Wednesday, 10 February 2010
The British Museum of the Isles
I'm getting badly addicted to Neil MacGregor's excellent History of the World in 100 objects on Radio 4.
It was the legend of the Minotaur and the Minoan bull leaper today. Why do we quibble about the licence fee?
The Lewis chessmen, now guardians of the British Museum's Medieval section, aren't part of this series. They're using some Walrus ivory pieces found in a sewer in Salisbury instead and they'll be equally impressive I'm sure.
The chessmen have been home to Lewis in the past, quite successfully, and they will be back to the sands of Uig (where they were found in 1831) in the future. But isn't the perennial complaint that the Lewis chessmen, like the Elgin Marbles, be returned to their rightful "home" a very limited ambition?
Instead of moving the Lewis chessmen to Scotland why not bring a branch of the British Museum there instead?
That isn't quite as mad as it sounds. London's Victoria and Albert Museum is proposing to open a branch in Dundee in the future, the Tate has successfully exported to St Ives and Liverpool and the Guggenheim is in Bilbao.
Museum franchising is a growth business. It creates a huge cultural wave for a place and it pushes tourism figures into the stratosphere, according to the Sunday Times. Famous old museums are, quite literally, branching out.
Cities and nations bid for them, effectively buying their names, their curatorial expertise and the right to dip into their collections. Given that most leading national museums have far larger collections than they can ever show, and that they need to pull in as much income and as big an audience as they can, this makes perfect sense.
They're talking about £47m for the Dundee V&A with a return of 900 jobs and 500,000 visitors a year. That's a huge impact on Tayside.
Of course opening a "British" museum in Scotland would be a loaded political challenge for the SNP government in Edinburgh but it would be embraced as a union-salving balm by Labour or the Tories after the election.
Now, I'm not proposing a huge development. A modest display gallery perhaps linked to an high calibre university archaeological department near an existing academic campus would do for starters. Call it boutique museum franchising, call it anything you want.
It would have to be in a place that already has an incredibly rich archaeological and cultural heritage and for plain security and exotic appeal an island location would be best.
A branch of the British Museum on the site of the Lewis Castle in Stornoway - that would kill two birds with one hundred odd artefacts. Anyone got £20m and Neil MacGregor's number?