Events like Iliad Live are all about the audience: they do little for the art itself


Article on Apollo. 

‘…let men first do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter’.

These stirring words from the Iliad were spoken aloud last week, to an audience in the most unusual of places: the Great Court of the British Museum. The performance of the entirety of Homer’s poem about the Trojan War began under a glass roof in a space better known for its cafes and totem poles, and was epic: it took 15 hours and more than 60 actors – Simon Russell Beale, John Simm, Ben Whishaw and Brian Cox among them – to complete it, which they did, finally, at the Almeida Theatre in the early hours of Saturday morning.

In some respects, it was a brilliant initiative. Hard to miss on social media – the reading was streamed online – the performance was exciting to watch from a distance. The enthusiastic @IliadLive tweeted the essential points in 399 tweets, ending with: ‘ILIAD UPDATE: it’s finished. #iliad.’

The Iliad Live is one performance in many in the growth of ‘event art’. Museums, galleries and concert halls are all trying to liven things up, to be more than just institutions that show objects, art and music. They want to be cooler – happening – so they make an event out of the culture on display.

It’s easy to understand why. Cultural organisations can have a dusty whiff about them, an old-fashioned silence that is creepy for some and off-putting, especially, apparently, for the young. It’s no longer enough to just put on a play, or an exhibition – hence the late openings, date nights and musical offerings at many. And that’s fine and dandy. Most of the time.

Event art took off with the National Theatre, when it started to live stream its productions in cinemas. It was a way to make theatre more accessible that actually worked – not only did thousands more get to see the play, but watching one at the cinema, as it is performed, surprisingly feels like a real event. You don’t feel if you are relegated to an overspill room at some boring conference; it’s an occasion in its own right. The film format doesn’t detract from the show, in fact it adds to it. You get closer to the action, and can better witness every facial expression.

But it’s increasing difficult to escape event art. Cinemas now show live close-ups of art exhibitions, too, and recently the Edinburgh International Festival opened with a free concert – the Harmonium Project – which combined John Adams’s choral work Harmonium with a series of animations projected onto the outside of the Usher Hall. It turned the usual kind of concert inside out – performances normally take place inside the hall.

I was at the Harmonium project. I didn’t want to miss out and was one of thousands standing around in a crowd waiting for something to happen. The ‘show’ was all right – there was decent music, and pretty lights were projected onto the grey walls of an unremarkable building. The whole thing was heralded as a breakthrough for the fusty international festival, which has seen better days: ‘inclusive, free’, tweeted one person, ‘Feels like a new creative force has hit Edinburgh.’

But the success of Harmonium project was an illusion. There wasn’t much to it: nice music, nice lights on a building. Fine, but forgettable. It won’t be spoken of in thousands of years’ time.

You have to ask, what was really happening? What was actually on show? And the answer is, we were – the crowd. What mattered was that there were a lot of people hanging around. That’s about it. And that’s also the problem with the Iliad Live: it was mostly about the staging of it – the do.

A great deal of event art is more about the event and the audience than it is about the art. The throng – the sight of people congregating – is being used to prove relevance, to demonstrate that cultural institutions are hip and popular. But in chasing the buzz and pursuing the people, the art – a poem, exhibition, orchestral work or a play – can get lost. The danger is once the novelty wears off there is little to show for it. The crowds will vacate.

If we want men in the hereafter to talk about the art work, cultural institutions will have to do more than stage a happening, they will have to do more than attract a crowd. They first have to do some great thing.

Culture knows no borders

Concerns that cultural appropriation is racist miss the point, I write in the Scotsman. 

In the aftermath of the colonial conquest and exploratory expeditions of the late 19th century, thousands of African artefacts began to arrive in Europe’s museums, attracting considerable interest from Pablo Picasso, Henri Mattisse and André Derain. The artists spent hours in the Trocadero Museum of Ethnology – the first museum in Paris dedicated to anthropology – peering at masks and sculptures from what seemed to be a distant and faraway land.


