Museums and galleries are fast becoming what the best-dressed city is wearing this year. Everywhere I look, in the Sunday supplements, in the glossies and on the telly, the merits of the new Tate, the new National Museum of Scotland, Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art, and the extension to the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh are dissected and discussed, as is the Design Museum.
As tourism grows in economic strength, cultural organisations and their architecture grow in stature, nourished by the National Lottery and the Millennium Fund. Cities and regions fight within themselves and with one another for money to express their individuality now that manufacturing, the old autonomy and its power have gone, and Britain’s high streets have become virtually interchangeable. It’s a bit like taking on a strange new identity after the trauma of a major personality bypass – the attractive new face and stylish clothes don’t fit so perfectly as those recently and carelessly discarded.
A museum is defined as “a repository of interesting objects connected with literature, art or science”, or, “an institution devoted to the acquiring of objects of interest or value; a place exhibiting such objects”. The name is derived from the Muses, sister goddesses in Greek mythology and patrons of the arts and sciences. The definition surprised me, because so many museums appear not to acquire objects of contemporary interest. To them, value seems to connote only monetary or antique value, where age confers status through craft skills, historical endurance and sentimentality.
If the world stopped now, what would Martian archeologists think of our museums’ value systems? We’ve got Neo-Victorian bus-stops and museum collections, but we don’t have expansive, definitive collections of white goods, contemporary transportation or consumer goods. Is it because we don’t value them as we value old things, or is it because we don’t understand the present and are scared of the future?
Generally, I think it’s healthy to have the international represented alongside the national and local – after all, we don’t live in a vacuum. But I do worry about the proliferation of galleries of modern art, with one seeming to open somewhere in the world approximately every two weeks. I assume these collections are frozen in time, offering another safe, voyeuristic experience and an international diet of accepted masters, with little opportunity for credible, regional variety.
Glasgow, UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999, will have its new Gallery of Modern Art opened by the Queen on 30 March. Unlike Edinburgh, which receives substantial funding for its “national” collections from central Government, all of Glasgow’s galleries and museums are funded by the local council, which places a considerable burden on the city’s taxpayers.
The fine arts are already well represented within the city’s many galleries, but it seems odd that the city once called the “workshop of the world” has only a Museum of Transport to mark its great heritage and current aspiration to be a great design-led city once again.
Sadly, I wish the new Gallery of Modern Art was a design museum. There are only so many archetypes of the Modern period in art, very few of them exist in Glasgow, and all are beyond the city’s public purse. A Gallery of Contemporary Art would have been acceptable, but design and manufacturing are the ideological lifeblood of this city, which cast over 8000 votes in the last BBC Design Awards, as opposed to the few hundred cast in Edinburgh and Liverpool.
What better than to have had a new Design Museum in place of the new Gallery of Modern Art, next to Glasgow’s ‘Oxford Street’? Unfortunately, we’re stuck with wandering through Tesco, Habitat and a couple of car showrooms. They don’t really supply the necessary contextual information or cultural interpretation, but if you treat these spaces as art galleries, it becomes a rather interesting experience.
The Design Museum in London may not be as grand as everyone would wish but let’s be very thankful that it exists. Art is fine if you’re into it, but design and architecture touch each of us every day of our lives.
It’s a disgrace that a country which is a major design producer and consumer does not more fully support and represent design’s vital role in our society and economy.