Past imperfectionists

The extremism of the project against our traditional idea of the museum is on full display at the Pitt Rivers


This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Meaning and memory are at the heart of what museums do. But, as modern curators would rush to point out, both are superstructure. Museums rely on their objects. As our special section in this issue shows, the attitude towards the artefacts in their care is considerably more fraught among museum staff than it is among the visitors lured through their front doors.

Perhaps nowhere is the regrettable culture war being waged solely by one side more obvious than in the fanatical posturing of a militant minority of senior museum staff. The case for resisting their desires is clear when it is set out. For a failure to resist will result in what they want: wholescale reconstruction of the past in line with their ideological predilections. This need not happen. But it will if we do not pay attention to their openly stated aims.

At the Natural History Museum, Florence Heath sets out (in Sacred Cows) that its chief failure is aesthetic — “a minimalist approach to a maximalist science.” This great institution, wrestling as all museums do between professional research and the need to educate and entertain, fails even in its desire to be an adequate soft play centre. With every lame trap fallen into — giant computer screens supposedly trumping the appeal of fusty cabinets when everyone has all the screen they want on their phones — the NHM is an education about the modern world, but not an entertaining one.

The vanguard will win because most of us will do nothing

Charles Saumarez Smith’s study of the British Museum reeling from Covid illustrates the unexpected silver linings that the crisis can present. Sir Charles has more sympathy for what drives “radical restitutionists” than we do, but fairly makes the case for what the British Museum has done to revise its past. We should, however, be dubious about historicist critiques of acquisition. You may as well decry retention, as that’s what in effect you’d be doing in most cases had the acquiring never happened. Far more has been lost by the past than has ever been secured against it.

At Oxford, however, there is neither nuance nor want of ambition. The extremism of the project against our traditional idea of the museum is on full display at the Pitt Rivers. Laura van Broekhoven, its director, is, as Alex Larman details, plain in her desires: she wants an ethical review. For above all else, the past and the present fail in their morals. The bad ideas of both are intolerable to van Broekhoven and error neither has rights nor display space. She is of the cohort of administrators who boast about their “queering of exclusionary binaries and boundaries in relation to social justice and inclusion”. Removing shrunken heads is very much a means to that end.

There is no deceit involved here. But as we repetitively complain, nor is there much evidence that people who could oppose her have their own ethos with which to do so, still less that they’ll state it. Certainly, her enabling Board of Visitors don’t (chair, ex-Permanent Secretary, present Warden of Keble, Sir Jonathan Phillips). They’re more likely to sign off on a performance bonus.

Museums, to discharge their educational function, must appeal to contemporary audiences. They can’t remain visually static. If they didn’t engage, they’d become — possibly not uninteresting — fossils themselves. But this is a challenge every previous museum administrator knew and understood, and it’s explicitly not the project of Dr Van Broekhoven nor of her Pitt Rivers colleague, Professor Dan Hicks.

Van Broekhoven implausibly claims an enlightened public wants what she wants

Van Broekhoven approvingly quotes Pitt Rivers himself: “It would,” the general said, “be mischievous to hamper the future with the ideas of the present.” Indeed it would. We know that the “Stuff White People Like” embarrassments will soon enough become the flared trousers of contemporary curation — a fad that goes cringingly out of fashion. Yet who thinks van Broekhoven and Hicks believe that of their own tastes? Those ideas are the climax of history and ethics, and eternal.

Professor Hicks is a spirited hater. Take his diatribe against the “shockingly offensive” Grayson Perry and his membership  of the board of the British Museum. Or the inoffensive V&A director Tristram Hunt, who thinks “museums need to transcend identity politics and avoid joining one side of two warring factions”. For Hicks, in the Guardian, “This is a dangerous and minority view that gives equal status to the mainstream, ongoing work of dismantling outdated white supremacist displays or racist institutional structures, which is our unfinished public duty.” Professor Hicks has many such duties in store for us, although when he claims to want “the physical dismantling of the white infrastructure of every anthropology and ‘word culture’ museum” we can find no evidence that this duty so far includes his white self. That would be to take the professor literally as well as seriously.

Van Broekhoven implausibly claims an enlightened public wants what she wants; Hicks more clearly shows his mandate is heaven-sent. What they share is belief. Would that those who might oppose them did as well. The vanguard will win because most of us will do nothing. As The Critic celebrates its first birthday, we promise to take the fight to such fanaticism.

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