The encounters the artists had with the African art was fruitful. The attention paid had creative results. Picasso’s work changed radically, almost immediately, as evident in his 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. With its five naked women, some wearing African masks, with limbs that look like shards of glass, the work was a significant departure from the traditional composition and perspective in painting. Picasso then entered his African period. African art, arriving when it did, helped to revolutionise his painting and that of many other artists, giving shape to the movement Primitivism, which saw Paul Gauguin adapt Tahitian motifs, the abstract squares of Cubism, and modernism.

Throughout human history, different groups coming together, for whatever reason – even in war – and catching a glimpse of the other, have ended up influencing each other. Mostly it’s for the better; sometimes it’s for the worse. If we did not eye each other up, listening in and looking at what the other is doing, there would be no substantive change in art, or in society for that matter. It’s one of the ways that culture progresses. When another culture does something good, you try it out too, often adding something new. Without influences from elsewhere, things would remain the same. With no Jackie Wilson there would be Elvis Presley. Without black American music there would be no Rolling Stones.

Yet we are too often told, by a new kind of gatekeeper, one schooled in post-colonial studies, that it is wrong to be influenced by other cultures in this way. Those who complain are not worried, especially, about plagiarism, which can be a problem, but that one identity is influenced by another. Because this, they say, is a kind of racism. Instead of being open to different cultures,we are told, in shrill, self-righteous tones, that no-one has a right to borrow, appropriate, or be inspired by others who are not of their kind, that cultural influence should be stopped at the borders of nations and tribes. The cultural output of different identities should be kept separate, these critics and campaigners say.

In July, protesters were outraged at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for hosting Kimono Wednesdays, a promotional activity designed to advertise Monet’s painting La Japonaise, a portrait of the painter’s wife Camille, who is dressed in a kimono. Visitors were encouraged to try on kimonos in front of the painting and imitate Camille’s pose. Incensed, and armed with Palestinian American literary theorist Edward Said’s book Orientalism, which argues that knowing the orient was part of the project of dominating it, protesters turned out to complain about the “exotification” of Asian people. One banner read: “Try on the kimono, learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist !!!today!!!”

Rather than reply, that trying on a kimono is a far cry from racism, that it was just intended as a bit of fun, that most of the great art work on display at the museum is a product of cultural exchange, of trying on another culture’s clothing, if you like, the museum went on the defensive. It announced it would change the programme, that the kimonos would no longer be available to wear, and that instead, visitors may “touch and engage with” them. Instead of pointing out the multiple influences on La Japonaise – it is likely that Monet was poking fun at the fashion for Japanese art and its impact on European art in the late 19th century, and that Japan was also a colonial power – the museum cravenly promised to schedule additional talks by its educational staff to provide context, “as well as an opportunity to engage in culturally sensitive discourse”. A pathetic response, really. Wearing a kimono in front of a painting was a naff idea, certainly; but not a racist one.

Elsewhere, some argue that white people’s appropriation of hip-hop is wrong because of the culture’s roots in the black American experience. More recently, accusations of racism have focused on, would you believe, a hairstyle, when the US actress Amandla Stenberg lambasted the TV star Kylie Jenner for sporting cornrows, a style usually associated with black women, though those of a certain age may remember the actress Bo Derek giving them a go.

“When u appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter,” Stenberg wrote. Her response is a desperate displacement activity, one that misunderstands the nature and importance of cultural exchange, and avoids tackling serious discrimination and inequality.

Besides, cultural exchange can have a positive impact on how difference is understood. When the Benin Bronzes – brass plaques and reliefs made in the 16th century, in what is modern day Nigeria – arrived in Europe in the early 20th century, the reaction to them was confused. Scholars were amazed that the people of Benin, a race, in the words of British Museum curator Charles Hercules Read, “ so entirely barbarous” could have made such elegant and technically accomplished art works. The Benin Bronzes forced a moderate reassessment of the African people.

Culture – high, low, and the everyday – has always been mongrel; it’s always been hybrid. It bears the imprint of other times and people, crosses history and geography, and contributes to the creation of something new. We should say no to self-imposed cultural immigration controls. Culture should know no borders.

Are we entering a new age of artistic censorship in Europe?

On a new wave of censorship in Europe. 

There is an uncomfortable moment in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich when the actors pause. The play, ostensibly about the Hindu deity travelling to Germany to reclaim the swastika, an ancient Sanskrit symbol, from the Nazis, comes to a halt as they remove their costumes—an elephant head and a SS armband—turn to face the audience, and ask: “Do we have the right to perform this?” None of the actors are Hindu or Jewish. Many have physical and mental disabilities but act the roles of Hitler and Josef Mengele, who tried to exterminate those similarly handicapped. Later, an actor drops out of character again, to accuse the crowd: “You’ve come to see some freak porn.GaneshBrian Tilley (Ganesh) with Simon Laherty as Hitler.

The questions raised—who has the right, as an artist or performer, to depict experiences they have no experience of; just who has the right to say what about whom—are apposite to today. They touch on a burgeoning assumption threatening the arts: Only particular people can tell the story of particular experiences.

The travelling Exhibit B, by the white South African artist Brett Bailey, is a recreation of a human zoo from the 19th century that features 12-14 African performers from the host city and a choir of Namibian singers exhibited as artifacts. It’s meant to provoke a conversation about slavery, colonization, and present-day racism, but many protesters accuse it of being racist itself.

In London in September, the Barbican pulled the entire run of Exhibit B after a petition calling on the arts center “not to display” the work achieved 22,988 signatories and criticized Exhibit B as “simply an exercise in white racial privilege.” In November, the premiere at the Théâtre Gerard Philipe was cancelled after activists breached the barricades and smashed the glass doors of the lobby; over two-hundred police were needed to ensure that the show went on the rest of the week. And most recently there have been ugly scenes outside Le Centquatre in northern Paris, where Exhibit B is programmed to run until the middle of December. Riot police are on standby, as audience members defy hundreds of angry protesters holding placards that read, “Annulex Exhibit B.”

Exhibit B

Protesters gather at the Vaults Gallery. Photograph: Thabo Jaiyesimi/Demotix/Corbis

This is no isolated case. In New York, we saw something similar with the response to the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, a work that has been consistently dogged by protests which claim it is anti-Jewish. Indeed, over the past year there have been a number of similar protests against artworks, in Paris, Edinburgh, and much of Europe, which suggests that the culture wars have arrived in Old World. In Spain, this autumn, Christians demanded the removal of the artwork Cajita de fósforos—a matchbox with the quote, “The only Church that illuminates is the one that burns”—from the show Really Useful Knowledge.

Click here to read on.

The value of culture, Radio 4

Tiff Radio 4

Radio 4 debate on the value of culture

Melvyn Bragg, Sir Christopher Frayling, Dr Tiffany Jenkins, and Matt Ridley discuss the meaning and value of culture in the twenty-first century. In a programme recorded in front of an audience at Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society, Melvyn and the panel consider whether Matthew Arnold’s assessment of culture as ‘the great help out of our present difficulties’ still has any relevance, almost 150 years after it was written. Listen again here.

radio 4 this one

Fight for the right to party

The loss of The Arches is a serious blow to Glasgow’s culture – and freedom, I write in the Scotsman. 


There is something exciting about the night-time, about being out and about with people you know, and those you don’t yet know, after the witching hour, and that feeling never wholly dissipates, no matter how many late nights you’ve been through, how old you are or how jaded. Even though I now prefer to be tucked up early in bed with a cup of camomile tea and a nice book, the time between midnight and dawn remains enticing, underneath the duvet and in my dreams.

Some of the best ideas of the most creative people have been hatched during the late and early hours, when out listening to a new band, laughing, talking about stuff over a drink, arguing with others over what is urgent at that moment or just dancing the night away. Close friendships are forged, some of most treasured memories – and embarrassing mistakes – made. The night-time feels different. Like you’ve been given permission to play, to take a break in another world without the demands of the everyday.

Whilst many of us slumber, others party and work, hard. The rise of Sunday shopping and its healthy impact on the economy is widely noted, but less so is the 24-hour economy – and yet millions of people work a night-time shift: performing, playing music, serving drinks and good food, keeping clubs open, letting the good times roll. Many of Britain’s cities are profiting from the night-time economy. Liverpool and Manchester are committed to become 24-hour cities. London is finally getting a 24-hour Tube. And those out and about spending money, having fun together, aren’t just locals; they are tourists. Figures suggest that the night-life of Newcastle upon Tyne attracted 1.9 million visitors in 2012.

