London’s story is told most directly in its churches, large and small. It is told too in its own museums, pre-eminently the Museum of London, at the Barbican, the London Transport Museum, in Covent Garden, and the Museum of London Docklands.
There are many other museums and galleries in London. Some are there not because they are especially relevant to London but because London is a capital city. Most capitals have a National Gallery. London and Edinburgh both have a National Portrait Gallery too and the former, commendably, has three regional outposts. Then there are the national museums that could be anywhere in England. London has those for science, natural history, the army, RAF and the sea, Yorkshire those for arms & armour, railways and the media. London has one on world wars, with an outpost on the edge of Manchester. In fact, we have quite a lot of museums about wars. Just one about peace and that’s in Yorkshire too. It was set up in Bradford in 1994, no thanks to the State.
Among the big game, what that leaves most conspicuously are Britain’s most controversial museums, the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert. Controversial because they are the proud product of an imperial narrative that might is right. They ooze the abuse of wealth and power and I visit their galleries as I would a prisoner of conscience. On Saturday I was at the V&A – with the Friends of Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives – and felt more alienated than ever by what goes on within its walls.
The first thing that strikes anyone who has visited both the major museums is the wasteful overlap. It is the legacy of a century and a half of collecting wars between their curators that in any sensible country would never have got started. Any sensible country would have one institution responsible for paintings owned by the nation, not the seven in London that I can think of without even trying. On what basis do the BM and the V&A both maintain equally outstanding collections of jewellery, prints & drawings, and Islamic, Indian and Chinese art?
Next to strike is the realisation that the museums’ curators must spend much time being sycophants. The evidence is the new and refurbished galleries and gardens that now bear the names of Far East corporate sponsors, ex-employees of Goldman Sachs and others with egos as big as their wallets. Philanthropy is a Victorian tradition now making a comeback as part of the Pig Society – children up chimneys will surely follow – but the best amongst the Victorian donors did the decent thing. They chose ‘no publicity’ for their acts of charity, citing 1 Corinthians 13:4. In William Morris’ News from Nowhere, the narrator, finding himself in London ‘after the Revolution’, learns that Westminster Abbey has been cleared of “beastly monuments to fools and knaves”. It looks like the revolutionaries must now add the national museums to their work programme. For if television without interruptions is worth paying for properly, in the shape of the BBC, then so is culture without the heavy hand of commerce and the market price of fame.
Last is the realisation that all this sound and fury signifies, what? What is the role of these self-serving imperial museums in a decent, co-operative world? Who benefits from having the Parthenon marbles split between London and Athens, or the Franks Casket between London and Florence? Or the treasures of St Cuthbert between London and Durham? Because this is not simply an international issue. What is the Gloucester Candlestick doing in the V&A when it clearly belongs in Gloucester? In niches on the stairs stand the four mediæval statues of kings from the Bristol High Cross, on loan from the National Trust, which substituted replicas on the High Cross itself, now at Stourhead in Wiltshire. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with substituting replicas where that will better protect the originals. Nor with lending the latter. But Bristol is about to open a new £27 million museum to tell the city’s story. It would be nice to think it could be allowed some evocative exhibits of real relevance and quality in place of the third-rate tat we can actually expect. And all because London has nabbed the best, just by being the biggest.
Beware the cry of reductio ad absurdum. Absolute dispersal would indeed be absurd, but no more so than absolute concentration. No-one is saying that every Italian painting has to go back to Italy, or that universal museums are wrong in principle. But a line can be drawn between the ordinary and the extraordinary and that line should be determined by whatever the dispossessed desire to display. It is in their own interests not to push for what they cannot. I support the restitution campaigns, subject to security concerns, where relevant, being satisfactorily addressed. Those curators who oppose the loss of their star attractions can continue to denounce as ‘cultural fascists’ the communities who want their treasures back. But I know and you know that the real cultural fascists are those who hide behind gunboat museology, preferring the letter of the law of property to the spirit of scholarship in context. The defence that a museum did good work in the past won’t hold in the present, let alone the future.
And the answer to what all this signifies? In the case of the V&A, it is an elusive answer. Its original purpose – to provide the best models from the past to improve standards in art and design – is long gone. Modern British artists and designers have either never visited or else learnt nothing. The BM at least has the strapline, ‘Illuminating World Cultures’. It’s an impressive description for torchlight shining on loot but at least it’s something. The V&A appears not to have a strapline – at least since the days of ‘an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’ – and no-one seems able to say what it’s for. What it does best are the temporary exhibitions of stuff from elsewhere. Currently running is one of imperial Chinese robes from the Forbidden City, case after case of incomparably exquisite embroidery on the finest silk, a breathtaking glimpse into the heart of oriental court culture. Several of the robes bear swastikas, a Chinese symbol for ten thousand and therefore of the emperor, the Lord of Ten Thousand Years. That exhibition alone was worth the visit. So too are the refreshment rooms decorated by Morris, Gamble and Poynter in their respective house styles, the first museum restaurant in the world when they opened in 1857. The V&A might, one day, make a very good home for a museum of the Victorian age. But right now, the chaotic jumble of the permanent collection, magnified by a chronically unhelpful layout, is truly an insult to the nation that paid for it.