Philip Hensher: Museums are being wrecked by piped music

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The Independent Online

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."