At the Horniman: A world in a room

Visiting the Horniman Museum’s new World Gallery for New Scientist, 26 June 2018

In the wholly reimagined, renovated, and re-hung World Gallery of London’s Horniman Museum, sharing space with cases of baffling, eye-catching objects, snatches of terse, pertinent wall information and arresting videos, somewhere between Syria and Sweden if memory serves, though it depends which way I’m looking (the gallery’s not nearly as big as its masterful arrangement of contents makes it feel – I can see Oceania from here, not to mention Asia) there stands an unassuming panel of snapshots.

They were taken one autumn evening in 2016, when visitors to the museum were asked to show off whatever meaningful personal knickknacks they happened to be carrying on them.

Coins; heirloom jewellery; a pressed four-leaf clover; a swatch of cloth. Innocuous in themselves, in the context of this new gallery, and placed (this cannot be a coincidence) at the very heart of it, these intimate photographs testify to the endless invention, boundless imagination and sheer bloody oddness of every passing individual.

I’m not sure the World Gallery really manages to explain the deep drivers of human oddness, individually or at scale. But I’ve never seen the right questions posed with such urgency, humanity, or, come to that, with such joy. The board at the entrance says we are entering a space of celebration: it’s not kidding.

There are ceremonial blades next to which the Klingon bat’leth is a butter knife. There is a gown of sea grass and bark from Oceania that Alexander McQueen would have given his eye-teeth to have sketched. There’s video from a rapper from Tibet, and baskets woven from plastic waste, and toys and masks and what looks like a fairy trumpet blown from a single piece of glass (Venetian, obviously).

It is easier, then, to write, not about what the gallery contains (it contains multitudes), but about what it does notcontain.

Horniman’s World Gallery is not particularly interested in time. It has no need to be. Cultures do not follow each other like buses. They nudge up against each other, blend and spark, wear each others’ motley, hide and then re-emerge, often thanks to a healthy dose of reinvention. First Nations cultures along North America’s Pacific seaboard were virtually moribund in 1900; they have surged since 1950. Traditional Bhutanese textiles are now all the rage on the international fashion circuit – and new-fangled local beauty pageants drive innovation. Sami reindeer herders assemble cheap Chinese barbecue kits to cook food stored in containers that have been passed down through families for literal centuries (no doubt patched till they resemble Trigger’s broom).

Nor is the World Gallery particularly interested in borders. After all, one person’s wall is another’s road: Boyd Tonkin, at the British Library’s show about the voyages of James Cook, recently reminded New Scientist readers of how a Tahitian islander Tupaia caused astonishment when, 4000 kilometres from home in New Zealand, he struck up a conversation with the Maori in a shared language.

One of the gallery’s curators described the Mediterranean to me, in much the same spirit, as a liquid continent. That’s not a newly minted metaphor – it goes back to the French poet Jean Cocteau – but it’s a pressingly topical one. Watch the video running next to a portion of the prow of a ship that once bore Syrian refugees. The glimpse it affords of a cosmopolitan seafaring community, scratching a good life out of very little, is a better advertisement for civic life than any of the politicking you’ll find inland.

Which brings us to the gallery’s final, important, deliberate, creative omission. It is not at all interested in nations. Indeed, from its global and generous perspective, the nation state can only seem a latecomer to humanity’s party, and a badly behaved one, too. As I wander through the gallery, from continent to continent, tradition to tradition and across entire seas (projected on the floor: and sure to be a hit with young children) I can’t but sympathise with the nomadic Tuareg people, whose vast desert patrimony crosses Algeria, Mali, Niger, Libya and Burkina Faso; no wonder they get hardly any political recognition.

Modern nations are not simply violent at their borders, of course. Culturally speaking they wreak internal havoc, too, homogenising communities and regimenting them from the centre, not so much through force of arms (though that’s certainly an option) as through the provision of education. As the British-Czech philosopher Ernest Gellner put it in 1983: “The monopoly of legitimate education is now more important, more central that is the monopoly of legitimate violence.”

As we catch glimpses of traditions and practices that in several cases have been reduced to tourist spectacles, we should at least take comfort in the thought that, unlike endangered species, endangered practices can always, to some degree, be brought back to life.

I should at least try to explain why this gallery works as well as it does – and here I must confess myself stuck. I can’t help thinking that none of this should work, that it should all add up to an experience about as dull as a recitation of other people’s dreams. In the Trobriand Islands, a man’s worth is measured by the size of the pyramid of yams he builds in front of his sister’s house and leaves to rot. Beads mean fertility in South Africa. The Swedes are obsessed with shelving. Anthropology’s great strength – that it considers human practices objectively – is also its fatal weakness; it leaves nothing standing.

How can this gallery, this patent labour of love, care and scholarship, wear its learning so lightly? How can 3000 of the oddest objects ever fashioned by an unpredictable and grumpy ape leave visitors, not crushed by the species’ quintessential absurdity, but buoyed up, exhilarated, even to the point of tears?

In 1930, in his science fiction novel Last and First Men (1930), Olaf Stapledon imagined what the human experience would look like from a vantage point far in the future. It is a picture of futility and tragic waste. And for all that – because of all that – it is beautiful.

