Sunday, 17 June 2012
O Rage! O Desespoir!
O horror, horror, horror, as that moody bint in the Scottish Play was wont to go about saying, when stuck for words. What - what - WHAT has Sir Norman Foster been allowed to do to the British Museum? What fresh Hell is this? (Sorry if I seem to be harping on the same theme here). I'm afraid I hadn't been inside the old place since the, er, "renovations" took place. Now I know the hideous operation was over quite some time ago, and I must be the last citizen of the civilized world to have been ignorant of it, but it was a terrible shock. (I spent the last decade trapped inside a collapsing shepherd's bivouac in Bosnia. Want to fight about it?). Anyway, during my recent sojourn in the Britannic Capital, I felt it behove me to pay at least a courtesy visit to the BM. As a student in the Metrop, I whiled away many a happy hour in its dusty rooms and gloomy corridors, surrounded by the eclectic loot of centuries, usually while I was supposed to be doing something else. I think you can probably see why I didn't have many friends. Not live ones, anyway. So it was with certain natural expectations - preconceptions if you prefer - that I mounted the steps to the familiar, stodgy, solid Neo-Classical portico, so archetypally museum-like - is Museic a word? Let it be one. The frontage of the British Museum, then, is archetypally Museic. And so I passed between its Museic columns, neatly skirting that big perspex box that wants you to put money in it, as ever I had, (briefly noticing that it seems to have grown larger and more insistent) and found myself in the largest, emptiest, most barren-looking public toilet I have ever seen. I'm not sure that I feel fully recovered even now. It was like going out to work on a perfectly ordinary day, coming home in the evening looking forward to a nice hot mug of tea and putting your feet up, to find that in your absence, someone has completely redecorated your house. In neon plush with nylon shag pile. And really nasty chintz curtains. (You know the sort I mean). And terrifying posters of big-eyed bunnies. And hidden the spoons. I looked wildly about me. Have I fallen through a hole in the earth and come out inside some sort of Californian shopping Mall, I asked myself. I may have spoken aloud. I was beyond caring. Slowly I realised that the cylindrical object in the centre of the hall, that I had at first taken for a view of the gasworks from a suburban angle, and brought back hazy memories of those constructions that children are encouraged to make from eggboxes and the inside cardboard tubes from toilet rolls in Primary school, in fact contained the mummified cadaver of the Reading Room, cruelly swaddled in synthetic, textureless, expensive concrete like a literary Chernobyl. The roof certainly lets in light - so does the awning in the Gardening section at any standard B&Q. And for the Love of whoever the Patron Saint of Industrial Design happens to be, (drat them), why, when he has done his level best to make the very heart of a great national institution look and feel like an Airport washroom, does he (ironically? Sadistically?) make it so bloody difficult to find the actual bloody toilets? Is this some sort of ghastly Post-Modern practical joke? Is it simple incompetence? Or is it, as I prefer to think, simply a crude, blatant manifestation of the architect's utter unconcern with, and disrespect for, his fellow human? Answers on the back of a petition addressed to the RIBA and calling for Foster's blood/head on a plate/ resignation from the profession, please. (Have I overused the "blood" word? I'm seeing red...) And I'm sorry, but vast empty spaces, littered in a perfunctory fashion with miserably uncomfortable steel benches like a Texan prison governor's vision of a school canteen, and horrid little stalls selling frighteningly expensive scones and perfectly disgusting coffee in dissolving paper cups, are not, to my mind, what museums are all about. There are many ways of handling space. A large central space, such as we find in the BM, can be grandiose, it can be awe-inspiring, it can be dizzyingly light and open, or it can be overwhelmingly majestic. It should never, and particularly not in a building designed to house objects of great cultural value and aesthetic beauty, be Heathrow. Which brings me to my central point. Whilst the British Museum lacks sufficient space, overall, to display anything but a fraction of its huge collections, how can this wasteful, nasty lobby be justified? Museums - and I realise that I am perhaps a tad old-fashioned in my views here - are all about the Stuff. When we visit a museum, Stuff is what we want to see. Otherwise we'd go to Centerparcs. The BM has loads of stuff, from weird, functionless items dug up in fields and back gardens (but proven by expensive and highly technical analysis to be Very Old) to all the glorious, multifarious, wonderful Stuff Wot We Pinched Earlier. For that was, historically, the principal point of public Museums - a display of our cultural dominance over, and ownership of, the rest of the world. Oh, very well, these days it is probably a little like saying "Yeah, so she got the house, okay, but I kept the record collection. And the Le Creuset. And her mother's Capodimonte (which I never liked anyway, but it's the principle, know what I mean, yah? I could always use them to practice my golf swing on, snicker, chortle)". But it's there, and we want to see it. Just so that we can say to ourselves - that's Ours. Because, in theory, all that Stuff belongs to us. Not in the sense that one can take it out of the cabinet and go home and stick it under the bed, or flog it at a Swiss auction - that's still disapproved of, apparently. Piking should be done on the Grand scale or not at all, as any fule know. But we want to know that we can go and boggle at it any time we want to. We want American and Japanese tourists to come and boggle, too, so that we can feel just a little smug about all the Stuff we've got to be boggled at, that presumably they haven't (it may be, of course, that that's because we pinched it. Not the Americans, obviously). Look at our Stuff, we can say. Bet you've got nothing like that at home. "Item 12345, clobbered off the Fuzzy-Wuzzy, Fuziwuziland, 1871". "Item 987654, chai-iked in Johnny Foreigner Territory, Totally Fair and Justified Military campaign of 1865". "Walloping Great Statue Gratefully Donated by the People of Dagoville following their Liberation by British Forces from their own Home Grown Imperialist Despot, subsequently replaced with one of ours,Grahamgreeneistan, 1903". "Generously donated by Lord and Lady Bloated-Facetrampler in return for a whacking Chunk of Tax Relief, and never mentioning the War again, 1957". I want it all put back how it was. Please. And while you're at it, put the blasted Dinosaurs back in the Natural History Museum. When I go to the Natural History Museum, I do not want to see a bunch of other people's children screaming and squabbling over broken animatronic toys. If that's your bag, fine. Find yourself some friends or neighbours with school-aged kids, and pop round on a Saturday afternoon to gaze in wonder at their living room. Take as much time as you need. But when I go to the Natural History Museum, I want to see the Wonders Of Nature. I want to see extinct things (Stuff Wot We Killed Earlier). I want to see a hundred types of beetles in a box, and stuffed lions on strangely hued plaster savannahs. Dead stuff patiently and methodically collected by dangerous monomaniacs. Most important of all, I want to see really Big Dead Stuff. Really, really Big Dead Things. That's Nature. That's what Museums are all about. And if some day, in future times, I take my grandchildren down to South Kensington on a Bank Holiday weekend, I expect the Dinosaurs to be back. Exactly where I left them, if you don't mind. I think we understand each other.