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Hug a Henry Moore!

30 May 2023

From the June 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

In February 2022, Jago Cooper, then just a few months into his role as director of the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia at Norwich, called a general staff meeting. He had something to say about his ideas for the museum. After he had finished speaking, a rather shell-shocked staff member told him: ‘I thought your vision was going to be: “We are going to make the shop bigger.”’ What Cooper had in fact unveiled was his belief that each and every object in the collection – paintings by Francis Bacon and Picasso, sculptures by Giacometti and Elisabeth Frink, Olmec masks and reliquary heads from Gabon – is a living entity and that his plan was nothing less than to reflect this conviction and in doing so remake the idea of a museum and the nature of the interaction between objects and viewer.

Perhaps because Cooper is an archaeologist, and spent 10 years at the British Museum as head of its Americas department, he is particularly attuned to what he calls the ‘life force’ of objects. Regardless of when, where or why a piece was made, he says, it is animate and an expression of its creator’s soul and the hands that have touched it, the eyes that have looked at it and the uses to which it has been put over centuries. He draws no distinction between ethnographic items and Western art: each contains ‘a raw, living, emotional power – that’s what art is.’

His idea for the Sainsbury Centre is to unpick the idea of museums as hallowed repositories – benevolent guardians serving the public good in which the visitor is granted privileged access; ‘That limits emotional engagement with objects.’ There is no right or wrong way to view art, he believes, so he would rather people choose the nature of their engagement. Cooper is keen to stress that the traditional, reverential way of looking at art is not going away but rather being supplemented by further options.

To this end visitors will be given a copy of the Sainsbury Centre Handbook for Meeting Living Art, a handbook outlining practical steps and techniques to build a relationship with a work of art. A new app will offer three different ways of hearing the ‘life story’ of each work: an artist’s perspective, an expert’s view and ‘lived experience’ – of someone from the ethnic group from which an object originated, for example. Meanwhile, some vitrines will be removed and visitors encouraged to stroke a Henry Moore sculpture of a mother and child, to swing in a hammock eye to eye with a suspended Giacometti portrait, to listen to an intricately carved early 19th-century Maori flute being played, or indeed to feel what it is like to be an artwork itself, by stepping into a human-size glass case and becoming an object on display.

woman lying in a hammock looking at an artwork

Curator Tania Moore gets closer to Diego Seated (1948) by Alberto Giacometti at the Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, Norwich. Photo: Andy Crouch; © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London, 2023

Cooper, amiable and enthusiastic, is necessarily evangelical about the plan. It is something he felt emboldened to do because of the Sainsbury Centre’s own radical history. It is 50 years since the late Robert and Lisa Sainsbury gave their collection to the university and asked a young Norman Foster to design a building to house it. They provided him with time, space and money, and the structure he came up with – a huge, hangar-like building lit by massive windows – was innovative when it opened in 1978 and remains striking even in the age of experimental museum designs.

Today, Cooper says, the Sainsbury Centre still ‘feels different’, and he believes his ideas are true to the ambition of the place’s founders. It was the Sainsburys who didn’t want classificatory systems and who chose to collect across cultures and to nurture contemporary artists too. The new plan is merely the latest iteration of those forward-looking aims, and their son David is apparently supportive. Cooper has made other changes too: he has appointed a climate-change curator, John Kenneth Paranada (the Sainsbury Centre is the first museum to have one), and sought to engage several university departments – philosophy, literature and creative writing – with his vision. He has also introduced a ‘pay if and what you can’ initiative for special exhibitions and has as a result seen numbers go up, especially for families and under 30s.

In the first weeks after his appointment, Cooper quietly gauged attitudes toward risk among the museum’s staff, and then told them, ‘Only back me if you have an appetite for this.’ It seems they have, as have all those with a material interest in the experiment – the stakeholders, board, university council. Other gallery professionals have been intrigued too. ‘I have taken hardened museum people around and the idea affects them – I’ve seen some of them cry.’ They know, says Cooper, that ‘genuine change is difficult’ and acknowledge that it is good for the museum world to ‘have a bit of a shake-up’, so will be watching with interest.

There will be critics, of course. Hugging a Henry Moore might seem a bit infra dig to some, as well as giving curators a fit of the vapours (even though Moore himself was an advocate of the tactile nature of sculpture). The conviction that art is alive – with a pulse, a secret life, and ready and eager to communicate – will be too New Agey for others. The possibility of a transference of ‘souls’ between viewer and artwork could seem just a tad too romantic.

Cooper is nevertheless optimistic that our museum conditioning – the expectation that artworks belong behind glass or the other side of a rope – can be undone if there is a willingness to accept that art springs first and foremost from a universal urge. ‘If we don’t get criticised then we’ll have failed, and played it too safe.’

Does he fear that possibility of failure? Not really: ‘If you believe in the idea then do it,’ he says. What worries him more is that people won’t hear that there is a revolution going on in Norwich. After all, ‘It will be different.’

From the June 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.