While as yet few museums or galleries have actually closed, the future looks black.’ So writes Giles Waterfield in the conclusion to The People’s Galleries, his history of British art museums from 1800–1914 (reviewed by Marcus Waithe in these pages). In the UK, the pressure on local authority-run museums, in particular, is perhaps greater than at any point in recent memory, as local government comes to terms with the unprecedented budget cuts made in the Chancellor’s Spending Review and Autumn Statement.
The provision of these museums is not a statutory service, and so it looks inevitable that hundreds of institutions will be still further squeezed as the cuts begin to bite. Following Northampton Borough Council’s much-criticised sale of an ancient Egyptian scribe statue in 2014, we can, alas, expect to see further efforts to sell off artworks and even buildings in the months ahead. Councillors would do well to read Waterfield’s book before they raise such proposals. It is salutary to be reminded of how much the cultural life, sense of tolerance, and educational ambition in this country owe to its broad panoply of museums, both in and beyond the capital.
One of the most important emphases of The People’s Galleries is just how far the display of public collections has historically been yoked to the importance of leisure and entertainment, albeit often with an instructional flavour. Such things may appear to be privileges, but are perhaps better considered and respected as fundamental freedoms. This is at no time more the case than when culture comes under attack, as it has done in the conflict zones of the Middle East and in major international cities in recent years.
Following the attacks on Paris last November, the city’s museums remained closed for the weekend as the country engaged in a period of national mourning. The following week, museums in Brussels were shut for several days as the Belgian capital remained on high alert for an imminent terrorist attack. Closing museums at any time is a grave decision, in these cases rightfully made in the interests of, respectively, propriety and public safety. The memories of fatal attacks at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in 2014 and at the Bardo Museum in Tunis last year are still raw and traumatic.
It is strange and tragic for museums to become, more than simply beacons for the values enshrined in civil society, sites in which those values may be grotesquely threatened. It was with sadness that I read recently in the London Evening Standard that museums and galleries in London have enhanced their security measures since the Paris attacks, with increased bag searches and, in some cases, changes to visitor entrances. Where such things in the past always seemed designed to safeguard works of art, it seems we must now increasingly come to terms with them as demonstrations of visitor safety, too.
In this context, it is more important than ever to defend museums and what they make possible, whether that be on the level of cultural diplomacy, community education programmes, or simply as places in which we might slip free from our own everydays and engage with the lives (and afterlives) of others. We should not need to pass through a metal detector to enter a museum. But the disheartening presence of one should never deter us from visiting.
It would be churlish to open the New Year with nothing more than gloom. The first half of 2016 will see a number of ambitious flagship museum projects coming to completion in both the UK and the US: the launch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Breuer adventure in March; the unveiling of the SFMOMA expansion in May; and the opening of the new Tate Modern in June. Such developments will no doubt have both their champions and their detractors. But let us hope that, amid the debate, they are able to act as lightning rods for the continuing affirmation of how indispensable museums are to civil society – and as ambassadors for an unquenchable belief in institutions founded for the public good.