Museums are where cultures go to die; Greece, Rome, the Han Dynasty, Medieval England, Renaissance Italy, civilizations from throughout time and space find themselves entombed and on display, their epitaphs marked in a square of text on the wall. Egyptian mummies find their remains interred in glass cases around the world, bodies and coffins laid up for public consumption. In the upstairs galleries of the British Museum, hot-handed children babble and try to represent priest Hornedjitef’s death in crayon. Historically-focused museums around the world are the scattered final resting places of these civilizations, but this practice raises questions about the effect on the meaning of the art itself.
In a museum-mausoleum, cultural relics are preserved, kept secure, but in return for this protection, are somewhat stripped of their authenticity. Especially in a historically-focused museum, these items are distanced from their original purpose and are embedded in an artificial and consciously composed context. The British Museum, one of London’s most prominent historically-focused museums, serves a critical role in the educational and cultural lives of the community. It’s a resource I love having access to, but I can’t deny that the work becomes almost sterilized in that environment. The colossal Assyrian winged lion was not created for art but for necessity, to mark and guard the entrance of the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, and yet we perceive it as sculpture. How can we internalize the cultural value, importance, or context of the Parthenon when it’s displayed in fragments and just steps away from the Assyrian reliefs of the lion hunt and the Rosetta Stone? In such close proximity to one another, it’s difficult to conceptualize the meaning of these pieces individually. I was also astonished to find that I could skip over so many exhibits, succumbing to museum fatigue amid some of the most impressive ancient art in the world. Somehow, the sheer scale of the collections in the British Museum diminished the magnitude of each individual piece, for me.
The British Museum also displays newer, more formal art. Contemporary artists’ work only winds its way into museums like the British Museum if it’s considered relevant enough to be commodifiable. I appreciate that these shows are an attempt to enliven the Museums’s collection. I can’t help but feel that showing an artist like Grayson Perry in the British Museum solidifies him as an icon more than an artist, and cements him into history and somewhat restraining the impact of his work. Interestingly, Perry said he chose to send a proposal for the recent Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman to the British Museum because of the museum’s emphasis on death and passed past civilizations.
Grayson Perry on patience with his teddy.
Selfishly, I think that mutation of meaning and shifting of emphasis is justifiable collateral damage, because without museums I would never be able to see this artwork. Arts and crafts don’t exist in a vacuum, and were historically created to be sold and displayed. The British Museum is an icon of grandeur and home to a remarkable breadth of art, craft and relics. As a resource for the community, it’s remarkably accessible, comprehensive and connected to the community. A claim could be made that the juxtaposition of unrelated pieces in museums illuminates subtle aspects of both. I am not denying that they serve London and the art world well, but am arguing that the very nature of museum display, especially in the British Museum, alters and dries the meaning of the work it intends to illuminate and share.