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June 2017

Vol. 159 / No. 1371

Changing the British Museum

IN A YEAR in which visits to the United Kingdom’s national museums declined overall, the British Museum bucked the trend. With 6.42 million visits in 2015–16, it was the country’s top attraction for the ninth year running. It is hard to remember a time when it played second fiddle to the previous longstanding front-runner, Blackpool Pleasure Beach. In an interview in The Times on 21st April 2017, the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, gave due praise for this achievement to his predecessor, Neil MacGregor, in doing ‘an absolutely brilliant job in projecting this museum into the world’. He added, however, that ‘It is true when you look at the permanent collection that the achievements of these years are not being reflected in the display’. This is a polite way of saying that many of the galleries look tired and neglected, and that the museum fails to project a sense that it is working towards their improvement. An obvious comparison is with the Victoria and Albert Museum’s development programme, FuturePlan, which has unrolled a series of new galleries since the start of the century. 

A comparable strategy for the British Museum’s permanent collection is now being prepared. This is a successor to the ‘Masterplan’ drawn up a decade ago, the major result of which was the building of the World Conservation Centre and Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, completed in 2014. The museum also made improvements to individual displays, most notably the outstanding new gallery for the Waddesdon Bequest, opened in 2015. But that achievement also set a standard that most of the existing galleries are painfully far from matching. As the museum’s current strategy document, ‘Towards 2020’, acknowledges, ‘the collection needs to work better aesthetically’. 

It would be pointless to enumerate the ways that the museum fails to provide an enjoyable experience for its millions of visitors, particularly in facilities such as catering, as these must be apparent to everyone who works there. In terms of the displays, Dr Fischer mentioned historic anomalies, such as the division of the Egyptian collections between the sculpture on the ground floor and other artefacts, most famously the mummies, on the first floor, suggesting that he wishes to unite them. He also hopes to create new galleries for such regions at Australia and the Americas. Saying that ‘A walk round the museum should be like a journey, you should be able to cross the border very easily into another culture and understand that they inspired each other’, he proposes that galleries dealing with individual cultures could be supplemented by displays on such subjects as power or animals – a good idea in itself, even if it raises concerns about the speed with which such thematic displays tend to date. 

Provision of such a journey through the museum raises fundamental issues of circulation and orientation. Here, the Neoclassical legacy of the museum’s historic building can help. It is not encouraging that the museum’s strategy document ‘Building Development Framework: Towards the Future’, published in May 2014, does not mention Sir Robert Smirke until page 22 (of 26), and then only in passing. A successful redisplay of the collections should build on the legacy of Smirke’s clear plan, which survives virtually intact on the first floor, where navigation is easy. It could also make use of the way Neo-classical interiors used colour to articulate and differentiate spaces, so helping visitors orientate themselves. Despite the restoration of the entrance hall’s original polychromy in 1999–2000, most of the galleries are stuck in a grey 1970s time-warp. 

A desire to improve circulation was one of the aims of converting the British Museum’s quadrangle into the Great Court. It is disappointing, therefore, that the route from Foster & Partners’ internal piazza to the new exhibition galleries is hard to find. But then, seventeen years after it was opened, the Great Court still does not work adequately. The creation of such a glaringly lit space in the centre of the museum has cast the entrance hall and surrounding galleries into gloom. Attempts to use the Great Court to display works from the collection have not been successful, and the space has been abandoned to milling crowds and uncomfortable cafés: comparisons to a shopping mall are cruel but justified. 

Some of these criticisms would be alleviated if the problem that lies at the museum’s heart could be solved: what to do with the round Reading Room? According to The Times, the director would like to convert it into ‘a permanent exhibition space’, but that will involve the removal of the desks, to which there has been strong opposition. The matter will have to be publicly debated before any application is made for Listed Building Consent for the desks’ removal. We still support the view put forward in an Editorial over twenty years ago, when the Great Court scheme was published, that ‘the furnishings of the reading room are not like those of the Laurentian Library in Florence or the Strahov Library in Prague: the beauty of the interior derives from its dome and lighting’.1 

To that we add a wish that Hartwig Fischer might consider making the Reading Room not yet another space for temporary exhibitions but a gallery for the permanent collection. The ‘Towards 2020’ document observes that the museum ‘holds probably the greatest collection of sculpture in the world. It needs to be presented as a supreme aesthetic achievement, to be enjoyed as well as studied. Location and visual impact will be paramount’. In a review in this Magazine of Hadrian: Empire and Conflict, staged in the Reading Room in 2008, Caroline Vout praised the display for exploiting the way the room ‘took inspiration from one of Hadrian’s most handsome legacies, the Pantheon’.2 The Pantheon has in the past inspired galleries designed for the display of classical sculpture, such as that at Ince Blundell Hall, Lancashire, built in 1790–92. If the Reading Room were to be converted into a permanent setting for the museum’s collections of Roman sculpture it would at last seem at home in Robert Smirke’s great – and greatly undervalued – building. 

1 Editorial: ‘The British Museum: A Yokeless Egg’, The Burlington Magazine 138 (1995), pp.3–4. 

2 C. Vout: ‘Hadrian: Empire and Conflict’, The Burlington Magazine 150 (2008), pp.780–81.