The New York Critic: Interviews

Steve Capra's Interview with Robert Anderson, Director of the British Museum
August 22, 1997

SC: The British Museum is such a popular museum. I don't think I've ever seen the Met [New York's Metropolitan Museum] as crowded as The British Museum was on Sunday. It's a a tourist attraction, isn't it?

RA: Yes, I think most big national museums are tourist attractions as well as being many other things besides.

SC: I think that the people I saw here on Sunday have a different relationship to the exhibits than anything I've seen at The Met or at MOMA [New York's Musuem of Modern Art]. Could you say something about the way people in different cultures relate differently to the museums?

RA: That's a very complex question because I think that different people within any one culture relate in different ways in any case. We know we have a very wide range of people who come here from the different countries of the world. At this time of year, probably 60 or 65 percent of those coming here are from abroad. There are people who are relatively unaware of what the Museum has got to offer before they come here, and people who in some areas know more about our collections than even some people here do, and great scholars. The biggest difference in interaction depends on the way people approach the Museum., and certainly people who are coming from abroad may approach the Museum in a very different way from the way in which people who are local. There are also people who come here for educational purposes - and that's a different approach. But I wouldn't like to say that different cultures consider museums in different kinds of ways.

Having said all that, there is a big difference, I think, between the national museums in this country and the big museums in the United States, because our major museums here are nationally funded, and therefore are part of, if you like, of a national program of public good, whereas in The United States most big museums are private institutions and are very strongly supported by local communities and have to respond to their needs. I suspect the needs of government or the needs of a community can be different.

SC: The perception in The States is that you're in a very enviable position having governmental funding. Are there drawbacks to that?

RA: Yes, there are inevitably drawbacks to whichever way you're funded. There is no ideal way of being funded. Certainly, we have to work within government finance procedures in this country. We have to consider very carefully whether we're spending public money in appropriate ways. We have to account for ourselves to government. We have to provide government with an annual plan of our proposed expenditures. We have to make bids to government for future grants. All this is not the same, of course, if you're a private museum. But the benefit, of course, is that one can have a long-term expectation of funding. In this case - in The British Museum's case - since 1753.

That is not to say that there are no drawbacks, because of course there are. Government funding goes up and down, and at the moment, there is in this country a squeeze on funding for all public institutions. And we find ourselves part of that squeeze. We have problems at the moment in maintaining, for example, free admission, which we feel very strongly about and which is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.

SC: Nonetheless, your museum certainly has some wonderful short-term ambitions - The Millennium Project.

RA: Yes, there are two major ambitions at the moment. One is The Great Court Scheme, which is to convert the heart of the museum into a great, urban, public space, which will include a big education center, and new galleries, and a new shop and restaurant.

The other is to draw all our reserve collections - and we have huge reserve collections, as most museums do - into one building. We are fortunate to be able to buy a building very close to where we are sitting at the moment that we're developing into a concept called the Study Center. The intention is to make the reserve collection very much more accessible to the public than it is at the moment. If you've got a reason to want to come and see an object, it'll be possible for you to do so in a very short space of time, without travel from the heart of the Museum.

SC: And it will include a lot of educational components.

RA: The Great Court Scheme has a very major education centre. It's something The British Museum has never had. The British Museum, you must remember, was designed as it is today largely in the early 1820's, before there was any demand for education museum education in the way we know of it today. Things have changed considerably and we now find ourselves, for example, without purpose-built lecture theatres, or seminar rooms, or centres for schools. And so The Great Court will include all these facilities.

SC: Is this an indication of a global trend - for museums to be more than exhibition libraries?

RA: Yes - yes, I think that's absolutely right. Museums now are not simply gazing places. And I don't say that in a light-hearted manner; I mean, looking at objects in detail is a very, very important, and will always be the main part of the museum visit. But interpretation is extremely important and that's what will go on in the education centre.

SC: The British Museum has such a range of collections. Could you say something about your acquisitions policy? How do you make the decisions?

RA: We have relatively small resources for acquisitions, so if we need to purchase something we have to think about it very carefully. Each department has a policy. We have ten curatorial departments. Each has a clear view as to what it wants to do and how to expand its collections. To some extent, these are by purchases. We still get significant gifts to the museum. We also go out and do it ourselves - that is, we also run excavations in various parts of the world, and in this country as well. We also send people out on field work expeditions. And so by all these different means we tend to acquire objects.

What we try to do - and this is simply a practical matter - is not to collect what we might call the "top end" of the market, things which are in fashion and expensive. We always try to be ahead of the field. This is, a tradition which has been with the museum almost since it started. Some of the great collections which we have were collected at times when nobody else was collecting in that area at all. We have to do that by necessity, almost, but it also provides us with a much better selection that we might have if we were always having to buy through Sotheby's or Christies or one of the major dealers.

SC: Sir, the revolution in electronics, in computers and computer-aided technology has revolutionized so many industries. Is it a factor in what museums do? I'm thinking in terms of say, restoration.

