Tales of the City: Don't save museums for a rainy day

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The Independent Online

The considerable combined weight of the National Museums Directors' Conference, the Museums Libraries and Archives Council and a handful of other whiskery curatorial bodies is pushing together, over the next four weeks, to launch Museums and Galleries Month, the latest attempt to make museums seem sexy and relevant to a population of iPod listeners, remote-zapping TV vegetables, DVD flippers and people whose idea of fine art is capturing an image of their girlfriend's thong on their mobile phone screen.

Launched tonight at the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank, the month will feature, inter alia, the spectacle of Charles Saumarez-Smith, director of the National Gallery, "touring" the North-west with The Madonna of the Pinks, a painting that sounds increasingly like a girlie super-group. There will be debates about how much museums actually teach The Young, while prizes for travel writing and general Museum-Mindedness will be dished out at heritage shows.

Behind it comes, with a certain inevitability, a plea for more money from the Government: £115m to be precise, for modernising the national galleries, smartening up the regional ones, buying objets d'art and, that old favourite, "funding a series of innovative joint initiatives", which could mean spending money on anything from headed writing paper to trips to the Moon. But behind the bureaucrat-speak and the frankly disingenuous rhetoric ("We have a responsibility to preserve, display, research and enhance our collections..." - yeah, like I have a responsibility to spend your money on buying myself a new suit) lurks a serious question: do we agree that we care about museums and galleries, and that they have a point to modern British life, other than being a place where divorced fathers take their kids, out of the rain, on Sunday afternoons?

It's an important question. Nobody who read, earlier this week, the predictions of the imminent death of public libraries could fail to be shocked by how quickly we abandon cultural habits. True, local government is mostly to blame, with their disastrously reduced spending on books, but it's also true that British people are bothering less and less with borrowing and returning books. London has lost 14 libraries in the last four years. Are we similarly losing the impulse to visit museums and galleries?

No, we're not. It's amazing how much we love our museums and galleries. I was in the National the other day with friends from the US, and you couldn't move in front of the Constables. Squadrons of French and Italian students sat crashed on the floor in front of JMW Turner's Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, while a young art teacher talked them, with admirable clarity, through the waves, the clouds, the flapping red cloak. My daughter had to make three attempts to get into the Cecil Beaton show at the NPG. My son's friends told each other to be sure and visit the "big sun" exhibit at Tate Modern, and the special effects (and Lord of the Rings show) at the Science Museum, as if they were recommending a new GameCube game. According to NMDC research, 85 per cent of parents believe that museum visits should be part of the national curriculum and regard museums as the most important places for educating their offspring, after school and libraries.

What they give visitors isn't education, exactly; it's a sense of wonder, a direct, visceral response to something amazing, whether it's a blue whale or a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. We like to think we are not Victorians, crowding into the Natural History Museum like hayseeds to gawp at Wondrous Sights From Abroad. But I'm afraid we still are. We are fools for the visual sublime. We are tarts for explanation. We are gagging for intellectual and physical stimulation together. We like being shown tremendous one-off sights, and striving to get our heads around them. We are a line of individual strangers queueing up to consider the flowers of our common culture.

In a post-religious age, museums are our churches, places where the human goes, as Larkin said, when "surprising/ a hunger in himself to be more serious/and gravitating with it to this ground/Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in". If it takes a mere £115m to renovate, burnish and acquire more stuff, and thereby pull in even more thunderstruck visitors than the 100 million we get every year, then £115m begins to seem rather a bargain.

In-store today: the child gangs of Rio

Selfridges, london's top department store, is hosting a cracking South American movie evening next week at its new, in-store cinema. It's got a live interview with Fernando Meirelles, director of last year's best film, the child-gang masterpiece City of God, and a screening of Madame Sata, a sweaty drama set in 1930s Rio. Culturally speaking, this is a far cry from the store's usual merchandise of costume jewellery, plasma-screen TVs and Prada frocks. I was struck by the bathos of the invitation to the featured movie. It promises "the exploits of a legendary homosexual criminal, living out his fantasies in a world run through with violence and raw desire, where desperate dreams spring from poverty and squalor". And where exactly is the movie on? "3rd Floor, Selfridges Car Park (via shoes on 2nd floor)."

A studio's Sly deal

Tragic news from Los Angeles, where Sylvester Stallone has just delivered to MGM studios his script for Rocky 6 (appetisingly described as "like George Foreman, a retired fighter who wants to get in the ring one more time") and discovered they don't want it. Yikes. How embarrassing. Not only that, they're refusing to let him offer it to other studios. Not only that, but MGM are launching a boxing-themed reality TV show (looking for a champion to emerge from nowhere) and calling it "just like Rocky".

Which is a bit of a cheek, since Stallone has already got his own boxing-reality show called The Contender. The actor is consulting his learned friends, but MGM (who've earned about $2bn over the years from Rocky and associated merchandise) say, "We own the name and the rights to Rocky and we can do what we want with it." It looks like Stallone had better start thinking of a new career. Perhaps he could try selling non-stick grill pans on the telly. Like George Foreman.

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