British Museum blog

What I want from the British Museum

Bonnie Greer OBE, playwright, novelist and critic, former British Museum Trustee

I wrote in my recently published memoir A Parallel Life, about my first encounter with the British Museum. My dad worked in a factory at night making tin cans and during the day he read. One of the things he read voraciously was the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it is in its pages that I first saw the Parthenon Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and the British Museum – the edifice – itself, very feminine and welcome, Muse-like to me. Decades later, after I had moved to London from New York, I was given a Reader’s Card, a pass which enabled me to take books out of the British Library, then housed in the Museum. I can’t tell you the fear and the excitement I felt going through those faux-Grecian pillars for the first time, me – a kid from the Southside of Chicago – here, for free, with no restrictions on what I could see.

And feel.

The British Museum

The British Museum

I came to see, after eight years on the Board here – four of them as Deputy Chair – that every museum, large or small, is an ecosystem. It is the objects; the physical building itself; the curators, other staff and visitors. And then it is the things that cannot be seen: the scholarship; the energy of everyone involved; the connections with the museum’s various communities.

And the Point.

Every museum has a Point. All of the modernisation, the furbelows, bells and whistles must never obscure the Point. And this is held – in a delicate balance – with the Board and the Director and his/her team. The Point, to me – at this moment in what we call the West – is simply to justify the West itself. We take this for granted because the West has been ruler for so long, so long in control, in charge. But this will not be the case in the rapidly approaching future.

Marble relief (Block XLIV) from the North frieze of the Parthenon. The frieze shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival, the commemoration of the birthday of the goddess Athena. 1816,0610.43

Marble relief (Block XLIV) from the North frieze of the Parthenon. The frieze shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival, the commemoration of the birthday of the goddess Athena. 1816,0610.43

We must ourselves understand the West: individual freedom; the free flow of ideas; the equality of men and women, ethnicities, abilities and sexualities. The modern Agora. Freedom of religion and speech and thought… and the freedom to roam, which to my mind, is peculiarly British and apt in relation to the time that the Museum came to be, the Age of Enlightenment.

In the 21st century the Age of Enlightenment also means digitisation – not simply the ‘wiring’ of the Museum, but an understanding of what a digital edifice is, that it exists not just on screen or increasingly in digital ‘wearables’. A digital Museum understands the concept of the ‘Internet of Everything’, in which every object – even the space itself – can interact with the visitor.

Be the Visitor.

The concept of being a ‘visitor’ itself will become a multi-faceted experience, increasingly one that will not just be in situ.

But everywhere.

The Museum must face Everywhere.

We must not only know what our values are, but the Museum becomes the very demonstration of them. All nations and peoples are welcomed in the spirit of Enlightenment and the Museum must have neither fear nor favour in doing this. The agora of itself therefore extends out, encompassing, fearless. Free.

A group of children using a tablet in a Museum gallery

A group using a tablet in one of the Museum’s galleries

And now, we are in a time when this can actually happen – digitally – and museums must acknowledge this, and to some extent enter into a new partnership. Because the Visitor, the Engager, will also take a more and more active part in creating the Museum of the future.

There has to be space for this to happen.

I also don’t think that ethnicity will play a large part in the scheme of things in 50 to 100 years’ time. There will be little or no such thing as ‘ethnic diversity’. In the West we are blending, becoming new people and so the Museum will become a kind of staging post and also a way-station, in which objects, ideas and experience will document the movement toward this cohesion and perhaps point toward possible futures.

Before I first entered the British Museum, I had dreamed about it, refashioned it to fit me.

Door panels and lintel  from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

Door panels and lintel from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

This can only happen if the Museum continues to make itself an equal and never allows class or other banalities to get in the way of its mission. And is vigilant about this. Strong and determined.

I have a friend who told me that, when she was a young girl, she used to pass through the British Museum with her eyes closed, on her way to the Library. For her, the Museum, all Western museums, are storehouses of old, sentimental and in the case of the British Museum, colonial and imperial loot. She couldn’t look because there were things inside that belonged to her. I’ve grown to understand the enormous value of global collections, but we must all know why they hold objects that do not ‘belong to us’. This is not only an intellectual explanation, but an emotional one.

Museums must make their Boards younger, swifter, more diverse, able to react to change. The British Museum has made good steps in this area already, but nobody can be complacent; change and turmoil will be the ‘terrible twos’ of the 21st century, and our children, too, if we see them in a positive way. Every day the 21st-century museum must be rebuilt anew. The point of it all has to be revisited, refreshed constantly. In simplicity, precision and elegance.

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Tin, iron, copper alloy, silver, gold, garnet. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England. 1939,1010.93

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Tin, iron, copper alloy, silver, gold, garnet. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England. 1939,1010.93

Sitting next to my dad back then, poring over those heavy encyclopaedias, we read the stories attached to the objects and we saw, within ourselves, the lands and the times and the people. The British Museum belonged to us then. And yet, it belonged to itself, too. The coming together of these two ideas: The Visitor and the Museum, their conjunction, projection and protection, is what the British Museum in the 21st century has to be about.


Bonnie Greer is on the panel for A living building: how could the British Museum best deliver its constant purpose for a changing public?, on Thursday 11 September, 18.30–20.30. This is the first in a series of debates as part of Museum of the future, in which we are discussing big questions about the Museum’s future. Visit our Tumblr to get an introduction to the debate and the Museum’s history.

Bonnie Greer’s memoir A Parallel Life is published by Arcadia Books.

Filed under: Museum of the Future, Uncategorized, , , , ,

The first ring of the doorbell

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

I’m writing on Thursday evening at the end of the first day of the public viewing of the exhibition. I was unusually nervous and keyed-up all day. I now realise my feelings were a bit like those I experience in that half hour before a party begins. The food and drink is all ready, but I can’t shake off a bat squeak of panic in my head that there’s been collective form of amnesia among my friends, or I told them the wrong date. Such nerves are quickly dispelled by the first ring of the doorbell. Would the Reading Room have only the warders in attendance on the opening day?

With these dark thoughts in mind it was heartening to step into the Reading Room around 11am to see it thronged with people. It was fantastic to witness the hushed concentration of the visitors as they looked intently at the drawings and at the explanatory films.

The scene made me think back to how panic-struck I had been three years ago when I was told that my proposed show was to be in the Reading Room. How could such a vast space be given the intimacy that drawings need? In the event the BM exhibition designer, Jon Ould, came up with a brilliant plan that gave the works space to be viewed without having a sense of the great void above.

Inside the exhibition

One of the thrills of the show was to see the transformation of the empty Reading Room platform to the exhibition space that Jon had designed. The discussions with Jon and other colleagues as to how the drawings should be structured and displayed mirrored many others that shaped the show’s formation. For me the collective, collaborative nature of creating an exhibition is the perfect antidote to the essentially lonely business of writing the book that preceded it.

I’ll definitely keep on returning to the show to savour the reaction of the viewer and to admire the drawings. Someone at the opening told me wistfully that they hoped that the Icelandic volcano would keep on erupting to allow the Uffizi drawings to remain. Volcanic ash or not the exhibition will, however, certainly close on 25 July so the clock is ticking…

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Image caption: Inside the exhibition

Filed under: Exhibitions, Italian Renaissance drawings, , , , , ,

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