It’s maybe appropriate that as I head down to Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow, on the train, that I publish a blog on England’s. Following Sheffield last week, I headed down to London for a couple of days for work.
As always seems to be the case when I visit, London was oppressively summery – especially when I was in a suit and carrying large-ish bags through the hot, sticky (but otherwise excellent) Tube.
Besides catching up with several friends, I spent one free afternoon “doing” the Victoria and Albert Museum.
It’s a beautiful building, typical of many of London’s fine Victorian-era specimens of architecture.
Inside, it’s packed to the rafters with the most amazing pieces of art from all over the world – sculpture, paintings, clothing, furniture and all sorts of exhibits that tell the story of various periods in British history and indeed of many civilisations throughout the world (some of which, no doubt, were nicked during the years of Empire).
Not that I was overwhelmed with a sense of history and wonder – by about a third of the way through, I was rather bored. It’s all amazing, but the sheer volume of stuff somewhat dilutes the impact of each exhibit.
The great museums – the few I’ve been in – all suffer from the fact that they’re just too good.
Back in 2001, I recall visiting the National Museum of Egypt in Cairo, which was – understandably – heavily focussed on ancient Egypt and the era of the Pharaohs. When we went in, the first example of perfectly preserved artwork, masonry or religious iconography was truly mindblowing and awe-inspiring. The second one similarly so. By the tenth one, however, I’d forgotten what the first one was, and come the umpteenth room of exhibits, I was entirely ambivalent by the idea I was within touching distance of fragile links to one of the world’s greatest ancient civilisations.
The previous year in New York, I was in the Museum of Modern Art. Could I tell you what I saw and was impressed by without reminding myself via Google? Probably not. I think there was a Jackson Pollock or two. Some Andy Warhols, possibly.
They might have had that deep blue swirly picture of a German village (or is it Austrian?) at night with the brilliant yellow stars by Hans Christian Andersen. Actually no, maybe it was Machiavelli, or the Brothers Grimm…
The problem is, I just don’t know. I’d have remembered if it was the only exhibit. It could even be I’m just recalling a poster on a friend’s wall at uni, or something.
You see, one great thing catches the eyes, the headlines and imagination, and draws the visitor. Twenty such things don’t achieve twenty times the impact. Think of the Kelvingrove with its spitfire or famous Dali painting of Jesus. They’re famous exhibits not only because they are outstanding in themselves, but because they are not surrounded by things of comparable significance, originality, beauty and worth.
Of course, I should have known better than to visit the V&A. When I was in London in December and a group of friends and I “did” the Natural History Museum, I found the building – inside and out – infinitely more interesting than the contents.
Indeed, with the V&A itself, the most interesting room was a pile of plaster casts (see the photo above) of various famous cathedral archways, tombs, statues and some huge column thing that stands (or stood) in Rome.
I was drawn by its sense of clutter and the way it felt like a scene from an Indiana Jones film. But the exhibits were all copies – fakes, even – and they made more of an impression on me than the dozens of other roomfuls of genuine centuries-older nicknacks.
I guess all this sort of stuff – art, to use a technical term – is subjective. I was unimpressed with the V&A’s bland hypermarket of culture, while others will love it, and good on them.
But to avoid further cynicism on my part, or insult on others’, I’d probably best avoid massive museums and art galleries from now on.
You could call me a cultural phillistine. But that would be subjective, too…