Victoria and Albert Museum
Artillery Row Books

Museums need to refocus on their collections

Dinah Casson’s book will inspire and galvanise anyone involved in British provincial museums

Museums around the world were doing rather well before the pandemic. Visitor numbers have steadily grown over the last fifteen years. In 2018 almost 50 million people visited museums across Britain. Tate Modern, The Natural History Museum and The Victoria and Albert were in the top ten of the most popular museums worldwide according to You Gov. Reasons can be deduced: cheap air travel, free entry and selfies in front of masterpieces. A museum has become a cool place to hang out, give parties and even get married. Today many special exhibitions reflect contemporary culture. Alexander Mc Queen at the V and A and Manga at the British Museum have been sell outs. 

Closed on Mondays: Behind the Scenes at The Museum is a personal story about the considerable achievements, the highs and lows, dramas and challenges of the author’s architectural practice Casson Mann. Diana Casson writes that it is “a collection of explorations of topics which I tripped over during my working life in museums as a designer.” She has put together a thought-provoking meander through how art should be displayed, framed viewed and labelled and along the way but she talks about facsimiles, cloakrooms and collectors – collecting is a result of unresolved potty training, declared Sigmund Freud.

Closed on Mondays: Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Dinah Casson, Lund Humphries, £29.95.

Casson guides us with illustrations through some of the world’s most glamorous museums and some niche British ones. She strongly believes that museums should reflect their town or city. In the first chapter of the book entitled “In Praise of Windows” she cites her favourite museums – amongst others are the Burrell Collection, Glasgow; the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Venice; and the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum Lisbon. All these galleries have large windows so can one see what’s going on outside.

It is cheering to read that we might be one day able to see again treasures destroyed or looted in the Middle Eastern wars. The lost arch of Palmyra and other very famous works of art have been reproduced through scanning and fabrication technology known as photogrammetry. Cloakrooms are situated in inconvenient places says Casson. Apparently at the Museum of Ancient Art in Dahlen coats became installations and visitors were invited to place their belonging in one of twenty-six display cases in the foyer.

The traditional picture label – title of picture, artists name and dates – also comes under examination. Casson thinks labels should connect with the viewer and recommends pictures should be arranged according to emotion and feelings such as Self-Knowledge, Love, Fear, Compassion,  and Suffering. I agree that a very brief bit of personal information would be useful in explaining why the picture was painted – Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” springs to mind.

Swingeing budget cuts have left so many gallery staff without a proper direction and low morale

I enjoy and appreciate the questions posed in the text and variety of sources referenced: Bruce Chatwin’s novel Utz, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and artist J. W. Turner’s views on framing. However, I don’t agree with Christopher Fraying who writes in the introduction and Casson’s opinions in the body of the book that museums used to be depressing places to visit. “Dreary, dusty places enlivened by toe curling (if that’s the word) which assume that visitors all aspire to be post graduate art historians,” Fraying sneers. Casson talks about the need for an aspirin in an old gallery without windows and comments that there is little point in regretting modernisation. Subtle technical updates are good but with sensitivity. Through dramatic overhauls and objects demanding to be seen we could lose some of the beguiling magical and curious jumble of Victorian museums.

My great joy in childhood was to spend many an hour at the Victoria and Albert Museum discovering treasures languishing quietly in a corner that I thought no one else knew about. Surely for a generation bombarded by noise and images, museums should be a space for quiet, intense study and a personal relationship with the objects? Tourists on whistle stop tours can be guided round the museum’s superstars by an audio guide. Many modern museums are grandiloquent statements by star architects. For example, the gallery space of much lauded Bilbao Guggenheim overpowers and diminishes the effect of the greats of twentieth century art.

This book should be required reading for anyone involved in British provincial museums to inspire and galvanise. Swingeing budget cuts have left so many without a proper direction and low staff morale. Leicester Art Gallery seems to have let go its full-time curator. The disinterest and ignorance of staff about their exceptional collection of German Expressionists was depressing. The Southampton City Art Gallery only shows 200 pieces from a collection of 3700.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover