‘I prefer paternalism to populism’

In an exclusive interview, Dr Robert Anderson, retiring director of the British Museum, talks about his fears for the museum's future and why the Parthenon Marbles must stay.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

‘The essence of the British Museum must be preserved at all costs. There are times when things get very difficult. And one must realise that there are fragilities.’

Two weeks ago, Dr Robert Anderson stepped down as director of the British Museum in London, after 10 years in the position and 32 years working in UK national museums.

He leaves with the museum running millions of pounds in deficit, as a result of declining government funding (cut by around a third in real terms over the past 10 years), falling visitor numbers, and the increased costs of the new Great Court. The museum has been forced to rein in its work in many areas: cutting numbers of staff, reducing opening hours, cancelling exhibitions and installing a rota of closed galleries.

Sitting in his office in Bloomsbury, Anderson told me about the danger that the British Museum is now in, and the risk that special aspects of the museum might be eroded.

The cutbacks in staff, he said, present a real threat to the high level of scholarship and expertise that are key to the museum. ‘It is depressing for me now that we have this funding restriction, that it does look that the curatorial level at the British Museum is going to have to decline somewhat.’ And acquisition funds have been cut to a fraction of previous levels – from £1.65million in the mid-1980s to £100,000 this year. ‘There are 92 senior curators in the museum – that’s £1000 a year per curator, which is self-evidently ridiculous.’

So what, some might argue, if research and collecting decline a bit? The British Museum will still be there, and its vast collections will still be available for all to see. ‘I believe that successful museums have a critical mass’, says Anderson. ‘Core activity has to be kept at a certain level or else the museum itself declines as a cultural organisation. We have tried to maintain that critical mass at the British Museum. Recently, there are ways in which that critical mass has been eroded or might be. It is in very great danger.’ A museum has to keep collecting and studying objects at a certain level to stay alive as an institution. Otherwise, it starts to become a museum of itself.

The cuts planned for the British Museum’s conservation department, for example, will mean the loss of four material specialists – people who can study objects to extract details such as when and how those objects were made (1). In a museum such as the British Museum, discoveries about the collections are constantly being made and added to public displays. Recently, scanning studies on one of the museum’s Egyptian mummies, Artemidorus, revealed that he was probably killed by a blow to the head at the age of 20. From knowing the age of an Egyptian mummy, to knowing his identity, to knowing how he died…each discovery further illuminates the object on display.

Acquisitions are similarly vital: as Anderson says, they are ‘the lifeblood of museums’. ‘The identification of significant material, which has perhaps been overlooked, is something that gives energy to museums. And material is constantly being produced; artists and craftsmen are constantly producing new works, and people everywhere produce things which have specific qualities relating to the time and circumstances when they are produced. The British Museum has been particularly concerned to represent the twentieth century in the past few years. You don’t have any ability to be able to do that when funding is this tight.’

It is this incremental collecting, rather than the one-off blockbuster buy, that is likely to be threatened. ‘If something obviously top quality comes along, there may be some way of finding funds for it – from the National Arts Collection Fund or the Heritage Lottery Fund. But the British Museum is not a museum that only collects a few staggering pieces of high art: it considers itself an historical museum. It is important to represent cultures and changes through its collections.’

The increasingly tight funds, Anderson says, means museum workers are suffering from strain. ‘[Curators] work extraordinarily hard. They publish 200 papers in journals every year – I am fairly certain that much of that writing is done not in museum hours but home late at night. But there is a lot of enthusiasm, even though times are difficult. It’s not that there is a low morale, but there is tremendous strain. They would like to feel that there is good public support. Every now and then we have a good piece in the press, or a successful exhibition or visit, and everybody responds very positively. But it would not be right to say that people aren’t feeling the pinch. People are also worried about their jobs – not surprisingly.’

It is perhaps odd that the British Museum is facing these problems now: after all, this didn’t happen in the 1930s or 70s, which were times of real economic crisis. Indeed, on 15 July 2002, culture minister Tessa Jowell announced that funding for the arts would rise to ‘a new record level’. There seems to be plenty of money sloshing about, it’s just that less is going the British Museum’s way.

Some have blamed the current problems on bad management. Anderson, quite plainly, is not an accountant – he is a specialist in the evolution of scientific instruments. No doubt some critics would rather he had known more about accounting and less about history, but a bureaucrat would have been a poor figurehead for the British Museum.

In my view, the current financial restrictions are symptomatic of a broader problem: there is waning enthusiasm for the traditional functions of museums. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has plenty of money to give out, but collecting and interpreting the artefacts of human history is just not where it’s at. The museums that get money today are those that play to the new government agenda of social inclusion: running projects to improve self-esteem or reduce prejudice, or using new technologies to increase community participation. There is little support for the idea that objects and knowledge have a value in and of themselves.

Allowing the British Museum to decline would be a big mistake – we should remember its importance. ‘There aren’t very many museums like the British Museum’, says Anderson, ‘which have the ambition to represent the chronological length and cultural breadth of the collections of humankind’. It is perhaps only the British Museum that could carry the immodest subtitle: ‘museum of the cultures of the world.’ From man’s early scratchings on a rock thousands of years ago to modern art; from Egyptian statues to scientific instruments; from wooden Polynesian gods to the wonders of Greece and Rome…here you have the products of humankind, in all their variety.

The British Museum was founded almost 250 years ago at the height of the European Enlightenment. At a time of thirst for knowledge about the world, the British Museum was a kind of encyclopaedia of objects; its purpose was to enable a better understanding of man and his environment. This square of Bloomsbury – which over the years has spawned the Natural History Museum and the British Library – became a storehouse. Collections were built upon, year on year, as each generation of curators acquired more objects and made more discoveries about their collections.

As Anderson explains, the British Museum today is still animated by this task. ‘Museums contain three-dimensional artefacts, and those objects contain information which can be released from them by people who are particularly adept at knowing what aspects are to be looked for within those objects. You can release extraordinarily exciting stuff.’ One example of this is the Rosetta Stone: ‘up until the early part of the nineteenth century no one knew what hieroglyphics said, but after Jean-Francois Champollion and Thomas Young had done their work, suddenly this mysterious culture of Ancient Egypt appeared.’

But curators don’t find out such secrets in order to keep them to themselves. When I ask Anderson what the essence of the British Museum is, he replies: ‘to spread enthusiasm; the enthusiasm that people have who work here, to get the outside world to share in the excitement which people feel about what it is that they are doing. Interpretations of the past can thrill and enlighten. This is something that we are always wanting to put over, whether it is by the means of writing a scholarly book or teaching a class of seven-year-olds.’

Just as the museum needs to collect and study to stay alive, it also needs the nourishment of its ties with the public. A museum that became a mere research institution would be diminished. In making its collections and knowledge about them common property, a museum like the British Museum realises its value. It is not out of some obscure personal interest that curators excavated Assyrian statues then spent years studying them: it was because these formed an important part of the story of human history. While on its own, each object and each investigation might look odd and minute, when put together in the public arena they show themselves to be of general relevance and value.

Today, the British Museum doesn’t seem to be admired and appreciated in the way it once was. Rather than being the figurehead in the museums world – the place that other museums want to model themselves on – the British Museum is often seen as ‘overbearing’, old-fashioned, stuffy and elitist. At a Museums Association conference, a young museum professional exploded when I said that the British Museum was one of my favourite museums: ‘That’s a dead museum!’

And there is also perhaps not the same enthusiasm from the public for the museum. ‘Huge numbers come here, but there are communities that don’t come here that could, and I am upset about that’, says Anderson. ‘I don’t think that there is a thirst for knowledge in much of the population today. In the early nineteenth century there was a strong feeling among (mainly) men for self-education. Now one just sits back; it’s there. You don’t need to have to make an effort.’

‘In the past, there have been tremendous pressures on the British Museum to open its doors for longer hours. There was a movement in the early nineteenth century for museums to open on public holidays; eventually the trustees gave in, and huge numbers of people started pouring into the museum. I don’t feel that there is that sort of pressure out there in the same way now.’

This mood is reflected in the question of the Parthenon Marbles: there is a forming consensus among museum professionals that these sculptures should be sent back, to a museum near the Parthenon in Athens. There is no militant movement for return, it is more a shoulder-shrugging ‘Why not?’.

Anderson doesn’t share this complacency: ‘The Parthenon Marbles are vital to the museum. Their removal from the museum would, at a stroke, eliminate some of the most important messages that we are trying to put over. The Marbles are not something that are entirely separate from the rest of the museum – a thrill to be had, then you go away and there’s another thrill. They are integral. And they relate very closely indeed with a large number of other groups of material.

‘The idea of putting them in another museum that contains nothing but objects of a very similar nature created over a very short space of time, will not allow the Parthenon sculptures to offer the benefit which they do now they are embedded in one of the great cultural institutions of the world.

‘I am very confident that the sculptures will remain in the British Museum. Of course, I know what is being said by certain interest groups. I know the pressures that are building up towards the next Olympic games. There have been pressures in the past, which have been resisted. I am sure that pattern will continue.’ Anderson maintains that the removal of one of the major parts of the British Museum is not something that can be allowed to happen: ‘It would be an attack on the museum tradition, which is now not simply a Western-European tradition, but is a tradition which has spread throughout the world.’

By this, he means the museum tradition whereby objects, detached from their origins and brought together with other objects, can enlighten. ‘We don’t know the exact context of most of the objects in the museum. But those objects are, nonetheless, of significance and importance in the overall cultural picture of the productions of people in the past and present.’

But Anderson’s career as a museum director has not just been about researching and displaying collections. While director at the Museum of Scotland in the 1980s, and at the British Museum, he was in charge of substantial building projects – planning a new building for the Museum of Scotland (which eventually opened in 1998), and opening up the Great Court at the British Museum. These projects were very different: ‘the building at the Museum of Scotland aimed to present the history of a nation’, while ‘the aim of the Great Court was to make the British Museum more understandable’.

The Great Court, says Anderson, was a response to the practical challenge of the library being moved out to the new British Library building near Euston – he wanted an ‘aesthetically pleasing result, that dealt with the issues in a straightforward and understandable way’. ‘The Great Court forms a big central space in the museum, where before there were only galleries and corridors.’ Anderson says that he particularly wanted to create an impressive space: ‘My thinking was not the same as the Louvre’s – where you go down into a pyramid, and the space is quite bland.’ In spite of the much-discussed saga of the Great Court’s portico, which was built with the wrong kind of stone, the project has been greeted as a success.

One striking thing about Anderson is his strong belief that museums have the potential to inspire their audience, to open people’s minds – unusual in the current climate, where museums are often obsessed with showing ‘relevant’ exhibitions and pulling visitors in by whatever means possible.

‘I’ve always been anxious to put on exhibitions dealing with subjects which people didn’t know they were going to be interested in until they got here and found out. For example, the Queen of Sheba exhibition largely deals with the archaeology of the Yemen. Most people would not have any concept of what kind of material that would be unless they came to the exhibition to see it.

‘Some museums and galleries do put on the obvious all the time. We are trying to avoid that. The word “education” means opening out; it’s important that we do open people’s minds to things which we consider to be important, which we truly believe that they will benefit from. I have to say that there is a paternalism to that sort of approach. But I prefer paternalism to populism. We are offering people something, which they might accept, they might not, but nevertheless those who do accept it will feel that there is something worthwhile. It is about broadening their horizons. Giving them a better understanding.’

In spite of these views, there have been certain moves towards populism under his directorship. The Gladiators and Caesars exhibition featured film clips from the Hollywood hit, Gladiator; and the museum brought in artist Tracey Emin to talk about Cleopatra and ancient Egypt (Emin had just visited Egypt). Anderson says that ‘Obviously, you have to lure and entice people into the exhibition – by calling the exhibition Queen of Sheba, for example’. But occasionally, the luring of the crowds has crossed the line and begun playing to the crowds.

Still, throughout his 32-year career Robert Anderson has been guided by a strong sense of the value of museums. In this, he stands in contrast to many of the up-and-coming museum directors, who seem to have more interest in management or social work than museum collections. For them, the world has become thoroughly disenchanted: instead of feeling the excitement of finding out about history, they believe that knowledge is a means of control, and that objects are dead things that exclude visitors. Anderson should act as an inspiration for the new generation of museum professionals who are now beginning their first jobs – as, no doubt, will his successor, Neil McGregor.

‘These are not days of idealism, as they have been in the past’, says Anderson. ‘There is always a balance between idealism and business culture. Things move in one direction at one time and another direction at another time.’ ‘I sometimes feel that I would rather live in other times’, he adds, with a smile.

Anderson, though, is still optimistic about the future of the British Museum. ‘The British Museum has had its moments of triumph and moments of difficulty. It is a now a moment of difficulty. But it is not that there has been an inexorable rise, then a decline. There is always a periodicity; there are good times and bad. In the eighteenth century there were terrible times, when they thought that the museum would have to sell part of its collection. I am convinced that things will improve.

‘It’s been a very good 32 years.’

Josie Appleton is author of Museums for ‘The People’?, the Institute of Ideas’ Conversation in Print that was launched at the British Museum in 2001. To buy a copy, call 020 7269 9220 or go to the Institute of Ideas website.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Museums and galleries

(1) Art Newspaper, July-August 2002

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Topics Politics


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