Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Over the course of the recent long weekend spent in London, we managed to 'do' five of the major museums and galleries, and - as threatened - I wanted to inflict my comments on them upon you. But first some trademark pedantry.

While in English one tends towards collocating exhibition with said institutions, personally I prefer the more dramatic term exposition, which is the cognate typically used in romance languages. The theatrical flourish of exposing or unveiling something before your eyes captures the imagination so much better than merely exhibiting or displaying, don't you agree?

The word exposition has several other uses like with the so-called 'idiot lectures' delivered by fictional characters
through monologues and clunky dialogues to ensure even the most inattentive and ignorant of audience knows what's going on, and which invariably drive me to the brink of a blind rage. The worst perpetrator that comes to mind of the lazy use of liminal exposition is by that truly dreadful author Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code (both book and movie), though surely even his crimes have been surpassed elsewhere. It's hard to avoid a modern movie these days that doesn't smash you over the head with this most condescendingly dreary of narrative devices.

How can a full-size blue whale or tyrannosaurus rex not be worth seeing? Tragically, this childhood favourite of mine has been utterly ruined in ways almost worse than Baghdad's ancient historic archives were after Gulf War II - not by untrammelled hordes of looters but by the fucking hipper-than-thou 'design' squads with tens of millions of pounds at their disposal to squander on gaudy banners, flashing lights, animatronics, spooky ambient darkness, unreadable signs (think tiny grey Helvetica on orange backgrounds) replete with spelling and grammar mistakes, buttons to press, fancy elevated walkways, sound FX, and consumer opportunities like Coke machines and postcard stands. And no, I'm not being a grump: the building is beautiful and the curators should have confidence enough in their wonderful exhibits just to isolate them in big white rooms - that's all that us kids,
big and small, want.

This is far better. The world's biggest display of stolen property, vast floors of colonialist loot from around the globe all shown in cluttered, but unfussy, warehouse style; what's also nice is that they have far more in the vaults than they can ever expose at once, therefore there's a lot of rotation which encourages repeat visits. My personal favourite is the African collection downstairs - the fetishes, masks, modern metalwork, and the weird throwing knives never disappoint.

For the most part, the eclectic V&A still has the reassuring values of the British Museum - though worryingly there is a creeping Helvetica Hell in some of the new refurbishments there too. One would hope that tendency is checked before it's too late. There are some rooms that just take your breath away, in particular the deservedly famous Cast Courts (the recreation of Trajan's Tower is exceptional), and the highly impressive array of classical sculptures.


Considering the resources the Tate possesses and has access to, and the magnificent architectural structure at their disposal, this must be one of the most poorly, idiotically curated art galleries in the world. Paintings are haphazardly and unimaginatively stuck on walls with coherent thematic attention to neither content, nor style (other than some vaguely glib -isms), nor progression - thus, even several iconic pictures by big names such as Bacon and Picasso have severely diminished, if not negligible, impact and create almost no meaningful response amongst the viewing public. Meanwhile, many other rooms contain some of the most disposable modern art junk nonsense imaginable - that is, except for one by a German conceptual artist whose name escapes me, and the clear highlight of David King's extraordinary collection of Soviet era posters all perversely and illogically packed into the smallest room in the entire gallery.

Naturally, I didn't expect the grandeur of Munich's peerless Deutsches Museum for science and technology, but this place is as bad, if not even worse, than the Natural History Museum. The Science Museum curators are clearly so scared that the public, and especially children, will find science boring that hipster metropolitan design agencies have been called in, at vast public expense, to make it 'fun' for us - thus ruining the experience; come on, kids, let's have fun with science! let's press some buttons! watch the plasma screens!
let's sing the DNA song with Mr. Boffin! altogether now! Can you think of anything more likely to beat out of you any residual enthusiasm or fascination? And of course, it's not because we're bored, or youngsters are bored with science, it's because they are bored; therefore it's no wonder there are no science graduates any more. A manifestation of this warped approach is the vast store on the ground floor which sells T-shirts and toys but not a single book! With that all considered, praise your lord, because hidden out of the way on the top two floors is the Wellcome Trust sponsored wonder, the beautifully curated History Of Medicine exposition showing us exactly how the rest could and should be done: stunning exhibits with a phenomenal attention to detail, well written essential information that's easy to read, all beautifully conceived and presented in a simple way that's inspiring and educational in equal measure.


warmpoison said...

William, i have been attempting to articulate all these thoughts since moving here. Great. Perfect. I have yet to make it to the Horniman Museum which friends assure me is much finer than some of the inexplicable atrocities you mention. The Welcome Trust is the gold.

Alan.. said...

I had been planning on going to the National History Museum when I visit London next month, because as you say, who could pass up the chance to see a full size t-rex? I despair to think there are people in the world who feel that a side show of flashing lights and buttons is needed to make some of nature's most incredible sights interesting. Do these people have no sense of wonder or imagination?

I'd recommend the Turner In Italy show that is on at the RSA, but I just checked and it finished a few weeks back, which is a bit of a shame since I had planned on going back.

LJP said...

Yeah I take issue with how most museums treat their art. It's as depressing as a trip to the zoo...

I think you don't know bad museums unless you've been at the Everson Museum of Art at Syracuse New York -- everything is usually cramped together like some kind of garage-sale...

A really cool museum is the (I believe it's called) the House of Criminals Wax Museum at Niagara Falls Canada. Only because most of the wax figures have decayed grotesquely to the point of being quite funny...

mcarpio said...

william, the movies of Lodge Kerrigan do a good job of leaving boring-ass exposition completely out. start w/Keane, if u've never watched him.

edge-of-abyss said...

a few years ago, the tate modern had the paintings allocated to rooms which could later tidily serve as a mental memory walk through space. during my last visit in late 08, there were sections where paintings were gathered on the walls like the 17th century art gallery display method which involves cluttering the wall as an ostentatious display .. the haphazard nature and the voluntary/involuntary reference to the 17th C may be an unwelcome postmodern statement on the curator's part! as for the soviet posters unjustly confined to a little room, they are merely regarded as mechanical reproductions of lesser value..

the natural history museums scares me! it reminds me of HP lovecraft 'mountains of madness', the same skeletal feel of the building which is over-brimming with dead organic stuff from untold aeons.. i tend to give the building a wide berth and all that goes on inside the belly of that monster..

yes, the British Museum is filled with looted property, and such a wonderful collection.. it is the grandest display of theft..that i find myself too weak to argue against the case of theft..

pelao said...


dirtydisco said...

The museums in Cincinnati, Ohio are not much better. Sort of like carnivals or amusement parks. The Cincinnati Art Museum, and Contemporary Art Center are alright. The new Zaha Hadid designed CAC opened in 2003 and is mostly like what what you said about stuff in big white rooms, plain and simple. No flashing lights or helvetica, although sometimes the deconstructivist glass, steel and concrete building is more impressive than the collections inside. They once had a show on 'self published artists', and Throbbing Gristle was devoted much space on one wall for having owned their own label and all that stuff, tragically they left out Come Org. and Susan Lawly though. But in America if something isn't a freaking carnival/amusement park/orgy for the senses, most people want nothing to do with it.