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Transcript of the 'What are museums for?' debate podcast
Dea Birkett: Welcome everyone, I can see already that I’m not going to be able to juggle notes and a glass of wine which has been very generously hosted by National Museums Liverpool so something’s going to have to go, so, James can you take my notes please (laughing) beginners and ministers are supposed to carry on with the wine.
Welcome again I’m Dea Birkett, I’m Director of Kids in Museums, and together with National Museums Liverpool we’ve organised this debate, and National Museums Liverpool as I’ve said has very generously and wonderfully hosted us.
Now, what and who museums are for are at the heart of Kids in Museums. We began about three years ago when I was actually going around an exhibition at the Royal Academy with my three kids, and the youngest who was then two was strapped into his buggy, and we were going past a statue of Eagle man who had snakes for hair and a big beak for a nose, and as we past he screamed out, and he did scream, “monster, monster” at a statue that looked rather like a monster. So I was bending down to congratulate my two year old on his early appreciation of Aztec art, (laughing) when at the same time a room warden in a very fierce black suit walked towards us and told us to leave. Threw us out. Now, they threw out the wrong family. I had a weekly Guardian column and my next column was about being thrown out of the Royal Academy. Now, what’s interesting is by the end of that day I had had over 500 emails from other families saying they were fed up of the way in which they were treated in Britain’s museums and galleries. Over 500. It was a remarkable response, even for a national newspaper. This response kept flooding in and everyone said, ‘well what you going to do about it, what you going to do about it?’ and what I thought was ‘well, we’ll form Kids in Museums and we’ll fight and encourage and support a family friendly welcome in museums’, so that’s why Kids in Museums is here today.
Now that response from all those 500 families was very disheartening in some ways because this doesn’t only happen at the Royal Academy; this happens all over the country. But it was also very heartening because it let us know that actual fact families cared - it mattered to them that they weren’t made to feel welcome, it mattered, it wasn’t something that wasn’t important to them. Now, collections I believe are at the core of the museum; if there were no collections the museum wouldn’t exist, but at Kids in Museums we believe that those collections are for everyone of whatever age, of whatever background, of whatever belief or opinion, and we’ll hear loads of very different opinions tonight - of whatever belief or opinion, they all have a place in a museum. We all belong here. Our voices, not only the very, very different voices on this platform with me, but all your voices are, really have a real central place we believe in this palace of wonderful objects and very stimulating ideas. I hope tonight that we’ll not only hear all these really different voices coming from this platform but lots of different voices coming from you as well because we are all part of the great museum debate. We’re really privileged to have Gillian Reynolds, who you can all crib up on your sheet in front of you, in a sense taking us through this very dense and rich forest of ideas that we’re going to explore tonight. Thank you.
Gillian Reynolds: Dea, thank you very much indeed, I’m Gillian Reynolds. I’m going to chair tonight’s discussion, and a lot of you here know me and you know I’m not a great one for formalities. If you want to join in at any point stick your hand up and we will get a microphone to you. We have two wonderful persons who will bring the microphone to you. It helps if you’d say who you are, and you know it helps them get a bit of level, and at that point I’ve got to give you a household note. We’re recording everything tonight for our website, for our blog and we hope to make a podcast of this. If you want to say something but you don’t want your views on that podcast make it known and we won’t record it. okay? Any problems with that? Right. I’m very grateful to Dea for having got this off the ground. There were moments when it seemed like it might flounder but you kept the faith (laughing) and here were all are, and I’m very grateful to everyone here in this room because it’s a great turnout. Do you know we had Richard Foster, who is one of the governors of the Bank of England, here a couple of years ago with only like twenty people, you know so, very welcome, and wonderful to see the wine on the tables (laughing) and make the most of it. The Director’s here, if you don’t drink it you won’t see it again (laughing). So, right I’m going to start tonight with a man without whom this discussion mightn’t of taken place. Now I’ve known James Delingpole through many haircuts and many years (laughing). We worked together on the Telegraph and what, how would you describe your hair then James, was it a wedge?
James Delingpole: It was, oh I don’t know. Was it a sort of World War II haircut, short at the sides and long on the top? I had a bob. (Laughing)
Gillian Reynolds: You had a bob.
James Delingpole: I had a bob. I had a sort of Julian Cope shoulder length haircut.
Gillian Reynolds: No, no, no it wasn’t that one.
James Delingpole: After that.
Gillian Reynolds: It was the one that was one that was more â€¦
James Delingpole: It was a bob; I had the Louise Brookes bob, yes.
Gillian Reynolds: There you are, but this man is not all style (laughing) he is substance as well and last year he won a very prestigious award, he won the Charles Douglas Hulme Annual Memorial Trust Award for an essay about museums and that’s, the content of that essay is why we’re here tonight, because in it he criticised museums and called them ‘victims’ and said ‘they were caught between market driven utilitarianism of the right and the guilt ridded orthodoxies of the left’, and in other words they were either being driven by crude politics or, rather than aesthetic ideals, and James, as you can see, is a man for whom aesthetic ideals mean a lot. Now what did, did you know the great hive of bees you would stir up with that?
James Delingpole: No, I didn’t no. I was, the way prize actually works is a bit of a stitch up. They find a journalist that they like and then they point them at aâ€¦, they wanted an article about something to do with the arts and I came up with two ideas and one of them was this museums idea which I thought, you know they might like and they did like it. And I wrote it up and I think it’s caused a huge stir in the museums world. I mean I think it was passed round fairly quickly by, you know, email and stuff and I find it rather scary because I’m not, I’m not part of this world at all. I have no real qualifications at all to write about museums. I’m just an ordinary punter who happens to like going to museums with his kids, no more than that you know. So I’m a fairly disinterested party in a way, but maybe that’s a good thing because I think I would probably argue that, well have any of you seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers? I had to go to this, have I got time to tell this?
Gillian Reynolds: Go on, go on.
James Delingpole: I had to go to this discussion group the other day organised by The Museums Association and I thought there was going to be a sort of balance of opinion, some people were going to be on my side, you know supporting the aesthetic and cultural elitism, but really nobody took my side, even directors, who I thought, you know, people had probably been to the Courtauld Institute and stuff - who’ve studied artefacts and stuff, even they were toeing the Government’s line and I really thought it was like the scene at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers where you see Donald Sutherland and it turns out, he goes (takes deep gaspy breath) because he too was a body snatcher, I’m afraid they’ve all been snatched (laughed), they’re aliens.
Gillian Reynolds: Did it not occur to you that you might have walked into â€¦?
James Delingpole: A bear trap.
Gillian Reynolds: No not a bear trap, come on, a genuine political dilemma?
James Delingpole: No, no I don’t, I don’t think so. I think that what’s happened in the museum sector, unfortunately, is that, obviously some directors and curators believe this nonsense anyway, but I think that those that don’t have been bullied into this way of thinking by the Government. You know the Government, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, effectively blackmails museums now to do what it wants because if they don’t it’ll just withhold funds.
Gillian Reynolds: And on that auspicious note I will introduce the director of National Museums Liverpool, (laughing) Dr David Fleming. Do you find yourself bullied, David?
David Fleming: No I think it’s, I feel that the boot’s on the other foot. I think some of us who were interested in opening up museums to normal people, which they didn’t use to be well known for â€¦
Gillian Reynolds: Speak up David the microphone’s not working.
David Fleming: Bullied, but no not bullied by the Government. I think the Government was bullied by people who had a generous and democratically driven agenda for museums. I’m looking at Steph Mastoris who’s nodding at me, he would, but I’ve known Steph for about twenty five years and people like Steph and myself were young once, thrusting, radical (laughing). I’m still like that, Steph I’m not too certain about, we might need to have a talk. Anyway, the point is that many of us were completely committed to this agenda that James purports to have come from the Labour Government, and this was in the days right in the middle of Thatcherism where a number of us were fighting for museums that had a general relevance. Part of it grew out of the Thatcher drive to seek value for money. ‘Spend public money we want to see what we’re getting for our money’ and that was new in the 80s. That didn’t used to happen.
Gillian Reynolds: It happened in universities, it happened in hospitals, it happened everywhere.
David Fleming: Throughout the public sector, and some museums were called to account at that time and they had to explain why nobody visited them and why public money was being spent in significant amounts. And that was a parallel movement, but also there were people coming through to museums then who wanted them to be popular and wanted them to be full of people, wanted them to be full of excited children learning things. So this was way before Labour came along. So one of James’ main thesis, that we’ve been bullied into this, there may well be individuals that have been bullied, James, but there’s plenty of us were doing it a long time before this Government woke up and said ‘okay, yes, actually we quite like what these people are doing, we think it’s a strong agenda, we think that museums should justify themselves’.
Gillian Reynolds: Well let me take it back to March 2006. You open your Times, as I’m sure you do every Saturday and you read this piece. What was your immediate reaction?
David Fleming: I can’t remember the difference between the piece that was in The Times, which was a slightly shortened version, and the piece that I read a few days later which was the longer version on somebody’s website.
Gillian Reynolds: I have The Times piece right here.
David Fleming: Well, The Times piece made a reference to me about something or other.
James Delingpole: The anti-Christ wasn’t it? (Laughing)
David Fleming: I think, James, the article put me in the vanguard of this movement of craven people who were following a Government agenda, so I wasn’t terribly pleased with that because it was utterly wrong.
