Our Museum Future

Danny Dorling

I used to be a republican, but that was before Brexit. What does Britain have that the other countries of Europe will still want access to after we leave the EU? Banking will be safer away from ‘offshore London’. There are other places in the world besides Sellafield that can store spent nuclear fuel. The most expensive higher education in the world is unlikely to attract so many overseas students, its lure and decline mirroring that of Swiss finishing schools after their 1980s heyday.

Despite the entrepreneurial myths we tell ourselves, innovation isn’t a British forte. A vacuum cleaner once constructed in Malmesbury is a fitting emblem for the land of hope and glory, if not for the reasons its inventor would have us believe. When Dyson moved production to Malaysia, few British jobs were lost, because so few had been created in the first place.

As the pound drops and the world’s middle class grows in size, tourism is our best bet to tide us over until we learn to do something useful. And the royal family is by far our most potentially profitable export earner. The town of Windsor is already booked out for the summer through Airbnb. American TV companies have reportedly paid six figure sums to book prime sites from which to film the royal wedding on 19 May. The birth of Prince Louis on St George’s Day conveniently supplanted less happy news in the headlines.

The great skills of the British, historically, haven’t been engineering and industry but exploitation and imperialism. We built our tourist attractions up around ancient stone circles, small monastic universities, old London streets and the birthplace of a playwright, but without the British Empire they wouldn’t draw such vast crowds from around the world.

The golden square of English tourism has its corners in London, Stonehenge, Stratford-upon-Avon and Cambridge; at its heart is Oxford (a.k.a. Bicester Village), a short train ride from both Windsor and Buckingham Palace. Everyone in the world with money has to travel here once in their lifetime. They are the Meccas and Medinas for unbelievers – the places to go to give thanks for the fact that you own a plastics factory in Changchun or a software firm in Bangalore.

Some 2640 ‘commoners’ are to be invited to the royal wedding with surprise golden tickets being awarded to schoolchildren at the nomination of regional lord lieutenants. Unlike Charlie in Roald Dahl’s novel, however, none of them will be given a chocolate factory at the end of their day’s holiday from poverty. In 2018, for the first time in many decades, there are entire local authority districts where a majority of children are growing up in poverty.

It is time to forget any selfish republican fantasies. Forget climate change and pollution: our desperate economic plight means that we have to build that third runway at Heathrow for more tourists to land. We need to embrace our museum future. We are very good at selling the myth that all industry was invented in Britain, that England is the mother of parliaments, that we invented the modern university. We have fooled ourselves into believing it all, so it should be easy to sell to tourists.

Time to widen the pavements and get out the bunting. Build the hotels and face down the nimbys. Bring back red telephone boxes: they don’t need phones in them, just tourist information screens pointing the customer in the right direction.

If we work hard enough, we will win the global race to become the central tourist destination on planet earth. We are in the right time zone; we speak the right language, and no other languages; we have a captive, cheap, docile, servile labour force. We have a quaint currency with a picture of a member of the royal family on it, a souvenir in itself. And every year tourists will get more and more pounds for their dollar, euro, renminbi or rupee.

No one can take our history away from us. Just as millions flock to Rome to see the Colosseum, that site of mass murder, so we could rebuild the East India Company headquarters on Leadenhall Street. Lloyds will have abandoned the premises by then, and moved to Amsterdam. Parliament will have to vacate the palace of Westminster for good. We already have a new site for it: where HS2 will divide, just east of Birmingham.

All empires crumble and an afterlife as a tourist attraction is far better than what befell the Ottomans in the 1920s. The worst casualties may be the youngest members of the British royal family, born into a form of slavery from which they can never escape. But perhaps, in many decades to come, when we have finally learnt to do something useful, their children or grandchildren will not face a future of forever having to smile and wave – simply because of an accident of birth or marriage, and because they are the best that we have to sell to the world.


  • 28 April 2018 at 9:40am
    Monteville says:
    "There are other places in the world besides Sellafield that can store spent nuclear fuel" - the UK and Finnish governments are looking for alternative sites in their own countries (see an article in the Guardian:

    It would be a very good thing to get rid of it if you can. A reminder in Marilynne Robinson's introduction to her "Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution" (1989): "Sellafield was called Windscale originally, until so much notoriety attached itself to that name that it had to be jettisoned."

