SBHD: One of the most interesting proposals to come before the Millennium Commission is one for a museum of British history. Gaynor Williams argues that although design and presentation are key issues, the most important consideration is what the museum actually says to us
The Millennium Commission, which must surely have had tower blocks of submissions by now, has had one application in particular that is attracting attention – a proposal for a new Ãº50m museum on British history.
History House would bring in up to one million visitors a year, or so its backers claim. It would be housed in a new complex of buildings somewhere near, but outside, London. Milton Keynes is apparently a key contender. Since many people (and I include myself in that number) will see the idea of having to visit Milton Keynes as a good reason for going somewhere else, what will be pulling in the crowds?
History House is intended to be “a museum for the 21st century”. In other words, it is the use of technology that will make this museum different. Interactive computer displays, CD-ROMs, film projections and live performance will all add up to give a thoroughly modern museum. According to Gordon Marsten, editor of the magazine History Today and a member of the committee planning the museum, when History House does display artefacts, it will do so in an original way. Quoted in the Independent on Sunday, he said: “We want to get away from showing dead objects.”
Dead right. That, of course, is what museum designers and their clients have been trying to get away from for well over a decade. To a large extent, they have already succeeded. Perhaps the readiest example of this trend is the dinosaur display at the Natural History Museum. You can’t get much deader than a dinosaur, but no-one told the Natural History Museum that. Years after its 1992 opening, the dinosaur gallery is still attracting thousands of visitors, almost all of whom are enthralled by the experience – especially the children.
It is the newspaper coverage which History House has received that set me thinking. Billed as the first museum with no glass cases, it is the museum’s technological spin that gives it “editor appeal”. Yet far too often the phrase “high technology” allows people to side-step the real issues such as “Why are we doing this at all?”
It’s marvellous when hi-tech exhibition design yields displays that stimulate not just the entertainment reflex, but the imagination and intellect as well. But the words “live performance” make me shudder. All you have to do is add the dread word “experience”, and we’re back at Theme Park Britain, AD 1989. A world where York becomes Yorvik; where Machiavellian planners scheme schemes (thankfully unsuccessful) to turn Stratford into a theme-park; where the pursuit of academic excellence in an ancient seat of learning is undermined by the installation of an inane “ride” called The Oxford Story.
Everything in its place. I don’t mind being told, when driving up the M1, that I’m fast approaching “Robin Hood country”. I don’t even object that much to the absolutely extraordinary transformation of the “White Cliffs experience” from a nature ramble to a Disney-style walk-thru. But in the garden of electronic delights it’s all too easy to forget to actually say something meaningful. How many exhibitions have you visited that looked good, but failed to really communicate anything much? Too many, in my case.
Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “The medium is the message” is no longer relevant: this is a decade where everyone has taken in the implications of computers, CD-ROM, the Internet et al. These things have become mere tools – just as they should be. Computer screens aren’t hi-tech any more.
This is not to attack the concept of History House itself – the credentials of the committee which is proposing it seem impressive, as do some of the ideas put forward. Visitors will, for instance, each be able to participate in historical arguments on interactive terminals. There will be lectures, as well as luvvies giving “live performances”.
But whether or not a museum is hi-tech is an irrelevance. The importance of any such institution is in the argument that it presents and in the intellectual content of that argument; the views of life and of history that it puts forward. As Bertrand Russell once said, true thought is the most difficult activity known to man.