, for some reason, there are never queues for the permanent galleries (sometimes for the special exhibitions).



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