RA: I think not so much restoration. What computers can do for museums now is in the organization of knowledge. Many museums, the national museums in this country, have very big collections, and it's almost impossible to make connections between different parts of the collection simply by means of card indexes or what curators have in their heads. The wonderful thing about the computerized form of information which we have at the moment is one can gather objects together which form a group which one wants understand. You might, for example, be particularly interested in a collector, or you might be interested in objects which come from a certain locality. At the moment we can't deal with that sort of question. I say "at the moment", but we have actually been computerizing information about our collections for over 20 years now, so we were quite early in this and we know how long it's going to take us to complete. We shall probably finish by around the year 2015.

SC: How important is the loan of objects between the world's major museums?

RA: This is extremely important. It ties museums together. It's extremely important that we don't see ourselves as isolated institutions, but part of a global community. It's very important indeed. We loan thousands of objects a year to different museums around the world for their exhibitions. If you're doing an exhibition, all the objects you want to display are not going to be in one place. If you want to make connections and juxtapositions, then clearly you have to borrow objects from different museums to bring those things together. As well as loaning objects for particular exhibitions, we also send whole exhibitions around that have been created by the museum. We have an exhibition of prints from the Museum at the moment in the United States, and we have other exhibitions all over the place.

The problem is that all these activities, if you like, suck resources away from the center. And at times when resources are scarce, then we have to be very careful that we don't overextend ourselves in the way that we naturally would want to do.

SC: So it's a matter of funding.

RA: Yes, and there's another factor. Originally the British Museum collections were started very early. 1753 is a very early date, and indeed the founding collection of the British Museum was started a lot earlier than that. The collection was created by a man named Sir Hans Sloane, who was collecting already in the 1680's. We've ended up with a worldwide collection of considerable importance, and there is a duty, almost, that if we're asked, we make loans. We don't say "No, these things belong to London", because they don't only belong to London. We are, after all, curators. We're looking after objects, but we're looking after them not for people who happen to be within easy geographical reach of the British Museum. We're keeping them for everybody.

SC: I'm interested in The Museum of Mankind, the ethnographic collection. What defines the objects that will be in that collection?

RA: This is a difficult question, because in a sense, ethnography could be a term which covers absolutely all artifacts made from the earliest times to the present day in all cultures. But it's developed in a certain sort of way. These are largely not objects which are recovered by excavation. They're not objects from the great classical civilizations. They are to a large extent objects which can be seen to have been in everyday use - not only at the upper echelons of the community, but by the mass of the people. They tend to be things which are used in rural communities as well as urban communities - perhaps to a greater extent in rural communities.

But there are, undoubtedly, difficulties in where the boundaries lie. We have a Department of Oriental Antiquities here which collects contemporary Oriental material. We also collect Oriental material in The Department of Ethnography. Clearly, there are overlaps, and where those overlaps lie, one can't be absolutely certain. What's important is to be absolutely certain there are overlaps and not gaps.

SC: Funding aside - because funding is always a problem for everyone - what are the major problems the museum will have to deal with in the long run?

RA: We have to be very sensitive to feelings of peoples in other countries towards their material. The Museum cannot and will not repatriate material, and yet it cannot ignore the feelings of those that would wish that to happen. I think that is something which is certainly going to continue.

SC: What is the third course of action?

RA: The third course of action is, for a start, to treat material in an appropriate manner. For example, some communities don't wish their objects to go on public display. There are types of material which we probably wouldn't collect today. It's taking account of people's attitudes.

There is a big issue, which I suppose has to be said to be financial, of access to The Museum. The Museum has been free since 1753. It's something we would very much wish to be able to continue and certainly something which is going to be on the agenda of the Director and Trustees of the British Museum for a very long time in the future.

There are questions as to how one makes choices - choices of exhibitions, choices as to where one places one's resources, decisions about which areas to promote more firmly than others. We are a universal museum, but nevertheless, inevitably, we can't treat everything with the same degree of intensity.

I think there are difficult decisions to be taken as to how we present the material in The Museum. We are a straightforward museum in how we present the material. We don't present it in a highly populist way; we present it in a very straightforward manner. Other museums are doing different things from that. We have to decide where we lie on the museum spectrum. There is a spectrum between museums which are full of interactive exhibits, which are full of electronic devices, and there's such as ourselves, which are largely objects in cases with information and everything done in a fairly sober and low-key manner. We find that populism isn't necessarily popular.

SC: But isn't the British Musuem unique in the world as the foremost museum for both specialists and the general population?

RA: I think it's very difficult to make comparisons where there are only a few museums at the top. We consider ourselves to be one of the four major museums in the world - the others being The Metorpolitan Museum in New York, The Louvre in Paris The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Undoubtedly, other museums will complain that I wasn't including them in that array. But, nevertheless, I think there is something about all these four museums in their coverage of the material, in the depth of the research which is conducted in those museums, in the continuity of curatorship over a long period of time. I think those are things which aren't necessarily found in other big museums.

Dr. Anderson retired from The Museum in 2002. He is currently Historian of Science at Cambridge University.