Abroad, the city of Edinburgh is known for the festivals, and rightly so, but in my experience it is Glasgow that is spoken of with respect, in Europe, in China, in America, for its cultural output, and for turning a city around, for having a creative edge. The contemporary cultural riches of the second city of the British Empire, one of the largest seaports in Britain, more recently very run down, is envied worldwide. It may be overstated, but naming Glasgow European City of Culture in 1990 had a great impact on the city. Creativity has thrived.

But something is happening to the night-time. It is under scrutiny like never before. As it is opening up, being extended, it is also being sanitised. Policed to death. And what is being killed off in the process isn’t just illicit and dangerous behaviour, as officials claim, but activity that is economically productive, culturally vibrant and social at heart.

One of the roots planted in the 1990s with the European City of Culture was the Arches, a leading multi-arts venue, which blossomed, widely recognised as one of Europe’s leading arts hubs. It is – or, sadly, perhaps now was – a superb venue for gigs, a stage for good theatre, and a massive club space where thousands of people could get down. Work that was performed at the Arches travelled across the world. Artists from the other side of the world performed at the Arches.

This week the Arches went into administration, following the withdrawal of its late licence, due to a decision by the Glasgow licensing board. This prevented the organisation from continuing its club nights. The venue had to shut at midnight. Punters were turned away. But the club nights generated more than 50 per cent of the annual turnover and, without them, the venue cannot stay open. The statement was posted: “All events scheduled at the Arches from 10 June 2015 are now cancelled”. It will mean the loss of 133 jobs.

The Arches is a victim of a problem particular to Scotland – Police Scotland – and a broader clampdown nationally on what happens after hours: clubs that include the wonderful Madam Jojo’s and Plastic People in London have recently been shut. The Arches had its late licence revoked after apparent failures to act upon drug misuse, as well as some alcohol related offences. But the club has co-operated with police on this problem for years, and it has a zero-tolerance approach – indeed, for six years, the Arches won “gold standard” under the Glasgow Community Safety/Strathclyde Police Best Bar None awards – recognition of best practice in maintaining safe and well-run premises.

It’s hard not to see the withdrawal of the late licence as overzealous policing, especially when it becomes clear that some of those alcohol offences cited as a problem include people standing around outside with a drink in their hand. Besides, no night or daytime activity is without risk. People do dumb and harmful things to themselves and each other at home as well as in nightclubs, and, realistically, if they cannot do it in the Arches, they will do it elsewhere. It’s probably best they do it in a moderately controlled environment surrounded by others.

The fight to keep the Arches is not over, all is not lost, but the one emerging solution may not be the best way to save what is most valuable about the venue. Fiona Hyslop has encouraged the arts organisation to continue its “hard work”, describing the venue as a “powerhouse of culture and arts activity”. John Swinney said the Scottish Government will do all it can to help. The idea posited is that arts funding body Creative Scotland contribute to the shortfall, that subsidy could step in where the market provided. But that would turn the Arches into a very different beast. A safe and dependent one. Its innovative funding model – subsidy and normal punters paying to party – is probably what gave it an edge. And in a climate of cuts, especially in the arts, turning down the possibility of millions from peoples’ pockets is crazy.

Closing the Arches will make Glasgow economically, culturally and socially poorer. Even Cinderellas should fight for the right to party.

Culture cannot replace foreign policy

With the West unclear about what it stands for, and diplomacy in disarray, using the arts instead of politics is not a good idea, I write in the Scotsman.


Benny Goodman in Moscow, Soviet Union, 1962.

IT MAY have escaped your notice, but 2014 is the UK-Russia Year of Culture. It will see the biggest ever exchange programme of cultural projects between the two countries. We will be treated to an exhibition of Malevich works at Tate Modern and performances of the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra and Sretensky Monastery Choir. They will get Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style, a retrospective of Young British Artists and a celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. Overall, I think we got the better deal.

The UK-Russia Year of Culture is held in the name of improving relations. The press release, issued by the British Council, states: “It aims to foster cultural exchange and the flow of ideas whilst developing stronger relations between people, institutions and governments.”

