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Viewpoints: Peter Cook on the value of the museum

Among my early memories is one of Leicester Museum, where the stuffed giraffe and a Duncan Grant exhibition seemed to be in the same space. Moving to Ipswich and its museum I have a similar memory of a stuffed rhinoceros with some East Anglian water-colourists, and for years absorbed such ‘culture’, along with Terence Rattigan acted-out by repertory companies, visiting pianists and flint-knapped churches.

Gradually, the distinction of a museum as such began to mirror those between cathedral/church, orchestra/quartet, palace/manor house. So: a mandate to be taken seriously. Long before the internet, hunger for information and stimulus was satiated via books. Even now, a good exhibition drives one to its catalogue, the catalogue to discussion with companions and then, maybe, back to the internet.

A drive along a provincial highway in the UK, Germany, France, New England, and many other places, reveals museums of owls, village crafts, old cameras, a submarine in a hut, a museum for the preservation of interest in the indulgencies of a 19th-century man of money (post-rationalised in a natty catalogue by an art historian). Museums have become a vehicle for anecdotes, T-shirts, but most of all for a special game of culture-play that is easier and cheaper than going to Rigoletto.

Then we have the architecture. Often it is the appropriation of an existing building: owls in a barn, cameras in a beautiful Sverre Fehn conversion near Oslo or Bournemouth’s Russell Cotes Museum that charmed with its comfortable Edwardian past but stultified all serious museum-making in the region for a century.

But then comes the status game of the German cities: if in the 19th century it was the opera house, in the 20th century it was the museum. In Frankfurt’s high moment (before the fall of the Berlin Wall), the creation of the ‘museum mile’ elevated the city by ranging a series of institutions along a strip of villas with the Städel Museum at one end and Meier’s three white blocks around one villa (forming the Museum of Applied Art) at the other. This building became part of a tacit competition between Meier’s three friends/rivals: Hollein in Mönchen-Gladbach, Isozaki in Gunma or LA and Stirling in Stuttgart. Each expressing an extreme moment of creative mannerism but generating spatial experience.

Similarly, Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish Museum became a marker of insistent fusion between conscience, spirit, statement and architectural language. However, Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim changed the rules of the game. Even picky English critics who like the meek and the modest had to admit it was special. The effect upon local restaurants hotels and airlines ricocheted around the world and the ‘iconic’ building syndrome was born. Closer inspection would have revealed that the foreunnner was actually Gehry’s Vitra gallery: hated by the Germans and Swiss because it’s funky, but an exercise in lighting and access to take seriously.

In strict functionalist terms, the museum is a flaky model: for even issues of natural v artificial lighting, ‘staginess’ or straight narrative presentation bewitch curators and others who brief their architects and there is always the conflict of the museum as public ‘attraction’ versus its usefulness as a centre of study. How many researchers are still in poky pockets by the boiler room?

Perhaps the best museum of all is Venice: with a steady supply of German and British retired schoolteachers and the generally bored to keep it going until it drowns. Ideal, because it bombards us with so much that has ‘a story’, with a tapestry of aesthetic that can flatter the observer laid into a circulation system that has its own logic yet remains perverse. Almost lost, is the fact that it was once tough, operational and authentic.

If a museum building can rarely have such a degree of integrity, it remains a casket that has to deal with the same titillation as unwrapping a present. The sigh of ‘oh’, or the delighted cry of ‘oh’ levels out at the dimension of a building. Those who have made buildings for travelling shows or installations have enjoyed the opportunity to play with the surrounding town (hence our ‘naughty nozzle’ in Graz that focuses on the castle and appropriates it as an ‘exhibit’). Others have used the gravitas of history, or rather dual histories (of Egypt and Berlin) that can resonate, as in Chipperfield’s Berlin Neues Museum.

Yet I’m uneasy among all this posturing: for the mix of the giraffe and the Duncan Grant felt good, and remained in the mind for a long time.

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