The British Museum is one of the world’s few encyclopaedic museums: it tells the story of how civilisation was built; it boasts seven million visitors a year and is committed to free entry; it holds a unique place of authority in the nation’s – perhaps the world’s – consciousness. A few days ago I resigned from its Board of Trustees.
My resignation was not in protest at a single issue; it was a cumulative response to the museum’s immovability on issues of critical concern to the people who should be its core constituency: the young and the less privileged.
The Tyburn Angling Society purports to have been established by a royal charter issued by King Edgar the Peaceable in 959 AD, though there are no records of its existing before the 21st century. The River Tyburn, culverted in 1750, still flows underground from Hampstead to Westminster. The society claims to want to ‘daylight’ the river, bringing it back up to the surface. It commissioned a map in the early 2000s showing the proposed course, which would cut a swathe through ‘£1 billion worth of property’. The buildings marked for demolition included Buckingham Palace and the offices of Westminster City Council, which promptly rejected the proposal.
The Estonian National Museum is a glass, concrete and steel slope that rises out of the runway at Raadi, a former Soviet air base near the city of Tartu. On a tour of the museum, which opened last year, the guide explained that its design incorporates several features of Estonia’s history. It bridges a stream that once ran through the estate of a Baltic German baron, part of the aristocracy that ruled over a largely Estonian-speaking population for centuries. The former air base is evidence of domination by Moscow: two hundred years under the Russian Empire, a brief period of independence from 1918 to 1939, then reoccupation by the Soviet Union until its break-up in 1991. And the new building, opened several months before Estonia took up the presidency of the Council of the EU, suggests how the country would like to be seen today: bright, open, European, on the up.
The Iraq National Museum reopened on 28 February. Many of the treasures of ancient Mesopotamia are in the British Museum or the Pergamon in Berlin, or were lost to looting after the 2003 invasion, but some wonderful objects are now on show in Baghdad. I visited last week. As I was looking at pieces of Iraq’s great civilisations in glass cases, the extremists of Daesh (as the Islamic State is known in Arabic) were smashing up the original sites for being idolatrous.
Jim Austin, who teaches neural computing at York University, lives on a farm in the Yorkshire Wolds. At the top of the hill, behind the farmhouse, are four large sheds that shelter the Jim Austin Computer Collection. He's been collecting obsolete computers for nearly thirty years, and has more than 1000 machines. ‘This IBM mainframe was $8.7 million in 1983,’ he told me when I went to see them. ‘Which in today's money is $24 million. I mean, that's astronomical. And they're scrapped after four years. That's it. Scrap.’ He points to another. ‘The Fujitsu supercomputer, I think it depreciated at £16,000 a week for three years. Then it was zero.’ Behind the IBM and the Fujitsu are more machines: DECs, Wangs. ‘I just take them all home. I preserve them. I just collect them, because I like them. And I've got the sheds, so I just put them in.’
Peace Breaks Out! at Sir John Soane’s Museum focuses on the celebratory mood in London and Paris in the summer of 1814, following Napoleon’s abdication. Around Britain, Peace Fêtes were organised in cities, towns and villages. Everyone was celebrating, and some were travelling. Parisians watched the British return in droves, after a 12 year absence, caricaturing them as portly gluttons or drab country cousins. Soane was one of the first to rush over to Paris, where he had last been as a student in the late 1770s. (His wife, Eliza, meanwhile went to Dieppe.) He returned with illustrations of a new generation of Parisian buildings to use in his lectures. He was also avidly collecting ephemera and artefacts of the moment, and his possessions, amplified by the collection of one of the exhibition's curators, Alexander Rich, make up a remarkable cabinet of curiosities, a window onto those euphoric summer weeks.
When George Clooney and his friends got special leave to be photographed in front of Leonardo's Last Supper the Italian newspapers couldn't resist pointing out that the last man to have that privilege was Silvio Berlusconi. And when he said off-the-cuff in Berlin that it would be very nice if the Parthenon frieze that Lord Elgin brought to London 200 years ago were returned to Greece, Clooney didn't help his case by confirming his view to the press in London but calling them the 'Pantheon' marbles.
The Museum of Islamic art is closed on Tuesdays, the taxi driver tells us. En route to the Melbourne Writers Festival, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Jacqueline Rose and I, soon to be joined by Andrew O’Hagan, have stopped for the night in Doha for this collection, to see the medieval lamps, the carpets, the emeralds, the Kaaba curtains, the manuscripts of the Quran, the maps of the world – maybe the map of Qatar when it was a pearl fishing port and an infamous haven for pirates. After all my browsing on the museum’s site, how could I have missed the opening times? We resolve to find a way: personnel must be on duty even during closing hours. Guards present. Temperature controls purring. Lighting on to protect against stealthy intruders. We email and text anyone who might have an entrée. I am a little embarrassed.
The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels has been called ‘the last colonial museum in the world’. It’s not hard to see why: in the marble lobby a statue celebrates ‘Belgium bringing civilisation to the Congo’; the Memorial Room lists the names of the 1508 Belgians who died in Africa between 1876 and 1908 but doesn’t mention the millions of Africans who perished during King Leopold II’s brutal reign in the Congo Free State; the painted wooden carvings from Tintin in the Congo that decorate the restaurant are in dubious taste, to put it mildly.
I once met an aristocratic woman who had trepanned herself. In her moated Tudor manor outside Oxford, as an African Grey parrot nibbled her ear, she showed me the film she had made of the procedure. She shaved her hairline, bandaged her head, put on dark glasses and a floral shower cap, peeled back a patch of skin with a scalpel and applied the point of a dental drill to her frontal bone. A few minutes later its grinding teeth made it through the dura mater, releasing a geyser of blood. As it gurgled from the half-centimetre opening, she smiled, blood dribbling between her teeth.
From Amsterdam Centraal it looks as if a flying saucer crash-landed on the other side of the IJ. But as the ferry leaves the railway station and crosses the water towards the EYE Film Museum, designed by Delugan Meissl Associated Architects, the building seems to shift form, and there’s a pleasing, if baldly angular, aerodynamism to it that doesn’t lessen the retro-modernist aesthetic but makes the shape more interesting. However, like so many recent museum designs this one seems intent on rivalling, if not overshadowing, the works inside.
I haven’t seen the play of War Horse, and never got to the end of the novel either: my son had Private Peaceful, another of Michael Morpurgo’s First World War books, as a bedtime story, and it was so sad and full of injustice – and dragged out, chapter after bleeding chapter, night after night after night – I am just relieved that now he can read these terrible documents, should he wish to, without my help. In War Horse (1982), it’s 1914 and Joey’s owner sells him to the cavalry – and that’s all you need to know, really. The book is one of the five ‘classic war stories for children’ that the Imperial War Museum aims to ‘bring to life’ in its new exhibition, Once Upon a Wartime.
Why does Berlin have a museum dedicated to the Ramones? (Why does London have a museum with bits of the Parthenon in it?) It seems that the museum’s founder had stockpiled so much Ramonesiana that his girlfriend issued an ultimatum. It’s on Krausnickstrasse, not far from Museum Island, which hosts Berlin’s more established collections like the Pergamon. I went along hoping to be beaten on the way in with a baseball bat, or at least have feedback-spiked insults bawled at me, but it’s disappointingly tame. Perhaps more striking than the presence of the Ramones display is how little of Berlin is not a museum or memorial of one sort or another.