The last few weeks have seen the role of museums as custodians of the past thrown into high relief following the disclosure of the theft over many years from the British Museum stores of a large number of pieces of ancient jewellery, allegedly by a long-standing curator. This brings centre stage the role of museums, and particularly large Western museums, as we move through the 21st century. Are they still relevant? Is their custodianship still appropriate in today’s world? What is their purpose?
Let me take you back a few decades. As a child growing up in England in the 1960s, there was not much ready-made entertainment with which parents could keep their children occupied: no ipads, no PCs, no video games, and only about an hour’s children’s television a day. When the weather was fine, it was no problem. My mother would say "Go and play with your friends and be back by lunchtime" (and she didn’t seem to worry much about where I might be: no Find my Friends and no cell phone). But there was a problem: when the weather was bad, as it frequently seemed to be in England, how to entertain us? So, like many English children of my generation, I spent many weekends being dragged around National Trust houses and museums, both large and small.
Unlike many children, I actually enjoyed this. In fact, my love of medieval art and architecture undoubtedly dates to this period. I grew up in Warwickshire, just down the road from the 15th century moated Baddesley Clinton and the 16th century Packwood House. The nearest big museums were in Birmingham, and it was seeing a triceratops skull in the Natural History Museum there that started (like so many boys and girls) a fascination for dinosaurs. So aged about 8 or 9 I wrote to the US National Dinosaur Museum in Utah, who sent me masses of information for a school project that ensued. And what a mind opening and exciting experience was that. I could not believe that there was a museum DEDICATED to dinosaurs.
And each year my family would come to London for a week. We would see a West End Show, go to the sales, and without fail go to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum.
These journeys were a catalyst for my love of art and for why Museums, to my mind, remain so important as repositories of human knowledge and achievement. On one visit when I was 7 or 8 years old, I saw the full-sized cast of Trajan’s column in the V&A (admittedly cut into two parts) which I espied through a chink in the plywood hoardings, for the V&A’s cast courts in the 1960s were (it is sad to say) being used for storage. How exciting was that for a young boy! Or as also happened when my parents bought me for my 8th birthday the British Museum replica chess set of the Lewis chess pieces on which I learned to play chess. And this same chess set was used a generation later as the inspiration for the chess game in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone. Ancient objects, in the case of the latter made almost 900 years ago in Scandinavia, have the same capacity to excite today as they did when made. These experiences all triggered my love of history and art in the same way millions of children today are excited as they wander around the mummies at the British Museum or the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum.
So, growing up, museums were places of wonder, of import, uncontroversial guardians of science and the arts. And they still are for the vast majority of visitors. In a typical year in the UK, 50 million people visit our national museums. That is almost 5 times the number that go to football matches. But by the time I became actively involved with the V&A and the British Museum in the late 1990s, museums, whilst not yet particularly controversial, had become for many people dull. Most had seen little renovation for decades; displays were quasi-Victorian; information was often sparse. They were not places that were welcoming. In fact, by the late 1990s the attendance at the V&A had dropped to below a million, back to the levels not seen since the start of the 20th century. Why was this? Exhibitions often did not have broad appeal, although there were some stunning exceptions, such as the British Museum’s show of the treasures of Tutankhamun in 1972 which drew 1.6 million visitors. Museums were perhaps viewed as elitist, but a lot was down to the presentation of the permanent collections. By the 1990s, the High Street had been transformed. Whether it was Top Shop or Zara, shop windows were huge showcases with massive panes of glass behind which beautiful arrays of merchandise were stunningly lit. The consumer had come of age and in stark contrast, museum displays were boring and old fashioned.
So going back 25 years, a major focus at the V&A was to redesign, renovate and redisplay the collections. To have much more beautiful cases, non-reflective glass, fibre optic or LED lighting, better and clearer labelling. To excite people as they walked around the galleries. And create exhibitions that had broad appeal. If you are staging an exhibition on the 18th century designers Thomas Hope or William Kent with their more academic appeal, counterbalance that with an exhibition on Vivienne Westwood or David Bowie. And it worked. By 2019 the V&A was seeing 4 million visitors - a quadrupling from 20 years earlier. Clearly something was working to broaden the audiences, whilst in no way diminishing the scholarship that museums continue to undertake.
