An exhibition by Katsushika Hokusai at the British Museum (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

British museums are failing visitors

Keep the exhibitions open!

“We’re not just a museum of the world, for the world — we’re a museum in the world.” So said George Osborne at the recent British Museum Trustees’ Dinner. It’s a good defence for the Museum holding treasures from many cultures. “Where else on our planet can we bring together under one roof the fruits of two million years of human endeavour?” 

In that case, the Museum must have an obligation to let people see the collection. If Britain is to be custodians of these treasures, what matters most is surely that they are accessible. As Osborne said, “Who else has the platform to connect us all to our common past? The public thirst for that connection is as strong as ever.” Indeed. Go into the Museum and be amazed at how busy it is with people from all over the world. It is London’s most important museum. Yet, these days you are very likely to find some of the galleries closed at short notice because of staff shortages. 

No notice is given on the website. There are no signs in the entrances. When you book your ticket, nothing is said about closures. Of course, there is routine maintenance. This is different. Major galleries, such as the Assyrian collection, are shut at short notice. I gave up trying to take my children to see the Assyrian carvings. There are only so many times you can take young children to see a “no entry” sign before everyone’s patience wears thin. 

The gift shop is always open, as is the cafe

The British Museum isn’t the only one. The Wellcome Collection closed a whole gallery — after fifteen years, they gave two days’ notice — with no public plans or timelines about what else will be displayed. They are “taking some time” to think about what will replace the old display. The National Portrait Gallery has been closed for three years (with the collection touring the UK). Soon the Museum of London will be closed for three years whilst it moves to a new building. The National Gallery has closed a whole room in the basement, one of the best, and others upstairs. Many of the paintings have gone on tour to Shanghai. The Sainsbury wing is closed for needless extension work, with the paintings only partly redistributed around the rest of the gallery.

For the British Museum, there is no excuse. The gift shop is always open, as is the cafe. They never close the bag checking system. This might sound trivial, but the Museum is a strange and fragile thing. “We were born in an age of enlightenment,” says Osborne. “This great court was fashioned in an age of globalisation. Now, in the age of fragmentation, the need for the British Museum has never been greater.” If you agree with that, as I do, it ought to irk you that the gift shop is better staffed than the galleries. Stop selling postcards, George, and let me see the Hokusai.

My most recent visit was to the Japanese collection, doing research for my book. I booked my ticket, went through security, lumbered up to the top of the building — only to find a cordon barring access. As I went downstairs I crossed paths with a large group of Japanese tourists and their guide. I wonder how they felt, after travelling to London, only to discover that the Museum won’t let them see ancient and important art from their country. 

Can you imagine if they started closing the Elgin marbles at short notice? That would be a nail in the coffin for the case that they ought to stay in Britain. Is it really more acceptable to close off works from other cultures that don’t get the same sort of press attention? As Osborne says, this is “the single most visited building in one of the most visited places on earth”. To justify holding these items, we must keep them on display. 

Nor were they willing to explain what causes the staff shortages

When I asked the Museum how often they close galleries due to staff shortages, they wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me. Nor were they willing or able to explain what causes the staff shortages or their plans to solve the problem. Instead a spokesperson said this, “On occasion there is a need to close galleries due to a number of reasons, this can include maintenance, gallery rotation, or resource. This is evaluated on an individual basis and considers the comfort and safety of our staff and visitors.” Not much of an answer from an institution spending tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

When it comes to “resources”, a solution is surely possible. They spent £79.8 million last year. They sent travelling shows all over the country, staged magnificent exhibitions and ran youth engagement projects. What they cannot do with that budget is find someone to sit in the Japanese gallery on a rainy Thursday afternoon. That basic function is the whole ball game. 

The Museum has a simple purpose, from a statute of 1753. The objects stored there shall be “made available” when “required for inspection by members of the public”. That’s the sort of straight talk you used to get in legislation. Display the objects so people can see them. Easy enough for an organisation with that sort of budget and the implicit backing of the government and the nation’s wealthy, you might think. 

George Osborne spoke more like a politician. “We want this to be the Museum of our Common Humanity. A place for the future that connects us to our past and to each other.” I wonder if he would be willing to back up his big talk by spending some time sitting quietly in the corner of the Japanese gallery, to allow the Museum to fulfil its first and most important function. Staying open.

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