LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search

The Lebrecht Weekly


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

The British Museum is about to get bigger

By Norman Lebrecht / April 1, 2009

Rub your eyes and read this twice: London is about to build a new exhibition space. That’s right: as world leaders wonder where their next budget is coming from, a bold scheme to extend the British Museum is coming up next week for planning permission and most of the money has already been found. The timing, in deep recession, is incidental. The need is urgent.

If you want to gaze upon an object at the British Museum, you would do well to rise at dawn and get there as the gates are opened. The Museum is heaving most days with visitors from all over the world and there is scarcely an Etruscan corner left where quiet contemplation can be guaranteed. At special exhibitions, like the recent Babylon show, the Sunday crush rivals rush hour on a Tokyo commuter train.

Never has the old lady of Bloomsbury been busier. Figures just published by the Art Newspaper put 2008 attendances at 5.93 million, a 9.5 percent annual increase, making the BM Britain’s busiest public attraction, second on earth only to the Louvre.

Paris, of course, has the Mona Lisa and the Da Vinci Code tourist groups - despite which, some officials believe its figures, based on a multiple of Saturday takings, are somewhat inflated. Be that as it may, there is no ignoring the BM’s upward thrust, or its escalating congestion issues. Over the past seven years, visitor numbers have swelled by one-third.

Close to a million people surged to see the terracotta warriors in the First Emperor exhibition. Quarter of a million came to Hadrian. Babylon sold out at 163,000 and many had to stand in line to catch so much as an angular glimpse of Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast.

These blockbusters are staged at present in a temporary space above the disused Reading Room, a makeshift solution that entails some public disappointment and a real risk in the handling of large sculptures in a cramped room. Sooner or later, the Museum is going to have to deal with its boom, or something will get bust.

Two years ago, at a banquet in Beijing, the Museum director Neil MacGregor told me in confidence of plans for a new exhibition hall in a north-west corner of the grounds. I codenamed the project MacGregor’s Far Pavilion and told him I did not expect to see it in our lifetimes. Next week, it is being submitted to Camden Council for planning permission. All being well, the far pavilion will open in the Olympic year of 2012.

More remarkable still, the building is two-thirds of the way towards funding its £135 million cost. Everyone is being coy about exact sums, but it seems the Museum trustees have squirreled away a nest-egg over several years, the Government has promised £22.5 million through the Culture Department and a lead private donor has been signed up, on condition of strict anonymity. MacGregor is confident that the remaining £45 million will be found without difficulty.

‘We’re very hopeful that people will want to join in,’ he told me, before boarding a flight to Mexico City to negotiate a Montezuma show, ‘because this is about the protection of the cultural patrimony of the world.’

And that’s the beauty of the scheme. The design, by Graham Stirk of the Richard Rogers Partnership, consists of three pavilions linked to the main building, each of seven levels and each with a separate purpose. One pavilion is for major shows, one for conservation and the third will be a kind of post office for sending out BM objects and exhibitions around the country and the world.

In the past year, 4,000 items were loaned to 150 institutions. With a proper logistics centre, this number could multiply and there need be no further complaints about the BM keeping its seven million treasures under wraps.

‘We get requests from all over the world,’ says MacGregor, ‘and we’re constantly asked for help with conservation. Our expertise is unique. The new building gives us a chance to develop capacity for working with Africa and Asia so that precious items of civilisation can be looked after locally.’

MacGregor has forged an alliance of London museums and Kew Gardens to export curatorial skills. With a purpose-built science and conservation centre, equipped with state-of-the art laboratories, the British Museum will lead the pack and, in the process, take a huge step away from its imperial past, towards a new role of world benefactor.

This may not play well in Greece, where they want their Parthenon marbles back, or in Scotland where nationalists have claimed spurious rights over some shipwrecked chess pieces, but the case for sustaining and expanding the British Museum is more convincing now than ever before.

There is an obvious need for human civilisation to be seen whole at one place on earth. And in an era of climate change and carbon gases there is an urgent requirement to preserve heritage in ways that the Greeks, for instance, are unable or unwilling to organise.

The rise and rise of BM attendances suggest that the world is voting with its feet. This is where it wants the human story to be collected and displayed. China has chosen the BM to take a world history exhibition around its provinces, a rare opportunity for unmediated communication with a long-closed society. In parallel, the BM has curated from its own vaults a touring history of China, presently on show at Bristol City Museum. No institution on earth is more trusted to present the facts and artefacts of ten millennia.

For all of these reasons the new pavilions will be a desirable and necessary addition to London’s cultural landscape. If all goes to plan, the conservation centre will start work before the Olympic Games while the exhibition hall will open with great fanfare directly afterward.

The design is rather sedate for my taste, but when I taxed the Director with an excess of caution, he went into high conservationist mode, declaring that the Museum must never lose sight of its origins in the age of enlightenment and must abide by the Arcadian ideals of 18th century architecture.

This is not the Louvre, MacGregor seemed to be saying, where any Jean, Jacques or Haricot Vert can knock up a glass pyramid in the yard by way of capturing a headline. This is the British Museum where the history of the world is kept safe for all to come and see it, free of charge. The world population is growing, and so must the museum. At a time when the future is clouded by economic terrors, the past becomes a chapel of hope and the museum an emblem of revival.


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]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001-2006