In 2010 Neil MacGregor, the then Director of the British Museum, presented a ground-breaking series of 15 minutes radio broadcasts: the History of the World in 100 objects using the British Museum collections to show the evolution of humankind from hand axes of 2 million years ago to a contemporary sharia compliant credit card. At the time the series was universally lauded: the Guardian said the programme was a broadcasting phenomenon; the Independent called it ‘perfect radio’; 4 million people listened to the series and another 10 million downloaded the podcast (almost half from outside the UK) and all around the country, schools and local museums organised related projects. And it was not just in the UK that the idea was popular. The 100 objects went on a world tour to China, Australia, Japan and Abu Dhabi where they met the same enthusiastic response.
13 years later the pendulum has swung to the other extreme - museums are under attack: they are full of colonial loot; they don’t listen to the voices of the communities whose objects they show; they are elitist; they show history through the eyes of European white men etc. So, what happened?
We can debate why, and some reasons are obvious: the rise of social media; political polarisation and a more general attack on some Western values and institutions. Tonight, the question is whether the encyclopaedic museum, one of the foundation stones of the Enlightenment, is relevant today. I argue that not only are museums as relevant as ever, but that in a world where tribalism and nationalism are re-emerging, where vocal minorities at both ends of the political spectrum are driving the debate, that museums remind us of our shared history, they reflect our common humanity. From the earliest times, humans have used objects for multiple reasons: some utilitarian; some ritualistic; to memorialise ancestors; to intercede with the gods; for adornment. The earliest tools we have found date back 2 million years; the British Museum holds a hand axe dated to 1.5 million years ago from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania which fits as perfectly today into a human hand as it did when made all those millennia ago; the earliest jewellery dates back to about 150,000 years ago and was found in the Bizmoune Cave in Morocco. We humans have a very long history and that history is not always pretty and the manner in which museums display that history has not always been pretty. But that is not a reason for them to be dismissed for they show that cultures around the world both differ in many respects but also share a commonality. And they show that our forebears shared similar concerns and struggles to those people face today. Demotic texts and cuneiform inscriptions from 5000 years ago show that people have always worried about the price of food or their spouses’ annoying habits. And of course, the greed and ambition of humanity has always been there whether it is the Assyrians, the Romans, the Aztecs, the Europeans in the 18/19th Century, or the rivalries between China, Russia and the West today. The objects in museums show all of this and they show the ying and yang of human societies throughout time and geography: the amazing creative achievements, and the depressing cycle of war and destruction.
Origins of the Modern Museum
Until the 17th and 18th centuries, European collections of art and objects were the almost exclusive purview of royalty, the aristocracy and the Church. One could argue that the Reformation was the spark that ignited the Enlightenment as a succession of intellectuals from Galileo to Newton to Darwin challenged the accepted dogma of the Catholic church. At the same time the world was being re-opened up to a global awareness as Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama and Captain James Cook expanded the world that was known to Europeans. The printing press allowed the dissemination of new ideas rapidly and far flung. During this period, we saw the emergence of an interest in both humanity’s origins but also in the artifacts of this history and that of cultures around the world.
The Society of Antiquaries, of which I am proud to be a Fellow, was established in 1707 but its origins are in the College of Antiquaries which was founded in 1586. Its aim was to study historical sites, as well as genealogy and heraldry. As part of this study, it built considerable collections at a time when museums did not exist (for example it acquired a large group of paintings in 1828, 30 years before the National Portrait Gallery was opened). In many cases museums were the direct result of inquisitive and obsessive collectors. England’s first real museum, The Ashmolean here in Oxford, was founded in 1677 to house the collections of Elias Ashmole, which he had himself acquired from John Tradescant the Elder and John Tradescant the Younger. The collection included books, coins, as well as natural history and geological specimens. The British Museum was founded in 1753 with the 71,000 objects, books, coins and natural history specimens from the obsessive collector Hans Sloane. These collectors were products of the Enlightenment; they wanted to understand the history of societies but also to make sense of the natural world.
The late 18th century through to the mid-19th century was a time of turmoil in Europe. The French revolution of 1789 overturned a monarchy that had existed for 1300 years; between 1802 and 1814 in Germany, many religious principalities lost their independent status and the number of German states was reduced from 300 to 39; in Italy a culmination of decades of rebellions saw the unification of the country by 1861. This upheaval saw a massive transfer of the ownership of art treasures. Sometimes princely collections were sequestered by the State (the Louvre Palace housed the former Royal collections but after the Revolution became a public museum). Sometime religious collections were transferred into public ownership (as in France) or sold. One of the greatest religious treasuries in Europe, that of the Basel Minster in Switzerland, was split between Basel City and Basel Country. The latter sold their objects on the open market. In Italy, the upheavals caused financial pressures and many old families were forced to sell their great art works and there and elsewhere religious establishments sold objects to literally provide funds to repair the roof.
This period coincided with the growing ambitions of many European powers; Britain, France and Germany competed to acquire great art. Museums such as the National Gallery (founded 1824) and the V&A (founded 1852) in London were hungry and aggressive buyers of these works of art that had been thrown up by revolutions and secularisation. Dealers would warehouse objects until national funding became available and the core collections of the Uk’s national museums were formed in this period.
Many of the leading American museums were established a few decades after their European counterparts in the late 19th century to provide both status and cultural leadership to the emerging great cities of the US. In New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1870; in Boston the Museum of Fine Art was also founded that year. This was followed by Detroit in 1885, Toledo in 1901, Cleveland in 1913 and so on. However, they came late to the party. The National Gallery in London has 4 paintings by Duccio; the Metropolitan Museum had none until it bought a tiny Duccio of the Virgin and child in 2004 for $45mm. On the other hand, most American museums have tremendous collections of Impressionist paintings, whereas UK collections are depressingly weak in this area (with the exception of the Courtauld). American tycoons of the late 19th century may have been denied the greatest of the old master paintings, but they were open to new ideas in a way the Old-World establishment was not.
In a not dissimilar fashion, we see today the Gulf States, Africa and China building new museums with a view to adding lustre to their countries, along with educating and inspiring their citizens. And it is not just about status. Many share the Enlightenment ideal of educating their visitors about both their own history and the commonality of humanity. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a great exemplar, and the new Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi shows the shared values and history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam with a synagogue, a church and a mosque all on the same site. The implementation of this wonderful project is supervised by the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity. This Committee was itself based on the Document on Human Fraternity, signed by the grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb and by Pope Francis in 2019. Whilst not a museum, the project shares the Enlightenment hope of encouraging knowledge and intercultural understanding.
The 19th century also saw a surge in interest in ancient cultures, in particular those of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Empires were on the rise and along with armies came archaeologists and scholars. I will discuss issues of acquisition a little later, but a byproduct of this European expansionism was an obsessive quest for knowledge. This passion resulted in the decipherment of cuneiform, starting with Georg Friedrich Grotefend in 1802 and continuing to this day when Linear Elamite has only just been deciphered in 2022 by Francois Desset following a century of groundwork by other scholars. Hieroglyphics were deciphered by Champollion in 1822 which opened up a new understanding of Egypt. These tremendous achievements transformed our view of history and helped us to understand the birth of civilisations, the start of agrarian settlements and the rise of City states in the 4th and 3rd millenniums BCE. As this knowledge grew, it coincided with major excavations throughout Egypt, Iran and Mesopotamia at Luxor Persepolis, Ur, Nimrud, and so on. For the first time in thousands of years, the wonders of these ancient civilisations became available to people in Europe and the USA. Through partage agreements, many of the excavated panels and objects ended up in Western museums. Until then the ancient world, as seen from the West, and as represented in princely collections was primarily confined to Greece and Rome with some Egyptian objects. Now museums were starting to tell the history of humankind from the very first cities. Concurrently we saw the emergence of palaeontology with the discovery by Mary and Joseph Anning of the first complete ichthyosaur at Lyme Regis in Dorset in 1811/12. But it was not till 1859 with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species that this tied in with the deep history that was emerging through the combination of palaeontology with archaeology and of course, this search for knowledge, as with Galileo, fundamentally changed the way that the world was seen. No longer could the world have been created between 6000 and 8000 years ago.
But this new concept of evolution had a dark side and was also used to justify the superiority of white peoples over those of colour. And I will touch on this as I move on to discuss museums as contested spaces.
At their inception, modern museums were truly encyclopaedic. They contained botanical specimens, taxidermied animalia, manuscripts, coins, archaeological artifacts and great works of art. But as the 19th century progressed, so did specialisation. The V&A (itself originally the Museum of Manufacturing and then the South Kensington Museum) spawned the Science Museum and the Royal College of Art. The British Museum gave birth to the Natural History Museum and more recently the British Library. Today it is almost impossible for us to envisage the world of 250 years ago. The average person had a minimal knowledge of other cultures. There was only a limited awareness of the great achievements of our ancestors. There might have been awe for the scale and the skill taken to build the pyramids but little understanding of the culture that built them.
Today, if you wish to learn about the art of Japan, India, China, the Americas, Iran, Africa, the Pacific islands, go to the British Museum. You can learn about it all there. If you want to study fashion and design through the ages, to look at the evolution of ceramics, bronze casting, sculpture, silversmiths, go to the V&A; if you want to learn about the scientific discoveries of the last two hundred years, from Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ or James Hargreaves’ ‘spinning Jenny’ through to 20th century space travel and 21st century AI go to the Science Museum.
You might say that today you can learn all this on the internet. Of course you can, but you could also have learned much of this from Encyclopaedia Brittanica which was founded in 1768 and constantly evolved and revised but where is the magic and excitement in that compared to looking at the actual objects? There is still something intangible and irresistible when you look at a flint axe made over a million years ago by a distant ancestor patiently chipping away at the raw stone for days to create, as there is about looking at a sculpture in the V&A by Giambologna of Samson slaying the Philistine, which seems to have been impossibly carved out of a single chunk of marble.
Western museums’ collections are a pot pourri of objects. Science and natural history museums reflect a Victorian obsession with categorisation and classification, something without which much modern research would not have been possible. Art and ethnographic museums contain objects - bought, traded, collected and in some cases looted. The latter may have been through war or, to use a contemporary phrase, through an imbalance of power. As missionaries ardently sought to convert the world to Christianity, local populations might relinquish their ancestral idols; traders might acquire objects in exchange for metal knives or glass beads; colonial administrators would buy objects from locals; amateur scholars would amass collections of utilitarian objects.
Dan Hicks, Curator of World Archaeology here at the Pitt Rivers, has done much to bring attention to the contested acquisition of many objects in Western museums. He identifies seven types of ‘taking’: 1) looting in all its forms, including dispossessions of royal objects and objects of royal power; 2) physical anthropological collecting of human remains; 3) missionary and other confiscation of objects of religion/belief taken during colonialism; 4) archaeological collections and tomb raiding; 5) scientific collections of natural history specimens; 6) ethnographic collecting; 7) barter, purchase and commissioning of objects.
This categorisation is helpful. There is a spectrum across collecting during the colonial period ranging from illegal to unethical to trade and commissioning at the other end. This is further complicated in the cases of acquisitions made during the colonial period but not from a subject colony and where the objects have now become a focus of nationalistic sentiments.
