Escaping the shipwreck of Time
BRITAIN'S BEST MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES by Mark Fisher Allen Lane, £30, pp. 416, ISBN0713995750 Mark Fisher begins this personal selection of the best 350 museums and art galleries in Britain by recollecting visits to the V&A as a boy. On wet winter afternoons he and his father would stand in the Cast Court and study the frieze of soldiers winding round the plaster cast of Trajan's column. Returning home 'my father would read to me from Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome' over toast and molasses by the gas fire and the words would 'summon up the line of soldiers marching on the column with their "long array of helmets bright, / the long array of spears" ... I have loved museums ever since.'
This is quite simply the best book ever written on museums in Britain. I have worked in museums ever since I graduated 15 years ago and no book about them has ever made me so excited. Right now I am staring at a picture of the stuffed animals in the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum at Tring. 'Mama, Papa, 1 am going to make a museum, the founder announced to his parents at the age of seven. Contemplating case after case of stuffed animals, Fisher notes the dangers of Victorian taxidermy: a polar bear purrs, but a gorrilla, a shy herbivore, we now know, snarls. But 'where else can you approach a cassowary, feared in New Guinea as capable of disembowelling a person with a single kick?'
Today — overcast — I want to escape to Tring and join the cassowary. But if the wind blew the clouds away it would be Kilmartin House, a museum opened in the 1990s to tell the story of settlements in the valley in Argyll in which it stands. It is inseparable from the surrounding landscape of cairns and prehistoric stones. Studying its relics of Dark Ages culture, Fisher quotes St Columbus description of himself as 'a little man ... rowing through the infinite storm of this age'.
Underlying this book is the sense that the objects in museums represent the survival and the fragility of civilisations. Fisher's book is not only a practical guidebook but an elegy to the curator and the artefact in an age of 11', branding and graphic designers. At the Jorvik Centre in York he is cross. The Archaeological Trust have uncovered 40,000 artefacts which have transformed the under
standing of Viking York not a horned helmet in sight — hut the presentation is pitched 'at someone's idea of a reluctant ten-year-old' and objects are automatically illuminated for 20 seconds at a time. The Joivik represents 'a mistrust of the human imagination'.
Few museums, he believes, come into existence to satisfy what market research says the public wants. The best create their own demand. The heroes are people who created museums against the odds: private collectors, curators and the proud town councillors of a previous era. Yorkshire, for example, has an exceptional wealth of modern British art because in the 1920s and '30s a handful of aldermen agreed to put aside a little money each year. A revelation is the collection at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, where in the 1950s the great curator Lawrence (lowing discovered a £2,000 purchase fund which had slumbered untouched for three decades. Pride of place at the I latton is the Metzbarn' of Kurt Schwitters, the artist who escaped the Nazis on the last boat out of Norway. In the Lake District he transformed a barn into 'the greatest sculpture of my life' through collage, paint and objects collected from the farmyard. After his death the barn was rescued by art teachers and their students and taken to Newcastle in a van borrowed from Pickford's. That it survives and is on public view is a miracle.
Fisher writes well on new museums, such as the cool and luminous National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, but he is best on pas sionate, obsessive creations. True, he is incredibly rude about the Russell-Cotes in Bournemouth, the monument to Sir Merton Russell-Cotes (d. 1921), 'a social-climbing poseur and a cheapskate ... an accumulator not a collector ... a vain man'.
However, an evident favourite is Sir John Soane's museum. The architect's house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, Fisher says, is 'the voice of collecting .. the museum of museums ...
It does what every good museum should do: make you look and think afresh'. The Soane broke the mould of museums before it was east — and, he implies, there should be no mould. People want each museum to be unique. A few steps from the cloakroom and you should be hundreds of miles and centuries away from the real world outside.
Fisher is a scholar and Michael Hall, the editor of Apollo, has pointed out that the only comparable book is Gustav Waagen's Works of Art and Artists in England (1854-57) in which he described 9,000 works of art in pri vate and public collections. Perhaps the star system — museums are graded from one to five, following Simon Jenkins on houses and churches — distracts from the individuality of the written descriptions. And not all entries are illustrated: more pictures, please, in the next edition.
Fisher is the MP for Stoke-on-Trent and was shadow Arts Minister for ten years before being Arts Minister for a short time after 1997. Many reviews have concentrated on his falling out with Mr Blair and a short passage in his introduction criticises the gov ernment for seeing museums more as agents for social policy than as collections of objects.
I urn not sure if he is right in his emphasis, but in the scope of this book it matters little. New Labour may not like the past, but the past will outlive it; likewise, this book will outlast its author and Tony Blair because it is about the timeless values embodied in 'the most social of universities, the most ecumenical of cathedrals'.
Francis Bacon talked about antiquities being fragments lucky enough to escape the
shipwreck of Time. I always liked the story of
how Bacon, when raised to the peerage, chose the title of 'Verulam'. The ruins of the Roman city would remind him of the ephem erality of achievements at court. Fisher is, I suspect, one of the few ministers of recent
years who would understand Bacon's memen
to mon'. He concludes this marvellous hook by saying that in a secular age 'the existence of an object in a museum affirms that the past, and what we have made of it and in it, does not die'. Three cheers.