James Delingpole: That’s actually, we disagree already. That isn’t what I was talking about. I was saying that, as I said actually at the beginning, I think there are two sorts of directors. There’s the ones who don’t necessarily think this was who have been bullied by the Government, and there are those who already prey to these idiotic ideas already. I put you into the category of people who were already prey to idiotic ideas.
David Fleming: Okay, well I apologise in that case because I misunderstood what you were saying. (laughing) I’m quite happy to acknowledge that these ideas are ones that I hold firm and fast to, and no amount of criticism from people like James will put me off. The anti-Christ comment was another huge fallacy because James found somebody somewhere, who wasn’t brave enough to say who they were, who described me as the anti-Christ and this was apparently because I’m in the habit of going from one museum service to another, removing all the collections and replacing them with some sort of push button technology, which I have to say couldn’t be further from the truth. So while I was worried about what James was saying, I could actually see, within the hyperbole, some sense of some genuine concern for what was happening and I welcome that, and I welcome this debate. But it’s all coloured with this language of people being forced to do it or being, you know as he said himself, absurd and ridiculous.
Gillian Reynolds: So you weren’t forced or bullied or coerced into it?
David Fleming: Never, never happened.
Gillian Reynolds: But in James’ view you might be fundamentally misguided?
David Fleming: That would appear to be his view, yes.
James Delingpole: That’s my line.
Gillian Reynolds: In your time at National Museums Liverpool, which is going on six years now, all the admission figures have gone up enormously. A lot of that surely has got to do with free admission?
David Fleming: I think free admission helps you, helps you, it positions you to build audiences. It doesn’t build, it doesn’t make an extra person come unless you’ve got something that people want to come and see. The world is full of things that are free to do that people don’t do. You know, they might not go to parks, they might not go for walks along the promenade, they might not go wandering around historic buildings. It’s all free - people have lots of things to do with their time and in order to get them to come to museums just being free won’t really attract anybody. What you’ve got to do is make them want to come by what you do in there. If you’re free as well then yes, you certainly have a chance of building broad and diverse audiences.
Gillian Reynolds: I’ll just ask you one more question before I come to David Barrie on my right, and that is James took as an example people who want to bring artefacts out of the museums and into public provenance, implying a lack of care for the collections at the risk of losing the collections or damaging them, but with the greater aim of involving more people. Do you see yourself in that role?
David Fleming: I don’t really recognise that pattern of behaviour and I would like to say now, and James admits he’s not within the sector so I don’t know where he’s getting his information from, but collections in museums now â€¦
Gillian Reynolds: Oh don’t be paranoid!
David Fleming: â€¦are better looked after than the ever have been, that’s the simple story. They’re far better looked after now than they’ve ever been in history and it’s completely ridiculous to say that somehow or other collections are nowadays at risk because people like me want to get public into museums. It’s a completely fallacious.
Gillian Reynolds: Right, I will now come to David who is sitting on my right. David is Director of The Art Fund which used to be the National Art Collection Fund didn’t it, and you were a foreign diplomat.
David Barrie: Oh, don’t bring that into it.
Gillian Reynolds: You were though weren’t you? (Laughing)
David Barrie: Yes, a long time ago.
Gillian Reynolds: A long time ago, but now you’re a great champion of the arts. Not a week passes without I don’t see you lambasting the Government for not giving museums and galleries and all the arts institutions the funds to do the jobs properly. I’ve also seen you criticise the whole question of access; placing access over the priority that should be given to collections, so you too can be paranoid. Were you misquoted?
David Barrie: No (laughing)
Gillian Reynolds: Or is that where you stand?
David Barrie: I can’t actually remember what I said (laughing) so whether I was misquoted or not, I’m not sure.
Gillian Reynolds: Have another drink.
David Barrie: No, I probably should, no I think â€¦ Well, first of all let me say, The Art Fund has a very simple purpose in life. We’re an independent charity, membership based, we don’t receive Government funding, we don’t receive lottery funding so we can do what we like. And what we aim to do is very simple. It’s to give as many people as possible the chance to encounter great works of art of every description, and we’ve been doing it since 1903 and, I don’t know, 850,000 odd works of art in public collections thanks to our interventions. GF: Why wasâ€¦?
David Barrie: Well can I just pursue that a little bit further because we wouldn’t be doing that, I mean there would be no point in enriching public collection, if we didn’t actually think that it was important for people to get see these collections. And it was for that reason that we really spearheaded the campaign to extend free admission to all the national museums. So we really are deeply committed to the principal of getting people through the doors. I’m not entirely sure I agree with David that free admission by itself didn’t achieve much because certainly at the V&A in London the ending of admission charges at the end of 2001 had a dramatic overnight effect. It was transformational, and I think on average admissions to formerly charging national museums had gone up by 84%. It’s a colossal change and literally millions of people who were not going into museums and galleries are now doing so, and they’re not all just the professional middle classes. I mean there is evidence that a much wider cross-section of society are getting into museums and galleries and that’s great, I think that’s terrific, but I suppose what worries me, and it goes back to what Dea was saying at the outset, the thing that sets museums and galleries apart, the thing that is their identifying feature is that they hold collections. Collections of course of every conceivable kind. I was going around World Museum this afternoon and I think it’s terrific. You know their wonderful displays of moths and butterflies, their pieces of ancient Egyptian sculpture, their, well all manner of things, and one has to be careful talking about museums and galleries in general not to ignore the fact that these collections are incredibly diverse and the sort of policies that you might adopt to attract people to see one kind of a collection may not be appropriate for another.
There’s a whole range of issues that come up there, but what worries me I suppose is that over the last thirty years or so, there has been a very, very clear trend -and it’s not a party political point this - essentially what’s happened is that museums and galleries that were entirely dependent 30 years ago, almost entirely dependent on state funding whether at national or local level are now far less so. And you might say, and indeed some people would say that that’s really quite a healthy development, bringing in other sources of funding has given museums and galleries a greater degree of independence, it’s encouraged them to be more imaginative and creative and to involve themselves more closely in the communities that they serve and I think all that is true up to a point. But the sad thing is that most museums and galleries in this country now have effectively no money to spend on developing their collections. We did research last year, quite thorough research involving a sample of more than 300 museums and galleries from the British Museum all the way down to little volunteer from local institutions. 60% of all museums sampled said that they had no money of their own to spend on developing their collections and 96% said that lack of funding was a serious obstacle, and I think what’s happened is that as Government funding has contracted the ability of museums and galleries to go out and spend money in imaginative and creative ways to build their collections has been hugely diminished, and I think the long term effect of that is going to be profoundly damaging, and that sadly I see no evidence whatever from politicians of any colour that they care at all about this issue. I mean we struggle, all of us, I mean everybody who works in museums and galleries I think confronts this problem. We struggle to get politicians to take seriously the need to invest in collections, and they appear to be either entirely deaf or they’re not deaf but they don’t give a damn, I don’t know which would be worse but that’s what really worries me. I’m not nearly so worried about, frankly some of the things that James is fretting about. I mean, I think we’ve all seen displays that we think are not great. You know people don’t always get it right, but what really matters is that museums and galleries should be funded adequately to do what they’re really there to do.
Gillian Reynolds: Just answer me one question before I come to Dea. Why is it important that people of any age should see great works of art or great collection? Why is it important to step over this doorstep, World Museum, Whitworth in Manchester - by the way I got thrown out of the Whitworth once. Yes, I wouldn’t leave my handbag on the open shelf (laughing) and they called the police and threw me out (laughing).
Dea Birkett: More impressive than me - get the police along
Gillian Reynolds: Got the police, ah well there you go. But why is it important in anyone’s life that they should see great pictures, great statues, great collections?
David Barrie: Well it’s for the same reason we need to have access to great literature, great plays, great music. These are the most extraordinary products of human ingenuity and creativity and they have the capacity to change our lives in entirely unpredictable, unknown, strange wonderful ways and our lives would be infinitely poorer without them. You could say lots of stuff about education and so forth too, there are many, many things, but I think in essence the point is that museum collections give us the chance to encounter the greatest achievements of the human spirit and that is an incredibly enriching experience.
Gillian Reynolds: Dea, do you agree with that?
Dea B: No. (laughing) Strangely I believe that we should have the choice to see these things. I actually don’t believe that everybody has to go to a museum and everybody has to see high art. What I believe is that everybody should have the opportunity to do so and absolutely everybody - absolutely everybody - should be made to feel that they have the right to do so. That they belong in a museum and gallery. But hey, I hate opera. I don’t care how cheap you make the ticket and how accessible you make the opera, I don’t want to go and see opera and I think what we, to respect the very people that you’re offering these opportunities, it’s important you let people know, ‘this is your place, you belong here, you are welcome here but if you prefer not to come here and go somewhere else that is your choice’.
Gillian Reynolds: But why would you take your children to the Royal Academy?
Dea B: Because I enjoyed it and they were too, at two years old I could take them in and they were too young to protest. I enjoy doing that sort of thing but if someone, I’m not saying everybody should go to the Royal Academy. But anybody who wants to go there should feel welcome and as if it is a place for them and I think that’s a crucial difference.
Gillian Reynolds: Well let me ask you, is it the quality of the welcome, is it the people who come in the door, is it the people who come shut your children up (disturbance on tape) that make you feel unwelcome, or is it the quality of the exhibition of the work that you’re looking at?
Dea B: I think it’s a hugely complex jigsaw of all those things. I think in actual fact the first thing is the door. I mean that’s the point at which it begins. It’s as you step over the threshold and whether you feel that you are going to be taken in and embraced or whether you are going to feel as if you going to be told off, looked at, you know. If you think you’ve found the right place, should you be somewhere else, it starts at that very place, and if we don’t get that bit right we won’t get any of it right. But then when you go beyond that you have to get the rest right just to keep people there. You can take there but you also have to keep people there and then once they’ve been there, hopefully enjoyed it, but it’s no good taking someone along to, let me give you an example, a bad example of something I think didn’t work at all, it’s not in Liverpool so we can talk freely about it. The V&A had this big modernism exhibition and an example of, I think, where people really hadn’t thought it through, because when you went in there was this big panel of text. And I can’t remember the exact words, the first line on that panel of text was ‘nobody can really ever define what modernism is’. And I’m looking at it and I think ‘well, I might just turn round and walk out and go home, what’s the point in that?’ That was actually telling me ‘this is a really, really difficult subject and unless you’re really, really, really into the whole thing you shouldn’t come in here because it’s so challenging’, and I think that was completely wrong. And also what I think is interestingly wrong about that is when I go to a museum I don’t want to be told nobody really knows. I actually want the museum in a sense to have some authority. I go there because I go there to have friendly authority and welcome authority, but there must be some authority. So I go there for a friendly authority to take me by the hand and guide me through, and this was something that completely confused and lost me and actually in fact I turned. I just thought ‘there’s no point going in there’ and it turned me around and sent me away. So I think it’s a very tricky job but like James I’m not a museum worker I’m a visitor, but I actually think that makes our views and opinions and perspectives just as valid. You don’t have to be inside an institution to, to have some views and have some input to it but I think it’s a very difficult job but it can be done.
Gillian Reynolds: I think James should speak before he explodes.
James Delingpole: I just wish to take up that point and the awful sign in the modernism exhibition. When I was researching my piece the most dispiriting interview I had with a director, apart from the one with David Fleming - no I’m being cruel. The most dispiriting interview I had was with Neil McGregor who’s currently in charge of the British Museum, and he’s a very cultured chap, he knows an awful lot about art. And I think he was very good at the National Gallery and stuff, and I said to him “what are museums for, what do you think is the single most important function of a museum?” and you know one might have expected him to say something like ‘well, to select the greatest achievements of every culture around the world and display them in the best possible manner for all to see’. But no, he said “it is to encourage the right level of doubt in its audience.” And I just thought ‘what?’ So you go to a museum to look at this sign saying, ‘well we thought it may be Etruscan but it could be Roman we don’t know. I mean you know one person’s viewpoint is as valid as another and you know what’s the point of research anyway?’ Well, I’m sorry. I think that that is symptomatic of the diseased mentality in our museum sector at the moment.
Gillian Reynolds: I’m really glad you never went to be a doctor you know. Your diagnosis of a diseased mentality is a bit dodgy there. David, come in.
David Barrie: Well just two things, first of all do you seem to think that I was saying that visiting museums and galleries ought to be compulsory. Absolutely not, I don’t feel like that. I entirely agree with her. You just want to make it as easy as possible, you know, remove the obstacles, make it easy, which it often isn’t. But on the Neil McGregor point, I think it’s a funny thing. People who work in museums and galleries, and people like me who rub shoulders with people who work in museums and galleries for a long time, one of the things that happens is that you do actually become more and more sceptical about experts and you realise that a lot of the time the people who express the most decisive and strongly held opinions about an attribution or about the quality of a work of art or whatever it might be are completely wrong. You know, we are constantly confronted by our own ignorance and there is a huge amount of uncertainty. Now whether that should be revealed openly to the public I don’t know, but I suspect that Neil was being very frank and just admitting his own sense of uncertainty about some of these things and indeed the â€¦
Gillian Reynolds: Somebody in the audience would like to come in at this point.
David Barrie: Oh right.
Xanthe Brooke: Yes I’m Xanthe Brooke. I’m Curator of European Paintings at The Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. It was really in response to both Dea and James’ comment about the V&A panel and so on, and it was simply to say well if we don’t know what all, what it is and means are we expected to make it up? Is that what you want us to do, even if we don’t know? I mean David Barrie actually made it a much better point but that’s essentially what I’m saying to you.
Gillian Reynolds: Should they make it? I mean, I would have taken Neil McGregor’s comment in a different way.
James Delingpole: I think I would as well. (Laughing)
Because I think, I think, surely he was trying to say to you, you know, you look at a record of another civilisation, you see the artefacts of a civilisation about which you know little, and suddenly begin to doubt the cultural supremacy of your own.
I think he was talking about cultural writing as a mien (apologies if this is incorrect â€“ editor)
Gillian Reynolds: Yes.
James Delingpole: And the loss of, the loss of, the rejection of authority really which comes from the thinking of the French philosophers like Derrida and Foucault who I think have poisoned the minds of our, of a generation (laughing).
Gillian Reynolds: Dea, I think your point was slightly different. I mean anyone seeing that, any journalist seeing that panel would say ‘there’s a negative in that lead take it out immediately, leave the subject out’. But did you persevere with the exhibition, did you like it?
Dea Birkett: I did for a little while but it threw me off completely, being told that I would never understand this, which was what the message I was being told, threw me off completely. You don’t go to look, you go to museums for many things but partly for some expertise like you go to a book for expertise. And I don’t mind that later on in an exhibition it talking about the different sorts of ways you might interpret this or that. That’s fine but to greet me with that is to greet in such a difficult and in some slightly ridiculous thing that it makes it impossible for me to ever begin.
Gillian Reynolds: David.
David Barrie: Well I, I mean you know it comes back to the question of audiences doesn’t it. One of the problems we’ve got with museums and galleries is you never quite know who you’re talking to. I mean it might be a three year old, it might be a real expert and I think that does make it very difficult and I mean it sounds to me as if you really do want to have your hand held don’t you?
Dea Birkett: Yes, for me that’s what access is about. Access isn’t about go in and do whatever you like. Access is about giving me a hand â€¦
David Barrie:: But what do people out there think? I mean, does anybody here actually feel that when they go into a museum or gallery they want to have their hand held in that way and be told definite ‘truths’.
Gillian Reynolds: Up there first, down here next.
Liz McKenzie: Liz McKenzie and I’m a Trustee of Kids in Museums and also a Vice Chairman of BAFM which is the British Association of Friends and Museums. Can I first of all say that I do agree with you up to a point actually, Dea. What really puts me off about labels in museums is when it’s ‘too many notes Mozart’ and if you have something that just phases you out you think’ my God’. You know you haven’t got time to read this thing, never mind take in what it’s all about, so I do agree from that point of view. But the thing that really worries me at the moment, I’m all for access and having been - I’m a pathologist by trade so I’m not a museum person and I’m not Amanda Burton (laughing). The thing that really worries me is the fact I don’t want to lose scholarship in museums. I want access plus scholarship and I don’t want people to lose sight of that, particularly the Government. But also, I come from Bristol and the local authority have never heard of a scholarship I’ve decided and I think that that is so important because you don’t have good museums and art galleries if you don’t have scholarship. Bringing them in by all means but make sure it’s properly organised, properly researched and the curators have time and energy to sort of research their problems. So make it accessible by all means, and I’m really keen on that having been dragged around every museum in this country by my mother and I’ve done the same with my children and grandchildren (laughing.) But I think that is a very important side of museums and galleries. (Applause)
Gillian Reynolds: Just answer me why did you take your children round the museums and grandchildren? Because I’ve done the same. My mother dragged me round and I did the same with mine.
Liz McKenzie: My mother was an extraordinary person actually. She was widowed - my father died, he was in the Colonial Service, David - and my father died in Changi camp, and she came back to this country after the war having been in Australia, which I thought at the time was a desert - I was terribly tiny. We came back here and she had nothing. No money and Colonial Service wasn’t very generous, and we used to come down and stay with my mother, my aunt, my mother’s sister in London, and the only thing we could do was go round the free museums with our sarnies. And it was, okay I didn’t understand what the hell was going on most of the time but it was just life enhancing. So when I was this boring old pathologist, my husband’s a doctor too, we dragged our children round everything and it wasn’t, not high art. I tell you standing stones are marvellous for small children - they can run over them and not destroy them frankly, but I think that that was the thing that set me off and my grandchildren have exactly the same.
Gillian Reynolds: Dea, can we get the mic down here please?
Dea Birkett: I’m interested to say that you dragged yours, because I often found that the dragging goes the other way around - that it’s actually often children that lead adults into museums. I think increasingly we’re learning, and we were just gathering information on this, but often what happens, particularly less advantaged families, is that a child visits a museum on school trip, they go back then to their mum, dad, auntie, granny, whoever and say “oh this is great, you’ve got to go”, and in actual fact increasingly I think is kids dragging grannies, not grannies dragging kids. And I think funnily museums don’t realise it. They haven’t kind of understood that the people in as many ways that they’ve got the, it’s the adults, it’s the grown ups. Loads of kids want to, you know want to go to the Science Museum and want to go to the World Museum and think it’s fabulous, and the adults think ‘oh yeh I’d much prefer to go down the pub on Saturday lunchtime and you just play outside in the beer garden’. It’s interesting that. I think we sometimes confuse who is taking who.
