ARTS / What should we preserve: Next Friday at the Tate Gallery artists, writers and cultural decision makers meet to debate one of the central questions of our culture

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The Independent Culture

Our forebears were rampant collectors. Their prolific gift is now our greatest asset. It is also our prime responsibility. It shapes our message, defines our culture. And it consumes our budgets. It also deflects us from doing justice to today and tomorrow. As museums get bigger - and they usually do - so the weight of what they have begins to overwhelm them. They respond by slowing down their rate of acquisition. Plot the rate of collecting by most large museums of long-standing and you will see a curve that inexorably levels off.

So, one myth needs to be laid to rest. It is not the addition of the new stuff that generally represents the burden. It is sorting out the backlog of the old. But the solution is already at hand as changes in public demand, coupled with new technology, lead to a revolution in the way we will use our great public collections in the future. These changes will also release the shackles that prevent museums from collecting at the rate they should.

These new demands reflect the extraordinary success achieved by museums in the last quarter-century. Everywhere great collections, impeccably presented in sparkling new galleries, have created a new audience that has more than doubled in that period. That audience has also become more discerning and, most significantly, a growing proportion wishes to examine in greater depth the wealth of material that is not on public display.

Here a second myth needs to be quietly put down. The legendary treasures hidden in the basements of museums are not, generally speaking, the wasted asset some might have us believe. History has put them there; we all wish to make them accessible to a much wider audience. But placing them on public display is neither desirable nor practicable. Many of these collections exist primarily for the purposes of reference and scholarship, and technology is already making them more readily available.

Computer-based documentation systems are now widespread, giving instant access to what museums hold. CD-ROM, allowing image capture as well as access, makes two-dimensional images, from paintings to photographs, readily available, often for the public at large. The Micro Gallery at the National Gallery is an example. But so far museums are still primarily places that are visited in order to see the real thing. Technology is merely providing an improved access system.

The next stage will bring the real breakthrough. High-definition images, of sufficient quality for most reference purposes, will go outside the museum's own walls, initially for consenting institutions in private but before long for the public in their homes. The key is the fibre-optic link which, within a decade or so, will lie at the front doorstep of virtually every house. A Collections Channel will give access, at an affordable price, to the contents of the world's museums. And the new source of income will transform museum economies, providing, for the first time, a realistic relationship between their key assets and a public thirsty for access.

Nor will the fact that most museum objects are three-dimensional be an obstacle. Imaging systems already allow complex shapes to be captured and subsequently explored. Virtual reality will allow more detailed exploration, be it of the interior of a historic building, the alimentary tract or the switching system of a microchip.

Computer documentation and mechanised retrieval will deliver vast improvements in quality of service and access.

So why, given these extraordinary powers of imaging and retrieval, will we continue to need objects at all? All the evidence indicates that the public demand for the real thing, with all its power and veracity, is increasing and is insatiable. For simple pleasure or relaxation, inspiration, education or scholarship, the potency and authority of the actual object is in increasing demand. Museums are now, for the first time, in a position to respond.

So, museums need to concentrate their available resources on high-grade scholarship, not all as permanent employees on the payroll. But most important of all we should significantly increase our rate of acquisition. Coupled with this we need to be more sanguine about disposal. We should be laying down collections for tomorrow. Then, in a few years' time, with the benefit of hindsight and mature scholarship, we can start to make choices. Keep the best and ditch the rest. If a few bottles are corked, so be it. And even what we throw away will still be sitting there in our data-bases, evidence of whether we were right or wrong. But if, as now, we are too timid to acquire the stuff in the first place, even that revelation will be denied us.


I have taste; you take my word for it; he and she - benighted boors - would like the old ruin cleared away to build a drive-in superstore. We preserve; you (plural) pay for restoration through your taxes; they will eventually queue up to stub their cigarettes out and be shown round a national heritage.

It was not always like that. In Victorian Glasgow, to take one example, we said that a Renaissance university should be demolished to make way for a railway goods station, while they muttered that the 'auld toon' around the Cross would be a sad thing without its college. We won, but then we almost always do win. What changes is only our attitude to the remains of the past.

Sometimes we have declared (as in Glasgow) that 'progress' should be pitiless in its attitude to older landscapes and townscapes. Sometimes we have practised preservation by destruction: the removal of every later 'accretion' which obscures our vision of what the past ought to have looked like. Once the arbiters of taste decreed that the wooden rood screens in almost every English village church should be torn out, on the grounds that Gothic purity demanded a single style and a single space. Now we would like to have the screens back again, because we have decided that true authenticity is a rich, layered midden of what every past age has done on a given site. Taken on our record over the last two centuries, we are whores.