So, what role should museums now play? Are we just a space in which objects are contested or are we a forum in which debate occurs.
Firstly, we should say that in most encyclopaedic museums, the number of truly contested objects is a very small part of the overall collections, although they have come to dominate the narrative. To elaborate on Dan Hicks' categories, if we consider the types of contested objects, they fall into several groups: those acquired by a colonial power in punitive raids (the Benin bronzes and the Asante Regalia for example); those acquired legally but having significant nationalistic import to the country of origin (such as the Parthenon Marbles) ; those that were acquired legally but which have religious or ancestral import to the origin country (such as the Easter Island Moai); objects that have been acquired in recent history through illegal excavations, which almost everyone agrees should be repatriated to their country of origin if safe so to do.
I do not intend to debate individual cases but more to ask what is the role of the museum as custodian/exhibitor of these objects. Max Hollein, Director of the Metropolitan Museum summed it up as the museum moving from docent to convenor. Museums and curators are trying to do the right thing. The level of discourse and scholarship is changing and Dan Hicks must be credited for raising the profile of many of these issues. Provenance is becoming a key issue and museums are learning to deal with competing cultural issues and multiple constituents. Museums must be open to debate about the objects they hold and be transparent in their explanations of acquisition. Standards change over time and museums are not immune to those changes. Many collections acquired in the 1970s-90s in good faith by museums and collectors, particularly in the USA, have been shown to include numerous objects stolen in recent history by tombaroli. Today’s standards of acquisitions are significantly stronger, although the risk of sophisticated criminal networks creating forged provenance for looted pieces remains a real one. The Metropolitan Museum found this out only recently with the golden Roman era Egyptian sarcophagus that it bought in 2017 supported by extensive documents amongst which was a supposed 1971 export licence. This was forged and the sarcophagus turned out to have been looted during the Arab spring of 2011. Ironically it was discovered because Kim Kardashian shared an image of herself online standing next to the sarcophagus at the Metropolitan Museum Gala in 2018. A smuggler who had been involved in the looting of the sarcophagus (but clearly had not been paid) alerted the authorities.
But even source countries may not agree on whether an object should be returned. In 1868 HMS Topaz, a British frigate, visited Easter Island and collected two of the massive basalt sculptures known as Moai, which were subsequently deposited with the British Museum. At the time Easter Island had become severely depopulated with no more than a few hundred inhabitants, as a result, amongst other reasons, of deforestation and Peruvian slave trading and there is no suggestion that the statues were taken by force. In 2018 the Governor of Easter Island, Laura Alarcon Rapu asked the British Museum to return the main sculpture, Hoa Hakananai’a, whose spirit she argued needed to be returned to the island. In contrast the Mayor of Easter Island, Pedro Edmunds Paoa, argued that the statue should stay in the British Museum, as on Easter Island where there are about 1000 more Moai, he said the sculptures are falling apart because they are made of volcanic stone being battered by wind and rain (and as we saw just recently by wild fires). He also pointed out that a statue that Argentina had returned is now being used "as a pillar for lazy dogs". Instead, he asked for financial and curatorial support and following on from this, the British Museum has been working closely with the Island to further conservation and research.
So there is a continued need for ongoing dialogue between Western museums and the source countries, regardless of when the objects were acquired. The British Museum is an important partner in the Benin Dialogue Group, which is working with groups in Nigeria, Europe and the USA about plans to display objects in Benin, to digitise the corpus of objects from Benin and to progress the archaeological work in the city. I do not want to dwell on the Benin discussion tonight. It falls into the category of what may have been legal in 1897 by International Law, as opposed to what was ethical, and is not the purpose of my talk tonight.
