Museums: What next for mankind?

The British Museum's outpost, the Museum of Mankind, has closed and the building needs a new tenant. But who? And what? Richard North takes a walk down London's Burlington Gardens.

The rent payable to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for the privilege of filling one of the grandest, almost palatial, houses in London would probably be very little.

To be honest, it has always been a bit of a backwater, something even the staff admit. Number 6 Burlington Gardens stares out at one of the most civilised bits of the West End. Albany - the glamorous apartment buildings - is down the street. Beside the erstwhile museum is the northward entrance of the Burlington Arcade, running down to Piccadilly. Leicester Square it ain't.

Whoever takes it on will need to do a better job of promoting it than did the Ethnography Department of the BM during its 26 years of enlightened occupancy. The place remained a secret, kept out of sight in its inner- London backwater.

Because the building backs onto the Royal Academy's square, the RA has been the most vociferous applicant for the use of its 1869 neighbour. It talks of broadening the scope of its architectural exhibitions in the "new" site.

Fine. But where are all the other lovely ideas?

We did not inquire of Peter Mandelson how he would fill this central London space. It seemed only fair to let him deal with one large bit of London exhibition area at a time. But his former collaborator, Stephen Bayley, was game.

"I think it should be a museum of museums, a sort of cabinet of curiosities," he said. This is a brilliant stroke. The collection of a cabinet was a fashion from the late medieval period onward. People would assemble objects, both human and natural, from home and overseas. The activity was a staging post in the birth of the scientific method as we now know it, beginning with the observation of real things.

John Hale, author of The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, described how, halfway through the 16th century, cultured people were collecting crystal clusters, fossils and semi-precious stones. In England, the 17th-century Tradescants, a family of gardeners, were typical of the breed except by being paid by patrons. Their curiosities - plants, stones, all sorts became the core of the Ashmolean Museum - Britain's first - in Oxford. Later dispersed, much of the gear is now in the Oxford University Museum, behind which is the oddest and biggest cabinet of human curiosities ever assembled: the Pitt Rivers Museum. The Pitt Rivers is, until more ethnographic galleries open at the BM, the single great home of such displays. It would be a model for the London Cabinet because it is an unreconstructed muddle. Explication and mystification jostle with each other here.

The early cabinets were partly so much a matter of serendipity because mankind's appetite for classification and taxonomy had not yet settled on ways of ordering the world. Retailing that story would be part of the point. Such a museum would remind us what previous generations didn't know, and what we don't know now.

The former Tory fund-raiser, Alastair MacAlpine, used to have a Cabinet for his exotic private collection in Cork Street which was wonderful," says Mr Bayley. "Mind you, it would be important to make sure people understood that some of the things must be grotesque or at least quirky. Things like a Zulu circumcision tool, or a mummy's knickers, for instance".

The fun of this adventure would be its conflation of the serious and the trivial. As Mr Bayley says, "People will turn out to see things provided they're given a feeling that it's a sneak view, a peek, a piece of voyeurism". In that spirit, he proposed that the modern cabinet of curiosities might include, say, the contents of Damien Hirst's fridge. That is surely right.

Mr Bayley says a modern cabinet of curiosities would have to preserve something of what Sir John Soane called "hazard and surprise" in its design and exhibitions. Soane's own house in Lincoln's Inn Fields epitomises the spirit, and so does Colin St John Wilson's deliberate and deft homage to the approach in the new British Library.

St John Wilson is part of the RA process of bidding for the site. But pressed for a personal, idiosyncratic approach he suggested a very compelling alternative. "I would like a Museum of Heroes". Great. Including who for instance? "Oh, Nelson, of course. Every time I read an account of the Battle of Trafalgar, I hope he won't get killed". The building is actually festooned with statues of intellectual heroes, and one gallery of the new museum could be devoted entirely to the men and women who make the modern mind. But there would need to be room for Shackleton, Napoleon, Flashman, Bond, Kenneth More, and yes, Mickey Mouse - the list goes on.

Who better to help with envisioning and enlivening the new "space" than Deborah Warner? She told us that the new brand of performance art - not just theatre, not just art - was unsettling people to great effect. She proved something similar when she brought the Wasteland to Wilton's Music Hall in the revived East End. She's just the person to pack them in up West, too. I see Fiona Shaw as Alexander the Great.

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