A case of transparent charm

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Connoisseurs of display cases - I can't be entirely alone in this enthusiasm, can I? - should get down to the British Museum, which is currently exhibiting some splendid specimens in its exhibition Gladiators and Caesars. Never mind the exhibits (for the moment at least), these display cases are the business. They consist of a single sheet of armoured glass, smoothly rounded at each corner and held out in front of their "contents" by stainless steel rods. And this combination of openness and protection rather suits what they are showing off - mostly stone friezes depicting gladiatorial combat.

Connoisseurs of display cases - I can't be entirely alone in this enthusiasm, can I? - should get down to the British Museum, which is currently exhibiting some splendid specimens in its exhibition Gladiators and Caesars. Never mind the exhibits (for the moment at least), these display cases are the business. They consist of a single sheet of armoured glass, smoothly rounded at each corner and held out in front of their "contents" by stainless steel rods. And this combination of openness and protection rather suits what they are showing off - mostly stone friezes depicting gladiatorial combat.

It's possible, of course, that I'm simply hyper-attentive to exhibition furniture at the moment, having spent some time recently talking to an exhibition designer - one of those unsung creatives who mediate between the aesthetic niceties of the curator and the sheep-like ramblings of the average exhibition visitor. When I talked to him, Calum Storrie, who also helped design the Royal Academy's Apocalypse show, was working on the National Portrait Gallery's new Painting the Century exhibition, which charts the course of the last century by means of 101 portraits.

In the exhibition space, large sheets of brown paper - used to get some sense of the size and spatial relationships of paintings that were still in transit - shared wall space with works that had already been hung, giving the gallery the look of a PG Tips album that was still waiting for most of its cards to turn up.

Storrie himself was refreshingly unpretentious about "the hang", an activity which some curators imbue with an almost shamanistic air of mystery, the better to bolster their own priestly status. But the principles that apply, Storrie confessed, were pretty much the same as those that obtain in your own living room. You need to make sure the pictures balance and that unfortunate visual rhymes don't distract the viewer: he'd only just come from correcting an unintended "flying duck" effect, in which a small picture was followed by a larger one and then a larger one still.

There is no human equivalent of fluid mechanics to be consulted, Storrie says, although it's sensible to take into account the fixed European prejudice for reading from left to right, which can often shape the way a crowd flows around a room.

Storrie is no slouch at display cases either, having designed a very satisfying wedge-shaped vitrine for one of the National Portrait Galleries' more playful fixtures - William Scrot's anamorphic portrait of Edward VI. His lucite prism guides viewers to the optimum viewing spot - a tiny roundel of transparency in a swipe of opaque frosting. He's even an ideological cheerleader for the simple virtues of the glass box, a form of cultural storage that it has long been fashionable to despise.

"We get 'scripted' experiences everywhere else," he wrote in a recent Blueprint article, "so the museum and the gallery are a place for unmediated meeting with objects." I confess that I gave a muted cheer when I read this line. There's something rather heroic about such a rearguard action, given the recent stampede towards button-tweaking interactivity in the museum world. It's rather like that moment from Gladiator when Russell Crowe turns around to find 15 Nubians advancing towards him, all eager for their performance bonus. And though Storrie didn't design the gleaming glass boxes at the British Museum's exhibition, the Gladiators display offers a good corroboration of his argument.

The show itself has been subject to flanking fire in the press - with some reviewers complaining about its lack of technological pizzazz and others moaning that it represents a dumbed-down capitulation to sensation seekers. This seems rather unfair, though it is true that it offers a running experiment in the rival attractions of technology and treasures.

When I turned up earlier this week, the giant video screens which normally show extracts from Ben-Hur and Gladiator had temporarily broken down, so that visitors went straight to their Roman equivalent - marble friezes intended to capture the excitements of the amphitheatre. When I left, the projectors had been mended again and, sadly, the crowd had clotted into a gawping and passive consumption before simulated history.

The contrast between this kind of spectacle and the challenging stare of a secutor's helmet (the secutor being the one who chases the retiarius around) couldn't be greater. There it is - worn by time, it's true, but worn by a real Roman too, its clasps summoning the practised gestures with which it would have been put on, its face plate the sudden rasp of enclosed breath. The computer-graphic tour of an amphitheatre which concludes the British Museum show can't even touch it for excitement. Storrie puts it best, in my opinion, in a line that is ripe to be written on a banner. "The only thing wrong with the dusty cabinets of the museum is that they are dusty."

Driving my sons to school the other day through the pond system that had sprung into existence in the north London suburbs, I was suddenly reminded of the uncomplicated delight that children take in catastrophe. As we forged through sumps of rainwater, a satisfying bow-wave arcing away on either side of the bonnet, you could virtually smell their aching desire that the engine would splutter in mid-stream so that Daddy would be forced to get out and wade for help. Anything, quite frankly, to break the dull predictability of the weekday timetable.

And then it struck me that their reaction only differed in its degree of candour from that of all the adults around. True, grown-ups are a bit better at empathising with the sheer misery of householders who find three feet of stinking water in their living room. But these well-springs of sympathy are not entirely unpolluted, I think. Analyse them closely and you'll find other things there, too - including a kind of excited speculation about just how bad it might get, were it to carry on raining with that rather thrilling intensity.

I'm willing to bet that the 10 o'clock news has been blown some good by these ill winds, as people tune in to marvel at the extent of the floods and to take their medicinal dose of the out-of-the-ordinary. Indeed, when you watch the news, you can see bridges and inner-city shorelines crowded with those who want their spectacle first-hand.

The truth is that people will always be fascinated by disasters that lap close to their doorstep, but not actually over it - and you can see this instinct recorded in virtually every riverside town in the country, most of which have a plaque marking some historic high-water mark ("Can we beat 1857?" is the unspoken provocation they offer).

These are not commemorations of tragedy - which usually take a quite different form - they're memorials to a brief upsurge of the superlative into lives otherwise lived out between dykes of normality. If you were weigh up the misery of the few against the diversion of the many, the scales would thump down hard on the side of wretchedness - but that there is something on the other side of the scales is surely undeniable, however uneasy we might feel about admitting it.

I've been reading John Allen Paulos's book I Think, Therefore I Laugh this week, a work that won my affection before I'd even opened it, thanks to the cover illustration of "Aristotle with a bust of Homer" - Aristotle is dressed in classical style and his hand rests approvingly on the thinly-stranded dome of Matt Groening's donut-gobbling sage.

The book itself is a serious joke, dedicated to the proposition that comical and philosophical thought share characteristics - in particular, a recognition of the gap between our illusions and brute reality. It sets out to fulfil a prediction of Wittgenstein's, that "a serious and good philosophical work could be written that consisted entirely of jokes," and it does pretty well, though the philosophy comes off much better than comedy - many of the jokes having that faintly nerdy quality to them which accompanies the belief that tipping over the law of non-contradiction is a piece of irresistible slapstick.

It's all very well quoting Soren Kierkegaard to the effect, "When I opened my eyes and saw reality I began to laugh and haven't stopped since," but you can't really imagine him wowing them at Copenhagen open-mike nights with his hilarious monologue The Sickness unto Death. Perhaps there is a space for black humour, though. One of the sharper jokes in Paulos's book is credited to St Augustine. Paulos is dealing with the problems of a first-cause argument for God's existence. (If everything has a cause, then God must, too. If everything needn't have a cause, then why not the physical world, which would dispense with our need for God's services entirely?) When someone put a version of this argument to the saint, asking him what God did before he made the world, Augustine answered tartly, "He was creating a Hell for people who ask questions like that." That's a punchline that makes you an offer you can't refuse - laugh nervously or be damned.

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