Other examples of collaboration and support are the ongoing archaeological digs in Iraq by the British Museum or in Egypt by the Metropolitan Museum. In fact, dozens of archaeological excavations across the Middle East, Egypt, South America, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are being conducted by scholars and archaeologists from European and American museums in partnership with the local countries. And when Sudan decided to build a new dam on the Nile’s 4th cataract in 2004, they asked the British Museum to lead the archaeologic rescue operation in conjunction with Sudanese colleagues. This is just the tip of the iceberg: the British Museum has for many years run an International Training Programme which brings museum workers from countries whose museum sectors need support. The programme helps develop skills, best practice and specialist knowledge, as well as building a support network.
From the start, the founders of museums sought, through the display of art, natural history and science, to educate and inspire audiences, whilst also allowing this pursuit of research and the preservation of the past which continues apace today. The 19th century saw the focus on categorisation and documentation grow alongside a burgeoning curiosity about global cultures. Museum themes included the utilitarian, the sacred, ornamentation, design and prestige. At the same time a Western-centric view of the world was presented with a Darwinian evolutionary viewpoint. ‘Culture’ started in Mesopotamia and Egypt, reaching its apotheosis in the wonders of Greek art which became the gold standard for the next 2500 years. Implicitly the cultures of other societies: Africa, Asia, Oceania, South America, were of a lower order and by implication the peoples of those countries were inferior to the highly developed Europeans. The British Museum’s layout is a typical 20th century view of this approach. The ground floor’s major galleries are devoted to the history of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. The Americas have a small side gallery; Africa is in the basement and Oceania is displayed at the far rear. In both the Oceanic and African galleries, works of great art and ritual significance are displayed alongside everyday basket work and utensils. There is little differentiation between the significance of these objects, unlike the galleries of ancient art. There are plans to redress this as part of a redevelopment, which will give more prominence to these cultures but it is indicative of attitudes that have prevailed in the museum world until quite recently in Europe and America.
The Pitt Rivers Museum has been frequently cited as a prime example of this but should we not also view this a product of its origins? This wonderful museum preserves the ordinary and the ephemeral from a myriad of cultures that would otherwise have been lost totally along the march to modernity. It is not to dismiss contested objects but museums themselves have become contested spaces. Dealing with issues such as restitution, human remains, colonialism, sponsorship and climate change, they have become a focal point for many of the western world’s 21st century anxieties.
What museums must honestly acknowledge is the history of their acquisitions. We cannot rewrite this history but we can discuss and explain it. We can ensure that programs touch all audiences and deal with contemporary issues. We can bring scholarship and academic interpretation to help understand differing cultures, whilst understanding that outsiders may not provide the nuances that the cultures can provide from which objects derive. We can tell the stories of Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas in a global context and show the reality of the past from different viewpoints. And at a time when ideas are polarising it is all the more important that museums remain places where difficult issues can be debated.
Throughout human history objects have had central roles in how we shape our lives: from everyday prosaic living, to celebration, to ritual to war. Even board games have been around for thousands of years. This game from Ur dates to about 2500BC but is completely recognisable today/ There has been a fundamental human impulse to engage with objects since time immemorial. Museums are the guardians and fiduciaries of that lineage.
Throughout history, societies have had spasms of iconoclasm. Whether it be the Puritan destruction of England’s medieval heritage, through to the destruction of the Bamyan buddhas by the Taliban or of Palmyra by ISIS. Humanity has a sporadic but recurring urge to destroy and we see this today in the toppling of statues such as that of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol or Confederate statues in the Southern States of the USA.
In Nazi Germany we witnessed the destruction of degenerative art. In China, the 1960s saw the wholesale destruction of art and heritage during the Cultural Revolution, a particularly egregious example being the looting and destruction of more than 6000 Tibetan temples, many by dynamiting. The Stalinist era in Russia saw a massive attempt to eliminate indigenous cultures and art through forced migration and collectivisation along with the destruction of art which was not deemed conducive to socialist realism.
And if not to destroy then to cancel. History is littered with autocrats seeking to erase history. We see it in defaced Assyrian reliefs (such as those at Bowdoin College in Maine, where the faces of a previous king have been hacked off the reliefs) or Egyptian monuments where the name of an earlier pharaoh has been scratched out. Or today, when Premier Modi in India is, at least according to his critics, trying to write Muslims out of Indian history, or American fundamentalists who forced the sacking of a Florida teacher who was talking to her students about Michaelangelo’s David.
