Keep your damn dirty hands off my museums; an acclamation of current government policy.Posted: December 8, 2011
I stood in the same room as Whaam! this week. Not a copy or a poster; the actual 67” by 160” canvas based oil painting Roy Lichtenstein created in 1963; I hung out with it. what was cool about the experience was that I hadn’t planned to sample some pop art, I just came about it by casually strolling the halls of the Tate Modern, the second was that I didn’t spend a penny to do so, I just wondered in. Part of what made it fantastic was that a skint, unemployed man absent-mindedly walking into the building, housing one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century is normal as well as defended and funded by the current government.
I was twelve when entry to major museums and art galleries was made free of charge. So my predominant memories of places like the Natural history museum, the British museum, the British library, the Imperial war museum and the various Tate buildings; has always come with a sense of openness and comfort of in the same way the Tower of London – at £19.80 a pop – makes me feel like I’m visiting an annoyed great aunt with delicate furniture and unpleasant wallpaper. And in a sense I am doing that, the Tower, along with Hampton court and Buckingham palace, to name a few, are not national sites of interest, they’re royal ones, and almost universally uninspiring. Glinty hats probably are interesting to someone, but I’ve never understood why. I can remember being a bored 9 year old walking quickly though Jewel house because I’d been promised ice cream and cannons if I kept my trap shut until we got out of it.
In contrast the British, Imperial war and Natural history museums are never not amazing; one of my favourite things about living in London is that I have a free supply of Dinosaurs and artefacts as and when I want them. probably my favourite exhibition is the progression of English as a language though time,(British Library) featuring a copy of the Magna Carta as well as notes from Alice in wonderland and the Sargent pepper album. My second favourite is the tanks in the imperial war museum’s foyer; possibly because they remind me of my grandfather but also because they’re metal boxes that blow shit up I can hang around for free; that never get boring.
The core of this is not so much that they’re free, it’s that they’re open for everyone to enjoy the casual comfort a national heritage item should inspire. I recommend walking into the Tate modern without planning to; it’s much more welcoming than say the globe next door, I went there because I had just had tea with a friend over their lunch-break and wasn’t bothered with the tube just then, so I went to look at pictures; I think this attitude to art could only have come from growing up in a culture with free access to galleries. The best part of my trip wasn’t coming face to canvas with Whaam!, it was finding out who Jenny Holzer and John Latham are, two artists I would have never heard of without the Tate Modern belonging to you and me, and that’s the best part of free to the public museums; not that we the people can finally see the great art works of history, but that we get to discover artists that we would have never queued for because we’ve never heard of them and that’s something we need in our lives, or we’ll end up dying in a horrible grey room decorated by bland watercolours.
The Love and subsequent familiarity and comfort with museums I grew up with, evidently wasn’t isolated, as since 2001 visits to museums have more than doubled. and I’m glad that so many of us have visited them, that free museums have joined the NHS and the BBC amongst our national sacred cows, so much that George Osborne pledged to keep them open for free. I’m not glad that this was out of fear because the idea or scowling cowardly tories pleases me; it’s because that means it will stick around despite the apparent cost, as explained in feeler articles put out by the right wing press, testing the waters to see if hating on public ownership of art will gain any traction now that we’re in an age of austerity, starting with charging someone, like foreigners or the super-rich; these are always starter charges to get you used to the idea of museums as a restricted, exclusive place you should be grateful to be in instead of a building you own. I understand that most of these museums have corporate donors, but these are not the major ones and only there because the government have gone and found them to avoid directly paying these institutions, this hasn’t resulted in the McTate because the government still underlining the funding which is heavily conditional – long may it remain.
I started writing this after watching weird BBC report on how the expense of cake, tea and other extras at a museum should make us question the benefits of having them open. That needs to be celebrated, every time someone buys a muffin for £3.50, a five year old gets a first-hand look at a dinosaur they may never have seen, but also, and equally important; a skint twenty-something gets to discover artists they would otherwise never heard of. I suppose I’m worried, because whilst the government kept major museums open this time; as their economic policies continue to fail, the right of all of us to visit our museums as and when we want will come into question particularly if news pieces explaining how apparently unsustainable public ownership continue along side the attacks other community resources like libraries. I suppose you just need to remember that there is no economic argument that can justify denying you access mummified corpses and tanks on a rainy Saturday.