Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The stupid fetish of free admission, and the end of the British Museum

Picture: Wikipedia

Free admission to museums is quite nice, but it's not so terrible in places like, er, the whole of the rest of Europe, where you have to pay. And decades of free admission plus forced admonition hasn't done much to change visitor demographics. The main recent change is that foreign visitors make up a greater proportion of visitors to the UK's main attractions. So free admission is a subsidy to wealthy foreigners. Don't get me wrong; I don't begrudge it. Free admission is a fine thing. But the British government is now simultaneously cutting funding and mandating free admission. Something has to give. And the British Museum has just been broken.

The Art Newspaper has announced that the British Museum is renting 500 key object to Abu Dhabi for five years. That they're hawking some of the most important works isn't surprising; the customer wants the best. It's harder to explain why they're splitting up integral displays (sending off random Assyrian reliefs) and including particularly fragile objects. Is it pure spite at the BM's visitors? Do the borrowers want to show off that they can buy anything, no matter how unfit for transport? This should exercise pundits far more than the Parthenon Marbles, and it makes a mockery of the BM's claim that they can show the marbles best in a global context. Context means nothing when sections of a relief can be prised off their own walls to rent out abroad. Now the best they can say of their own custody is that they're the best rental agents.

This trend has crept up on the museum world, albeit making rather a splash when the Louvre struck its own deal with Abu Dhabi. I think its impact has been greatly underestimated. As more museums get in on it, rental fees will fall. More worrisome, so will standards. Rented exhibitions rarely have much pretense of scholarly or artistic value, being rarely more than a few 'highlights' brought together under a marketing slogan (my favourite: 'Tutakhamon, Caravaggio, Van Gogh'). Worse is that costs will be cut as competition intensifies. A recent show at the Pinacoteque de Paris had two guards covering dozens of spaces, one of whom protected the merchandise in the shop. Next they'll be sending exhibits by FedEx. 

Potential demand from newly-wealthy cities is immense. Once museums start, they can't stop. The National Galleries of Scotland have sent the best of their collection on two long money-making tours in recent years; now Glasgow is in on the act, too. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has its best things perpetually on the road. The greatest museums are destined to become lending libraries. But whereas Haskell and Penny envisaged them engaged in reciprocal altruism, each mounting their own special exhibitions, the reality today is more sordid. Works are rented out for drearily repetitious 'highlights' tours in the same cash-rich/art-poor cities, with the cash going to pay running costs for the owners.

To be fair, it's not altogether the fault of government funding. Museums are utterly complicit. They absolutely love this. They get attention. They get to negotiate big sexy deals like corporate titans pursuing M&A. Instead of simply looking after their treasures and showing them to the public, they get to broker them for cash and favours. Neil MacGregor should be taken out and shot. The trustees should be sued down to their last penny for dereliction of duty (indemnity insurance be damned!). Museums have spoken out against cuts and made the case for certain of their activities, but they haven't openly spoken out against paid loans. Nicholas Penny made representations behind closed doors against Glasgow's loan of the Burrell Collection; otherwise, nada. They do not present rentals as an unfortunate necessity; they try to spin it as a positive virtue.

The lying liars at the BM say they know they must 'strike a balance' between 'displaying objects around the world and having them available to study in Bloomsbury'. The snivelling scumbags don't propose to make half the collection available in, say, Africa. No, they will be available 'around the world' only if you happen to have a few gazillion quid to pay for the privilege. They're not being shown to the world; they're being hawked to one of the smallest and richest countries in the world. And what a snide choice of words, contrasting 'display' elsewhere with 'study' here, as if what takes place in Bloomsbury is arid and intellectual, whereas what takes place abroad is cool and populist. I really think they have nothing but contempt for their visitors.

The spin is so obvious and so thin that they can't even be trying. I don't think they imagine us to be idiots. I think they simply don't care what we think. They will imperiously go ahead and transform the BM from a museum to a hub of commercial activity and international diplomacy, to the greater glory of their director and trustees, and to the everlasting harm to their collections and loss to their visitors. 


  1. Personally I find the whole "blockbuster" temporary exhibition a sign of the (funding) times and have done for years.

    At the BM at least, these are horrifically child unfriendly, with cabinets being at least waist height on an adult, necessitating lifting up pretty much any child under 10 to see in any cabinet.

    Of course I realise these exhibitions aren't aimed at families; they're aimed at adults generally and tourists specifically but I for one would rather take my kids round an exhibition than sit for two hours watching a migraine inducing kids film at the cinema. And I expect better from our national museum.

    1. I find them pretty people-unfriendly, often too crowded to see anything. I rarely go to exhibitions at the BM any more.

  2. Reading this makes me wonder about how one might rank the relative ethics of different sources of museum revenue. Is it ethical to charge admission locally or charge for loan of objects abroad? To rent out the facility for private parties? To charge a ton for temporary exhibitions? Get exhibition sponsorship from a corporation with suspect political motivations? None of these are either/or... I'd be genuinely interested in a ranking of revenue sources not in terms of dollars earned (our typical approach) but morals supported/compromised.

    1. I think that asks the right question, At the moment it's all decided behind closed doors. Something that really rankles with me is the dishonesty of the spin. It shows such disrespect for the public to put out such obvious obfuscation. They could at least concede that it's a tough decision that they've had to take because they have no money, rather than suggesting it's a good thing in itself. My own view is that protection of the art should come first - both physical security and artistic integrity (so don't lend to lightweight shows and don't split up coherent groups of objects). Worst therefore is collection rental, and venue hire can be pretty bad too (champagne corks and drunk party goers). Personally I'm more relaxed about taking cash from 'unethical' companies; I don't think it's for museums to make those moral judgments. But I know that reasonable people disagree.