Back in 2009 I went to a debate at the London School of Economics, where I was working at the time, to listen to Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate and Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum discuss the Museum of the 21st Century. I never expected to be so drawn in by the debate and excited by the opportunities of a future museum, my eyes were also opened to the challenges as well as the possibilities. It was way before I began volunteering in museums, but I guess the spark was lit that day, my interest became so much more than one of casual visitor.
Now four years down the line, I have come to another debate, on the future of the British Museum. I come to it as a volunteer in three different museums, large and small, I experience museums in a whole new way, I am also a friend of the British Museum and a regular visitor. This, the first of three debates is all about exploring how the building and its public spaces need to evolve. A panel of cultural professionals, artists and museum directors will kick the debate off by sharing with us their thoughts and ideas. I am excited and intrigued by the whole role of public debate, but my slight concerns it may run down alleyways of trivialities and personal grievances are allayed when the chair of the panel Liz Forgan, in good humour, admits the toilets are bad and best left to one side as a topic for discussion.
I look around at the audience, it is sad to see a slightly older crowd, not many under 25, mostly white. That is not the public, that is not all the visitors to the British Museum, few ‘tourist’ voices are heard and yet no doubt make up a large proportion of visitors. This debate is just one avenue to garner opinion and I am sure the British Museum will use other forums and means to collect views, but to truly listen to informed debate they need to talk to the people who can’t come and don’t come, who feel excluded, as much as the people who do.
I found the panel’s opening speeches inspiring and fascinating, sewing the seeds for a debate that needs to reach far beyond the museum walls and the problem of physical spaces and physical objects. Neil MacGregor gave us a short introduction to the history of the museum, its intention to become ‘the whole world in one building’ that at the time included not only antiquities but natural history, books and manuscripts. It was to be a place where the whole world could come and study the whole world and in 2013 seven million people did just that.
We were shown pictures of the Great Court, queues at the recent Viking exhibition that many of us in the lecture theatre had experienced, visitors like bees swarming round the Rosetta Stone. It was fascinating to see a shot of visitors sitting on the stairs outside the Reading Room and consider the point made that free wifi would change how people use the building, with steps potential more crowded, full of knowledge thirsty bodies accessing the internet, no obstacles in their way to connecting with the world outside the walls but blocking the movement of people trying to learn more about the world inside the building. The question of how to cope with these numerous and ever-increasing users, how to keep the free flow of people, how to let everyone experience the museum in their own way at their own speed not constrained by queues and shuffling zombie like patrons.
James Cuno, CEO and President of the J. Paul Getty Trust, was first to share the panel’s thoughts, talking of doors open without discrimination. I had my reservations about this statement right from the get go, I feel we are discriminated against as a family, autism is a barrier that the British Museum has yet to bridge. He talked of the Reading Room and how best to use this functional and symbolic space, how not to let memories of its past life cloud our decisions in the future. I liked his idea of using it as an area for public debate, an arena for in-depth interaction with individual items from the collection.
The sculptor, Antony Gormley, talked of a museum ‘of’ and ‘for’ the world – Do we love the British Museum as a historical idea or do we have the guts, passion and foresight to take that idea and become more radical with what the museum should be?
Nicholas Kenyon, director of the Barbican, took us to the physicality of the building. No slides or powerpoint presentations were allowed but he waved two photocopies of the British Museum railings that greet you on arriving at Great Russell Street. Your first sight is of a temple, one that not everyone feels welcome to visit. He mentions the Southbank vibe that exists, a cultural space can be about so much more than an experience of physical buildings, something the Baribican and the Museum of London are working on. The British Museum needs to look at this outside space and forecourt to consider the aura, accessibility and welcome of the museum.
The next voice took this idea to another level, Wim Pijbes, director of the Rijksmuseum, believes a trip to the museum begins in the mind of the visitor when they first wake up on the day of their visit. The spell begins with that first thought, he extends his view of openness and interaction far beyond the physical, he spoke also of the opportunities of digital, an open access culture that pervades every fibre of the museum.
Bonnie Greer, the playwright and ex-trustee of the museum, has written a blog post summarising her vision for the future, a museum that must face everywhere as interactions are no longer in situ. She questions this ‘British’ museum when even the idea of ‘British’ may become old and archaic, a nostalgic word. With the country in the grip of the question of Scottish devolution, what it is to be British has never been so keenly debated.
She talked of defending and explaining to our future generations what the museum is, the historic decisions made – why we have these objects, the Elgin Marbles an obvious reference, but also felt the need to topically touch, tongue-in-cheek, on the Lewis Chessmen, whose ownership the British Museum may yet have to explain.
The panel’s time over, the floor was opened up to questions, this didn’t quite work, too many questions asked and not really answered with the panel giving a collective response at the end. But important issues were raised and voiced. How does the museum deal with the sheer physical numbers? With longer opening hours and entry fees for tourists? How could the collection be more interconnected, the threads of history more tightly weaved rather than viewed in isolation.
The topic of inclusivity was addressed, I had my hand up to ask but sadly I was not chosen. We had been talking of how the stories of objects are told, to be honest it meant nothing to me if I can’t bring my daughter, my family, through the door, what does it matter how they tell the stories. The sheer numbers of people, the crowds, the noise and hum of hundreds of feet slapping on the floor, the bubbling conversations that reverberate and resonate, she can’t cope with that, autism is her filter and it is blocked in this current version of the British Museum. Technology is great, we can look at objects, I can show her mummies and great stone giants, but it is not enough, I want her to see and experience the physical space, see these objects up close, interact with people, meet experts, feed off their passion.
I loved Wim Pijbes wonderful observation as the evening drew to an end, to anyone listening it would seem we are talking of a very sick patient, but the British Museum is a fantastic place and we must not forget that.
“people go to a museum for many reasons – there’s no wrong reason to go to a museum”
Antony Gormley spoke of the passion we share for this place and that in and of itself is a beautiful thing. The museum no longer a museum of instruction but a museum of discovery, a discovery of the self. He touched on interpretation of objects and how sometimes objects can speak to us more powerfully than any words.
I think at the very end it was Liz Forgan (tweeting and note taking by this time was taking its toll on my concentration) that said scholarship was the heart and soul of the museum and it is how that is conveyed to the public, how that audience can be engaged and it is that problem that presents the greatest challenge.
Having listened to the debate it is certainly something I would like to see in the Reading Room, the essence of engagement in the heart of the museum, open up what is behind the scenes, the work and passion of the museum in the sacred heart centre.
As I got up to leave after the debate, completely inspired and full of thoughts, the lady next to me said she had found my tweeting of salient points intensely annoying. I was completely crushed that I had ruined her evening and absorption of the debate. I maintained I would not have tweeted if we had not been invited to do so on more than one occasion. I explained what I was trying to achieve with the tweeting, the sharing of information and the connections made. With no specific work place this was my route to make a difference in museums for people with autism, to improve access for my daughter, to broaden her experiences and knowledge.
We parted on good terms, but what struck me was when she said she didn’t understand this world of texting and iPhones, of tweeting and iPads. These tech filled intrusions were not her world or at least not one she felt a part of. During the evening’s debate we had talked of inclusion and yet here was someone who was leaving the museum who didn’t feel included, who was exasperated and frustrated (mainly with me though I have to admit).
Her voice had not been heard, it is so easy to see technology as our saviour, it’s gifts of open access to the museum so shiny and new, but I wonder when my children become the dreamers, designers and coders of their own generation of technology, whether we will be able to keep up. Will the technology divide still be every present. I guess this will be the topic of the next debate and best to leave my pondering here.
For all the inspiration, the dreams, wishes, hopes and ideas for a future museum, the last few moments with my disgruntled neighbour just proved to me that there are still many voices to be heard, many who feel excluded and ostracised who love this whole world in one building but feel it is out of their reach. When I think of my daughter’s autism and the barriers it puts up I realise I have more in common with the lady than I first thought.
I hope she comes to the next debate, I promise I won’t incessantly tweet this time, for her voice needs to be heard as much as mine. I just hope the British Museum is listening.
You can listen to the first debate on the Museum of the Future here – http://britishmuseumofthefuture.tumblr.com
The next debate on Changing public dialogues with museum collections in the digital age is on Thursday 16th Oct, 6.30-9pm. To book a space please visit the website