Museum of future - no glass cases

Heritage / Hi-tech history
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The Independent Online
THE FIRST museum devoted exclusively to the history of the British Isles, which will rely mainly on computer technology rather than traditional historical artefacts, is proposed in a new scheme submitted to the Millennium Commission.

The £50m "History House" would be located in a new, architect-designed building somewhere outside London and would aim to attract one million visitors a year, its supporters say. It would be a museum for the 21st century, making maximum use of interactive computer technology, CD-Roms, big-screen film projection and live performance to tell the story of these islands.

The proposal was submitted to the Millennium Commission last week by a committee including the director of the Institute for Contemporary British History, Peter Catterall; the editor of the magazine History Today, Gordon Marsten; and the museum designer Kenneth Hudson, administrator of the European Museum of the Year Award.

They are looking for backing not only from the commission, which receives cash from the National Lottery, but from business, local government, private donors and other benefactors.

The idea is to create a focus for the study and discussion of British and Irish history in the next century. "It is amazing at a time when we have unprecedented debate about Britain's institutions, national identity and future in Europe, that we have nowhere looking at the past which has shaped these pressing questions," said Mr Marsten.

The museum would be a complex of pavilions of a distinctive design. Some would house a permanent exhibition dealing with themes such as: "Maintaining the British - housing clothing and food down the ages"; "Controlling the British - how the fabric of the country was kept together"; "Inspiring the British - the cultural and intellectual history of the country"; "Britain and the outside world - how the country has interacted with others".

Space would be allowed to mark the importance of key dates in British history, such as 1066, 1688 and 1940. In addition, there would be temporary exhibitions which would mark particular anniversaries or tackle topical subjects.

The proposers are adamant that the museum should not shy away from the controversial, suggesting for example that it might weigh the virtues and vices of empire and assess the history of Anglo-Irish relations.

Where it would be sited would be left to the market place. The proposal envisages that not only would the design of the buildings be put out to tender, but the site would be open to bids from local authorities and development agencies. These would donate land for the buildings and help with transport infrastructure in return for acquiring a prestigious tourist attraction.

Mr Marsten suggested that a new town might be appropriate, and although he will not specify which he has in mind, Milton Keynes seems a likely candidate.

It is accepted that the museum will not be able to acquire a first-rate collection of historical artefacts of its own, but the idea is to borrow from other museums and use replicas where appropriate. These would be integrated into the hi-tech displays.

"We want to get away from the idea of showing dead objects," says Mr Marsten. "We will use artefacts in a new way, I don't mean to disparage existing museums at all, but we will not display an item simply as a gorgeous thing; what will matter is its historical context and significance. The artefacts should be points of entry to a subject and discussion."

New technology will be the hinge of the museum. It will have computer links with museums nationwide and will offer interactive terminals at which visitors will be able to engage in hypothetical exchanges such as "What would have happened if the Germans had taken over in 1940?" or "What would have happened if the Normans had been beaten at Hastings?"

Visual materials such as paintings, photographs and film will be used to the full in video and big-screen presentations, and there will also be room for live performance.

"This will not be another Disneyland; we don't want Beefeaters walking around, but we would like to see real situations from the past acted out, and we hope to stage debates between historians," said Mr Marsten.

The proposal is regarded as well-tailored to attract the Millennium Commission, which will have a purse of £1.6bn to spend on marking the year 2000. The museum's backers insist it could be self-financing and the building, which could be built in time for the millennium, could prove to be one of the principal monuments to the event.