Keeping Up Appearances

Artist's sketch of new Chambers Street piazza - image © National Museums Scotland

Artist’s sketch of new Chambers Street piazza – image © National Museums Scotland

2016 marks the 150th anniversary of Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, and the institution is gearing up for landmark year of events in celebration of this milestone year. Programming will include the first ever exhibition to fully examine the history of Celtic art and identity, exhibitions on primates and fossils, and a celebration of the Lego creations of local artist Warren Elsemore, which will include a recreation of the original 19th century Royal Museum of Scotland building. Additionally, the second phase of renovation work (the first completed in 2011, seeing the creation of 16 new galleries) will be completed by the summer, providing the museum with 40% more floor space in which to exhibit its magnificent collection.

 

With this bounty of new gallery space, carved out of previously hidden areas of the building, it is understandable that some may question why the museum also needs the creation of a new piazza outside its Chambers Street entrance, which will rob the thoroughfare of around 50 parking spaces in a city centre that badly needs them. Work is already underway though, with the statue of 19th century Lord Provost William Chambers already temporarily relocated to facilitate the works. While the piazza’s creation may be contentious, and its necessity hard to gauge, it may prove to be one of the most important renovations the museum will see this year.

 

While the old Royal Museum building is undoubtedly a masterpiece of Victorian era architecture, it is now 150 years old and the role of the museum is now far removed from what it would then have been. The National Museum of Scotland’s panoptic style grand entrance hall is characteristic of them time, the British government built a similar structure at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin just five years earlier. The intent being that the full-length glazed ceiling would act as a “window to heaven,” placing the prisoners at all times under the watchful eyes of god in an attempt to reform them.

Left: Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Right: National Museum of Scotland - images © Barry Mason, National Museums Scotland

Left: Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Right: National Museum of Scotland – images © Barry Mason, National Museums Scotland

Its use in Edinburgh was in a similar vein. The Victorian museum was cast in the role of social reformer as well; the idea being that they provided the “cultureless” lower classes of the time with an opportunity to improve themselves through an association with art and objects that were better they were. Early museum architecture all over the world reflects this, generally very deliberately designed with an entrance atop at flight of steps, and with a domed ceiling inside which aimed to place the visitor in an advanced position between the heavens and the earth, where it was considered the objects on display belonged. The old Royal Museum building follows the model exactly, when it opened its doors in 1866 the seventeen steps that led up to them literally placed the museum and its collection above the people.

 

The role of the modern museum however is far removed its 19th century counterpart. No longer to be perceived as a near-celestial treasure trove, tasked with dragging people (fortunate even to be let in) up to its level, the 21st century museum is understood to be a public collection, in service to them. It is an entertainer and above all an educator, and as such it is essential that every institution is accessible, relatable and approachable.

 

The National Museum of Scotland’s 2011 refurbishment made significant changes to achieve this, most obviously through its redisplayed galleries but also through a subtle architectural change too. By moving the doors to the museum away from the top of the entrance stairs to two unassuming glass ingresses at either side, the psychology of the museums façade was vastly improved without any compromising of its grandeur. The museum and its collection are now returned to the same level as the public; we are equals, as we should be.

 

A piazza will be the next important step in achieving the sense of “openness” that museums should be striving to instil. While museums of course no longer view themselves as such, some public perception of them as highbrow and unapproachable is still an issue. The National Museum of Scotland is particularly challenged architecturally, as most large museums in Europe afford the visitor the ability to fully encircle them (British Museum, Louvre, even Kelvingrove) in order to obtain a sense of perspective. The Edinburgh museum however has peculiar sense of fortification, visible from only two sides and badly hemmed in by the clutter of Chambers Street at the front. A piazza will now not only allow the building space to breathe, but it will breathe life out into its environs. Providing space for art and entertainment, the museum will achieve an important state of cultural osmosis, with activity flowing out into the street as easily as people now flow into the museum from it.