We have occasionally been defeated. In Munich, the Bavarian 'we' decided that the bombed-out opera house should be replaced by a dazzling modernist building to rival the new opera at Hamburg. But the citizens rose up and said their beloved 19th-century Nationaltheater must be reconstructed exactly as it was, down to the last plaster cherub and crystal girandole.

We are a mixed bag. We include critics and architects, museum directors and local historical societies, bishops and archaeologists, princes and career politicians. There are strikingly few painters, sculptors, poets or novelists - 'creative artists' - among our ranks. On the other hand, we have recruited an enormous reinforcement in the staff of the new cultural bureaucracies, most of them in quangos or 'non-governmental organisations' like the arts councils, the trusts for the preservation of this or that, the classifiers of sites of special beauty or interest, the inspectorates who order householders to remove plastic gutters, the protectorates of water-mills, cracked fountains, raised mires, bankrupt foundries and organic bread-and-butter. Almost all of us, directly or indirectly, suck on the teats of the Treasury. We are, among other things, the Heritage Industry, one of the few growth industries of the age.

We represent, increasingly, aspects of nationalism. The monks who brought stone from Normandy to build Norwich Cathedral, like the Irishmen who dug the Kennet and Avon Canal or the unknown people who buried their princes in the cairns of Kilmartin Glebe, would have been pleased to think that future generations would admire their work and try to save it from destruction. But they would be baffled by the idea that they had helped to construct the identity of the British State or the Scottish nation. Modern nationalism has kidnapped the concept of cultural history, imprisoned it within frontiers and appropriated its traces as evidence for a crude theory of purposive evolution which advances to a magnificent culmination in the present - 'our national heritage'.

How conservative are we? The story of how nations were constructed shows that kidnapping the past to legitimate a new modern community can be a revolutionary act, a breaking of social and political chains. But in England (as opposed to Wales or Scotland) we are legitimating what already exists. We are coming dangerously close to the proposition that to preserve the past is to assent to the present. And that is a profoundly conservative position.

The real question, to paraphrase Lenin, is who is doing what to whom. The preservers in this country are on the whole those who run it. They define what is 'heritage' - part of the national imaginative fabric - and what is dispensable. In 50 years' time their definition will be different, but that does not matter. The point is that this identity of cultural arbiter and social-political superior means that each demolished Georgian vicarage, each ploughed-up barrow or scrapped ironclad, strikes a brick out of the arch of English hierarchy. We have to face this possibility: that what we are really trying to preserve is us.


Tennyson once told a story about Napoleon. 'When someone was urging on him how much more glorious was the immortality of a great artist, a painter for instance, than that of a great soldier, he asked how long the best painted and best preserved picture would last. 'About 800 years.' 'Bah] Telle immortalite'.' Whether or not this estimate is right, it's true that, left to themselves or in the wrong hands, works of art may perish. They are mortal.

So questions of preservation arise. But when they do, you notice that some common considerations about life and death do not. Does anyone argue, for example, that a work of art has outlived its usefulness? Does anyone speak of 'striving officiously' to keep a disintegrating work of art alive? Does anyone consider putting a damaged work of art 'out of its misery'? Does anyone urge that a work of art deserves to die? Only very rarely.

As for destruction, no one (except the artist) is seen as having a right to destroy an artwork. When a Japanese collector recently proposed an act of artistic suttee - he said his Renoir and Van Gogh would be cremated with his body - the idea was not welcomed; nor was Churchill's actual destruction of his Sutherland portrait. And the outrage felt on these occasions involves more than the idea that art-ownership is really stewardship, without the usual property rights; more even than the question of a work's value. It is rather that works of art have become paradigms of permanence.

There are almost no circumstances in which, if you had the choice, it would be OK to destroy a work of art, or allow it to perish. Destruction and harmful neglect are always 'wanton'. And if the dilemma arose where a picture could only be preserved at the cost of it never being visible to anyone, preservation would doubtless be given priority. Indeed this is what has happened to the 'Mona Lisa': you can hardly see it through the protective measures (though here the protection is against theft and assault).

But works of art have died, plenty of them, and often well short of their 800th year. It's a curious thing to look at photographs of pictures lost in the Second World War - Caravaggio's St Matthew and the Angel, Signorelli's Pan - and to reflect that this picture no longer exists. You can't go and see it. It's nowhere now. It's hard to believe almost, rather in the same way that (for some people) it's hard to believe Elvis is dead. It seems somehow against the order of things that works of art should just cease to be. But they do. All the celebrated paintings of Greek antiquity are long gone, celebrated only in written accounts. The casualty list down the ages is enormous - and not only through vandalism, or carelessness.

