The Poetic Museum: reviving historic collections by Julian Spalding

We need vision to keep our museums alive
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The Independent Culture

When Julian Spalding was up for the job of director of the V&A, he was told by its then chairman, Lord Carrington, that "We don't want any ideas, you know. We've got the ideas. We want someone to carry them out." Spalding has plenty of ideas, which is why he didn't get the job in spite of having risen to become director of Glasgow's museums and galleries. That meant responsibility for the largest collection managed by a local authority and Kelvingrove, the most visited museum outside London.

Not everyone liked his ideas. Glasgow's museums saw painful job cuts, and Spalding's Glasgow Museum of Modern Art drew derision from the London art mafia, if only because he was the first to acquire a painting by Beryl Cook for a public collection.

In 1998 Spalding was restructured out of the job, and is now in the limbo of consultancy. It is difficult not to see this book as part apologia, part job application. It concludes with an imaginary visit to the British Museum in 2012 that would give its new director Neil MacGregor a heart attack; not because of the vividness of his ideas, but the financial resources they would require.

Spalding's idea of a "poetic museum" is reassuringly old-fashioned. He rightly cites, as an example of profound respect for the past-in-the-present, the "dreaming" incumbent on all aboriginal Australians in order to keep places and species alive. And he writes well about the need to look and imagine, taking a leaf from the visionary seeing of John Ruskin, and drawing his own illustrations. He has fought to preserve Ruskin's museum for working men in Sheffield.

Collections of objects, however, are meaningless without the context created by the museums that own them. Spalding is interested in their "emotional, not factual content". But he finds it difficult to chose between the responsibility of museums to create a database for research, and their function as "infotainment". What he does stress is that museums cannot afford to "cling to the belief that that they are... bastions against change".

Displays must therefore constantly change. Spalding's text is oddly constructed: interrupted by boxes of text, like museum cases, that reflect on specific issues and examples. Museums that he does approve of, such as the Washington Holocaust Museum or the Vasa in Stockholm, are criticised for the permanence of their displays.

Spalding suggests the solution is to create "collection centres", jointly owned by several museums, to store the great mass of holdings: "Like warehouse shopping but better than that; functional and informative, spacious and easy to use, with staff to help with enquiries and illustrated catalogues and databases on computer terminals". This sounds very like a proper museum to me, but while these centres are to be the haunt of "connoisseur" curators who can get on with their research, another lot of curators would be busy in the host museum concentrating on "making a success of each visit".

This spectacularly misses the point. To divide curators between connoisseurs and animateurs compounds the problem. Scholarship should be indivisible from the means to communicate it, but many curators are poor communicators. Too many, because the objects they handle are precious, regard themselves as precious. They like their museums empty of people. All curators should be scholars, but they must be communicators too.

A recent report by Resource (the Government's museums council) shows that attendances are static, that there is a crisis of morale and leadership, and that scholarship is in decline. Resource is bidding for £267m. from Gordon Brown to generate a "renaissance in the regions". But that won't happen without a complete change in the culture of curatorship. Spalding hints at "the arrogant narrow-mindedness and jaded self-interest" he has encountered in the museum world, but could have told us so much more. Perhaps he still wants a job.

The reviewer co-curated the exhibition Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain