Are museums turning Britain into a heritage Disneyland?

David Lister
Monday 19 May 1997 23:02

The growth in the number of museums may have led to too many institutions, and too heavy a reliance on Disney-style theme park displays, an audience of leading museum figures was told last night.

Delivering a lecture at the British Museum, Sir Nicholas Goodison, chairman of the National Art Collections Fund, which helps museums and galleries in the UK to buy works of art, made a provocative plea for museums to merge and take a more businesslike attitude to their affairs.

In the annual AW Franks lecture, named after one of the museum's most eminent scholars, Sir Nicholas questioned whether the study of costs and efficiency had been rigorous enough, and said it was "very unlikely" that all the problems of museums were due to inadequate funding.

He asked: "Is there room for further savings through the pooling of service costs between museums either nationally or locally? Is collecting effort being duplicated? Should certain collections be amalgamated or transferred from one museum to another? Here in the capital ... it strikes me that there is room for some rationalisation in the field of works on paper."

He added: "Is there scope for amalgamation, which implies closure, of some museums which cannot operate economically or which cannot achieve their objectives on their own? Commerce is well accustomed to such solutions."

In 1973 there were 950 museums in Britain. By 1988 this figure had risen to 2,500. There is no accurate figure for the number in existence now, but 2,500 is still thought to be a reliable estimate, according to the Museums Association.

In his speech, Sir Nicholas also made an impassioned attack on "interpretative, theme-park, play-time displays" in museums obscuring the objects in the collection. "Of course museums provide fun days out for the whole family," he said, "but in doing so, they must not lose sight of their unique characteristic, their collections ... The important thing is developing an appreciation of 'objects' and the difference between the real thing and replicas.

"It is not a role of the museum to ape Madame Tussaud's or Disneyland. The object is at the hub of a museum's purpose ... Works of art are often uncomfortable experiences, often mysterious. They should be allowed to speak for themselves and not be debased."

He added how much he had enjoyed a recent visit to Keats' House in Hampstead, where, he said "everyone imagines the nightingale in the garden and where thankfully you are not invited to press a button and hear some interactive machine making warbling noises and reciting 'My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense As though of hemlock I had drunk'. "

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