Gillian Reynolds: Down here [pointing to an audience member]
Judy Thomas: Hi, my name is Judy Thomas. I’m from Liverpool Biennial, and just picking up on what Dea said. I think maybe Dea’s had a bad experience and in my opinion I think galleries and museums are a place for learning. They’re about learning and a place to question. So rather than having it as a prescriptive thing it’s a place to feel safe to question and learn through that questioning and being allowed to question I suppose.
Gillian Reynolds: Give me an example from your own experience.
Judy Thomas: Well I’m involved with contemporary art, visual art and often the work is there. It’s challenging and perhaps there is no right or wrong answer, and I think it’s providing a forum or a space that people can feel secure to explore things and be challenged and feel okay to think ‘okay I don’t understand but what’s that about’.
Gillian Reynolds: So you don’t mind doubt, doubt is fine with you?
Judy Thomas: Doubt’s a good thing.
Gillian Reynolds: Okay, anybody else in here had a bad experience? Gone straight through the door and straight out again, anybody?
Dea Birkett: Well David told me earlier that he was thrown out of The Walker Art Gallery, and that makes three. Were you ever, were you thrown out? (Laughing)
Dea Birkett: That’s three out of five of us been thrown out.
David Fleming: I offended a gentleman who was wandering around in a state solemn. Well he was in some kind of a trance and I was having a discussion with a member of staff at the far end of the gallery and got told to shush. And I thought ‘who the hell do you think you are coming into this public space and telling me how I should behave? All we’re doing is talking for God’s sake you know, I wasn’t throwing things around’.
Gillian Reynolds: So what did you say to him if that’s what you were thinking?
David Fleming: I think I just gave him a dirty look, Gillian. (laughing) I certainly didn’t stop talking.
Gillian Reynolds: In the bubble over your head was it, did you feel it was a challenge to your individualism, standing in the museum or a challenge to your authority as director?
David Fleming: I was reallyâ€¦ I guess I was offended because it was like the kind of behaviour that you’d expect from some people that visit art galleries. That’s what I thought.
Gillian Reynolds: What do you mean by that? (Laughing. Gasps from audience)
Gillian Reynolds: Whoa, whoa, whoa, what do you mean by that? The behaviour of someoneâ€¦
David Fleming: Those people that think that there’s a certain way that museums or art galleries or both ought to be. That they’ve got a rule book somewhere in their head that says that children shouldn’t be in there because they’re noisy, that you can’t appreciate art if there are children making a noise somewhere near, or in this case people aren’t supposed to talk in there just like they’re not supposed to talk in the library. I get very offended by people that sequester to themselves the right to judge the behaviour of people in public spaces. I wasn’t being anti-social.
Dea Birkett: But you’ve just done, you’ve just judged the behaviour of these othersâ€¦
David Fleming: No, that is because I was asked what I was thinking. No, I’m quite happy for him to wander round in his daze but why does he think he can tell me how to behave? As I say I wasn’t bellowing, I was merely conversing and this clearly caused huge discomfort to this chap.
James Delingpole: It’s not a simple as that is it because, I mean, I think most of us here like the idea of children going to museums and being made to feel welcome in museums, and I’ve had bad experiences like in the Dulwich Picture Gallery where I went there and I was almost thrown out because my children were, you know, playing around a bit, but not, not â€¦
Dea Birkett: Only you left now, David.
James Delingpole: â€¦but at the same time I can totally understand why somebody who wants to go round an art gallery might want to do so in a quiet atmosphere with people sort of talking very quietly but not sort of having heated debates across the other side of the gallery. And I think one of the galleries that does handle this very well is the Tate which has a thing called an art trolley, and if you go there on Saturdays and Sundays at a certain time there’s this trolley with all these drawing materials and stuff and crayons and things. And there are various projects that you know, your children can be given and you go into the relevant gallery space and look at the relevant picture and your children draw pictures and things quietly while you wander round and look at the art. It’s a great arrangement.
David Fleming: So is talking forbidden then in museums and art galleries?
James Delingpole: Well, I think you’re kind of making a point you obviously feel, gets you very angry - the idea that, that the sort of hushed middle class reverence and I think that’s really your beef. It’s a bit like when you go to those country house hotels and everyone’s talking very quietly, and I think that that really gets your kind of anti-middle class â€¦
David Fleming: No it’s not that. It’s the sequestering to themselves that this is their space not my space. I’m not smoking, I’m not reeling around in an alcoholic haze, I’m merely talking â€¦
James Delingpole: We won’t know, we don’t know how loudly you were talking at the time so it’s only your word.
David Fleming: No not very loudly, it was just a classic example.
Gillian Reynolds: I think we will cut that discussion short. I mean that’s going nowhere. Down there [pointing to audience]
Audience member: I think the whole thing about the level of noise in a gallery, if it doesn’t reach a certain level, I’m not talking night club levels, is ridiculous. I mean if you’re really concentrating on a picture, like if you’re really concentrating on a book you don’t actually hear what’s going on around you., I went to galleries regularly growing up, I work within the arts now in Learning and Inclusion, and I really don’t think that noise within galleries is an issue full stop. And I think it’s ridiculous to suggest that people should stay hushed, or that it’s a middle class issue because one of the things I’ve come across within Learning and Inclusion is it tends to be more of a stereotype within people who’ve never been able to access galleries before. If you’re really into the art you won’t hear what’s going on around you anyway, and so it’s ridiculous for anyone to be enforcing any noise levels as long as it’s not â€¦
James Delingpole: Club level.
Audience member: Yes. Stupid.
Gillian Reynolds: Over there first and then over there.[pointing to audience]
Edward Lucie-Smith: Okay, my name is Edward Lucie Smith. I’m beginning to find aspects of this debate really depressing (laughing) and I’ll tell you why. First of all we have this continual kind of ripping round the edges of the class issue, which always seems to come up in debates about museums. I’d like to take quite a number of steps back. First of all the museum as we now have it descends from something called wunderkammer; a chamber of wonders. It also descends I think in a very direct line from the great medieval cathedrals, which were places of pilgrimage. What this tells me is that we don’t go to museums purely for information. We go for something which transcends ourselves, and children are as able to feel this as adults. But Dea’s small child when he cried “monster” was actually indicating that he felt something outside, wonderful, outside himself. So what I think we have to think of is that museums are not simply places of social engineering. It’s true that museums have fulfilled very different functions - at this complex here, some museums are for information purely, they are didactic, others are more than didactic. So, what you have to think of I think, in a successful museum, is that it is a place of wonder. And it is above all a place of pilgrimage, that you go to be taken out of your ordinary life and whatever age you are. I’ve just come from a symposium in Santa FÃ© which was devoted to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party which is the centrepiece of the new feminist wing of the Brooklyn Museum funded by Elizabeth Sackler, and when I use the word pilgrimage in connection with the new wing and The Dinner Party in particular. Elizabeth who was present jumped up and said “that’s exactly what I wanted, that’s what I spent my money for”. I think that you do, even in a modern society, have to think about museums as something that transcends. Thank you.
Gillian Reynolds: Thank you. (Applause)
Paige Irlam: Hi, my name is Paige Irlam and I work on the Development Trust, and I also am Deputy Chairman for NADavid FlemingAS Young Arts. And I am a huge, huge fan of National Museums Liverpool because I think they strike the right balance. We initiated a programme in Lady Lever which was for young children to train as peer guides, taking younger children round the gallery. And it gives you great joy to sit and listen to one of the children, 14 years old, that you’ve seen come in six weeks earlier with hunched shoulders, no confidence and all of a sudden they take out their white gloves, they put them on with total empowerment as they show somebody else the painting. Tthat’s got to be wonderful. You know kids, and you can hear a pin drop. So we’ve gone from the scenario of all of a sudden noisy kids in the gallery to young children that are sitting there with, you know, absolute stardom in their eyes. And I think that this is the way to go, and I think we’ve got the right balance here so I’d just like to applaud everybody that works for the gallery.
Gillian Reynolds: How many of you have been in to see Big Art for Little Artists in The Walker? What’s your impression?
Audience member: Well my impression is that I’ve taken lots of children of different age groups but also people, visitors from France, and they have gone back to France and they have taken the name of the key person in the art gallery because they were just absolutely overwhelmed by it. But I think there’s another issue around all of that, and that is that staff who are actually in museums and galleries, because you can have the greatest exhibition coming from wherever but if you haven’t got the staff who are enthusiastic then really a lot is lost. And the Discovery Centre in the World Museum is just a really good example of that. I took an eleven year old to visit from another part of the country and he discovered an African game which he had discovered on the internet. And he thought it was just on the internet but when he saw it in real life he was just absolutely overwhelmed. But the key to it all was that a member of staff picked up on this, she saw the wonderment in his eyes, she saw this excitement that he experienced, she came over and she said to him “would you like to play?” and he said “I’d love to”. He said, “I never thought that I’d be able to”. And so she sat down and she just played this game with him, and he was just absolutely bowled over. Now, he has gone back to an area in another part of the country, told the staff in the school and they’re all coming over. Now, the other thing is that I also took an 18 month old to the gallery, to the Discovery Centre, and we went in and we had her brother with her and we thought ‘oh she’s never going to be able to do anything’ but it was a member of staff who picked up and she said “would she like to play with some fuzzy felt?” So every age group was catered for. Now, if it wasn’t for the dedication, and also the staff who are really clued in to what children need and what visitors need, these galleries and museums wouldn’t function so I think we have to remember that.
