As we begin the process of leaving the EU, our regional museums have the power to change perceptions about Britain’s place in the world. We should celebrate them more, says Jonty Claypole.
The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery
‘The Rise of the Mega Museums’. No, not another Transformers sequel, but a story running through our national press over the last few months. 2017 ended with accounts of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi and the V&A in Shenzhen and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about the Zayed National Museum (with the British Museum) and the Guggenheim on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi before long.
We have so many treasures, spread across so many museums and galleries, it is impossible to get a grip on it all
All this is to be applauded. Yet there is an uneasiness from some quarters and we read sour grape articles suggesting that the £450m Leonardo da Vinci work bought for Louvre Abu Dhabi isn’t a very good one anyway.
These partnerships provide lucrative deals for European museums, but are the curatorial and intellectual collaborations de-centring traditional narratives about what museums are and how they work? While spectacular architecture is critical to these overseas projects, just as important is the curatorial blend within – objects from Western collections placed outside their usual contexts are brought into play with the narratives from the region.
What is really highlighted by these resources flowing into the museums abroad isn’t the superpowers behind them, but the comparative struggles faced by regional museums and galleries in the UK. Funding cuts resulting from the pressure on local authorities, a culture of donor patronage and sponsorship disproportionately drawn to prestigious projects in London and a lack of public awareness in some places can see world-class collections in our regions virtually ignored.
And yet, the UK is home to the best museums and galleries in the world. This isn’t a hollow, patriotic boast but simply a consequence of the fact that, until recent times, Britain was at the heart of the largest empire the world has ever seen. This is a mighty (if sometimes awkward) inheritance, but progressive curatorial practice has ensured that our museums are living institutions addressing contemporary themes rather than mausoleums of long-gone ideologies. As attitudes change, there is an ever-greater acknowledgment of where the artefacts come from, how they were gained and who they belong to.
Our cities and towns are full of collections gathered by Victorian entrepreneurs like William Burrell, whose extraordinary museum in Glasgow puts treasures from China into dialogue with those from medieval Europe. Meanwhile, civic collections like Birmingham Museum contain many objects brought to the city by diaspora communities, as well as those taken from them.
Rarely, if anywhere, do our museums tell a single-noted narrative of cultural homogeneity. Instead, the story told again and again is of continuous and rewarding cultural interchange: never the same, but subtly different from town to town and collection to collection.
While Victorian museums once presented an implicit hierarchy of human civilisation with Europe at the top and colonised peoples much lower down, these same museums are exploring different stories today, acknowledging the bias inherent to their collections and changing how they are presented.
Nowadays, a visit to any of our local or independent museums challenges and expands our preconceptions about who we are. Dover Museum is home to the world’s oldest sea-faring boat: a Bronze Age gem discovered only 25 years ago, suggesting a regular link between the British Isles and the continent going back millennia.
My understanding of Roman civilisation in Britain was limited to Bignor Villa in Bath and Hadrian’s Wall. But in a visit to the Hull & East Riding Museum two years ago I discovered the finest Roman mosaics I’ve seen in Britain, discovered locally and proudly on display.
And then there’s the extraordinary home-grown creations of a manufacturing nation in dialogue with the world. One of the greatest collections of ceramic art is The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke on Trent, most of it home-grown locally by an industry determined to learn from and rival the best of Asia.
The Art Fund’s Museum of the Year Award has done much to put a spotlight on innovation in curatorial practice in recent years, putting local museums on an equal billing with the nationals. And the steady rise in recognition of the award, along with dramatically increased visits to the shortlisted museums, shows how much public appetite there is. If my own experience is anything to go by, the biggest challenge isn’t a lack of interest but awareness. We have so many treasures, spread across so many museums and galleries, it is impossible to get a grip on it all.
I believe the BBC has a duty to help in such awareness-raising. In March, we are broadcasting Civilisations on BBC Two. It takes a global view, revealing the extent to which civilisations and cultures have always been in conversation. Masterpieces of the European Renaissance are celebrated, but so are those of Mughal India, Aztec Mexico and Song Dynasty China.
Alongside the series, a Civilisations Festival explores how those stories are reflected through the collections and work of museums, galleries and libraries. Public events and innovative digital technology will put a spotlight on remarkable objects and stories that capture aspects of global civilisation as experienced by British people.
As Britain looks to leave the EU, there will be the inevitable focus on forging new, dynamic cultural relationships with countries across the world. But we also have much to learn from looking within our own shores – at our own history and creative industries long, or even recently, forgotten. Whether Pictish sculpture, Celtic jewellery, Staffordshire pottery or Sheffield steel, we have always been, and remain, a country of makers in dialogue with other cultures. Simply spending time in our local museums and galleries is a reminder of this – and can tell us as much about the nation we will become as the one we have been.
Jonty Claypole is Director of Arts at the BBC.