 

This issue of “openness” is important and museums all over are struggling to tackle it. Amsterdam’s city council for example opted to retain the cycle path that runs through the centre of the Rijksmuseum in 2013, despite condemnation from some curators, and the British Museum is much maligned by the lack of welcome bestowed by its austere façade (I attended a debate regarding this in 2014). The National Museum of Scotland is fortunate in the changes that it has been able to make without compromising the aesthetic of the original building. Although they may be too small to appear of any significance, they are vastly important. The museum’s building is set to become a perfect fusion: its heritage safely preserved whilst eliciting a clear understanding of its modern role within society. In its very bricks and mortar it will be shining example of everything that is expected of the museum of today.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 5.2.2016

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Red Flags in Museums

Confederate display

 

“The flag belongs in a museum, not on our streets.” This is the sound bite du jour in current American politics, with Barrack Obama and Jeb Bush among others all claiming in the wake of the Charleston massacre that the Confederate Flag, which flies on the grounds of the South Carolina State House, should be taken down and transferred to a heritage institution in order to remove it from the contemporary and cement it in the past where it belongs. I have however seen several media responses to this that claim the flag has no right to such reverential treatment; that the flag does not belong within the collections let alone on display within a museum.

 

This of course is not true, a museum collection’s objects are deemed “worthy” by the assertion that people can learn from them, not through a perceived affiliation with “good or bad.” As a compassionate and humane individual living in Glasgow, I am all too often sickened by the banner-waving fanfare of the Orange Order. Yet should a time hopefully come when their antiquated iconography can be retired, it is imperative that some of it should be sent to a museum where it can help teach the values of an inclusive society through addressing the uglier elements of the past. The Confederate Flag should now serve a similar purpose.

 

Most of the objections to the suggested accession of the flag by a South Carolina museum tend to stem from the view that its display would entail some form of celebratory act, and that by accepting it as physical heritage, the ideology it represents will become “accepted” heritage as well. The flag is not the same as other morally dubious historical artefacts though; Adolf Hitler’s paintings for example, which have little value as political or social history sources, nor have a relevant position in the art history canon. They have no lessons to teach, whereas the Confederate Flag does.

 

It cannot teach those lessons if its message is censored however, and no museum should exhibit like that anyway. Exhibiting the dark elements of human history is not an acceptance of the values of the time. The Museum of Slavery does not champion the use of a coffle through their display, nor do the jars or hair and teeth at Auchwitz endorse the atrocities that occurred there. These objects are important museum pieces because they provide a physical dimension to history that cannot ever be forgotten. Physical reminders are important for future generations to literally show them of the realities of the past, helping to instil within them a morality that will not permit similar actions in the future.

 

The Confederate Flag is not a new problem for museums however. Perhaps most notable is the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, which is housed at Battle Abbey, a former monument to the Confederate Movement of the American Civil War. For many years they were troubled by what to do with the great murals of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, which they inherited along with the sight. Historical artefacts and great artworks in their own right, but bearing an explicit sentiment not in keeping with the institution or the society it is part of. Additionally, the museum came under fire from parts of its community for the decision to remove the Confederate Flag from its exterior, having flown there for 131 years. The flag, a tradition and again a historical artefact, gave the museum no option however other than censorship due to it’s “connotations of white heroism and black docility.”

 

To fly a flag however does suggest a compliance with its message, whereas to hang the flag in a museum does not. This is why the murals at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art can be displayed, but the flag has never again been run up the pole outside. A flag flown is a triumphant thing, and throughout history has often been the greatest statement a group of people can make. In a museum however, a flag can be contextualised amongst other objects, and its history can be interpreted appropriately. It is reduced from a statement, to simply an object.

 

However, to reduce the Confederate Flag as such may be more challenging for example than the Nazi Swastika. While there is very little public approval of Nazism now, the Confederate Flag is still widely admired in certain areas of America, and the views that it represents are unfortunately still a problem. An article on Slate.com declares that it is too risky to even hang the flag in a museum because institutions are not yet fully nor demonstrably equipped to tackle the difficult issue of race, far less to surgically remove an active support from something like the Confederate Flag, so deeply ingrained in much of the South Carolina community.