Gillian Reynolds: James you mentioned the attendants in the World Museum and said they were very enthusiastic with the children [indistinct]
James Delingpole: Very good
Gillian Reynolds: [indistinct]
James Delingpole: no not at all, no, no, no.
Gillian Reynolds: Well in your piece it says so
James Delingpole: No, I think what mightâ€¦ I mean one of the things I like very much about World Museum is the display. I think things are very well displayed, the objects look good in their cases. I object more to the signing which I think is a bit dumb down, but yes, I talked to one of the attendants who was working with a class of schoolchildren and his sort of mild gripe was that he didn’t have much time to do curatorial stuff. You know, he was there really as a kiddie entertainer more than anything else. I mean he was happy in his work, don’t get me wrong, but I think going back to that point about scholarship I think museums should be about scholarship, and I think there is a danger that if you start saying “we must bring in more kids, we must make ourselves more child friendly”. You know resources are finite so if you allocate resources to encourage more children to come in and do kiddie stuff you have fewer resources for other things like the scholarship, you know preservation and things and that’s an absolute fact. You can’t pretend that there’s room for both and that’s my worry about museums. That they are going in a particular direction that is against traditionalâ€¦
David Fleming: But you see this is what sensible management is all about. That’s what managers of museums are paid to do, and I know you are saying in your notes there that you’re worried about the hands that museums are in - I think museums are in far better hands than they have ever been before, because of the social awareness of the people that are running them. I mean, it’s my job to make sure that there is a responsible balance between these things. I mean, no, you can’t get rid of scholarship and knowledge but equally that’s not what you’re there to do exclusively, because you might as well, you know, work in a university department somewhere if that’s what you think it’s all about, because museums are not those kinds of places. You’ve got to try and find the balance, and good managers find that balance and that’s the end of the story as far as that’s concerned. You find the balance.
Gillian Reynolds: Dea, you wanted to come in.
Dea Birkett: Yes, I think scholarship is, is extraordinarily, very important in museums but what I slightly resist is when you say it’s all about learning. Because going back to when Edward described my son’s reaction in this other way, and I thought ‘please don’t reduce it to learning, don’t be so reductive’. And I think especially young people really, and I hate being told what you’re really doing is learning. I mean, ‘no, actually I’m having a fabulous experience’ as my son was and to reduce it in that way is to brutalise it some way and actually makes me hugely sad. Hugely sad, and going back to your fuzzy felt, why were they doing fuzzy felt in the museum? Now the other thing that really annoys me is that I take my kids to the museum and they end up doing something they could do in my sitting room. What’s the point in that they can play with fuzzy felt in my sitting room? It has to relate to the collections and that’s why World Museum for me works so well because all of the activities, until you brought up fuzzy felt (laughing), relate directly to the collections. And maybe fuzzy felt does in some weird way, but you know I don’t really think personally fuzzy felt should be there, and that’s why it works. And actually museums sometimes, in order to get people in, do lose that connection and I think that’s a danger because otherwise theya re doing very well.
Gillian Reynolds: Down at the front and then David [pointing to audience]
Audience member: Hi, maybe you misinterpreted what I said. I think galleries and museums are really unique sites where learning takes place, and I think that’s the secret. It’s not ramming learning down people’s throats - it’s creating a venue or a space where enjoyment, challenge, all sorts of different levels of opportunity and experience take place. And through that that’s where learning can happen. So, again it’s that, no that hand holding, it’s not that force feeding, it’s very much about creating an experience in which learning can take place. And what, I was saying for me, museums and galleries are very much about. That’s what learning for me is. That’s what they’re for rather than having a private collection that’s inaccessible if it’s about the object, but for me a place that’s opened its doors is about creating a space where learning can happen.
Gillian Reynolds: David Fleming.
David Fleming: Yes, I think I just want to challenge this idea that museums are solely about collections and everything relates to collections. I think museums are actually about ideas and stories and the collections are one of the mechanisms that museums are very good at using to open up people’s minds. I mean, Edward made the point about a place of pilgrimage - that’s why I wrote it down. It’s not quite a phrase I’ve thought of before and I’m going to go away and think about that because it’s not just about learning - it’s about exposure and experience. When my daughter went to the Spirit of the Blitz exhibition in this museum, she was probably three at the time, the initial buzz she got that made her subsequently describe this as ‘the best museum in the world’ was that she was simply able to dress up in a miniature version of a 1940s smock and hairnet and have her photograph taken. Now, I’m not so sure she learnt a great deal from this - it certainly wasn’t collections based - except it was, you know, obliquely to do with at that time this is what they wore. But for her it was a magical experience that’s caused her ever since, and that was two years ago, to talk about this is ‘the best museum in the world’. And I just think collections are terrifically important, they are at the core of what museums do, but actually even more fundamentally than that museums are about ideas.
Gillian Reynolds: Down here first. Come on, wake up you lot. Are you all drunk or what? Not a word from over here. [pointing to audience]
Franny: Hi I’m Franny I’m also from the Liverpool Biennial Learning and Inclusion team. I was also just thinking then about the physical experience of a gallery or museum experience which is about wearing the clothes. It’s also about touching and feeling the exhibits or shouting about them, whatever it is that you feel you need to shout about which comes from kids, but not always from kids. It’s art students and it comes from people who are invigilating the exhibition as well. There’s tonnes of examples of that through controversial exhibits, through Tracey Emin in the Turner Art Prize, and I think these things that make the press - these things that don’t make the press through kids shouting about them but things that just make you shout perhaps or â€¦
Gillian Reynolds: Give me an example of something that made you shout.
Franny: Made me shout? Ermâ€¦
Gillian Reynolds: Or give you a thrill.
Franny: Well actually, perhaps, a thrill was reading something about someone else getting a thrill which would have beenâ€¦ I’m sorry I can’t [remember]. Not Jake and Dinos Chapman. The two â€¦
Gillian Reynolds: Gilbert and George?
Franny: No (laughing)
David Fleming: The Singh twins, Laurel and Hardy? (laughing).
Franny: Not the Singh twins. It was the two guys who jumped on Tracey Emin’s bed, which only gets you through the newspapers. And that is adults acting like kids in the gallery, getting thrown out for that, and I think that makes the press. That makes you realise so much more about it and it’s really significant.
Gillian Reynolds: Did you come to the Stuckists exhibition at The Walker?
Franny: I did see. I saw it I think but only, not through advertisement actually, only through the back of seeing an exhibition that was also on at the time which may have been the George Romney exhibition - which may be quite interesting. There’s two completely different eras, things going on there. And I just as a sidestep went to see the Stuckists exhibition there. But that’s, yes, certainly making a noise about art as much as, oh I don’t know, it’s completely different anyway.
Gillian Reynolds: I will confess I stood in front of La Primavera in the Uffizi in Florence, and without a shadow, you know, projectile weeping. There was nothing I could do to stop it (laughing), and the tears just came flowing out, and I never liked that picture until I saw it and seeing it was a complete emotional thing. And I never, never pass the door of The Walker without going to see the little Degas ironing woman.
Franny: My mum’s got that in her back room with the washing machine (laughing).
Gillian Reynolds: The Cranach nymph at the fountain, and I go and see them because these are my girls, and little Vuillard, leaning on the sofa - these are my girls. I grew up with those pictures and I feel they know me and I know them. David.
David Barrie: Yes, l, listening to all this it’s just, I feel there isn’t a real argument going on here. There’s just a lot of different opinions which are occasionally kind of colliding but often passing, as it were in the night, and I think one of the things that we all want, we all want certainty don’t we? It’s much more comfortable to think that you can, hang on wait until I’ve finished, there’s a desire to kind of produce law-like generalisations that make the world look regular and reliable and simple. And of course it isn’t, and when it comes to talking about museums and galleries there are kind of many, many different dimensions along which they differ. And when you talk about museum audiences they differ along literally an infinite number of dimensions. And one of the things that I think absolutely ought to be at the heart of any discussion of this kind, and of course it’s very unhelpful because it sort of stops the discussion, is the notion that each one of us, when we go into a museum or gallery, whether we’re 18 months old or 85 years old we come, we confront the things that are put there for us to look at with a whole lot of baggage. You know, we’re all individuals. We have our own needs. We have our own hopes. You’re hungry, you’re thirsty or you’re not. You know things or you don’t know things. There’s a whole array of different factors that shape your response to the thing that you’re confronted with, and in fact it’s a transaction. You know, we are not photographic plates that receive an image in a standardised way from the stuff that is put on display. We all enter into a relationship with the objects that are on display, or fail to, sometimes we fail to do so. In fact I would say, I found myself this afternoon, I was a bit tired, I was wondering round and I found myself just actually not attending to half the things that were on display, and I’m sure we’ve all had that experience. It’s actually bloody hard work looking at things, or it should be because you have really have to bring something of yourself to it. You have to bring your imagination, you have to bring your intellect, you have to bring your knowledge that you have whatever it is. There’s a whole host of faculties that have to be brought to bear, and the transaction that takes place may or may not be, if you like, successful. You may enjoy the encounter, you may have projectile weeping (laughing) or you may not, and the funny thing is, in my experience, the very same object will produce different experiences on different occasions, depending on the state of mind you are in and that’s just me for God’s sake. You cannot generalise. You cannot generalise, it’s absurd. These are private encounters and they’re driven. 50% of what happens in those encounters comes from you, not the object, and you’ve got to remember that. The poor suckers who run museums and galleries have got the impossible task of trying to present things in a way that will be helpful to as many people as possible (laughing) and you know, it’s a very difficult task. And the needs of the 18 month old child are obviously radically different from the needs of you know, the experienced connoisseur, and I think we just have to acknowledge that. And it does mean that, I think, frankly many of the things that appear to have been a subject of debate this evening really aren’t. I think we all agree.
