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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

What’s British about the British Museum?

The question is often asked by those calling for the restitution of objects in the collections of the London institution, the world’s first national, free, public museum, though the many tourists who happily Instagram themselves with those same antiquities don’t seem overly bothered by the answer. Whether they see a curated history of us in one convenient location or just a cool place to hang out for a few hours is perhaps more relevant to ponder, along with what actual purpose this imposing stronghold of culture serves as a result. In fact these and other points are under discussion at Bloomsbury, as past decisions and present-day values collide and the trustees struggle to define – and divine – the Museum’s future.

As far as names go, the body founded in 1753 by Sir Hans Sloane using his home as its home might reasonably be called the London Museum. After more than a century of acquisitions and complete rebuilding of those original premises, many departments had grown so large they could stand as establishments in their own right and so portraits were duly removed to Trafalgar Square to found the National Portrait Gallery whilst life specimens went to Kensington as the core of the Natural History Museum. Books were kept on site but rehoused in a dramatic domed Reading Room and renamed the British Library, and although ethnographic material remained for now this too was eventually relocated to Piccadilly to become the Museum of Mankind. Ah yes, ethnography…

The Museum today describes its purpose as satisfying “an insatiable curiosity for the world [and] a deep belief in objects as reliable witnesses and documents of human history”. The now-contentious elements of that history – Imperialism, colonialism, slavery – are frankly summarised on its own website even if the many issues that arise are not. Demands for de-accession of the Benin Bronzes and ‘Elgin Marbles’ are merely the most audible in that particular field but the trustees stand by the act of parliament that makes clear they “do not have the power to sell, exchange, give away or otherwise dispose of any object vested in them and comprised in the Collection” unless it is a duplicate, “unfit and can be disposed of without detriment to the interests of the public or scholars” or has deteriorated. How such pieces are to be shown to visitors is also contentious, with descriptions, placing and context all controversial, though there is, of course, an inherent contradiction in improving the display of objects whose very presence in a gallery is disputed. The perceived environmental sins of sponsors like BP are the target of separate campaigns.

Regardless of what it’s called, the British Museum is still one of the most popular attractions in the capital. The sheer numbers who queue patiently along Great Russell Street each morning to then throng its corridors during the day attest to that. But here too the ghosts of the past make themselves known. Reconstruction of Sloane’s home began in 1823 with a new east wing, housing the King’s Library, and proceeded anticlockwise over the next thirty years. Each range was only one room deep but their scale was vast, shaped by Robert and Sydney Smirke’s Greek Revivalist architecture that was itself inspired by ancient temples. Later additions were designed as infill, given the inviolable plot perimeter. Such an approach was common to all of the West’s cultural palaces in this period and has left multiple large, undivided rooms, long and convoluted walking routes between them and a language of steps, columns and portals seen by some as off-putting.

The Great Court project at the turn of the Millennium created circulation space by removing the British Library’s bookstacks but as long ago as 2014 the Museum’s own analysis showed that wasn’t enough, that narrow doorways create pinch-points and that galleries deeper into the building’s plan are hardly explored. The severe underuse of the northern, Museum Street entrance was also noted and still pertains (it’s often my preferred way in for that very reason). As for those long queues in Great Russell Street, everyone is kept outside the railings until opening time despite the narrow pavements, illegal street traders and busy roads and the vast, empty forecourt within. This is used only to absorb lines for the inevitable bag check, conducted in a ‘temporary’ marquee that has been in place since well before Covid. Visitor management is conditioned, too, by the broken promise – made when it was first announced – to keep the Great Court open out of hours to better knit the Museum into its surrounding streets as a genuinely public place.

Not public at all any longer is that Reading Room, refurbished and opened to general visitors after the British Library departed for Kings Cross in 1997 and subsequently employed for exhibitions. Yet it hasn’t been used for that purpose since 2017 and is “not currently accessible” according to a recent email response, the Museum claiming to be “still considering options for the future use of the space” five years on with “no firm plans in place”. In the permanent galleries what digital might mean for a repository of physical objects, especially when most are kept in storage, is as valid a concern here as in the wider museum world. So far the Museum’s response has been limited to establishment of the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre, which in turn is aimed only at schools and families, and clumsily ignoring a request to scan one artefact for reproduction by 3D milling.

Those, then, are the problems; what might or should the Museum do about them?

The repatriation battles will be fought, won or lost, but it ought to be acknowledged that for every person happy to see an object back where it came from there may be another – the émigré, the refugee, the exile, the expat – who welcomes the chance to see a cultural memory in their adopted home (both points of view are caught in this poignant piece). And that of course ignores the churn of nation states over the centuries, generating the related problem of what political entity the item should be returned to. Apparently “Reimagining the British Museum [will] explore and develop new curatorial approaches, with global collaboration at its heart, to interpret the collection and inform a future comprehensive redisplay of its galleries” but there is little if any detail available as to what that might mean. Given the number of items the Museum houses and its oft-stated goal of bringing cultures together, I offer Eight million for eight billion as a good title for the venture – a better fit, surely, than ‘the Rosetta Project’, reported in some quarters but rather insensitive bearing in mind the Museum’s most famous single object was not only taken by the British from the French as war booty but captured by the French through conquest of Egypt in the first place.

In collaboration with Camden council reconsideration of the entire street block on which the Museum sits is long overdue and could usefully involve re-laying Great Museum Street as a shared surface road, policing users appropriately (I once witnessed a nasty bicycle/pedestrian collision on the pedestrian crossing outside the Museum) and potentially remodelling those gates. The forecourt was a missed opportunity at the time of the Great Court project so light-touch insertion of more permanent but aesthetically pleasing screening and waiting facilities should be pursued at least, along with a clean of the railings and façades and some in-situ interpretation of the painstakingly-conceived architecture and decoration. Highlighting Richard Westmacott’s The Progress of Civilisation sculpture fronting the portico, an allegory of man's development from a primitive state to cultured collector via items to be found inside the museum, would be an obvious starting point. And it might be time to take a cut-off saw to the fabric itself, widening the incredibly small main entrance at the top of the steps and opening out some of those pinch points inside. The Museum has already committed to less visible works to safeguard infrastructure, including mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, and improve its sustainability performance. A decision on the Reading Room is, like a library book taken out many years ago, long overdue, as is finally opening access across the site out of hours even if only in a limited way at first.

Director Hartwig Fischer probably doesn’t mind too much if visits are prompted by Indiana Jones and Dan Brown rather than Howard Carter and Mary Beard, though he ought to want to match each group’s expectations accordingly. Technology was at the heart of the Museum when it was built, from its concrete and cast iron structure to the mechanically-operated front gates, so integrating relevant digital content on screens or our own devices really must now be used to enhance all of the displays for both types of visitor. Similarly the Museum lost a chance a generation ago to bring some of its study collections into the light close to the main building when it acquired, sat on and then quietly sold off an abandoned postal sorting office just around the corner; a new storage and research facility, the Archaeological Research Collection, is now being built in Reading and so virtual links back to Bloomsbury would make amends.

There is plenty of opportunity for the Grey Lady of Great Russell Street to lift her skirts a bit, change into something more comfortable and banish the past decade’s ambiguity, indecision and delay. Though maybe in the end that’s what’s British about the British Museum…

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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