Broke and dowdy, the British Museum is fighting to make itself as relevant
as Tate Modern.
by Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times, August 07, 2002.
Last week Neil MacGregor slipped quietly into his new role as director of
the British Museum. Committed, charming and a passionate communicator, he
is sure to perform commendably. As head of the National Gallery he waltzed
the Trafalgar Square grande dame from success to success, quickstepped her
from scholarship to populism and won her lots of prize money from sponsors
along the way. But his progress from now on is unlikely to be as
The British Museum is all but broke. With a projected budget deficit of
more than £6 million it faces drastic cutbacks: 150 staff members have been
told they must lose their jobs. A third of the galleries may have to be
closed at any one time.
How can this Bloomsbury dowager, beset by declining visitor numbers,
compete with its debutante granddaughter, Tate Modern, which, on the very
day that MacGregor took up his new position, was welcoming its
James Putnam, founder and now curator of the BM's contemporary arts and
cultures programme, is looking for answers.
'I overheard a conversation on a bus,' he says. 'A girl asked her boyfriend
why he was excited by Tate Modern and not by the BM. Contemporary art made
him question and challenge 'real' things, he told her. He couldn't relate
to the language of dead artefacts. That made me sad because people are
missing something when they say museums are dusty old places with no
relevance. The BM's greatest strength is its permanent collection ' things
like the Elgin marbles which could never be collected again ' and it is
this strength and energy I want to tap into. I want this collection to
You only have to visit the Egyptian galleries, where Putnam used to work as
a curator, to see the potential. Its presiding effigy of Rameses II
inspired Shelley's Ozymandias. Perhaps his role is to encourage visitors to
see the objects not as dead relics but as expressions of the passions
which, as Shelley put it, 'yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things'.
'All the images and objects in this museum were once contemporary,' Putnam
says. 'They had an emotional immediacy and meaning. Why do we have to think
of the British Museum as ancient and Tate Modern as new? I'm interested in
subverting our expectations of time.'
A colossal bronze mask, done by Igor Mitoraj as part of Time Machine, the
first contemporary show that Putnam curated for the BM in 1994, now rests
in front of the museum's façade. 'What do the immense eyes of the statues
see looking inside their soul and gazing for centuries at their shadows in
the light of the sun and the moon?' Mitoraj asks in a catalogue note. 'How
is it possible to describe the magnetic force that this ancient
civilisation releases? Art is the real time machine.'
He donated this piece to the museum, but most pieces that become part of
Putnam's shows are not permanent. Putnam's own curatorial post costs the
museum nothing. He is paid for by sponsorship and his projects are
self-funding: they do not aim to add yet more objects to already
overstuffed basements, rather to work in conversation with the collections,
connecting departments which often compete. From Sandwork, a temporary
30-tonne snake made of desert dust by Andy Goldsworthy, which found space
among the pharaohs, to Marc Quinn's Rubber Soul ' with a hibernating tree
frog that survives frozen in sub-zero temperatures and then thaws out in
the spring ' the pieces are ephemeral.
'Our engagement with emotions is as real as our engagement with objects,'
says Putnam. 'And if a thing remains as a memory or a rumour, that can make
it even stronger. A museum is the most fixed place in the world, obsessed
with preserving something.
'But do works change when they get museum-ified? That's a question I
considered with a performance piece by a young Canadian artist, Germaine
Koh ' a length of knitwork (80m long, but growing) which we just unravelled
down the staircase of the Great Court. While it was a museum object (it was
on loan from Ontario) it was changing dimensions. Each time it comes into
another collection she adds to it, and that is part of the performance. It
is a lifelong work almost moving inside the stillness ' echoing the way old
objects can reflect new times, can be reanimated inside them, find new
connections and forms.'
Putnam wants viewers to question the official view of things, and to
present the museum almost as a laboratory.
He is developing projects with two artists. Chris Bucklow, shortlisted for
the Jerwood drawing prize, plans to display a sort of psychological
autobiography: an unspooling series of depictions of his own life 'from the
birth of the infant Bucklow onwards to where the mind first starts to split
into consciousness'. He intends this contemporary narrative to echo the
many other narratives offered by the museum ' the creation myths of other
cultures and their attempts to describe the dawning of consciousness.
Another artist, Tim Brennan, has just received a major Arts Council award
to work on a BM project. Trained in both fine art and history, Brennan uses
history as his creative medium. During a recent residency at the National
Maritime Museum he became interested in the 16th-century mathematician and
astrologer John Dee. 'Dee was entangled in a lot of esoteric, occult,
alchemical ideas that the Enlightenment would have dismissed as
non-scientific. And yet his papers and artefacts were some of the founding
works of the BM's collection.'
Brennan is devising a series of walks through the museum, exploring the
relation between 'official' knowledge and more esoteric specialisms. 'My
walks will differ from conventional tours in that they don't rely on
information I might give, but on quotations which I offer from anywhere
(from the Bible to a pop song). But over the course of a route they start
to create connections. Even if I guide the walk it won't be a performance.
I am interested in focusing away from the artist and on to the world around
' on to the museum.
'Every image from the past that is not recognised by the present as one of
its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably,' said the
philosopher Walter Benjamin.
In the shows that Putnam curates, the museum is a working medium for the
contemporary artist, its objects a catalyst for the modern imagination
which is reflected back on to the artefacts. This plays to the greatest
strengths of the museum's galleries ' exactly the sort of strength Neil
MacGregor may need most in the coming months.