Michelangelo's Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel was painted on top of an Assumption by Perugino. That was a fair swap, probably. On the other hand, when Giotto's frescos in Santa Croce ceased to be admired, they were covered by furnishings, removing large areas. Numerous paintings have - with good conscience - been cut down at the edges, or partially repainted, or eliminated.

David's death-portrait of Lepelletier, the 'first martyr of the revolution', originally hung alongside his Marat in the French National Convention. It was later bought and destroyed by Lepelletier's daughter, who by then had become a fervent Royalist.

In all these cases, the preservation of an existing work of art took second place. Something else - artistic improvement, practical convenience, ideological conviction - seemed more important. But such decisions are now hard to imagine. There is almost no way of talking against preserving a work of art. About 'should' there is no argument.

Even where it might be admitted that an artwork was now no good to anyone - is such an admission conceivable? - there could still be a 'cryogenic' argument for preservation: the artwork should be preserved against the day when it might come back into favour. After all, we don't want to repeat our ancestors' cavalier treatment of what seemed to them primitive or pagan. Always be careful. Somebody else might like it.

It cuts the other way too. The universal obligation to preserve is a sign that artworks exist in a kind of value-vacuum. If their right to life is never to be judged against other values they have become merely hallowed specimens. This is not such a good sign. To the extent that their death cannot be contemplated, works of art are already only half alive.


Just after the First World War Ezra Pound wrote a poem, weighing the death of countless young men against the fruits of the civilization they had been told they were defending. They died, he suggested

For two gross of broken statues,

For a few thousand battered books.

(His verdict was not quite as straightforward as it might appear.) In war, and at other times of national crisis, the issue of what should or should not be preserved can become radically simplified. During the Cultural Revolution in China, orchestras in Yunan risked prison and torture by practising in secret with stringless instruments and muffled drums.

Their heroism should be remembered by all sides whenever conservation is discussed, but they offer food for thought as well as examples of devotion. Too often, the preservation debate turns simply on physical objects: old buildings, or Pound's broken and bashed writings and carvings. The Yunan musicians, though, were preserving things that were at once more intangible and more important - skills, senses of identity, contact with their teachers.

This is not to deny that the preservation of beautiful objects is also a moral imperative.

Even some political revolutionaries have conceded as much. During the Russian Revolution, for example, Lenin's Commissioner for Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, wept at the rumours that the Kremlin and St Basil's had been destroyed, and resigned from the Revolutionary Committee, declaring that he could not be party to the destruction of beauty and tradition.

But, as proponents of the 'theme park' slurs on conservation routinely remind us, the simple maintaining of glorious antiques is not merely inadequate, it can be stultifying.

Without a general awareness of the historical weight of these monuments as well as of their aesthetic properties, and without some real if oblique connection, say, between old and modern architecture, the Kremlin and St Basil's really will amount to so much Poundian lumber - certainly not worth the risk of jail or death in battle.

Pound wrote his harsh lines not because he despised the Western tradition, but because , on the contrary, he cared far more passionately than most 'art lovers' about what that tradition could mean in an age of trashy values in Britain and mass slaughter across the Channel. Other 20th- century writers and artists have gone much further than Pound, declaring that Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Beethoven are rotting corpses that poison the living, that connoisseurship is necrophilia and that every monument of culture is a monument of barbarism.

Indeed, one of the defining features of modern avant-garde art has been its settled hatred of the art of the past and indeed for art of any form. But this rhetoric starts to look a little shrill and silly when one considers what happens in real life when politicians and generals decide to join in the general anti-art chorus - when the Nazis make bonfires of books, for example, or when insurgent regimes decide to abolish history and start again from year zero, as in the Cultural Revolution.

Deeper than any ideological division between those who maintain that we should read Sappho and those who would read Sophocles is the opposition between those who acknowledge the importance of the past and those who deny or reject it. There is some truth in the weary charges that British culture is crippled by its fixation on the past, but it is not so often suggested that one appropriate corrective for this nostalgia might be for us to try to pay more, not less attention to our dead artists.

Pound, though often dismissed as a crank or a charlatan, is one of those who has made the case, and made it forcefully. His career, with its detours into fringe economics and Italian fascism, provides baleful warnings about what can happen to those who take art as seriously as life, yet it also offers hints and challenges that have seldom been taken up.

If we really want our inheritance to be anything more than musty clutter, the price will be uncomfortably high and unlikely to win many votes. It will mean trying to cultivate our intangible patrimonies with the same tenacity with which the orchestra players of Yunan defended theirs: which implies in turn such unpopular moves as the imposition of far higher standards of humanistic education and a fierce reassertion of the educative function of the mass media.

We should recognise that we can be more barbaric than our ancestors as well as more clever.