    • 30 April 2018 at 8:33am
      Monteville says: @ Monteville
      Could Sellafield itself become a British tourist attraction one day?

      Sellafield (formerly Windscale) is, to quote from an article in 'Wired' magazine (2016), a 'sprawling collection of buildings dating back to the first atom-splitting flash of the nuclear age. This was where, in the early 1950s, the Windscale facility produced the Plutonium-239 that would be used in the UK’s first nuclear bomb. In 1956 this stretch of Cumbrian coast witnessed Queen Elizabeth II opening Calder Hall, the world’s first commercial nuclear power station. Both buildings, for the most part, remain standing to this day....The site currently handles nearly all the radioactive waste generated by the UK’s 15 operational nuclear reactors. It also reprocesses spent fuel from nuclear power plants overseas, mainly in Europe and Japan...'

    • 30 April 2018 at 8:37am
      Monteville says: @ Monteville

  • 29 April 2018 at 7:31pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    My goodness, what a rant!
    You may be right that the U.K. has little that the rest of the world values (apart from its tourist sites) but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be independent.
    People do indeed identify with their own culture, locality, customs and geography.
    The nation state isn’t perfect but it is more perfect than the corrupt, bureaucratic, mono-cultural, would-be federal super-state that is the EU.
    Let’s be optimistic: the UK is full of decent, clever, tolerant, innovative, inclusive, expansive people.

    We’ll prosper.

    • 1 May 2018 at 12:10pm
      outofdate says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      There was a very nice lunatic used to haunt the Camden Sainsbury's in the early 90s who would stand by the checkout and shout at all comers, 'The BEST of luck!'

    • 1 May 2018 at 1:54pm
      Graucho says: @ outofdate
      I liked the guy who wandered around Speakers' Corner with a sandwich board that proclaimed "Things can only get worse"

    • 9 May 2018 at 12:08am
      Paul Cairns says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Britain is already 'indepedent' - joining the EU club doesn't take it away, that's another Brexiter smokescreen. In his February 2017 white paper on EU exit David Davis conceded that Britain had remained 'fully sovereign' throughout its membership of the European Community in its various guises. We can't bring sovereignty (or independence) 'back' as they never left!

      On the more serious matter of what Britain might get up to economically post-Brexit it's important to recognise that nations tend to have aptitudes, natural strengths, plus some weaknesses. So the nation has strengths - but high quality mass manufacture in competitive markets is not one of them. Hence the indigenous car industry went to the wall in the 1980s and 1990s but the French and Japanese came in and have made a great success of it for us - in return for compliant workers and access to Europe. But Britain does have undoubted strengths in finance and banking. The trouble is not everyone can work in those enterprises - so other businesses are necessary. Another aptitude is 'heritage', whether that be immaculately choreographed pageantry or steam-hauled railway trains. But I still think something is missing - especially given Brits reluctance to work the fields (and hence the need to bring foreigners in to do that, too). A complex tangle of largely unaddressed questions and challenges - not great.

  • 8 May 2018 at 11:00am
    XopherO says:
    The French beat us hands down at tourism. It has the historical legacy of magnificent chateaus, plus the less-crowded countryside and beaches where the sun shines frequently. It is the idea that 'Britain is best' whether at tourism, rugby, etc that has reduced Britain to the current condition. If you are 'best' there is no incentive to improve and you can look down on other nations in a pleasantly xenophobic way, which hides the phobia behind not very pleasant 'jokes' (about toilets, smells or whatever). But I like the irony behind this contribution - sorry to be serious! I'll stop here as it is probably too late for anyone to read this or reply.

    • 8 May 2018 at 6:14pm
      Dectora says: @ XopherO
      See my comment below. Just tell me Xopher0 of a museum in Paris comparable to the V & A. And you pay through the nose even for tiny museums, with the Gustave Moreau the heroic exception.

    • 10 May 2018 at 2:48pm
      XopherO says: @ Dectora
      I am not sure that just comparing museums is enough to establish tourism superiority. However Paris has the exceptional Louvre comparable with the wonderful Hermitage, and one of the finest galleries of national art in the Musee D'Orsay. You have to pay heavily for special exhibitions in the UK - it keeps the numbers controlled so you get a better experience. Similarly entry to Parisian museums is controlled - it is why there are almost always long queues of tourists waiting to pay to get in!