Gillian Reynolds: To pursue your question though, is there a generational difference in looking at what place museums and galleries have in the national life? Was it different 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago? I mean, my mother’s attitude to taking you round museums and galleries was ‘this will do you good’ and actually it did because it did both of us good, because like you say, it is an emotional transaction. You can lose yourself. The whole point of art is it rearranges life until it makes sense, and suddenly you come and see a great work of art and it makes sense to you, maybe on that one occasion.
David Barrie: Well, I would, Gillian. All I would say is, sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes the purpose of the work of art is to make it not make sense, challenge comfortable beliefs.
Gillian Reynolds: Yes.
David Fleming: Can I just point out most items in museums are not works of art.
David Barrie: Well I agree with that.
David Fleming: It would just be good to stop keep thinking about these great masterpieces of art.
David Barrie: Well I’m not. I’m talking about museum objects.
David Fleming: It’s part of what we do.
Gillian Reynolds: Is there a generational difference? Did people used to have more reverence, more of the attitude that kept, would perhaps keep Dea and her family out, and would keep James happy?
David Barrie: I suspect that there has, I mean I’m very, very reluctant, as I’ve made clear, to generalise. But I strongly suspect that there have been social changes that have resulted in people being less deferential, less respectful of authority and so called expertise. And I actually think that’s a very helpful development, but at the same time I do acknowledge James’ point and Dea’s - and there was someone in the audience, Liz I think. There is obviously a role for the development on the part of curators of deep knowledge and expertise in a particular field, and that can be quite helpful to people coming into a museum. I have to say though, I don’t think it always is. I mean, I actually think sometimes the expertise that is paraded can get in the way and can beâ€¦ I sometimes find myself alienated by elaborate labels. You know, I speak only for myself. I think that it’s a very, very difficult subject this. Very difficult.
Gillian Reynolds: Over there.[pointing to audience]
Steph Mastoris: Steph Mastoris, National Museums Wales. Picking up on that point, and going back to the point David made, I think what has happened in the last 25, 30 years is that a lot of the thrust of interpretation has moved towards a personal, generating personal inspiration, as opposed to just passing down an academic or aesthetic judgement. So this idea that maybe 50 years ago or 30 years ago my mother would take me to the art gallery and say “this is good for you” because it’s art, it’s high art as opposed to â€¦
Gillian Reynolds: You’re not to mention art, he’ll go mad. Steph: No, no, no fine we’ll come onto that in a second. But the point is that the thrust of a lot of good interpretation that we’ve already heard about tonight is very much generating a sense of inspiration and excitement within people. Rather than saying ‘this is good art, you must react to it’, it’s ‘what do you think about this’, and then take it on from there. But moving on to the other bit about the majority of museum collections aren’t fine art, I think there is a constant within all of this is that. I mean, the great strength of museum collections, apart from their tangibility and their originality, is that they’re ultimately points of departure for inspiration. They’re not fixed destinations, and I think the trouble with, if you like the old aesthetic idea, is that they were fixed destinations. This was a great painting by a certain person and you had to deal with it, whereas I think the attitude now is these are points of departures. As said earlier on, thousands of different views can emanate from one thing and it doesn’t have to be a Monet, it could just be a small everyday artefact that we all remember from our childhood.
Gillian Reynolds: Over there..[pointing to audience]
Liz Mckenzie: I realise I bang on about scholarship the whole time, I just think we should bear in mind actually that our museums directors and curators are bean counters at the moment as a result of the Government sort of initiatives. And I think it’s up to us, the punters, and I’m a punter, to make sure that scholarship plays some part in all this. I mean, if you’ve got to prove to the Government you get 50% of whatever it is, social class ‘z’, through your doors you can be distracted, and most jobs nowadays, particularly from Renaissance in the Region which is this fantastic over-arching sort of set up at the moment, it’s just one and two years. And I think that that’s a bad thing, and us as punters should make sure that the museums and galleries have access to scholarship. And also bear in mind that we do want our kids and our grannies and our sort of middle aged couples to come into museums and enjoy it, as well as realising it is very, very important to our lives in this country. We’re very lucky, but let’s hope it stays like that. Sorry to go on.
Gillian Reynolds: How do you do that though? How do you do that balance that she was talking about?
David Barrie: Well, I mean it is a real problem, there’s no question. I think that the reality is a lot of museums over the past 10 or 15 years have sacrificed curatorial skill in order to invest in other areas. I don’t think the investment in other areas is in itself wrong, because often it’s been extremely valuable and productive, but the loss of curatorial skill has been very damaging, and plainly we need more generous investment in museums and galleries.
David Fleming: But David, where has that happened? What has the damage been? Give us some instances, because I hear this and I never actually hear any instances of where has this happened and what exactly is this damage that’s been done?
David Barrie: Well, the British Museum laid off about 50 curators three years ago, and it lost, for example, its only curator who knew anything about Chinese painting. Now, they have a great collection of Chinese paintings. British Museum now has nobody on its staff who can curate that collection. Do you think that’s good?
David Fleming: Well no, but what’s the damage, bearing in mind â€¦
David Barrie: Well, the damage is that we have a great collection of Chinese paintings held on behalf of the public, is no longer ineffectt accessible because those things are not being put on display, because nobody there has the confidence to put them on display. I think that’s a tragedy.
David Barrie: Well, I don’t think it’s great but I mean â€¦Well again, I’d just like to know where the damage is because they often say the damage is in damage to collections, and if we’re talking about the other side of that coin, maybe, I don’t know what’s happened at the British Museum and I don’t know what happens to their visitors, but maybe more people are getting more benefit from the British Museum now than they were when those 50 people were there. Maybe that’s true, so lets, you know, lets, without throwing these things out lets just â€¦
David Barrie: No, no, no but David, surely the point I’m making is not that the British Museum should invest exclusively in curators, but that alongside everything else that it does it should have a decent body of curatorial expertise that is competent to interpret and display the collections it holds. If it isn’t able to do that it is, by it’s own lights, falling short of the ideal.
James Delingpole: It’s failed.
David Barrie: I mean it seems to me indisputable.
Gillian Reynolds: There is a lady over here who’s been patiently waiting. [pointing to audience]
Audience member: Hi my name is [indistinct] Thrones, and I’m about to start research into heritage outreach for children. My point basically is so far tonight we’ve put a lot of emphasis on what collections mean, and what the fuzzy felt means, and how that they both play a role in what museums do. But I think basically the point that we’re missing really is what both of these things are there for, and I think they’re there as tools to bring a concept of past and history to people. And I think, going back to what we said earlier on the point of museum acting as a friendly authority on the concept of past, what worries me is that too much emphasis is being put on what do we do with collections. Have we got too much fuzzy felt? Really what we should be looking at is presenting the information to people. and specifically to children. to allow them to create their own concept of past. And one thing that concerns me, particularly with reference to Liverpool Museum, is the complete lack of displays relating to the concept of pre-history. And I think with that we’ve got a lot of emphasis on fuzzy felt and push-button technology, but then we’re really missing what the whole point of what museums is - it’s the primary point of interaction for children with their past. And there we’re losing the whole sense of past. A whole era that is just not represented.
Gillian Reynolds: Now here’s someone who’s finally said what a museum is for. It’s a primary point of interaction with the past. Yes?
Audience member: Yes.
Gillian Reynolds: Do you agree with that?
James Delingpole: (laughing) I think that’s one of the things they should be doing, yes. Can I take up sort of a few tiny bits of that lady’s point, which is, we were talking earlier about have audiences changed. Are they less deferential before works of art and artefacts and things? don’t actually think people have changed that much over the years. I think audiences respond to objects and cases in much the same way they ever did. I think what’s changed actually is the attitude of the people running the museums. In the old days when, for example, Hampton Court Palace was open to the public in 1837, hundreds and hundreds of working class people rushed in to see these wonderful new sites, to the extent that within a few years they had to replace the floorboards because all the hobnailed boots had trashed them. You know, the reason that the National Gallery was put in Trafalgar Square was because it was equidistant between the West End for the toffs and the East End for the working classes, and it was assumed that both would come in there, and indeed they did. People didn’t go in those days ‘oh, it’s object in glass cases, well how is it relevant to me?’ and I think people haven’t been asking that question and aren’t asking those questions now. The people asking it for them are the people who run the museums, and are suddenly saying ‘oh my God people might not come to our museum, we’re so boring, we must make ourselves interesting, we must bend over backwards’ and I think this is a mistake. And I think it comes back to that scholarship question, and I think that being, for museums to be scholarly doesn’t mean that the people won’t want to come. I don’t see, that’s not a problem.
