Britain has too many museums and is obsessed with preserving "trivial" objects in the mistaken belief that they are of cultural value, according to a leading Oxford academic.
Professor Keith Thomson, director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, says hundreds of museums will "grind to a halt" unless curators are prepared to sell or even junk lesser items to make way for artefacts of genuine artistic or historical merit.
At present, he claims, they are acting like "King Canute in reverse" – desperately trying to prevent even mass-produced items such as Barbie dolls "flowing away" for fear of depriving future generations of their material heritage.
Professor Thomson's radical vision is outlined in a new book, Treasures on Earth. In it, he argues that the only way museums can survive and prosper is to become more ruthless about what they collect, and "businesslike" in the way they exploit their works commercially.
While he stops short of advocating the closure of existing museums, he warns that many will die out if they fail to adapt, and suggests that bigger "centres of excellence" should replace some competing regional collections.
Professor Thomson says: "I have come to some very unpopular conclusions: that there are already too many museums; that it would be folly to create many more; that we have larger collections than we can sensibly maintain; that a lot of what we expensively hold in museums doesn't belong there; that we have very limited opportunities for innovation; and therefore that serious change is needed in order for the whole business to flourish."
He says the central problem facing museums as they juggle increasingly scarce resources is the dilemma over what their modern role should be. Some collections have become like "icebergs", only fractions of which are ever seen by the public, while displays focusing on 20th-century products fail to discern between the need to include "samples", rather than entire ranges.
He also argues for a systematic attempt to define what is "worth" collecting, in an age when regional museums in particular are suffering from decades of underfunding.
"It seems the worth of what is to be saved is almost too politically complex an issue to be discussed, with the result that the trivial and the sublime are treated together," he says. "In our passion for collecting everything, from the sublime to the utterly trivial, we've become King Canute in reverse. Where he tried to prevent the tide from flowing in, we want desperately to prevent it from flowing out."
Professor Thomson warns of the danger of allowing passing fads to dictate what we judge to be "culturally valuable", stating we might one day regret preserving the oeuvre of modern artists such as Damien Hirst at the expense of more traditional pieces. He adds that, while museums should certainly continue to "exhibit" such contemporary works, there is no reason why they should necessarily collect them.
"There is nothing pre-ordained about what we have already chosen to save and what we have not, and contemporary fashion is certainly no guide to long-term cultural worth and significance," he says. "Damien Hirst, for example, may be only worth 10 minutes of videotape 50 years from now."
His views echo comments by Lord Evans, chairman of Resource, the quango that monitors Britain's museums, who suggested in May last year that curators should be allowed to sell unwanted items to help with repair and maintenance costs.
Professor Thomson's opinions drew criticism last night from the Museums Association, whose director, Mark Taylor, said: "We recognise that if we just keep on collecting we are going to run out of space, so we are not against disposing of some things per se, but we are against selling things. If museums start entering the market in that way they are compromising their whole raison d'être: just call them Sotheby's."
Three big flops
National Centre for Popular Music, Sheffield
What it offered: The £15m lottery-funded attraction told the story of pop through a mixture of hi-tech interactive displays and live performances.
Problem: Drew only a quarter of the 400,000 visitors anticipated for its opening year, and amassed debts of more than £1m before bringing down the curtain.
Centre for Visual Arts, Cardiff
What it offered: Built on the site of a former public library with £12m from the National Lottery, it was billed as "Britain's first hands-on interactive gallery".
Problem: Forced to close in November 2000 after attracting just 47,500 of the 220,000 visitors predicted for its first year.
Royal Armouries, Leeds
What it offered: Opened in 1993 as an "outpost" of the Tower of London's exhibition, it houses a collection of military uniforms, weapons and relics.
Problem: Ran into serious financial difficulties in 1999. Was narrowly saved from closure when the then Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, pledged taxpayers' money to bail out the company that runs it.
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