Philip Hensher: Museums are being wrecked by piped music

Share
Related Topics

At the Victoria and Albert Museum's new Baroque show, I was trying to concentrate on what might strike some people as an unnecessarily complicated object when, quite suddenly, the band struck up above my head.

Somebody, I thought for a moment, had somehow started broadcasting the contents of their MP3 player to the world – I'm a bit vague about technical possibilities like that – and I expected a guard at any moment to come over and do something about it. But the noise continued; I read the label; and the truth sank in. That baroque concerto, conveyed over the sort of speakers you get in your local coffee shop, was conceived of as part of the exhibition.

Ti-tum-tiddle-um-tum-ti-tum... It carried on, and in a moment got worse. As you went from that room into the next, the music behind you and the music in front of you combined in a far from authentic polytonal manner. Less like Handel, and more, frankly, like Charles Ives. There might be some people who can look at works of art in a state of ideal concentration while having two completely separate pieces of music played at them. I am afraid I'm not one of them, and in a few moments decided to cut my losses and go somewhere a bit quieter.

When did museums decide that their exhibitions might be improved with the addition of some music? It's a tendency that appears to be on the increase, and, I have to say, the Victoria and Albert Museum is a prime offender in this regard. The idea appears to be to suspend the viewer in a sort of total cultural experience, to make him look at works of art while listening to the sort of music that might have been around at the time.

But why stop there? Why not – as has been perfectly seriously proposed – supplement an exhibition of late 19th-century French art not only with a backdrop of Debussy, but with occasional blasts through the airvents of that fin-de-siecle masterpiece, Guerlain's perfume "Jicky"?

If you accept that, why not force your visitors to put on doublet and hose before they are allowed to visit an exhibition of Elizabethan miniatures?

It can only be a matter of time, because the pressure, nowadays, is all towards forcing museums to turn an exhibition into an "experience", and away from solitary contemplation. Anyone who suggests, however gently, that an infant who is exercising his right to have a 20-minute tantrum in front of Karel Fabritius's self-portrait may be infringing on the adult freedom to look at that masterpiece is instantly viewed as anti-social and deeply strange. Anyone who wants to look at a work of art without having their emotions directed by some casually chosen background music is immediately identifying himself as a gross elitist.

I have to admit to being a one-thing-at-a-time man. And the accompanying music at the V&A had the effect of driving me away from a school of art which I love, and which fascinates me, pretty quickly.

No doubt some people will love the total-immersion feel, and wander round soaking up the lovely atmosphere and the lovely music, rather like EF Benson's Lucia. I don't feel museums should be placing extra barriers in the way of our appreciation of interesting objects, and soundtracks fall very firmly into that category. Afterwards, I went down to look at the glorious rococo cabinet which the Elector Augustus commissioned. Being in the permanent collection, it sits in beautiful silence, and creates its own mood. I have an awful feeling that, in the future, that won't necessarily be enough.

Springtime for Mel Brooks in Germany

Halfway down the Friedrich-strasse in Berlin, and a shock interrupts a Sunday morning constitutional. A building is hung with long red pennants, a black device in a white circle at its centre. Of course, the rational mind knows that it can't mean anything and in a moment the explanation presents itself. Mel Brooks's musical 'The Producers' is getting its first production in Berlin, and the theatre is hung with pennants to promote its satire of the Third Reich.

Germany being very strict about these things, the black device on the pennants is not a swastika, but a sort of pretzel – suggestive at a distance, I must say – and special permission has had to be given for the swastikas on stage. I believe that mockery and laughter is always the best response to tyranny and terror, and if 'The Producers' could really make Berliners laugh, we might really think that the spell of the Third Reich is over at last. But that can't be true, not yet; the sight of those dread banners in the heart of Berlin, against all rationality, cast a terrible chill over the heart. It's not going to be over for many decades to come.

The Quick minds of tabloid punsters

I was quite overwhelmed with admiration and envy when I saw the way The Sun had chosen to deal with Bob Quick's resignation at the end of last week. No po-faced concern for national security for them; instead, the sub-editors pulled all the stops out, and in one of their unforgettable exercises in wildly contrived wit, had headed the story "You Can't Quit Quicker Than A Thick Quick Quitter". All in all, one of the best creations since the unforgettable "Super Cally Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious" – I remember the headline, but I couldn't tell you what the story was about. Football, possibly.

I've always envied the sort of quick mind which can write and envisage a really complicated headline, preferably involving an appaling pun, though success in the field requires some strange priorities. I once met a sub-editor who confided in me that the dream of his life was to be handed a story involving a crowd in northern Spain being crushed to death while fleeing a burning cinema. This curious ambition was, I am afraid, to the sole purpose of allowing him, finally, to use a much-cherished headline: "Moral: Don't put all your Basques in one exit."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Residents of the Gravesham constituency are 10 times closer to what Peter Hain scorns as the “Westminster elite” than are those of Linlithgow and East Falkirk  

Will no one stop the march of localism?

Jonathan Meades
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam