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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Vandals at the museum door

By Norman Lebrecht / March 29, 2006

This is the story of two cultural institutions that fell into the wrong hands. One was officially killed off last year, only to rise again on a tide of civilised outrage; the other is likely to be shut down next month and its revival chances seem less promising.

The more I hear about the destruction of the Whitechapel Library, the more it emerges as one of the greatest acts of vandalism committed in the cause of multiculturalism. The Whitechapel used to be a free university for immigrants who landed in the East End speaking no word of English. Their sons and daughters became English poets, playwrights and painters.

As one ethnic wave succeeded another, the district was restructured under various civic umbrellas, the latest calling itself Tower Hamlets after the adjacent tourist attraction. Seething with political correctness, Tower Hamlets set about closing three libraries and replacing them with eye-catching Ideas Stores, designed by fashionable architects in contemporary materials.

I visited the Whitechapel Ideas Store recently and found its front door out of action and other facilities unavailable. The atmosphere was a cross between supermarket and budget-airline lounge and the attendance was desultory. Any sense of the numinous, any urge for self-improvement, had been lost in transition. Alarmingly, large book stocks had been dumped en route. The outstanding art reference section, for instance, had been left in the old library at the mercy of scavengers. The anti-elitists and design lobbyists behind these Ideas Stores might as well have thrown the books on a bonfire.

By an act of opportunistic mercy, the neighbouring Whitechapel Art Gallery stepped in to rescue the art books. Its director, Iwona Blazwick, then decided to save the library building. She put in to the Heritage Lottery Fund and won £3.26 million; in May, she will launch a £10 million appeal before sending in builders. The Library will reopen in 2008, not as a public reading room but as a dedicated art archive and exhibition centre, graced by the ghosts of David Bomberg and Mark Gertler, two first-generation British painters who discovered art in the stacks of the Whitechapel.

This happy outcome was procured by a combination of private conviction and a public sense of unease at the Blairite method of solving problems by renaming them. If schools don’t work, call them city colleges. If literacy is failing, scrap libraries and build Ideas Stores. The Whitechapel was once a cultural powerhouse that was starved and abused by recent owners; its future will be different, but secure.

Which is more than can be said for the Theatre Museum, a scraggy foundling that was consigned by state bureaucracy to unsuitable adoption. The idea of a museum for the performing arts was born out of a pioneering Diaghilev exhibition that the ballet critic Richard Buckle produced at the 1955 Edinburgh Festival, a riot of colour and memorabilia which raised the novel possibility that theatrical triumph deserved a permanent record.

A dozen years later, when Diaghilev survivors started offloading assets at Sotheby’s, Buckle campaigned for their treasures to be saved for the public and presented in the heart of London’s theatreland. Every balletomane had heard of Picasso’s eye-opener of a curtain for Jean Cocteau’s Le Train bleu, but how many had seen so much as a monochrome photograph, let alone the transluscent original?

Buckle found two eager allies in John Pope-Hennessy, prissy director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Arnold Goodman, ebullient chairman of the Arts Council and legal advisor to Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, prime minister and opposition leader. These cultural fixers took the vision under wing and carved it up between them. When the Theatre Museum was launched in September 1974, it was housed on the top floor of the V&A in Kensington, gravitating in time to a vacant warehouse in Covent Garden where it has languished ever since.

Static, poorly lit and not in the least bit interactive, the museum presents the annals of theatre as an isle of the dead, a motionless parade that holds scant attraction for the hundreds who queue, just around the corner, for returns to the Lion King, the Producers, and the Royal Ballet. Attendances have been miserable, hovering around 200,000 in the present decade with two exceptions – a dip to 153,000 in the year after 9/11 and another slippage to 170,000 in the past year – that’s about 3,000 a week, or fewer than the South Bank gets on a bad night. A change of curator has made no discernible difference.

The board of the V&A will meet next month to discuss closure. A gaggle of theatrical greats – Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, the usual suspects - along with some thespian MPs (Glenda Jackson, Jeremy Corbyn), have petitioned the government for the site to be saved. They appeal in vain.

The retention of the Theatre Museum in its present form is pointless. The V&A, as the national junkyard for everything from fashion to cutlery, was never the right home for lively arts. It has dutifully and unimaginatively conserved the collection and afforded access to scholars and writers (for which we are duly grateful), but the museum cried out for theatrical excitement and the four-square curators from Kensington were never going to fill that bill.

Yesterday the Royal Opera House offered to save the Theatre Museum by merging it with its own archive in a more vibrant setting. ‘We’ll give it our best shot,’ promised Tony Hall, ROH chief executive, who is canvassing support from the National Theatre and the Society of London Theatres.

That may be a step in the right direction, but it is not a solution. I have yet to see a performing arts museum that fires the theatregoer’s imagination. Vienna’s House of Music and London’s Handel House Museum are thin stuff for a rainy day and St Petersburg’s Museum of Performing Arts is positively soporific. Digital interaction might help but the only way to put on a show about the performing arts to involve a showman. Cameron Macintosh could save the Theatre Museum, maybe Dominic Dromgoole. Without a commercial impresario behind it, the institution is doomed and another chunk of heritage will go down, blighted by bad ownership.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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