 

I believe however that these are the challenges museums should be tackling head on. An institution should not exist in fear of discussing an issue because they worry doing so will shed an undeserving light on it, or spread the existence of a message that is unacceptable. Museums should be confident that through effective exhibiting they could alter that message to one of social acceptance and inclusivity. In a more peaceful future I would hope to see the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan memorialised, and as part of that, I hope the actions of the Taliban in destroying them will be properly addressed, rather than masked to protect potentially impressionable visitors from an awareness of their extremist ideas. Here in Glasgow, if the marches of the Orange Order were to be rightly banned today, as they have been elsewhere for decades, I too would like to see their history effectively tackled by a museum despite the fact that the protestant supremacist views that they represent would remain a present concern. Taking down a flag does not fix a problem, but a well-presented discourse and education such as a museum provides, can. America has the chance to do this with the Confederate Flag now, and I hope they lead the way in doing so.

Must Be Accompanied by a Responsible Apprentice

gamers

There are few places more deserving of a visit from the currently touring Game Masters exhibition, created by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, than Scotland. Some of gaming history’s most influential titles were born here, including Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, the latter of which is now one of the most lucrative franchises in all media and is still developed in Edinburgh today, only a short walk from the National Museum of Scotland, where Game Masters is currently on show.

The rationale behind exhibiting a history of video games is easy to see. It gives an institution the ability to provide a rich and varied, yet at all times fully immersive hands-on experience. There are not many interactive exhibit types that boast such equally high levels of “holding” and “attracting” power as video games. They are also, of course, massively popular these days and have an ever-broadening appeal, providing ideal foil for attracting new audiences to the museum.

A cynic therefore may feel justified in claiming they are an easy and unimaginative option, however the presentation of Game Masters far from evokes a curatorial team of such a mind-set. The trouble with an exhibition about gaming is catering for this aforementioned broad-spectrum audience. Despite what my dad would like the world to believe, video games are not just for children; the content of some of the earliest games in unspeakable (read up about Custer’s Revenge, if you dare), Grand Theft Auto certainly isn’t for children and even Lemmings requires constant user intervention to stop them from walking to their own increasingly grizzly demises.

If anything, there are more games for children nowadays than there ever were when I was one. The introduction of the hugely popular Nintendo Wii opened up the industry to a whole new audience and has seen massive emphasis placed on family friendly video game products. These days video games are truly for everyone, but not everyone views “gaming” in the same way, so I have more and more frequently heard the use of “casual” and “hardcore gamers” as differentiating labels. Creating an exhibition that appeals to these two subsets equally is therefore no mean feat, and the curators of it have done an excellent job. There is a huge and varied range of both populist and obscure game types to suit any and all visitors, and this is supported by detailed and informative ephemera, retrospectives on influential game designers and characters, and a clear historical narrative to “play” your way through. Just as video games are for everyone, this exhibition has something for everyone too.

I can only rate the exhibition from within my own subset however, which I would describe as “casual gamer” and even that is a stretch. My flatmate and I regularly struggle to a 0-0 draw on this year’s instalment of FIFA before he beats me on penalties, but that is the extent of my current immersion in the gaming world. In fact the only video games I have extensively played since leaving home 8 years ago are the Assassin’s Creed titles and only really because through sheer chance they have all been set within the same time periods as my History MA and I found it perversely therapeutic to be able to hunt down and punch in the face the same historical figures who had spearheaded countless weeks of essay-related stress and despair. I had hoped to visit the exhibition with a friend who would define himself as a member of the “hardcore” team so we could compare our experiences however time has not allowed for me to do so. Having said that, as an individual with more of an interest in exhibition planning and design than gaming I was actually more interested in the ephemeral exhibits and interpretation than the games anyway. I do of course appreciate that I’m a difficult breed of visitor, as it’s not exactly easy to cater to an audience that insists on spending half their time staring at the fourth wall, nor should you.

Predictably in keeping with this position, the thing that fascinated me most about the exhibition was actually nothing intentionally exhibited at all. Instead, surrounded by the sounds and flashing lights of over a hundred playable games, my attention was gripped by the sight of a distinct and notable role reversal in the child/guardian museum visit dynamic. There were of course adult visitors at the exhibition too, as I said earlier, games aren’t just for kids, but likely given that it was Christmas eve, the ratio of younger visitors was heavily skewed in its favour. As these visitors traversed the exhibition with whomever their responsible adult may be, it was fascinating to see them discover and then engage with the fact that, possibly for the first time in a museum, they were the authoritative side of the pairing.

It struck me though that this role reversal can only function if said responsible adult upholds a “responsibility” to facilitate an educational and entertaining exhibition experience for their charge, and if this can’t be in the role of “teacher,” then maybe it should be as the “student” instead. I remember as a child, my grandmother taking me to visit Edinburgh Castle and marvelling at her incomparable knowledge of Scottish monarchic history. Had I been in possession of the facts that day instead, I believe our enjoyment of the experience would have been no different, because we were both positively engaged with the exhibitions and their content, and this is the key.

Some parents at Game Masters got this, while some took a little encouragement. It was incredibly heart-warming to watch adults take and interest in the interests of children, and likewise to watch these youngsters revel in the role of educator within the exhibition. So too was it wonderful to see people, initially unenthused by the Game Masters concept, take the time and effort, despite not having a vested interest in the games, to read some of the information panels and interpretation, and spark for themselves an enthusiasm for the content that they could share with their young companion.

This is one of the exhibitions strengths. The curatorial team have done an excellent job of highlighting that games, especially nowadays are more then simply just “games.” Those who read the interpretive material discovered that the history of games is a rich tapestry of attention to artistic and stylistic themes, of morality and decision making, problem solving, and storytelling, to name but a few. They realised, imperatively, that games are universal and can be fun for everyone, and in doing so, improved their experience of the exhibition, and that of their child. In the time I spent at the exhibition, I witnessed only one parent who refused to embrace it, who stood stony faced as his trusts fiddled with control pads and touch screens in silence. This was a responsible adult who had shirked his responsibility, and I fear that the children in his “company” may have lost out because of it.

I would love to see more exhibitions utilise themes that can bring about this fascinating role reversal, and it would be interesting to ponder what these could be. The content of Game Masters lends itself very well to this because of the universal nature of games, and that it is well placed within a time when the younger generations are increasingly literate to the subject while many of their elders lacked the opportunities to become so at their age. For this reason I would implore everyone, especially those sceptical of games and gaming to give this exhibition a visit. But those doing so with young charges must absolutely remember that as much as young visitors to the National Museum of Scotland must be accompanied by a responsible adult, these little game masters must be accompanied by a responsible apprentice too.

“Welcome vs. Awe”

bm

The first of the three “Museum of the Future” debates at the British Museum last week, which focus on the future of the institution, this time specifically the building itself, was a fascinating affair. Initially at risk of being misappropriated as an open forum for some “Friends of the Museum” to air their often impractical, and at one point absurdly unethical grievances, the conversation was expertly steered by the wonderful Liz Forgan towards a lively and engaging discussion. Within it, an issue coined as “Welcome vs. Awe” chimed a particular resonance with me.

Arriving at the British Museum for the first time since I was 15 years old, my memory of the exterior of the building served me particularly hazily and I must admit that my re-acquaintance with it was somewhat jarring. Much was made of the perimeter railings of the British Museum by the debate panel, not least from Bonnie Greer who revealed that she has long dreamed of their removal. Austere despite their aesthetic beauty, I would disagree with her stance however as I feel they suit both an ideological, as well as a practical purpose. The British Museum is, has always been, and will always be, “a museum of the world, for the world.” For this reason, I like to view the site as something separate from the city, an extraterritoriality, international ground, and for me the railings help make this distinction. Their strong fortification forcibly holds back the ever-swelling city, preserving the museum as a distinct and visible island of antiquity, effortlessly resistant to the swirling London tides.

Instead, it was what follows the gates that perturbed me. Despite the noisy bustle of people who mill around in the courtyard, there is a deafening emptiness to it. This is hampered further by the colourlessness of the British Museum’s spectacular façade, punctuated only by two advertisement banners which are too disproportionately small to be of any consequence to their environs. The problem with this is simple, I felt far away. In addition to this, the doorway is very small, and everything from the two front lawns that flank the pathway to it, the twelve steps up to it, or the columns that frame it, intensify the tapering of your line of sight, pushing the doorway further and further into the distance.

On top of this, even once the visitor has made their pilgrimage down the path, up the steps and through the door, they are funnelled into the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court. A visually spectacular setting once more, but again one that leaves a sense of cavernous emptiness. Surrounded by people resting at cafes or perusing gift shops, I felt like I was at the end of my journey, not the beginning. From the moment I crossed the threshold of the British Museum gates, I felt as if a large, steely hand had been placed on my chest, forcefully resisting my advances towards its wonders, hoarding its collection behind its back and keeping me always at an arms length from its discovery. “Awe” there unquestionably is, but “welcome” is much less apparent.

This issue of “welcome,” or lack thereof, was best highlighted by a lady in the audience who recounted the tale of a youngster who once told her that they “didn’t know they were allowed” inside the British Museum. The grand stateliness of Robert Smirke’s Greek revivalist façade is potentially an issue. The architectural intent behind museum entrances of this kind was that they are designed to literally “elevate” the visitor above their natural station. To lift them up off the street, and into a space between the earth and the heavens within which to wonder and admire at the art and antiquity that was at home there. Because of this, these museums and their contents are above the people, always.

The National Museum of Scotland however remedied a similar problem during their 2011 refurbishment by simply, yet boldly, sealing off their traditional entrance. Instead, the doorways now sit either side of the stairs that used to lead to them, at street level. I have always been fascinated by the alley-dwelling houses of central Washington D.C. Once used as slum residences to literally “hide” the free black population migrating from the south, the confined space meant that there was no room to separate the home from the street, not even for pavements, so the front doors opened directly onto the road. Now these houses are upmarket “artisan” dwellings, and in an attempt to generate a modicum of privacy, owners are adding a front step to their doorways. These steps create some space between the homes and the world outside them. A small touch and hardly noticeable, yet hugely effective.

A single step can create a sense of privacy. The British Museum has twelve, and the National Museum of Scotland has even more than that. The Edinburgh museum, like the Washington homeowners, realised this, and they did exactly the opposite. They negated their steps and brought their doorways out onto the street, out to the people and the world outside. The grand staircase of course remains, so “awe” is not sacrificed, it remains unblemished, yet a sense of “welcome” is now instilled. These entrances are also made of glass, willingly revealing everything beyond them, and they open automatically, welcoming any and all who approach them. A small touch and hardly noticeable, yet hugely effective.

I am not suggesting the door to the British Museum be moved out onto the pavement of course, the building cannot be moved closer to the street, but what is to stop the collection from doing so? I felt Sir Antony Gormley’s discussion of the courtyard as an underused space was particularly salient. There must be objects in the collection that can be exhibited out there, or the museum surely has the ability to construct display cases suited to such an environment. The British Museum can push the boundaries of how it exhibits its collection, by literally pushing it to the boundaries of its estate. Rather than funnel its visitors directly into ever-increasingly overcrowded galleries, the visit should begin at the gate, at street level, not at the front door. This too would help soften the image of the railings by ensuring people, such as the young child mentioned earlier, are reassured without explanation that they are there to protect a public collection, not just an intimidating building.

Gormley also suggested that the British Museum could benefit from having more entrance points, alleviating bottlenecks and overcrowding, and allowing visitors to better curate their own experiences by targeting specific galleries and exhibitions. The National Museum of Scotland has three different doorways on one street now and they serve just such a purpose. Surely the British Museum could do something similar? Unlike the Edinburgh museum, it has the geographical privilege of being accessible from all sides, so to fail to make use of this seems wasteful. For me, the museum is not the storyteller, the visitor is. The museum is the facilitator, and the setting in which millions of different journeys can take place, and millions of different stories can be told every single year. The more entrances a museum has, the more beginnings a story can have. The British Museum is uniquely positioned to provide these opportunities for intensely personal, intensely individual visitor experiences.

As noted earlier, these stories should absolutely begin from the moment a visitor steps through the museum gate. Should courtyard exhibits be used, they should be used to signpost these different entry points. They should be thematically positioned to guide visitors in the direction of the doorway that will interest them most. Instead of forcing visitors down a narrow channel, the courtyard could become a series of estuaries, welcoming the visitor to steer themselves into the current of their choice, and carve out their own individual, unique narrative paths through the landscape of the British Museum.

Debate panelist Wim Pijbes, director of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum summed the issue up entirely with just one word, “openness.” To cope with ever increasing visitor numbers, and to ensure that the museum is as welcoming as it is undeniably awesome, the British Museum simply needs more “openness.” It should open more doors to let the people flow in, and if possible, allow the collection to flow out. By creating a more permeable structure in respect to the public and the objects, the British museum will provide itself with a living building, a building for the future.