Gillian Reynolds: I have three hands up, one here, one here and one over there. Here first. .[pointing to audience]
Audience member: I think to foster an interest in museums you need to take exhibitions outside. I think the Museum of Liverpool Life did a very good job last year in putting on the Romans and so on, and people like to see active explanations of history. And last Saturday I organised a Viking exhibition and we had 500 coming to watch the Vikings re-enacting their lives, and everybody was absolutely thrilled. They were families with young children and they learnt how the Vikings made their clothing, what their food was, what their medicinal remedies were. and it was absolutely wonderful. I think that kind of active outdoor exhibition fosters an interest in going to museums and looking at more academic displays.
Gillian Reynolds: That’s an ‘as well as’?
Audience member: An ‘as well as’ - yes.
Gillian Reynolds: As well as, over here, yes you first. Yes, and then I’m coming over to you. .[pointing to audience]
Julie Taylor: My name is Julie Taylor and I’m also a Trustee of Kids in Museums. I wanted to comment on the issue of scholarship, which I agree is essentially very important to museums, but nor is it exclusive. In many, many ways, I’m sure lots of here will remember the Thames whale when it became stranded, and the river authorities came to try to rescue it. And who did they turn to for advice? They turned to the Natural History Museum because actually the Natural History Museum had an expert who could explain about the whole situation of the whale - what it may need and its whole position. And in fact, you know, the remains are now lodged with the Natural History Museum, and others can and learn more about that. And secondly, in a different kind of non-exclusive scholarship, I was recently at the Sir John Soane’s Museum, and I went downstairs into the basement and I was looking at this series of paintings, the Hogarth paintings, the Rake’s Progress. And there was a number of us there and I’d seen copies of them before. I didn’t know very much about how they fitted into society at the time. I didn’t know too much about Hogarth’s position at the time, and there was a warden sitting in the gallery, about 10, 15 people joined us there, and once we collected he talked us through the paintings, their history, their social significance and their artistic significance. And that was an incredibly powerful experience. It was literally storytelling in the museum from someone who, I know because I asked afterwards, had not necessarily had a professional career in museums. So I think scholarship in museums is not something which is actually siphoned off. It’s not an exclusive thing, it’s something which can be shared by all of us and actually be incredibly powerful when it is.
Gillian Reynolds: Thank you, over there behind. There’s a lady over there had her hand up. .[pointing to audience]
Siobhan McCormick: Hello, Siobhan McCormick, NADavid FlemingAS with Young Arts. Well, just going back to the title which is ‘Kids in Museums’, I’ve always felt with any children in museums there’s this ‘wow factor’ which I think we had from the start, and this awe and wonder when they see something that is going to stay with them, probably for life. And that goes back right through history. I mean I always think of people seeing those magnificent cathedrals as we were discussing before, and how they must have felt, ‘how did this possibly happen?’ and that to me is what children, or any of us, can find in museums. It’s that link with our past and â€¦
Gillian Reynolds: As this lady said here, ‘point of interception with the past’.
Siobhan McCormick: Yes.
Gillian Reynolds: Over there and then I’ll come to you. [pointing to audience]
Edward Lucie-Smith: I think one of the things which we’ve been, what the discussion is turning towards, is that museums in general, and after all we have a huge spectrum in Liverpool of museums which do different, very different sorts of jobs, but if one looked for a common denominator it is that they represent collective memory. That is in physical form they are memory - the memory of the human race. The scientific memory, the artistic memory and so on. But one of the things which increasingly occurs to me as I get older is that this memory is unstable, but when you complain about difficult labels, negative labels and so on what you’re not actually making allowances for is the fact that knowledge is growing and changing in all sorts of ways. Let me just give you a very specific example. Here in Liverpool, not in the Liverpool Museum but in the Tate Liverpool, you have a Chinese exhibition. A contemporary Chinese exhibition which represents a sudden expansion of knowledge about contemporary art. However, when you look at Chinese culture in general, you find that it is, knowledge of Chinese culture is now unstable at both ends because there’s been a huge age of archaeological discovery, and that our hierarchical view of Chinese history no longer works. We have all these hitherto unknown Neolithic and early Bronze Age cultures which don’t fit into the acceptable, historical pattern. What a good museum has to do if it’s tackling that kind of issue is it has to find a way of mediating and saying ‘there are lots of things which in fact we don’t know’. But I think the other thing which it has got to say is, to some extent, especially with contemporary art, it has to say ‘will you help us to know’ that is, I think that when museums have outreach programmes designed to reach children, programmes designed to reach people who don’t normally go to museums and that kind of thing, very often it’s still talked down. The most effective way of communicating, in my view - my view is chiefly based on communicating about the visual arts - is not to tell people ‘this is how it is’ but to ask them ‘how do you think it is?’ I recently did a very small exhibition for a commercial gallery, which is a realist gallery in London, and they said would I curate a realist show for the summer, and I said “yes, I will but you’ve got to change the title.” So they said “what do you want?” I said “what is realism? And put in a range of pictures which might be considered realist”. They got an absolutely colossal response. The catalogues sold out, they got more visitors than they’d ever had for an exhibition of that kind. You have to go out and ask questions if you’re running a museum as well as telling people things. Thank you.
Gillian Reynolds: I’ve got room for three more points, three more questions. Down there. [pointing to audience]
Dorothy Kuya: I had the good fortune, to be involved with NML in the early days, and that was in the development of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Gallery. And I think, my question is what should museums do? And it links in what Ted has just said, is that when the committee was set up to set up that gallery they brought in people from the community for whom slavery was part of their living history. I was one of those involved, so were other black people in the community, and I think that was one of the things that helped to make that gallery such a success for the public, there was not only people from the community involved but there were curators from the Caribbean and from Africa who were involved in helping to make it what it is. And for such a small gallery it had an amazing success with the community, and I have to hand it to NML. People have come not only from all over Britain, from all over the world. The little plaque that was put up to explain the need to commemorate Slavery Remembrance Day on the 23rd of August, which was a follow on from the setting up of the gallery, has brought people in again from all over the country, and I was thinking of what Ted said about museums also may be incidentally becoming places of pilgrimage.
Well fundamentally they should do, but incidentally this place has become a place of pilgrimage for many people. It was the first attempt by a museum to actually commemorate the history of some of the people who’d been oppressed by the nation that set up the museums originally. Because I think in talking about this issue we have to remember the history of why museums were set up. You know, they were collecting data, they were collecting information about communities who eventually they colonised and they imperialised. So I think we can’t look at what museums should do and who they’re for without thinking of that wider historical context in which museums were set up. But certainly I think NML was unique in the way it set up the Transatlantic Slave Trade Gallery and how it relates to the communities, not only the black communities, the African and Caribbean but also the white communities who were desperate to know more about this history, and who instinctively felt they weren’t told the truth. Can I just say we talked about scholarship, what we want is honest unbiased scholarship and I don’t believe we’ve had that in museums either. They’ve often reflected the culture and attitudes of society and have presented often very biased information about other cultures and other traditions, so I’d like to see them open up more. I think by the way they set up the Transatlantic Slave Trade Gallery is actually a lesson in the way we should be forming and reforming the museums in this country.
Gillian Reynolds: There was one other over here. [pointing to the audience]
Anna Kennedy: Hi my name’s Anna Kennedy. I’m a Trustee of Kids in Museums as well. I just want to make the point before we finish, and I know that the panel can’t deal with this, (laughing) can’t answer this, but I work in museum education and I used to be a teacher. And my first year of teaching was the year the national curriculum came in, and I just find it incredibly frustrating. I have contact with teachers every single day, all the time. Schools are a fundamental way of getting kids engaged with the fantastic stuff we have to offer and my job, I work for 24 Hour Museum, we’re a national website that deals with museums, we get news everyday of the fantastic stuff museums are doing. We get requests from teachers on how to use it and I just didn’t want to - it feels slightly as if the references to the Labour Government and their developments over the last 10 years - I don’t want them to get away with too good a reputation because whilst they might be pro-access in many ways, and Renaissance is fantastic, at the same time as supposedly helping museums to reach out they’ve been putting up barriers everywhere. And it’s so difficult for a teacher to bring a class to a museum for schools, to access the fantastic stuff that you’re all doing, that you’ve got. In a secondary school, forget it basically. My three children get one visit a year and that one visit a year is absolutely inspirational, but that’s all the school can manage. It’s down to funding. It’s down to the practical, the whole idea of risk assessment. It’s because the day is compartmentalised, and one of the things that I’d love to do through Kids in Museums is try and plug to get kids into museums through the school system as well as through families, because I think it’s just criminal how difficult it is for teachers and school children to access what we’ve got, and I think particularly the last ten years that’s been â€¦
Gillian Reynolds: Thank you. I think that’s very instructive point and clearly one from the heart. Anybody else, any last ones? I’m going to ask all four of you to think in the light of what’s been said tonight - an experience of transcendence into sections of history, collective memory, places of pilgrimage, places of scholarship, powerhouses of scholarship, places where children can come for fun, they may learn (but don’t say it in a loud voice) - I want you to think about what a museum’s for, and while you’re thinking I’m going to read you a bit of a letter I had from a reader. I wrote a piece in the Telegraph just before Easter about (you always get work when you’re a freelance at Easter and Christmas because all the people on salary are off, so you always get work then) and so I wrote a piece about how, you know, you can go into any corner of Britain and you will hear people taking their kids around museums. And I mentioned the Irish elk in World Museum because I’ve propelled my then 44, now 47 year old son back into World Museum saying, “you’re going to love this it’s wonderful, it’s terrific”. And he said, “I bet the planetarium’s rubbish, I bet they’ve got rid of the Irish elk (rrr rrr)”. And I’m pushing him at the back, and he goes over to the thing, gets in the atrium, unlike you he just went “Wah! You know, I like the big things with the signs with the bugs and ants and everything”. He went off in search of the Irish elk, and this mention of the Irish elk drew this lady from Skelmersdale to write:
‘I know just what you mean. You had your elk, I had the polar bear. The first overwhelming and abiding memory of a visit to the museum, mid 30s, school holidays, furnished with two or three pennies and set free for the day. One of the pennies was the famous penny return on the tram car â€¦
And she was always very worried about losing her return ticket:
‘The polar bear was right there as one walked in, on hind legs and with blood round it’s mouth. Frightened the life out of me the first time I saw it, but came to regard it as an old friend over subsequent visits. I don’t know what happened to him/her because many years later I was hiking my children round the museum, it was missing. Perhaps the moths got to it or it was a casualty of the war.’
