When museums make an exhibition of themselves

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The Independent Online

My first wife worked in a museum, the London Museum. Not the Museum of London in its present incarnation in the Barbican, but before it merged with the Guildhall Museum and was housed in Kensington Palace. She was the librarian. Her library overlooked the inner courtyard, unseen by the public, the private place where resident royals arrived and left. "Guess who came to see Princess Margaret today?" she would say. And I could never guess, and I can't even remember who it was now.

But the crucial thing I learnt from her was that when you work behind the scenes in a museum, you get a very different impression of the place from the one you get as a visitor. Out front museums are hushed and reverential. Backstage in a museum, the ambience is not any noisier, but it's a lot less respectful and a lot more vicious. When my wife got home in the evening, she always had more news about office politics than about Princess Margaret's visitors.

People in museums, it seems, are just as ambitious and jealous and scheming and territorial as anyone in any business anywhere – there are the same back-stabbings, and plots, and shifting alliances, and blood on the carpet as any organisation I have ever encountered. If A was put in charge of something, B and C were always horrified, and tried to bring him down. If D got a larger budget for his exhibition than E, E would enlist F to blacken his name, and so on.

What made this all more exciting was the contrast between the behind-the-scenes politicking and the front-of-house serenity. If ever I wrote a TV sitcom, I used to say, it would be set in a museum, where scholarship and skullduggery were inseparable. Needless to say, I have never got round to writing that museum-based TV sitcom. However, nor has anyone else. And when I was listening to one of the many recent reports on the looting of those Baghdad museums, which seemed to contain some of the most precious things in the world, I felt that old sitcom coming on again...

The scene is the office of the Director of the Iraq Historical Museum in Baghdad, Dr Waziz Ali. Dr Ali is in a close embrace with a lady. Enter his deputy, Dr Aziz Wali. Dr Wali coughs loudly. The director and the lady spring apart.

Director: Ah, Dr Wali! I think you know Mrs Hassan, the head of costumes here at the museum?

Deputy: Yes, of course. I have always admired her work in costume. [Looks at her dishevelled appearance.] And out of costume, as well.

Director: I will see you later, Mrs Hassan. In the costume collection, perhaps?

Hassan: Yes. I will be waiting for you in 18th-century costume.

Director: Will you? Then how shall I recognise you?

Hassan: I will be wearing a see-through veil.

Director: Good girl. [Mrs Hassan leaves.] Now, Dr Wali, I have sent for you because I am not happy with the way you are running your department, the Assyrian relics. I have been looking at the figures for the past fortnight, and I am sorry to say that the looters have almost entirely ignored your exhibits. They have taken liberally from everywhere else, but taken very little from your department.

Deputy: Surely that means that my security is better?

Director: No. It means that you are not putting on shows that appeal to the public.

Deputy: But, sir – I thought you would be happy if I managed to keep our collection safe!

Director: Oh, come off it, Wali! You know as well as I do that there is always twice as much stuff in storage as on display! These looters are doing us a great service! They are clearing space. They seem to know what they are doing, too. They are taking only the good stuff.

Deputy: Ah, now there I think I can help you. I think I know who is behind the looting.

Director: Not Saddam Hussein?

Deputy: No, no. It is Dr Wazir Akbar. He is trying to get his own back on you.

Director: Wazir Akbar? You mean the man who ran the hieroglyphics department? Until last year? When I found that he was selling the best stuff on the black market to the British Museum? And I had him fired? And his pension rights withdrawn?

Deputy: And his right hand cut off.

Director: Ah yes, I'd forgotten that. Now, why on earth would he want revenge on me?

And so on and so forth. The rights are available to the right TV company, ie one with lots of money.