What is culture? What is a museum? And why do we visit them?
The hoardes of tourists that crowd the great cultural tombs that are museums will surely give a cacophony of different responses to each of these questions, and each response, especially to the final question, is surely valid in its own right.
But is a museum still serving its purpose? And will it continue doing so into the future?
Most people, I’m sure, will hope to the positive on all of these respects. Museum attendance, particularly in metropolitan and tourist centres, remains high, and architectural tenders for museums, galleries and other cultural buildings continues to be among the highest of all building typologies – and those which architects respond to with the greatest gusto.
One of my favourite Friday post-work pasttimes when in London was attending museums. The ‘new’ Tate Modern is one which I would recommend when the week’s tiredness has got too much, as it had for me. I wish I understood modern art more, but in a haze of hangover and exhaustion, I finally began to understand it. It’s about an emotion. It’s about beauty. And I felt a lot of those things wandering the vast galleries of Herzog + de Meuron’s new mausoleum of the fashionable (with added irritation to the residents of the Rodgers’ apartments across the way).
The National Gallery is somewhere that I would recommend to anyone at any time, as long as you aren’t too averse to crowds. It remains my favourite gallery in London, although Tate Modern and Newport Street Gallery may be my favourite gallery spaces.
Then there is the British Museum, where the initial questions in these posts first came into my head. This vast collection of geographical and historical ephemera which has been collected for centuries. It stands as one of the finest cultural institutions in the world, and is consistently one of the globe’s most visited. Yet I remain largely ambivalent towards it. There is a room with clocks, a room with coins and a room with watercolours which stand out in my mind as being enjoyable, and of course the great tourist crush around Egyptology.
But these are just things. Nothing more, nothing less. The craftsmanship is admirable, but other than that we are just looking at the mantlepieces, cupboards and dumpsters of the past.
Shops are the museums of the present. I have known people to go on shopping vacations, and people who judge those people who go on said shopping vacation.
“How vapid their lives must be,” they say, admonishing the accused for not visiting the great museums and galleries that stand within the very same shopping city. But why force yourself to go to a museum when it is of no interest to you? For someone with no cultural capital, a museum is arguably of as much use as person going to a shop with no financial capital. Sure it may be vaguely nice, but is it not a waste of time in the end.
I asked my mother what her favourite museum was. “The V&A”, she responded, “because there is so much choice”. Ah the V&A, the great hypermarket of the British museum world, complete with terrible wayfinding, with their tourist crush this time by Orientalism and the outdoor atrium (on a nice day at least). Barrage me with culture, barrage me with things, teach me, teach me!
I enjoy museums, yet the first place I take myself to on arriving in a new city is the (super)market. Where better to learn about a culture than the very place that they sustain themselves. For anyone into social history or anthropology, the shop is as valid a window into another culture as the museum, though the museum will probably tell you more about the years prior.
To be successful, museums and shops both have to sell things, whether it is ideas, knowledge or simply things. Maybe it is no coincidence that among my favourite galleries in London are those which double as art dealerships: art is a commodity, after all.
There is no conclusion to this, it’s something I’m still working through, like so much of life.