Tag Archives: British Museum

My favourite thing in London

The other day, I saw this board outside the Big Red Bus tourist shop near the British Museum and decided straight away that it might be my favourite thing in London. It was so striking, with such a warped sense of perspective and bizarre mishmash of London stereotypes.

I wanted it.

I decided that I would go inside and ask how much it would cost to buy it, but first I stopped and looked at it awhile. Questions entered my head.

What is a Grenadier Guard doing outside Downing Street? If he’s not on duty, why is he wearing his uniform and if he is on duty, which he shouldn’t be, why is he holding the hand of a small foreign bear? What is Paddington Bear doing so far from his comfort zone of Paddington without Mr Brown or any of the Brown family? Why is Paddington Bear standing behind the Grenadier Guard in that curious position? Are Paddington Bear and a Grenadier Guard even particularly relevant symbols of London life in 2012? And is it just me, or does the whole ensemble look rather like a surreal take on something you might see on Crimewatch featuring a stranger caught on CCTV camera leading a small child away from a shopping centre?

I still wanted it though, maybe now more than ever.

While I was plucking up the courage to go inside an ask, two Italian tourists came strolling down the road. They saw the board, giggled, then handed me their camera and asked if I could take their picture. After arguing over who would be the bear and who would be the guard, they poked their heads through the holes. I took a photograph, they thanked my fulsomely and moved on, laughing and chatting, relishing this rare free moment of childish fun in the sterling-sapping city.

I realised then that the need of London’s tourists was greater than mine. I could always come back, but they would only ever have their photographs. I went home, contented.

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Book of the dead dull: against blockbuster exhibitions

A new British Museum exhibition opens this week and it’s already a guaranteed success. But that doesn’t mean it’s any good.

I went to the press view of the Egyptian Book Of The Dead and afterwards felt much the same as I do after every British Museum exhibition: overwhelmed and underimpressed. But I knew that all the big reviewers would give it a knee-jerk five stars – and sure, enough, before I’d even got home, the first suitably awestruck review was in. Meh.

So why was I so bored, and am I on my own with this? Well, the exhibits are undoubtedly important and fascinating – papyrus and artefacts taken from Egyptian tombs, many dating back more than 3,000 years, which together tell the story of the Egyptian belief in the afterlife. But, gawd, ain’t there a lot of it? And why does the exhibition space look so bloody boring?

 

The British Museum has an incredible talent at taking something potentially fascinating and kicking all the life out of it through stuffy, unimaginative presentation and a conviction that more is better – and getting away with it every time. 

At Book Of The Dead we get acres – and I really mean acres – of stuffy captions and endless cases containing aged papyrus covered in hieroglyphs, with only the odd gaudy mummy case by way of variation. After seeing the first room, I felt I’d seen it all and would have had a more enjoyable experience sitting down with a cup of a tea and reading a good book on the subject. But I still had another dozen rooms to trudge round. Exhibitions are meant to bring a topic to life, but this was deadening. And I was lucky enough to be there when it was relatively empty – for the average punter, it must be chaos.

I’m not sure I’m entirely out on my own here – on my way into the exhibition I bumped into a friend coming out, and he said much the same thing, as did Time Out Art on Twitter. But the British Museum’s methods clearly convince most of the reviewers and they certainly draw the crowds; these are, after all, two of the constituents museums most need to impress. 

As a lover of museums, though, I cannot help feel that the BM is doing the art of exhibitions a disservice. There is none of the thoughtful wit of the Imperial War Museum, or the layered smarts of the Wellcome Collection, or the sheer intellectual depth of the British Library, all three of whom have new exhibitions opening next week that will not get anything like the attention of the BM.

The British Museum make museum-going into something worthy rather than fun. My fear is that thousands of people will push through heaving crowds to see this exhibition drawn by fawning publicity and out of a sense of duty, before emerging battered and bored, vowing to never visit another museum until the next blockbuster rolls into town. That really would be a shame.

Skin at the Wellcome Collection

My review of the Wellcome Collection‘s new exhibition Skin is in the New Statesman this week. Read it here.

Cunningly, I snuck the key phrase into the very opening paragraph:

‘Generally, museums put on exhibitions so that people can learn about things they don’t already know. The Wellcome Collection does almost the reverse: it prefers to start with something that is familiar – in this case, skin – and make it unfamiliar.’

Skin is another very good exhibition from the Wellcome, who stand almost unique among British galleries and museums as a body that is so rich they have no requirement to go cap-in-hand to the public purse or to private sponsors, and consequently have no need or desire to dumb down or exhibit tedious ‘blockbusters’ (I’m looking at you, British Museum) in a bid to pull a cash-and-existence-justifying audience through the door.

Few establishments are so fortunate and few curators would know what to do with themselves if given this sort of creative and intellectual freedom. 

Arts funding is going to take a proper kicking over the next few years. The Wellcome Collection will provide rare shelter from the storm, and one with free wi-fi, a bookshop and Peyton & Byrne cakes. What more can you ask for?