Some of these voices, whether nationalistic or partisan, attacking the concept of the universal museum are coming from countries or groups that in recent history have exhibited some of the worst examples of cultural destruction or intolerance. Our response to criticisms from these quarters needs to be measured and not a knee jerk reaction.
Museums today can provide forums for these competing views and values. They show that throughout history, societies have suffered disagreements and challenges. Showing this diversity of opinion is more important than ever when we are seeing a polarisation of political views and a challenge to the ideas of the Enlightenment, ideas that brought us democracy, modern medicine, and technological achievements too numerous to mention.
Ironically, at the same time as there is more questioning of this relevance and purpose, museums in Europe and the US remain the most popular tourist attractions. Before COVID, the British Museum was receiving 6 million visitors a year, of whom 70% were from outside the UK. The Louvre became so popular with 10 million visitors that it has had to ration visits and in the Non-Western world, as I have mentioned, are these huge museum building projects in Saudi, UAE, Qatar, China, Africa.
Museums do continue to be inspirational and educational institutions, as well as providing entertainment and a focus of community. In some respects, they have taken on the role of sacred spaces in the 21st century; visitors often sit in contemplation of the wonders of human creativity. Whether it be a painting by Da Vinci or Rauchenberg, a neolithic carving of a Venus figure or a sculpture by Anthony Gormley, these objects can touch our souls.
Great paintings and works of art produce a resonance in human emotion in the same way that great music does. Why does a Rothko painting ‘sing’ in a way that so many paintings do not. Art can amaze: if you look at a boxwood carving by Adam Dircz or a miniature by the Limburg brothers, the mind boggles at the skill which created these. Visitors come to museums and continue to be inspired in the same way that I was as an 8-year-old.
Museums are also an incredible research resource. Every designer I have ever met in the UK spent many days in the V&A studying patterns, fabrics and designs from the 16th century to contemporary. Over the years the V&A has held numerous exhibitions showcasing the work of British designers from Mary Quant to Vivienne Westwood to Thomas Heatherwick, who all paid tribute to the V&A’s collections as a major source of inspiration.
Auguste Rodin, France’s greatest late 19th century sculptor, passed months in the British Museum studying the masterpieces of Greek classical sculpture. The same goes for Science and Natural History museums which have been a springboard for generations of scientists and researchers. And research and teaching remain a corner stone for all major museums. At the Science Museum in London projects range from studying augmented reality to teaching school children about climate science; the Natural History Museum employs 300 scientists who publish over 700 scientific papers a year; the British Museum continues to conduct important archaeological excavations across the Near East and Africa in partnership with the host countries, providing greater understanding of the deep history of these sites.
Museums continue to record our contemporary life for future generations. The V&A collects contemporary fashion, ceramics, jewellery as well as recording the less tangible. A current project is looking at how transitory heritage such as the Glastonbury music festival can be interpreted for the museum audiences of today. Imagine how amazing it would be if such recordings had been available in the 16th or 18th centuries - to look back at the Reformation in the making or the French Revolution!
And of course, museums remain a strong magnet for tourism and are a cornerstone of the cultural life of most big cities. The British Museum is the most visited tourist attraction in the UK; the Louvre is in France. Typically, 6 or 7 of the most visited tourist attractions in the UK are museums. Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi are building their numerous new museums because they believe that by creating cultural hubs, they become more desirable places to live.
We live in a multi-cultural society. Today, England’s population is 18% black or Asian; London’s is higher: 21% Asian and 13% black. A good friend of mine of Asian descent talks frequently of how wonderful it is to show his friends and visitors the wonders of his culture by visiting the V&A and the British Museum. Whatever colour, race or creed you are in Britain today (or France or America), you do not to have to go to India, Africa or China, to see your history and culture.
In an interesting twist, late last year a lawsuit was brought by a group of African Americans to prevent the Smithsonian Institute returning their Benin bronzes to Nigeria. The suit failed but the merits struck me as very reasonable. Their argument was that these objects had been made in the 16th century from the bronze ingots (manillas) with which the Portuguese traders had bought slaves from the Oba of Benin. The suit argued that as descendants of enslaved peoples, they should be able to enjoy these objects in the country in which they now live (USA).This shows the incredible complexity of human history and the history of collecting and its ever-evolving story.
Museums are unique. They are educational institutions, research institutions, tourist attractions. They are guardians of the achievements and lives of hundreds of generations of humans before us. They let us marvel at the ingenuity, creativity and sheer skill of societies that lived 100 years, 1000 years, 5000 years or a million years ago. They remind us we are not by any means the most skilled or creative generation in human evolution; they foster intercultural understanding; they stimulate the artists and designers of today and they hold exhibitions that reflect on contemporary society. On top of all of this they are just wondrous places in which to wander and reflect.
Much of what we know about the ancient world would not have occurred without the archaeology of the last 200 years combined with the curatorial expertise provided by the great encyclopaedic museums and the research they have conducted, whether it be deciphering hieroglyphs or cuneiform, studying flora and fauna, or sharing the cultures of the world. Rather than creating division, these institutions show the commonality of human achievements and aspirations as well as their linkage and connections across the globe and across the millennia. They celebrate both the history of humanity but also the extraordinary artistic and scientific achievements of civilisations throughout history and museums, as trustees of world history, preserve the evidence for future generations to study and understand. They are places of wonder and indeed of enlightenment. For many they take on a sacred space. In a rapidly changing and increasingly anxious world, they provide a counterbalancing sense of stability to transitory fashions and ideas.
The internet is a wonderful tool and museums have been active in digitising their collections for the benefit of scholars and enthusiasts globally. Whilst a digital reproduction does not convey the magic of the original object, you may nevertheless study cuneiform tables online as easily in Sydney, San Francisco or Seoul as you can in London or Paris but there is an inherent magic in the original artifact. The axe that a human chipped from a rough flint 2 million years ago. A scene from a Persepolis relief showing the violence and the luxury of the Achaemenid civilisations: objects that would have been lost to the mists of time if not safeguarded and studied in museums.
The encyclopaedic museum today is not rooted in nationalism. It seeks to be a knowledge educator and a facilitator. It helps us to understand how differing cultures throughout time have tried to make sense of birth and death, peace and war, harvest and famine. It showcases the high points of human achievement since the earliest times whilst also exhibiting the utilitarian and the prosaic. It is a window into the lives, struggles and achievements of our forebears. How different peoples and times have tried to explain their relationship with the world; how we in the 21st century came to be who we are: the first tools; the transition from hunter gatherers to agrarians; the formation of city states; the creation of awe-inspiring buildings and wondrous objects.
We must acknowledge the history of these collections but we cannot rewrite it. We CAN tell the stories of worldwide humanity if we do so in partnership with the cultures from which those objects derive.
We have been very fortunate that those enlightened minds of the 18th and 19th century sought to preserve and record. Our culture and understanding of our history and other cultures would be so much less informed if the likes of the Reformation Puritans, to Mao’s cultural revolutionists and the present-day iconoclasts of Isis had succeeded in obliterating all the evidence of our past
Whenever throughout history the world has moved towards tribalism and polarisation it has rarely seen a benevolent outcome. The universal encyclopaedic museum should be a counter to this. We must continue to showcase all cultures and be a public square for the debate of contentious issues from which we must not shy away. But we also need to provide balance and not let angry voices at both ends of the political spectrum dominate the agenda. This is why museums play such an important role in society to protect and preserve all our histories and that is why museums remain as relevant today as they ever have been.
Images to accompany the Beatrice Blackwood Lecture 2023 (pdf)