Now I can’t let today go by without asking John Millard to tell me later what’s happened to that polar bear, but meanwhile I’m going to ask all four of you in turn, as you come, to say what’s a museum for. James.
James Delingpole: Well, can I make it a sort of child centric answer which is that, the point I’d like to make is that I don’t think all the things that I think museums are for - you know scholarship etc - are inimical to the interests of children. I think it’s perfectly possible for a museum to work itself in such a way that the kiddies are entertained and the museum doesn’t dumb down, and I’ll give you a good example of this. My favourite museum is the Imperial War Museum, and it works successfully on every level. There are objects in glass cases with detailed notes for people like me who are obsessed with World War II; there’s the trench experience for teenagers, and then there’s the submarine for people like my 6 year old daughter to climb in and out of and experiment on the camp beds and stuff. In no ways do these differing experiences detract from the museum’s function as an intelligent museum of military history. Nothing is sacrificed to get the kiddies in, so it works on that level. By contrast I went to the Museum of Childhood the other day. There was a sandpit in there. Okay I know it’s a museum of childhood but there is no place for a sandpit, with lots of children sort of smearing the sand over the floor. It’s a waste of space, it doesn’t work. There are sandpits everywhere. I think that’s the difference between a good museum and a bad museum in terms of children.
Gillian Reynolds: Do your children like museums?
James Delingpole: Yes, they love them. I’m being dragged, you know, my daughter says to me “daddy can we go to the Imperial War Museum?” I mean I know she’s my daughter and she probably knows it’s my heart’s wish anyway, (laughing) but yes, they love going to museums.
Gillian Reynolds: If she said “I want to go in the sandpit”?
James Delingpole: Too old for that nonsense now.
Gillian Reynolds: Too old for that nonsense. (laughing) Right, Dea.
Dea Birkett: Well I agree that the Imperial War Museum works incredibly well. Of course it is one of the few museums that have full time historians on there, absolute experts, and I do think you do feel that in, when you’re in there and I think. I mean, I think a museum is for many things. It’s partly to do with connecting us with history, it’s partly to do with fun and enjoyment, it’s partly a place of pilgrimage., I think it’s all of those things and I think it also is a place of scholarship but, and that must be central too, but the problem is that all these curators that got fired they shot themselves in the foot because they became so proprietorial about their subjects. We want a curator because when you go to the Hogarth or when you see the whale they can tell us about it, and curators hated telling us about it and so therefore they should be fired. But we want that expertise (laughing), but people to actually talk to us about that expertise, and Imperial War Museum the historians are also great communicators. And curators will get fired as long as they don’t see themselves also as communicators. But also I think very interesting, I think at the heart of all us the museum visit is what I call the ‘museum moment’. Probably you ask everybody in this room and you will have had, probably when you’re quite young, what I call a ‘museum moment’. There was the polar bear moment, the Irish elk moment. I can think of my own moment and perhaps - I’ll tell you quickly about my son. I think when my son, who is now, who got us thrown out of the Aztec exhibition, who is now five, I think when he is my age he will see as his ‘museum moment’ when I took him to the Victoria and Albert Museum and we went in a room which I call the fake room. I don’t know what its real name is but it’s full of huge replicas of great. You know, bad replicas of a great work of art, and there’s Michelangelo’s David right up there in front. Absolutely huge and what I did is I tried to make, he was going absolutely wild, and I tried to make his enjoyment into learning. So what I did is I held up my hand to Michelangelo’s foot and I said “look, look toes as big as my hand” and he said “no mum, not big toes, big willy.” (laughing) Now once someone that age has seen one big willy they see loads of them (laughing). So I was pushing him in his pushchair along these long corridors at the V&A, lined either side with these statues of naked men, and he was shouting out, “look a big willy, another big willy” (laughing) at which point a room warden made his way towards me and I thought ,my goodness if we get thrown out of the Royal Academy for shouting “monster, monster” what’s going to happen at the V&A for shouting “big willy”.’ The room warden came over. He didn’t look at me, he looked directly at my son, and said, “you seem to be enjoying yourself, don’t you” (laughing) and then walked away. Now that was a ‘museum moment’ I reckon when my son is 50 he will have like that polar bear.
Gillian Reynolds: Thank you. David.
David Fleming: I’ve forgotten what you’ve asked (laughing).
Gillian Reynolds: He does this in meetings. you know. He sits there reading other stuff. Now, what is a museum for? Have you heard me?
David Fleming: What is a museum for? The best way I saw this summed up wasâ€¦ there’s this little booklet that I’m fiddling with here and I can’t find the front of it now but it wasâ€¦, what amazed me most at the museum today, the impact of museum visits on pupils at key stage two. James won’t like this because it’s a sort of politically driven structuring of learning, but there’s this girl, 8 years old, who went into the museum and she said, “when I came in I was confused, when I came out I was full of ideas”. And to me this is what museums are about. They’re not about collections, they’re not about scholarship, they’re not about visitor services, they’re not about all the facilities and ancillary things. They’re about all those things, but actually none of that means anything unless when people come out they’ve got ideas going on in their heads, and that to me is what the magic of museums, and that’s why I’m not even keen on debates like this because I feel like we’re just dancing on a pin head. All of this is important stuff but let’s just get people changed when they come in. I have a little, you will have seen this in my office Gillian a while ago during some meeting or another, my flip chart. I drew a little stick man, and then I drew a little arrow showing the stick man going into a square box marked ‘M’, which is M for museum, and then coming out of the other side of the box was a stick man with two heads and a big willy (laughing) oddly enough, which I think was a slip of the pen. But the simple point we were making when we’re discussing that is that that’s what museums are for. You go in, something happens to you, you come out, you’ve changed and whether it’s brilliant paintings or just an everyday item, you know, something people used to iron with or a tin of beans or a slavery related item, this is what museums are all about. It’s about all those things but it’s actually about ideas ultimately.
Gillian Reynolds: The museum of ideas, David
David Barrie: Well actually I agree with what David’s just said, and it seems to me that museums are places where there’s a concentration of material of a kind that might actually change somebody’s life. I mean, my moment since we’re into personal recollections, my moment actually was when I was about 7 years old and I was shown into one of the sort of back rooms of the Natural History Museum in London to look at some moths, because I’m very keen on moths. And there was this huge, I mean in memory probably much bigger than reality. but a vast room packed with cabinets with many, many narrow drawers, of a kind that you can see actually and it’s rather nice, they’re on show, similar ones in the World Museum. And it was a room full of them, floor to ceiling, and over in one corner there was a little cabinet about this high, maybe a bit higher, and the curator who took me in there said “well all of the British moths are in this cabinet” and I just couldn’t believe it, (laughing) you know. Two and a half thousand species and there was just one example of each.
Gillian Reynolds: Yes.
David Barrie: And then you talk about this whole room and it was, it’s nothing to do with art, nothing to do with memory I would say but it was a lot to do with wonder and astonishment and that’s lived with me ever since. And it seems to me that all of us in our different ways, just to repeat myself, who knows what encounter is going to change your life. You have no idea, but museums offer in concentrated form opportunities to have those life changing experiences. We haven’t talked at all about contemporary art, which I regret, because that seems to me to offer extraordinary opportunities of a rather different kind actually, from some of the other things we’ve talked about.
Gillian Reynolds: We’ll do it on another occasion.
David Barrie: Yes.
Gillian Reynolds: Give us a date and we’ll do it on another occasion, thank you all very much indeed, thank you, you’ve been absolutely terrific. I hope you’ve felt welcome in this and valued in this discussion because you are all here because you care as much about these things as we do, and I thank you very much indeed for your attendance, and for your involvement. And if you, shall we have one on contemporary art?
David Barrie: Why not (laughing).
Gillian Reynolds: Shall we? Come on? (Laughing) (In unison) Yes.
Gillian Reynolds: There you are thank you all very much indeed. (Applause)