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How Hartwig Fischer plans to transform the British Museum

13 September 2017

With more than six million visitors every year, and a matchless international reputation for an institution of its size, the British Museum has every right to consider itself a phenomenal success. From its international training programmes for curators and museum-workers, for example, to its vital support for rescue archaeology in war-torn regions, and with a strong media presence and generous loans around the world, the British Museum cannot be faulted for the extent of its outreach. For the recently appointed director, Hartwig Fischer, there may be the temptation simply to keep the engine ticking over and steer a steady course, not risking any major changes – particularly as the museum enters the uncertain waters of post-EU Britain.

Yet even the swiftest of visits to Bloomsbury reveals how the museum struggles to keep up with its own ambition and glittering reputation. Problems with the fabric of the building and with individual galleries and displays mean that both demand urgent attention. In these terms the BM lags far behind the V&A, an institution that has held a comparably lower international profile over the past decade, but which presents its collections with much greater consistency and with more modern standards of display throughout.

I meet Fischer in London in mid August to learn more about his vision for the museum. His previous job, as director of the Dresden State Art Collections, involved overseeing collections spread throughout 14 museums and housed in several buildings. Under one roof, the British Museum offers a greater opportunity for drawing connections between different parts of the collection – for allowing a long series of short stories, as Fischer puts it, to build up into one big picture. His aim is to establish a greater sense of coherence between areas of the collection, showing not only the ‘durability of cultures’, but also their permeability. His plans appear ambitious: a rethinking of the cultural narrative threading the museum together, and structural changes to solve such problems as the splitting of the Ancient Near East and Egyptian displays between two floors, based on no more than the size of the objects.

This is certainly a worthy intent. The age-old separation of curatorial departments at the museum is still transparent in its displays. Ambling from gallery to gallery can feel like being teleported through time and space, and between wholly different ideas of what a museum should be. The thrilling Mexico gallery, where Mesoamerican art and artefacts are displayed to great effect, gives way to the cluttered showcases of the Native North American gallery, which seems a throwback to a much older age (it was in fact opened five years later, in 1999). The gleaming Citi Money gallery makes the dry subject of numismatics intoxicatingly exciting, whereas the Greek and Roman life gallery next door, renovated in the early 1980s, drains much of the life from a subject that should not be hard to enliven. Elsewhere the differences are even more jarring. Head straight from the high-tech Sainsbury World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre down to the Greek and Roman architecture and inscriptions galleries in the basement, with its introductory wall text worn to illegibility, and you would be forgiven for concluding that the two spaces could not possibly exist in the same museum.

Such twists and turns have their advantages. They offer variety and surprise, and the occasion for making discoveries. They also inadvertently provide a fascinating history of changes in museum display over the past two centuries. Yet they detract from an overall sense of purpose and coherence, making the itinerary through the museum often seem arbitrary and disconnected. The political independence of the museum, owned and run by trustees, should be an occasion not for politics or diplomacy by other means, but rather for the border-crossing and exchange enabled by research and the day-to-day activities of curators and educators working on both permanent displays and exhibitions. The criticism that past BM exhibitions have been worthily conceived but poorly designed and displayed has been roundly countered by recent shows, with magnificent Hokusai and American post-war prints exhibitions the highlights of this year’s programme.

The Assyrian galleries, installed in the 1960s, present one of the most pressing cases for rethinking the display. Their renovation should be top priority for the museum. The imposing Lamassu guardian figures on either side of the gallery entrances still seem to be doing their job – compared to the packed Egyptian galleries and the over-sized Duveen Galleries, which echo with voices, the Assyrian rooms are empty to the point of seeming mysterious.

A redisplay of these galleries should stress not only the artistic quality of the objects – the royal lion hunt relief carving from Nineveh is one of the most moving works of art of the entire ancient world – but also the thrilling story of their rediscovery by Austen Henry Layard in the mid 19th century, as well as the recent fate of the sites from which they originated in war-torn Iraq. That renovation should be realised as part of a project to make the galleries of the entire western side of the museum feel less labyrinthine and more open to the idea of cultural exchange. Fischer is at once optimistic and cautious on this count: ‘you must be both bold and careful’, he says, aware of both the spirit of experiment that reaches back to the museum’s founding and the deep attachment many have to its traditional appearance.

Further spatial problems may be less glamorous but are equally pressing. The most prominent is the need to find a new storage facility for the collection, with Blythe House due to be vacated by 2023 in advance of its sale by the British government. The plan is to create not just a storage facility but a research centre, currently titled Arc (the Archaeological Research Collection) and probably affiliated to a university department. Reallocating space within the existing museum building is another challenge; less than a quarter is devoted to display and, as Fischer tells me, 37 per cent of the inhabited world is not currently represented. This does not necessarily mean that more objects will go on display – there may even be fewer – but that a more representative selection will be presented, with greater spaces between objects.

Fischer is also keen to address the role of digital resources at the museum. On this point the BM cannot be faulted for its ambition. In a temporary display of a limestone relief from the Great Shrine at Amaravati, the immersive installation includes a large projection of the relief, and of actors playing the part of the donor, a Buddhist nun, that can be activated by pointing your smartphone and clicking on certain parts. The point is to encourage visitors to use their mobile devices as a mode of engagement, rather than a distraction, and in this case the one-room display is highly effective. Yet it remains dispiriting to see, as I recently did, students sketching the famous Benin ivory mask from an image on their Wifi-enabled devices, their backs to the original just a few feet away. Technology must play a role in the museum, but should do so in the service of the objects, rather than as a demonstration of some glorious online future that comes courtesy of tech-company sponsorship.

All these questions and challenges coalesce in what must be the knottiest problem of all for Fischer: what to do with the Reading Room, that marvellous Victorian fossil at the heart of the museum. For all the sniping, the Great Court in which it sits remains one of the most dramatic and successful museum builds of recent decades, an energising, uplifting space that offsets the lower-lit galleries which surround it. Whatever decisions are made about the Reading Room, they must involve looking to the future as much as the past of the collection, and avoiding a focus on any single area – particularly one, such as the classical world, that is closely linked to the museum’s founding vision. (Interesting though it might be, this would hardly capture the sense of the past that would engage the ‘global citizens’ who make up the museum’s audience.)

Bold decisions should be taken about clearing and reimagining this space – as bold as the decision 20 years ago to remove the historic library to Euston Road (where it is so much better served). The Reading Room should be dramatically reconsidered, and probably renamed, so that it crystallises the ideas that run through other displays, and acts as a centrifuge, sending visitors on journeys of discovery in the surrounding galleries. The role art and artefacts have played in human history, and how we perceive them now (temporally and geographically), could provide the axes of such a display. Such a rich, interconnected sense of the lived past at the heart of a great museum would surely point the way to an evermore enlightened future.