You may not have noticed all of this, due to political developments. That press release was written in November last year, but since then relations have broken down between Russia, the US and Europe, over the crisis in Ukraine. The justification for these artistic events is that culture can bring us closer together and mend bridges. But it’s difficult to be confident about the role of the arts in improving international relations when they have deteriorated so dramatically.

So it has been something of an odd experience attending the opening events when, at the same time, beyond the galleries, there has been talk of sanctions and military intervention. As I supped the complimentary drinks and listened to the speeches, I noticed that those making them neglected to refer to the strained relations or muttered something inadequate about how we now need the arts more than ever. The elephant in the room is that soft power has failed.

The contrast between the cultural offerings and the actual events on the ground shows up the very real problems with cultural diplomacy, problems that need to be aired because it is a hot idea right now. The House of Lords select committee on soft power and the UK’s influence has just published a report which calls for more soft power in international relations, singling out the potential of the creative industries and our artistic offerings. The British Council has also published a report advocating more cultural diplomacy in politics – what they term cultural relations. And Edinburgh University recently opened the Centre for Cultural Relations.

Writing in this newspaper, on the opening of the Centre for Cultural Relations, Lloyd Anderson, country director of British Council Scotland, said that it would “help drive soft power thinking in the future”, which he describes as the use of “attractive assets” – its “culture, education, language and values”. Doing so, Mr Anderson said, would “help to cement the importance of cultural relations in combating barriers and misunderstanding between nations”.

But can culture can reach those parts that diplomacy cannot? Can it improve relations between nations? And what are the consequences of asking it to?

All these exhibitions and performances of Russian culture are wonderful, but they won’t address the very serious political issues currently at stake. Expecting them to do so is a mistake for politics and for culture. It’s wrong for the arts, because it encumbers them with a responsibility they have not asked for and cannot fulfil. The arts are too ambiguous and contradictory to be used in this way. Leo Tolstoy was right in denouncing Shakespeare for failing to provide clear spiritual guidance and a firm moral vision. The Bard’s plays are a brilliant exploration of power, but all those violent tragedies and the killings of so many kings do not make for a good manual.

And it’s a mistake for the political sphere to lean so much on the cultural, when many of the disagreements between powers stem less from “misunderstandings” and more from diverging national interests and wider social and economic trends, all of which require diplomacy, politicians and the people – democracy – to resolve them. There is a danger a focus on a cultural analysis and strategy means a structural one is eschewed. Culture is powerful but is not a good instrument for specific ends. Sometimes you need direct, purposeful power, and soft power just won’t do.

Culture has been used for political ends on numerous occasions, explicitly during the Cold War when America took literature, abstract expressionism and jazz and promoted them abroad as part of a strategy to win people over to their values. Admittedly, there were artistic benefits. Who wouldn’t have enjoyed the performances by Benny Goodman when he went behind the Iron Curtain? As for what it achieved, even though the culture of the West was very attractive to many, as was its wealth, the Soviet Union crumbled more from within, rather than because of the influences of the “King of Swing”. I don’t dispute that culture inspires and expands people’s dreams, and creates important connections between people, but it is difficult and possibly fruitless to harness it in a directed fashion in the service of ideology.

And there are significant differences between then and now. America, then, had a confident idea of what it was defending – liberal values, freedom and prosperity. Those values are now very shaky, disputed or no longer firmly held. The land of the free is not so free. The riches are not available for all. The “War on Terror” hasn’t helped. The same problem applies generally for the West. This is one reason why cultural diplomacy is in vogue. We are no longer clear about who we are and what we stand for. In this strange context, when our foreign policy is confused and disorientated, politicians can lean on culture to come up with the words and ideas that they are unable to provide. But cultural relations can be effective only if foreign policy has a clear direction. It cannot replace it.

Bring Botticelli back to where it belongs

Museum loans with the purpose of raising cash can end up short-changing art, I argue in the Scotsman. 

“Come face to face with a masterpiece.” “Amazing art in a spectacular setting.” “Something for everyone.” These are just a few of the statements used to entice visitors on the website for the National Gallery of Scotland, puffing up what’s on offer. The website also lists collection highlights, such as Botticelli’s Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child, an elegant and tender work acquired by the Gallery in 1999 after being hung for a century on the walls of Gosford House in East Lothian.