  • 8 May 2018 at 4:43pm
    sparafucile says:
    So now we're in denial about the industrial revolution--I know that a sneering contempt for Britain is highly fashionable in some circles, but it really did happen here long before the French, Germans and Yanks caught up. Both North and South America were developed almost exclusively by capital accumulated in the UK, and of course by then both continents were free of colonialism.

    Although much of our talent was imported, during the 18th century Britain was by far the safest place to invest money because MPs--almost all of whom owned Consols--had a vested interest in maintaining the national debt. When one considers that we really were a marginal power under the Stuarts, it's quite remarkable that by 1815 we had become the leading world power in terms of trade and control of the seas.

    Of course this involved slavery and exploitation. But that's what the world was like then--we were no worse than the French, the Moughals or the Osmanlis--or for that matter, the Soviets in the 20th century.

  • 8 May 2018 at 6:10pm
    Dectora says:
    Dorling seems to have forgotten the very lucrative pharmaceutical industry, which is still going strong. Yes there are those who snarl about 'Big Pharma', but some people depend on medication to keep going.
    A visit to Paris also teaches the tourist the value of all our free museums and Galleries. I found only one free museum recently in Paris, the marvellous Gustave Moreau Museum. In all Dorling's piece seems to be a petty-bourgeois whinge.

  • 8 May 2018 at 7:29pm
    brotherrandor says:
    In sum, Brexit = fewer jobs in banking; more jobs cleaning toilets for Chinese tourists. Rue Britannia.

    • 8 May 2018 at 9:20pm
      Dectora says: @ brotherrandor
      Yes! you are someone who wallows in 'Guardian Gothic'

    • 9 May 2018 at 9:38pm
      brotherrandor says: @ Dectora
      Is that a compliment, an insult, or both?

  • 8 May 2018 at 7:49pm
    John Cowan says:
    We Yanks learn about how Samuel Slater memorized the plans for the machinery used in British textile mills back in 1789, the same year the U.S. Constitution was written. Then he used the stolen intellectual property to start a whole chain of mills here. Without Britain, our industrialization wouldn't have gotten off the ground. (Of course, without the Revolution it wouldn't have happened either, thanks to British mercantilism.)

  • 8 May 2018 at 8:20pm
    Kev says:
    I've heard Dorling debate, I've read his books, so I can only conclude that this absurd essay is ironic. Great joke Danny - almost had me fooled.

  • 8 May 2018 at 9:58pm
    Dita says:
    That, and become a retirement destination, as Malaysia has. Make it simple and easy for foreigners to retire, access NHS, etc. and favorable tax deal with the U.S. Believe me, we can't wait to get out.

  • 9 May 2018 at 12:18am
    jeannike says:
    It's possible that you have read England, England by Julian Barnes because your 'museum future' closely follows his plot line, when Olde England becomes a theme park complete with the royal family on the Isle of Wight.

  • 9 May 2018 at 11:39am
    immaculate says:
    "Just as millions flock to Rome to see the Colosseum, that site of mass murder, so we could rebuild the East India Company headquarters on Leadenhall Street."

    A sentence with grammar as crap as its premise. If that's the best that Oxford fellows can do these days, we really are stuffed. Jesus wept.

  • 9 May 2018 at 12:42pm
    olywood says:
    So, to summarise...In the future, the banking/aerospace sectors will be dwarfed by tourism, largely propped up by the Royal family. The industrial revolution never happened and Oxbridge are practically out in the street begging for new admissions; anything to keep the bailiffs from the typically solid, disgustingly English doors. In the words of Ace Ventura: alrighty then. Why an ostensibly exacting publication like LRB would publish this sort of tabloid fodder is beyond me. Perhaps it was a bit of magical realism that got filed under political commentary by mistake.

  • 10 May 2018 at 9:51am
    XopherO says:
    I thought only Americans could not understand irony, it would seem some LRB readers have difficulty as well. Dear me. An ungrammatical sentence! A blog is about, usually terse, communication after all. Let's keep to the subject at hand rather than nit-pick.

  • 10 May 2018 at 11:25am
    hag says:
    It's not funny cause it's true.....

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