Should our museums and galleries stay free? Or should they charge for entry – and encourage quality? Have your say below
William and Harry were on the news the other day, shuffling awkwardly around a soldier in a wheelchair who had lost both of his legs and an arm in Afghanistan. The princes were visiting Headley Court, a rehabilitation centre for injured servicemen and women in Surrey, attempting to stoke up some interest in the City Salute appeal, a fundraising event for injured army personnel due to take place on the steps of St Paul’s on May 7. The soldier in the wheelchair had stepped on a mine during a routine foot patrol in Helmand province. William and Harry tried to find somewhere good to stand behind him for the photoshoot. But there wasn’t anywhere. Not in the whole wide world was there anywhere good to stand when the contrast between his fortunes and theirs was so stark.
Earlier that day, I, too, went on a little visit, to the Imperial War Museum, in Lambeth, the national institution charged with remembering Britain’s wars. And do you know what I saw there? Halle Berry’s bikini, the one she wore in Die Another Day. It’s a tiny orange number, about the size of two rubber bands. Berry squeezed herself into it as a tribute to Ursula Andress, the original Bond girl, who stepped so memorably out of the sea in a white bikini in Dr No. Who can forget Arsula Undress?
Back on the news, Harry was chatting with Ben McBean, 21, a Royal Marine who had lost an arm and a leg in Afghanistan. The two of them had met before, when Harry was forced to cut short his tour in Afghanistan. He returned to Britain on the same plane as McBean. “Those are the heroes,” he said at the time. “Those were the guys who had been blown up by a mine that they had no idea about, serving their country.”
Meanwhile, at the Imperial War Museum again, in the tribute to James Bond with Berry’s bikini in it, you learn that the martini Bond orders in Casino Royale consists of “three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, with half a measure of Kina Lillet, shaken until it is ice cold”, and that Kina Lillet is a particularly bitter wine-based aperitif laced with quinine from the bark of the cinchona tree, or kina-kina.All manner of sexy Bond memorabilia has been unearthed for this glamorous tribute to 007. There’s even the original “blood-splattered shirt” worn by Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.
So, I hope the question I want to ask here is predictable. It should be. It’s a damned obvious question: why is the Imperial War Museum celebrating James Bond, when Bond and his Aston Martin and his girls and his gadgets have nothing to do with the terrible realities of war, and when our young men are having their legs blown away in Afghanistan and Iraq? If the question is obvious, so, alas, is the answer. We all know exactly why the Imperial War Museum has put on a Bond show. It’s as clear as a vodka martini. Bond is popular and, by devoting a display to him, the organisers hope to attract wagonloads of fee-paying visitors to their museum. He’ll bring a younger crowd. The kidults will love him. Seats are sure to be settled with bums.
All of which would be fine if the Imperial War Museum were an outpost of the entertainment industry, or a public-relations location created by the estate of Cubby Broccoli. It isn’t, however. It was set up by the British government in 1917 specifically to remember the first world war. That decision was officially endorsed by an act of parliament in 1920. The remit was later expanded to include the second world war, then, when that fight was over as well, it was enlarged again to cover “all military operations in which Britain or the Commonwealth have been involved since August 1914”. There is no mention, anywhere, of Berry’s bikini.
The bus I caught to the Imperial War Museum took me past the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where a Chelsea pensioner in his neat black uniform was sitting in a bus shelter, all alone. The old boy was staring into space, so sad, so isolated, so forgotten. And I found myself thinking: “Where is there left for people like you to go in the modern world? If you’re old, crippled and can’t help remembering, what space have we kept open for you?” That’s the problem with the Bond fix. Popular culture is ruthless, unsparing and voracious. Not content with taking over cinemas, newspapers, televisions, shopping streets and bookshops, it wants also to control everywhere else.
The Imperial War Museum is not the only place chasing like a London Lite pedlar after the moronic modern audience. All the galleries are doing it. It’s not even a specifically British failing. The Metropolitan, in New York, is set to unveil a show devoted to superheroes. Back in Britain, the V&A is about to open a display featuring the dresses worn by the Supremes. Last year, you may remember, we had a selection of Kylie’s outfits. And promised for September is a grotesque-sounding exploration of “the cold-war look”. As it happens, I have some personal experience of this particular topic. Every summer, when I was growing up, I was dispatched to my family in Poland, where I witnessed at first hand what the cold war was doing to them. My mother used to fill my suitcase with cheap Bri-Nylon shirts and discarded pairs of tights because the family had none of their own. Hungrily, they fixed this stuff up and put it on – thereby achieving the cold-war look.
There are, in fact, two tragedies being enacted here. One is the continuing collapse of cultural values that leaves us unable to tell the difference between Kylie’s dresses and the rightful terrain of a museum. The other is an unfortunate side effect of a well-meaning gesture – the abolition of museum charges. Making entry to national museums free, thereby reversing the policy of charging brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s government, is the biggest feather in new Labour’s cultural cap. Having marched outside the V&A in the 1980s, protesting against museum charges, I was as delighted as anyone by the Blair government’s determination to push through free entry.
Seven years on from the abolition of charges, however, things are no longer so clear. When that dreadful old Etonian, the then shadow culture secretary Hugo Swire, popped up in the papers last year suggesting that the Conservatives might reexamine the free-admissions policy, large barrels of ordure came down on his head, persuading him to beat a hasty retreat. Yet the cruel truth is that free museum entry has turned out to be a mixed blessing. Yes, the number of visitors going to galleries has increased dramatically, but the figures are not what they seem. A Mori poll conducted in 2002 discovered that, although numbers had increased, the make-up of the typical museumgoer had remained unchanged. What was actually happening was that the same people were going more often. And those people were, as before, the middle-class, the educated, the culturally involved.
You don’t need polls to tell you that. Pop along to the V&A on a Saturday afternoon and you won’t see gangs of newly interested teens from Peckham, or bands of Asian youth from Brick Lane, but lots of middle-class mums and their children using our museums as a free playground. Not only are our museums failing to oppose the infantilisation of Britain, the damn places are spearheading it.
The most serious effect, however, of the scrapping of entrance fees has been the impact it has had on exhibition policy. Unable to charge visitors for entry, museums have had to rely on special exhibitions for large chunks of their income. The talented among them have duly found ways of putting on shows that are both popular and proper. The British Museum’s tribute to the Terracotta Army is a perfect example: the most successful show of the year, but ambitious, thoughtful, enlightening. Yet it takes a rare museum talent to pull off that approach. Which is why the Imperial War Museum has resorted to waving Berry’s bikini at us.