Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Knox Wrecks Fitz

Picture: Fitzwilliam
The Fitzwilliam Museum's newish director Tim Knox has outlined his vision, and it's deeply depressing. He seems to think it's unwelcoming, which I've never found before but suspect I will in future. And he thinks - wait for it - flowers in the galleries are what's needed. That's harmless enough, but next he wants to do away with 'surplus' Do Not Touch signs. I don't care much either way about the signs, but I care deeply about the ethos. Quite simply, people shouldn't touch fragile and irreplaceable works of art. If that's 'unwelcoming', tough. The first job of a museum is to preserve its treasures for people who want to see them, but too many museums are happy to allow their collections to deteriorate through handling if people fancy fondling them. Why does Knox find the signs so objectionable that their removal is central to his strategy? What kind of ethos is he trying to instill? I expect guards will now think twice about challenging visitors poking paintings or sculptures. It was at the Fitzwilliam, incidentally, that a visitor smashed three vases to smithereens - pictured above. 

Knox has grand plans for bringing conservators into the gallery so people can watch and 'participate' in conservation. Think that Titian's a bit dirty? Roll up your sleeves and grab a brillo pad. The Fitzwilliam becomes an integrated participatory experience - poke a hole in a picture, then restore it yourself. Smashed a vase? Don't worry, have a go at sticking it back together. I mock, but seriously - what can we make of the bizarre suggestion, arrived at after six months' thinking, that people should 'participate in conservation in action'? I suspect (and rather hope) that he means just watching, but it's a sign of how far simply looking has come to be stigmatised in museums that Knox cannot even say the word. It has to be spun as a 'participatory' experience.

Then, like every museum these days, he's initiated a building project. Museum directors seem to prove their worth by the extravagance of their building projects and the degree of disruption imposed. The Fitzwilliam has already gone through a vast construction project to give a 'proper shop and cafe', which some museums seem to think more important than their collections.

Finally, inevitably, he's allowing photography. I've written about this before, and I'll say more on the topic in a later post, but to raise just one crucial point: once photography is allowed, it is impossible to prevent flash photography. Flash is an intolerable distraction that makes looking at art impossible, and socialises everyone into the norm that museums are there only for the taking of pictures and not for looking at pictures. 

A wonderful museum that I greatly loved is being crushed by the juggernaut of bland mediocrity, the managerial ethos that insists on all museums looking the same and invites you to admire the cut flowers and take selfies instead of simply being inspired by great art. Knox wants to 'make it sing', but he presumes that it is Tim Knox that will make it sing, rather than Rubens and Titian and Poussin. 


  1. When I first opened this post I thought the photo at the top was of a piece of modern Art and was expecting a critique of said work. Now I realize that things at the Fitzwilliam are far worse than the inclusion of modern art. It’s bad enough having the conservators wrecking the art never mind the public.


  2. This little drawing illustrates photo-anxiety as a barrier to enjoying the moment in another context: http://inlog.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/hands-at-gigs.jpg

  3. Can the Grumpy Historian confirm from his leads in Museums that Tim Knox is planning to leave the Fitzwilliam to be director at the V & A Museum? The Ashmolean is also not far away from announcing it's new director.

  4. There are assumptions made here that are either unnecessarily gloomy or untenable. I do think the public is (oddly) compelled by conservation. Being able to watch expert conservators at work could be deemed participatory in educating the public about the realities and essential character of such work. Likewise, it is wholly possible to allow for photography and yet succeed in banning flash. It's not hard. Finally, there are justifiable expansion projects and projects that are largely about ego, ambition, competition, etc. Which of these an expansion of the Fitz would be I can't say, but until that's clear I don't want to assume that all expansions are about cafes and shops.

    1. I'm sure you're right; I was being polemical, and trying to balance generally uncritical coverage of activist museum directors. But I haven't seen any museum manage to ban flash. It is banned at the National Gallery, and Nicholas Penny himself said flash is very distracting. But the guards no longer even try to prohibit it; it's effectively permitted now. Of course some expansions are indeed beneficial, but in this context I think alarm is justified. And however compelling conservation is, I don't think people should be forced to perform such delicate work for an audience. Personally I think there should be much more scrutiny of what conservators do, but putting them in a fishbowl is too intrusive.