first_imgBut it is curious that the crowd was so enthusiastic about Da Vinci’s painting. A culture, not of religious belief or nationality, but a modern one of commercialism and media drew the crowds to that part of the museum. The name ‘Mona Lisa’ is chanted like a Hail Mary throughout film, television and best-selling novels. Works like this take on a new consumer-packaged significance and become irresistible attractions in the same way that fashion labels adorn sought-after clothes. For our world, a name can be enough. If it’s a concept easy to translate through things like the internet or movies, then it can find its way anywhere. We are much more accepting too, which is probably why we laugh when reading that the audiences of ‘revolutionary’ symphonies fainted in their seats and criticised the music’s radicalism. For these reasons, whatever we consider to be our personal backgrounds or religious associations, the Western world and capitalism have bolted a new layer on top which might be described as an internationally-aware anti-culture.So it is, I think, with a curious sort of hypocrisy that we visit museums and wonder at what we see there, especially if we don’t even take the time to look properly. With all these musings in mind, I spoke to the Director of the Ashmolean Museum, Christopher Brown, a man with decades of experience managing museums. ‘There are many ways of visiting a museum. You can do it superficially or educationally and there is a great deal of value in being able to contemplate a work in appropriate surroundings. Curators work very hard too to try and provide a high level of information to interest a broad public, but there is indeed a great deal of debate on how cultures should be represented and how acquisitions are justified.’ And it was – the crowd were more like devoted believers cramming into a temple before some sacrificial icon. This allusion to religion is appropriate, but the difference is that those believers would all group themselves together, while the museum visitors were from all over the world and represented every race, religion and class imaginable.But museums have that kind of effect. They’re sort of ‘neutral temples’ to the world’s art, religion, culture and the products thereof. Artefacts from contrasting regions and cultures are found under one roof and the public is asked to come and gaze upon these varying wonders. But why? And how do museums justify the cultural relevance of their exhibits? The mass of people who saw the Mona Lisa that day did not have the luxury of a moments’s quiet contemplation before a piece of artistic genius. They’d probably seen it in more detail a few minutes before – in one of the museum’s brochures. And when museums display religious relics or human remains probably stolen over a hundred years ago by an imperialist explorer, how do they justify showing them off to a modern, atheistic and ‘multicultural’ audience when they meant so much more to the cultures from which they’ve been taken? In an essay called ‘Boutique Multiculturalism’, literary critic Stanley Fish defines the person who claims to ‘appreciate’ other cultures while hypocritically refusing to undermine their own principles for the sake of another person’s: “A boutique multiculturalist may [for example] enjoy watching Native American religious ceremonies and insist that they be freely allowed to occur, but he will balk if those ceremonies include animal sacrifice or the use of a controlled substance… a boutique multiculturalist does not and cannot take seriously the core values of the cultures he tolerates”. This is a prudent point. Fish rolls out this definition in a discussion more concerned with sociology, but it seems to fit in here too. When we visit museums and learn about culture, are we always doing so at arm’s length? Museums cannot help us actually engage with another culture; they can only teach us a series of things about it, and predominantly its distant past. Furthermore, when situations like an over-crowded Louvre arise, is there even scope for learning in such a hectic environment? In that scenario, even the basic educational functionality of museums breaks down and, like the staff unable to stop tourists taking photos, there are no curators on hand to step in and say ‘Slow down! Look at these brush strokes…’ ‘Many artefacts in England’s museums were acquired through wars and stealing during Imperialism, yes, but many of those cultures are represented now by English people of ethnic origin and the British Museum, for example, has the scope to present what it calls a “world of culture” within one museum, showing the links and diversities between its various departments.’It is true that Western culture is now home to what is essentially a series of very different and sometimes contrasting cultures. Perhaps museums are actually more justified now as representations of the elements which make up their visiting public. As Christopher Brown said, ‘Ethnic groups which visit such museums can feel supportive of their own history and feel confident that their past is being carefully presented to the world through planned exhibits.’Perhaps the line may only need to be drawn when we come to the issue of human remains such as the Pitt Rivers’ museums famous ‘shrunken heads’ which are subject to repeated calls for return. In such cases, the claims of the museum to be teaching people about other cultures may be seriously undermined. But so too was the value of the Mona Lisa and so many other works on that afternoon in Paris. With the museum opening its doors to everyone, it let itself be subject to the superficial desire of thousands to catch a few glimpses of something because it was free and it was wet outside. It’s hard to criticise the Louvre for allowing free admissions but where does the value lie if no-one can take anything constructive from their visit? But curators aren’t blind to this. Christopher Brown himself confirmed why £60 million was being spent on the Ashmolean’s impressive renovation and extension: ‘The impulse for this work was because we felt that certain collections weren’t being displayed and explained as well as they should be… We want to make sure that objects are chosen carefully and presented in better conditions, with more lighting and better textual information.’So, from stormy days in Paris and discussions with museum directors I’ve come to two conclusions. First that museums can play important ‘cultural’ roles in a culturally-hesitant society. However, to do so, they have to make sure that what they’re showing the public is relevant and appropriate and that it is presented in a way which inspires some sort of valuable response from the viewer. That could be anything from wanting to try your own hand at painting, booking a trip to the Pyramids having met the mummified remains of their old residents or simply coming away a little more knowledgeable about the world you live in – never an insignificant achievement.Why not head off to one of Oxford’s many impressive museums or galleries this weekend? And why not go to one you’ve been to before, but have a second look at that boring bit of metal found by someone building a warehouse in Slough. Because on careful reflection, things always seem to be more engaging.center_img Chris Baraniuk joins the ‘cultured’ crowdsYou might think that an afternoon trip to the Louvre in Paris would be a pretty tranquil outing. Have a browse of a couple of rooms, grab a bite to eat and heave a long sigh of artsy satisfaction. Alas, when I visited the museum last December I got something else entirely.With free admission and terrible, terrible weather outside, the Louvre became more like Primark during the January sales. But more than that – a cathedral-like Primark, one that stretches far beyond the limits of your imagination. It was a combination of the swirling crowds of people from all corners of the world and the sheer size of the place that got in the way of a quiet visit. Paintings the size of houses hung dominantly over onlookers and were themselves dwarfed by the bewildering size of the galleries in which much of the artwork is housed. Louis XIV’s old pad was clearly a ridiculously excessive place to call home, but as a museum it’s even more stupefying because it would be impossible to take in just one of its eight sprawling departments in a single day. Visitor maps and leaflets boast of the ’35,000 works of art’ and the ’60,000 square metres of exhibition space’, but when you let all of Paris and her frantically sight-hungry tourists in for free on a rainy day, such excess becomes problematic. Hoards of people swarmed round the main attractions, thousands of visitors talked and yelled, although clearly signed as prohibited, people everywhere were taking pictures with their cameras and mobiles – museum staff powerless to stop them. The jewel in the Louvre’s crown is of course the Mona Lisa. Da Vinci’s masterpiece has clearly become too famous for her own good and the surprisingly small painting is kept solitarily fastened to a giant wall, behind inches of glass. The sort of crowd more often seen at political rallies and protest marches hugged as close to the painting as possible, surging to get a closer look before another wave of crazed visitors pushed their way in. As the noise undulated and camera flashes dazzled the universally-recognised 500-year old face, my girlfriend turned to me and said, ‘This is worship!’last_img