This exquisite Renaissance painting was almost lost to Scotland. Its previous owner, the Earl of Wemyss and March, was tempted to sell it to Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, but at the last minute Timothy Clifford, then director of the National Galleries of Scotland, secured a national lottery heritage fund grant of £7.6 million to contribute to the sum of £10.25m required to keep it here.

Only, the Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child is not in Scotland. Like an ageing rock star, it’s on tour, put to work to raise money. The first performance was at the Frick Collection in New York. It’s now on display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco until May, when it will travel to the Kimbell Art Museum. Texas will hang the Botticelli after all. Visitors in Edinburgh will come face to face with a blank space on the wall.

Make that blank spaces: the painting is currently accompanied by 54 other art works, as part of the show Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, which includes Diego Velázquez’s An Old Woman Cooking Eggs; Johannes Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary; Georges Braque’s Candlestick; and Henry Raeburn’s Reverend Robert Walker, Skating on Duddingston Loch. In short, much of the “amazing art” about which the website boasts is actually in other “spectacular” settings.

The touring exhibition has been heralded as doing Scotland proud, promoting our cultural treasures abroad. Loans like these are said to grow tourism. Exhibitions of this standard receive international media coverage; the kind of advertising that cannot be bought. In this case, fundraising is taking place for National Galleries Scotland. And the host galleries are paying for the show. Though confidentiality agreements mean that we don’t know how much they are forking out, we do know an aim of the tour is to generate funds for the redevelopment of the Scottish National Gallery, which will see the gallery’s exhibition space triple in size, at an estimated cost of £15.3m.

Despite the claims that such loans bring public benefit, serious questions are raised by this touring exhibition and shows like it. But recently Lee Rosenbaum, an influential and award-winning arts blogger, lambasted “cash cow collections”, when museums charge high fees for loans of permanent-collection shows to other institutions.

She highlighted Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland in her critique. Rosenbaum cited this exhibition specifically as an example of a “dicey fundraising gambit that runs contrary to the collegial relationship that should exist among sister institutions and potentially ups the ante for everyone”. 

Because it’s a trend. The Louvre, the Met and the British Museum too have all sent many of their treasures around the world in recent times, charging significant sums for doing so. It is a shift in practice, previously galleries would offer limited loans in exchange usually for other loans, rather than extensive loans of the collections for a fat fee.

We are already seeing something of this in Scotland. The Glasgow-based Burrell Collection, renowned for its Chinese art and extensive array of European tapestries, will tour internationally in 2017, while the museum’s building is being refurbished, after legislation was passed to lift restrictions (specified by the donor Sir William Burrell) preventing overseas loans. The hope is that £15m will be raised by the tour of artefacts. I doubt Burrell would have approved.

I was told by National Galleries Scotland that Rosenbaum’s comments are “misinformed”; that it regularly lends works abroad, and that there is “nothing unusual” about charging fees when very substantial staff costs are involved. But when I pushed for an example of comparable loans, I was referred to the Art of Golf, which has toured the US. No disrespect to the Art of Golf, but the art works in this show are not in the same league as those in the Botticelli to Braque exhibition. Unsurprisingly, the Art of Golf didn’t stop at the Frick. The amount of paintings lent and their quality, in the Botticelli to Braque show, is an unprecedented kind of loan, as far as I can see. As is its purpose: to raise money for a substantial refurbishment.

The danger is that once museum officials start seeing the loaning of art as a way to raise funds, we will see more loans to pay for all kinds of costs. With funding cuts, it’s not like the money is pouring in from other sources, so I understand the attraction. But this practice puts art at risk. Literally – because it is packed up, sent abroad, carted about and unpacked again. But also because art is increasingly weighed on the scales to see what funds it will raise.

And the recipients don’t gain much, either. They get a selection of highlights padded with the second rate, curated, not by an idea, but with a price tag in mind. Lost as a consequence will be a different kind of enrichment – loans conducted for scholarship, the spirit of inquiry and collaboration.

Today the National Galleries of Scotland is a kind of Swiss cheese museum; the best bits are elsewhere. That leaves us – the core audience – shortchanged. Bring home our Botticelli.

