The British museums aren't falling down

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The Independent Culture
Of all the legacies of Britain's Victorian past, none seems so emphatically 19th-century as our museums. They seem to symbolise the busy imperial urge to play finders keepers; they vibrate with the memories of those intrepid men and women who scoured the earth for strange treasures, catalogued them in the service of science, and mounted them for the entertainment of the population back home. Paintings, sculptures, stuffed animals, primitive headgear, ancient caskets and goblets - all these treasures of the former colonies were shipped back to the encyclopedic temples of learning in these islands. If anything, our museums feel crammed with things we might have to return one day: endless Maori carvings, Zulu shields and Polynesian arrows, not to mention the tonnage of Greco-Roman statuary filched by our brave explorers and collectors.

This is how it seems. So it is a surprise to learn from the new edition of Cultural Trends that three-quarters of the museums open today were founded after 1970. Far from being historic institutions, most of them are new. In all, 215 museums were created in the 19th century, only a fraction of the 838 that have opened since 1961. It will strike some as surprising that this tremendous boom should have coincided with sharp cutbacks in public spending. But of the 379 new museums that have sprung up since 1981, 210 were independently financed; only 128 were funded by local authorities.

Mrs Thatcher must smile to herself sometimes. Private-sector life is tough, and some don't make it. The National Toy and Model Museum, which closed last month, is only one of many casualties in the new sink-or-swim world. And it is ironic that this week, on the very day that Nato jets took to the air above Serbia, the Imperial War Museum should have attempted to escape the strait-jacket imposed by its name with a survey of Britain in peacetime. But the entrepreneurial liveliness of Britain's many new museums has been under-celebrated.

One reason we think of museums as old-fashioned is because they rarely rate a mention in the eager-beaver media coverage of cultural affairs. Many more people go to museums than go to pop concerts (there are over 60 million visits per year to the 1,443 institutions now operating), but you wouldn't know this from the media coverage. Museums, by their very nature, inhabit a world of old news, but sometimes the old stories are the best ones. Perhaps we ought to scrap minority television programmes like Top of the Pops and replace them with museum hit parades.

Cultural Trends rarely allows itself to speculate in this vein. Indeed, it represents one of the minor tragedies of modern British life: the burying of patient and intelligent research in language so deadly, it wouldn't command space even in a museum of endangered idioms. The new issue casts its cold eye over three arenas - film, radio and government policy - and the arts, in this strange dull universe, are not for the faint-hearted. They are all about policies'n'objectives at the local'n'regional level. Its stinging conclusion is that we need "a more managerialist approach to conducting the local authority's business, as in the manifestation of more mission statements and clear corporate goals, and conscious attempts to re-align budgets to meet these new objectives."

It is an awful waste of such good work. The chapter on radio, for instance, is full of eye-opening facts about the way we live now. The average British household, it reveals, owns between five and seven radios, which seems a high number until you remember London car-owners, who surrender two or three a year to thieves. Each year, 12 million radios are sold in Britain; and radio is by far the most important media in the country until 4pm: we listen (or background-listen) to an average of 20 hours each week.

Here again, Cultural Trends is drawing useful attention to an easily overlooked national habit, and one which is changing rapidly. The first independent radio station was launched only 25 years ago, yet independent radio now represents more than half our listening pleasure. It is poised to take another leap forward with the introduction of digital radio transmission, which will enhance quality and, more importantly, shrink the bandwidths of each station, permitting many more radio signals to be squeezed on to the spectrum. The average hour of television costs pounds 99,000 to make; on radio it costs only pounds 3,500. Stand by for a major assault on our eardrums. And if the clamour of voices competing for our attention (and mostly pushing the same songs) threatens to drive us mad, then we can always potter round a museum for a while.

Cultural Trends 30: Policy Studies Institute, pounds 25.