How was the art exhibition? Er, moving ...

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The Independent Online
The other night I was told something shocking. A bloke I know had been along to the Tower of London, a place which - as a Londoner - he hadn't visited for a quarter of a century. Most of it, he said, was much as he remembered. Except one thing. These days, if you go and see the Crown jewels, you do not walk round the glass cases looking for the Koh-i-Noor, or stand wondering how anyone could walk with one of those heavy crowns balanced precariously on her royal bonce. No, you are loaded on to a travelator - like those that carry you to the far-flung modules of large airports - and taken sedately, but inexorably, between the displays and out again. Not that he cared, he said, because he hadn't really wanted to see them in the first place. "Probably paste," he said, carelessly, adding that he had preferred the ravens.

At first I was inclined to argue. I mean, whatever next? Already we have had those trials for cars that drive themselves in convoy on a special track in the middle of the road. Computers regulate their speed to ensure "optimum traffic flow", and their drivers can sit back and enjoy the view. "For the first 15 seconds it was interesting," said a guinea pig, "but after that it was crushingly boring." Car washes, too, increasingly take control of your vehicle from you, turning the experience into a particularly wet and pointless Disneyland ride.

Passionately I put my case. Can it be long before we are whisked around the great art galleries and exhibitions on escalators and travelators? Will not the suggestion "tour begins here" become no longer a helpful suggestion designed to assist the nervous art-lover, but a brutal statement of fact? Will we soon be force-fed by robots in packed cafes and restaurants, in order to speed up customer throughput? ("You haven't been to a Conran recently," commented one of our party, sourly). In short, was not the mechanised nightmare portrayed by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times now bearing down upon us?

"But consider," responded my acquaintance. "Whether there may not be advantages in this trend." And he went on to enumerate them. Had I recently visited either the Vermeer or Seurat exhibitions? No? If I had, then I would know that a form of rationing was happening anyway, except in the most anarchic and unsatisfactory fashion. Sure, the first bit was always empty. No one lingered at the boring early period water colours, marked "these show how the young X's style was yet to develop". "If it was yet to develop, what the hell do we want to know for?" said the punters, "put it in the three volume biography. Let's get on to the famous stuff."

But as soon as you got to the "famous stuff", all bets were off. "It's like a traffic jam in Karachi," he said. "You push, slink and crawl to a position from which you can see a corner of a canvas - and just as you get there someone shoves you from behind and reminds you that others are waiting. At least with the travelator some fair and impartial authority is in charge. And," he added, "if the crowds are really bad, they can speed the thing up!"

"Yes," chipped in the meek woman sitting next to him. "I'm always nervous about how long I should spend in front of a picture anyway. It's difficult to know when you have given it sufficient attention to derive all the benefit and inspiration from it that you can. I am quite happy to cede that judgement to someone in the gallery who is better qualified."

"And just think about the impact on vandalism," added an American friend. He went on to explain that he had been a high school student in New York in 1969 when Michelangelo's Pieta was shipped over from Rome to take pride of place in a Renaissance exhibition. Even then, nearly 30 years ago, the authorities had used a slow-moving walkway to shepherd the trillions of American culture lovers past the passionate masterpiece. On its return to Rome, however, it was once more open to the scrutiny of the Romans, who could spend as long they liked walking around it. Within months one of them had used his enhanced proximity and the leisurely pace to reach into a canvas bag, produce a hammer and smash the statue to pieces. Had this madman, however, been standing on a moving conveyor belt, he would have had only 30 seconds or so to swing his weapon at the moving face of the Madonna.

Defeated, I accepted that I had been wrong. My concern for an abstract notion of independence, I admitted, had blinded me to the need for rational planning, proper security and the harnessing of technological improvements. And now, was it time I went?