How Neil MacGregor saved the British Museum

‘Neil MacGregor achieved what appeared impossible 13 years ago: he saved the British Museum from becoming a toxic and dated irrelevance, I write in Apollo’ Style:

When, in 2002, MacGregor succeeded the historian of chemistry, Robert Anderson, as director, the British Museum was in turmoil. It was struggling financially. The ‘New Labour’ government had reinstated free entry for museums and compensated those institutions that scrapped admission charges. But museums that already didn’t charge, including the British Museum – free to visit since opening in 1759 – were not and lost out. Demoralised staff were on strike due to severe job cuts.

Potentially more damaging in the long run, the museum was broadly viewed as an embarrassment. The past and scholarship were deeply unfashionable. New Labour studiously ignored anything that reeked of history, especially anything that could be associated with the tarnished glories of Empire, choosing instead to associate with and support the apparently cooler phenomenon of Cool Britannia and Britpop. Though the public flocked to Bloomsbury, as they always have, the cultural sector targeted the museum for criticism, frequently attacking it as old-fashioned and elitist.

Neil MacGregor transformed the reputation of the museum. It is now seen domestically and internationally as playing a vital role in understanding the human world – our shared past and present. And he achieved this without losing intellectual rigour. MacGregor has maintained the respect of scholars, and earned the esteem of modernisers – quite an accomplishment. Leaders of comparable institutions and organisations look upon him with envy. He is referred to in hushed tones as Saint Neil – by those who work for the BM, as well as outsiders – and they are only half-joking.

No doubt many will mention the success of the Radio 4 programmes (A History of the World in 100 Objects; Germany: Memories of a Nation), but whilst important, being both erudite and popular, the crucial moment in repositioning the institution came much earlier, with the response to the damage to Iraqi cultural heritage as a direct result of the Second Gulf War in 2003. The problem of the looting of Iraqi cultural sites dominated the press conference originally called to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the British Museum, and the quick response – the British Museum took the initiative in providing assistance to the Iraq Museum – was a clear demonstration of the urgent role the institution could play in helping to understand, aid and even ameliorate contemporary conflicts.

MacGregor’s most recent achievement may have been the most difficult to pull off: changing the narrative around the Elgin Marbles (though the museum now prefers to call them the Parthenon Marbles) by controversially sending one to Russia, as relations between Vladimir Putin and Western leaders cooled. It is a move that was criticised (myself included), as the manipulation of objects in the service of cultural diplomacy; an act and narrative that may haunt the museum in times to come, as such a role is likely to fail and be a burden. But even when made uncomfortable by MacGregor’s actions, I have found it hard not to be impressed by his audacity.

Neil MacGregor has taken risks, but they have always been in the interests of the British Museum – and in the service of the museum in general. He deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest museum directors in history.

Why we are digging up old bones, Radio 4

Richard III The remains of Cervantes have been discovered. Art history sleuth Silvani Vicenti thinks he has identified the remains of the woman we know as the Mona Lisa. The Archbishop of Canterbury has just conducted the funeral of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral. On Front Row the sociologist Tiffany Jenkins explains our fascination with bones of cultural and historic significance. Listen again here. 

The unobserved life is essential to human flourishing

Viewpoint on privacy, on Aeon Ideas.

Human beings benefit from privacy, from having some control over what others know about them, having a space and a place where the door is shut to the rest of world. This is most obvious in relation to state authorities and the powerful. We need protection from ‘them’, distance, a separate sphere, because they have the power to do stuff to us – spy on us, arrest and imprison us, and the like.

Where privacy is as important, but perhaps less obviously so, is in relation to the development of the human person. Privacy allows us to retreat from the world, for a while, to not be ‘on show’ all the time, to take our face off. It is space without scrutiny and immediate judgment in which we can take time out and reflect. Here, we can be vulnerable. Here, we can experiment and try things out. Here, we can make mistakes. We can be ourselves; learning and developing what that means. And that we have some say over what others know and what they do not know, is a way to develop autonomy and self-possession. All this helps us to sure up psychological and social depth. As the writer Hannah Arendt put it: “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.”

A private sphere helps to create the conditions for the development of a reflective, rounded and stronger person and that benefits the public sphere. It’s about more than just being alone, or being left alone, it means we can open the door and reenter the public sphere having thought things through.