‘Civilisations’ and museums

May 7, 2018 0 Comments

The big BBC series Civilisations has come to an end.  It was designed as a remake of – and a challenge to – the famous Kenneth Clark series Civilisation, first shown in 1969.  The challenge was directly reflected in the plural form of the new title.  While Clarke was concerned almost exclusively with ‘Western civilisation’ (or, more accurately, visual arts in Western civilisation) the three presenters of the new series, Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga, extended themselves to the civilisations of the world, with Asia and to some extent Africa.  And they made a consistent point of drawing attention to the links between, and the influences of, the people of different continents.

This change was inevitable.  Not only is Eurocentrism long dead (except for some nostalgics, among them reviewers of the series), but now we know so much more about the ways in which peoples and their cultures interacted, often over long distances.  When it touched on art of the Dutch ‘golden age’, for example, the series drew on Timothy Brook‘s book Vermeer’s hat, which uses objects found in Vermeer’s paintings to riff on the commercial and cultural links between the Netherlands and the far east.

This geographical and cultural broadening gave us not just a new, more hospitable perspective, but also some wonderful and unfamiliar sights and objects, from Egypt, Benin, Mexico, Japan and many other places.  But there were two main problems with this approach.  The first was that ‘the visual cultures of the whole world’ is, to put it mildly, rather a lot for just nine hour-long programmes.  The second is that, whereas Kenneth Clark followed a consistent argument, both in his individual programmes and the whole series, the presenters of Civilisations seemed to get lost (or at least got me lost) in a series of different arguments, swapping abruptly between them as they zipped on to the next location.  David Olusoga seemed to me the clearest of the three (his programme ‘First contact’ was exceptionally good).  He was also the most personal, and the calmest (Simon Schama tended to boom large moral pronouncements – with the usual compulsory second-rate neo-romantic music in the background).

Wynford Vaughan Thomas and Gwyn Alf Williams

Clark, smooth patrician that he was, didn’t need to boom – though he was always to be seen on screen, usually standing erect in his neat tweeds before his masterpieces.  Curiously, Civilisations couldn’t get away from this basic format, even if Mary Beard was often shown sitting or lounging, rather than standing still – an attempt, maybe, to soften the impact of The Authority Figure.  In format, television is a lazy industry: ways of making programmes can survive for decades without basic change.  Arts and history programmes are good examples.  No one has ever succeeded in following the lead of Colin Thomas in his pioneering, dialectical 1985 series on the history of Wales, The dragon has two tongues, which pitched two figures, Gwyn Alf Williams and Wynford Vaughan Thomas, in opposition as they gave conflicting views of the same historical events.  It’s a great shame we’re prevented from seeing this series freely online. [Most are now available via Vimeo. Feb. 2021.]  The hoary statue of the Single Authority Figure still stands unchallenged in almost all TV art and history programmes, despite all the developments in critical thinking since 1969 that have eroded and defaced that figure.

Sculpture Gallery, Art Treasures Exhibition 1857

Civilisations had an ‘appendix’, presented by Mary Beard, called Civilisations on your doorstep, intended to entice viewers into exploring the museums and art galleries of the UK and their contents.  This was an engaging programme, especially in its focus on how art objects arrived here – often by very dubious means – and the ways in which institutions controlled the narrative and impact of what they presented to their publics.  It tipped small, obligatory toes into Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but at least it managed to get out of south-east England for its main scenes: there was a fascinating section on Manchester and its Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857.  I knew nothing about this, and to my shame had never heard of another featured institution, Liverpool’s World Museum.

Mary Beard returned to museums in last week’s edition of Front row late, which she chairs, with the help of three guests, Sara Wajid of the Museum of London, Tristram Hunt (V&A) and Tom Shakespeare.  The focus of their discussion was the central question, what’s the point of museums today?  They started with the recent Art Fund Museum of the Year shortlist, and the subject of innovation.  Innovation, they agreed, didn’t consist of merely the addition of a shiny new wing to a museum building.  Instead, it lay in changes to the ‘software’ – how museums engaged with their public in new ways, how they presented their collections differently, how they appealed to groups previously uninterested in museums.  Spending cuts to publicly funded museums have reduced their staffing capacity; Tristram Hunt stressed the importance of skilled and expert curators, while Sara Wajid pointed out that inventive museums took advantage of expertise beyond their walls.  ‘Engagement’ can take museums perilously close to being theme parks: the Postal Museum in London, one of the Museum of the Year finalists, is built around a ride on the underground postal railway.

We saw a short film of Mary Beard ‘under cover’ – not ‘in disguise’, because she was easily rumbled – as a museum attendant in the Nereid Monument room of the British Museum (not maybe the most typical museum in the UK).  She’d been told to be welcoming and helpful (and also to stop people using selfie sticks).  She noticed that few visitors looked at the explanatory panels or captions, but that most were genuinely exploratory in their behaviour, often as part of a family or social group than in solitary contemplation.  The ‘don’t touch!’ and ‘white gloves’ ethos of the ‘fine museum’, it was suggested, worked against what Hunt called the ‘haptic’ potential of the museum object.  (We saw a delightful clip of ‘Philomena Cunk’ sulking when she was told by an archivist that she shouldn’t wear the white gloves she’d assume she should use as a regular TV historian.)

At this point I was expecting one of the panel to draw attention to one of the great assets of a museum, the enhanced ‘thinginess’ or (to use a horrible word) physicality of the real object in an age when experience is increasingly digital and screen-mediated.  But surprisingly no one made the point. 

Wajid identified one of the barriers museums face: that visitors coming through the doors tend to adopt a ‘museum mode’ of behaviour, in line with how they expect or assume you should interact with a museum.  How should museums break down that kind of cultural deference?

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Beard’s next question was ‘are there too many museums’?  There are apparently 2,600 in the UK, five times as many as 100 years ago, and twice as many as there are branches of Sainsburys (quite what the relevance of that comparison was I’m not sure).  In defence, it was pointed out that there are far more people living in the UK today, with more leisure time available to them.  On the other hand, the panel worried that too many museums arose from a ‘heritagisation’ impulse – a tendency towards a nostalgic, reactionary embalming of an imaginary ideal past (for example a ‘benign’ interpretation of the British Empire).  The best museums that have inherited colonial objects, of course, encourage a much more critical view.  The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which makes a virtue of keeping its worldwide anthropological collection displays (more or less) as Pitt Rivers left them, nevertheless goes out of its way to highlight the reasons for the objects being where they are.

Philomena Cunk’s white gloves

It’s certainly true that some museums take a cosy, unreal attitude towards the past, but I wonder whether the panel members, who seemed to have grand museums in mind, underplayed the extent to which many local museums, whether or not they’re ‘innovative’ or cutting-edge, not only give people a sense of their place and its history and cultures – surely a valuable aim when an Anglo-American monoculture threatens to wipe out cultural and linguistic diversity – but also an appreciation of how their forebears were not the unimportant players most history books assume them to be.  Museums, in short, are still good places to look for answers to Paul Gauguin’s three questions ‘Where do we come from?  What are we?  Where are we going?’

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