Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Changes for the worse at the British Museum

Head of a weeping bearded man; slightly to r, looking to front. c.1603 Pen and brown ink, with some grey-green wash in the background
Picture: British Museum
A couple of months ago I had a few days off work, so I popped along to the Print Room at the British Museum. I'd hoped to see their northern mannerist drawings, but as they weren't easily accessible I had a look at some early German drawings instead. They seem less intensively studied than the Italian drawings; there was quite a range of quality in groups of drawings attributed to the same artists. I don't know these draughtsmen well, and I've been missing out. The outstanding discovery for me was Hans Baldung Grien. I've long admired his paintings, and I knew of him as a revered draughtsmen, but nothing equals seeing the originals. The chalk study below is outstanding, but I'm cheating you by reproducing it. You really have to see the original to appreciate its artistry. My morning in the print room set me off with a renewed enthusiasm for early German art. I've been reading all I can find on the subject, and I'm hoping to make another trip to Germany to see more in the autumn. All from a chance encounter in the BM. 
Study of the heads of two men, both turned to l; the nearer being an old man with long beard, his eyes slightly lowered, the other a younger man Red chalk, over black chalk
Picture: British Museum
The British Museum's print room has been, I think, the most open in the world. You can just turn up with ID and ask to see just about anything. The only restricted items are the Jacopo Bellini album and the Dürer watercolours. Unlike many museums, I suspect they'd be open to considering requests to see those items too; in some places they won't even let you through the door without a letter of introduction signed by Leonardo himself. It really is a wonderful privilege to be able to turn up to the BM on spec and root around in the greatest collection of old master drawings in the world. For me it's one of the greatest pleasures of living in London. 

But no more. New rules restrict opening times, impose closure for the entire month of January and on every Monday and require an appointment to be made two weeks in advance specifying what you want to see. We all understand cost constraints and we know that difficult decisions must be made. But this is such a wrong decision. 

Every museum bleats the same tired rhetoric about access and inclusion. In practice it usually means 'experts' in museum studies dumbing down the wall text. In its quiet way, the BM print room actually exemplified inclusion. When I've been there there have often been tourists wandering in because they want to see Dürer's Rhinoceros or some other well-known highlight. Others come in with no clear idea of what they want to see. The staff have always been patient and always found them something to look at. People with little knowledge who can't even articulate clearly what they're looking for are treated equally with scholars and curators. These visitors won't book a fortnight in advance, and it's tragic that they will now be excluded. 'Access' is usually taken to mean reaching out to people who don't usually visit museums at all, but it ought also to be about provision for people along a spectrum of knowledge and interest, helping any visitor to see more and learn more. 

It's not just casual visitors who will suffer. What of people who might require more urgent access? Dealers and collectors, for example, who might want to consult something to compare with a drawing coming up for sale, or journalists researching for a tight deadline. Or just people who find themselves with an unexpected free morning in London. But some people will, I am sure, be able to get in at short notice. I can't imagine them refusing access to prominent dealers, visiting curators from other institutions, well-known journalists, or trustees and their friends (and friends of friends). Inevitably there will now be two-tiered access, reproducing a common bifurcation between provision for the masses and the elites. Established dealers will be able to turn up on spec; insurgents will have to wait until after the auction. Tenured academics who know the staff will get in; their students won't. 

You can't exaggerate the importance of the BM's collection of prints and drawings. There are fewer great comprehensive collections of drawings than of paintings; only the Louvre and the Albertina are really in the BM's league. The groups of drawings by the greatest renaissance masters is just phenomenal. And now that entire collection will be open for just four days a week, eleven months of the year, for a few hours a day from 10.30 to 4pm with an hour's break for lunch. Some of the greatest art in the world is now available for just eighteen hours a week, and that for only eleven months of the year. 

I don't doubt the sincerity of the curators who assure us that they want to preserve accessibility. I'm not sure how much the decision was driven by cost cutting and how much by bureaucratic diktat. But access is what has been lost. And that should be protested vehemently. 

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