“It is very good to have been man,” Stapledon writes. “And so we may go forward together with laughter in our hearts, and peace, thankful for the past, and for our own courage.”

Visiting this gallery will make you feel the same.

Plastered

Stereo recordings, Imax movies, Steam-generated games: for over a century we’ve relied on innovations in media to deliver us a taste of the sublime. As the pioneering pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”

But even if that was true in 1939, I’m not sure it’s true any longer — not now we live enmired in media, and, indeed, have to make special efforts to escape them.

For me, 2017 ended with a couple of little disappointments both involving virtual reality.
Having wandered disembodied around Amedeo Modigliani’s “Ochre Atelier“ (an international curatorial effort which took five months to construct) I left London’s Tate Modern feeling as though I’d been transported, not to Paris, but to some Pixar-driven studio circa 1995. Virtual environments can actually render grit, dirt and water stains to a high creepiness level — but not on the sort of budget the Tate can command. The Ochre Atelier was a cartoon.

Not long after, I was prevented from wandering around Yinka Shonibare’s reconfigured, virtual version of the “Townley Venus” at the Royal Academy. The invigilator had saved me from walking into a wall, but I stalked out of that overclean, over-smooth virtual interior convinced that current museum technology can only insulate us from the sublime and the beautiful.
The technologies of digital reproduction are doing to objects exactly what they have done for books and music. They’re are making everything simultaneously accessible and boring.

A misplaced compulsion to entertain is only part of this story, and not the most interesting part. For cultural institutions, the chief promise of digital is its ability to reproduce and preserve. The effort to copy and disseminate objects of antiquity is both venerable and important. Indeed Mari Lending’s new book, Plaster Monuments: Architecture and the Power of Reproduction, reveals the role of casting in preserving entire architectural epochs. She recounts how in 1857 and on a visit to the Paris International Exhibition, the V&A’s first director Henry Cole persuaded 15 European princes to sign up to an ‘International Convention of promoting universally Reproductions of Works of Art’.

In Cole’s day, the technologies of reproduction consisted of photography, electrotyping and plastercasting. Casting, alas, proved far more damaging than was at first realised. Giovanni Battista Belzoni, the former circus strongman who conveyed the 7-ton bust of Pharaoh Ramesses II out of Luxor (it’s now in the British Museum) was no vandal, but he still managed to to take all the paint off when he cast the figure of Anubis in the tomb of Seti I, in the Valley of the Kings.

Worse followed: Belzoni’s facsimile of Seti’s tomb, shown at the Egyptian Halls in London in 1821, was one of several events that led Thomas Cook to form his travel agency. This in turn triggered arguably history’s greatest cultural catastrophe, since tourism is predicated on the idea that original objects, buildings and places can be made more or less universally accessible. Suddenly the traces of past ages were fixed in place, and people travelled to them. The damage Belzoni did to the tomb of Seti I pales in comparison to the wholesale dilapidation visitors have visited upon the entire complex at Luxor.

Many heritage sites are now permanently closed. Those wanting to explore Seti’s 3,300-year-old tomb will have to make do with a trip to Basel and a 100-micron-resolution facsimile of two chambers, courtesy of the Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative. This project, run by Factum Foundation in collaboration with the University of Basel and under contract to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, is embarked on nothing less than the wholesale recreation of the treasures of the Valley of the Kings.

Multi-spectral composite photography; 3D scanning; additive 3D printing; high-resolution CNC routing: the technologies employed and built from scratch by the technicians and artisans of “digital mediators” Factum Arte allow us to copy originals without ever touching them. But there is something kitschy about Seti’s immaculate new e-tomb: what it has gained in freshness, it has lost in dignity.

Similarly when I visited the RA, though I enjoyed the way Shonibare had repurposed the Roman Venus statue, I found its VR setting (based on a Gavin Hamilton painting) profoundly dispiriting. he hadn’t just brought an old painting to life. He’d done something far worse. He’d cleaned it up. He’d made it good as new.

The eighteenth-century culture in which Belzoni operated – doing an honest but far from perfect job of reproducing the treasures of his day — can, I think, point us in a healthier direction.

Belzoni’s was a world where no one worried much when a nose or a leg fell off an old statue. They simply patched them up. This honourable practice goes back at least as far as the 16th-century sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, who argued that the ravaged sculptures of antiquity ”were screaming for his help”.

The poster-child of that era (at least for Londoners, who can visit the museum he made of his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields) is the architect Sir John Soane. Soane, born 1753, once grubbed up the garden of Pitzhanger, his country manor, to plant imaginary ruins. This was not (or not entirely) a Romantic indulgence. He used them mostly to tease antiquarians. He would take shards and fashion them into whole items, not willy-nilly, but on the basis of diligent study and educated taste. He knew the past was gone, and approximations were necessary. Lacking today’s precision instruments and the over-weaning, millennial rhetoric that accompanies them, he never once imagined that the past could be entirely recouped, or that the present moment might be made to last forever. One design for his Bank of England (a masterpiece now largely destroyed) showed how it would look in ruins.

Soane was rather fond of imagining what posterity might make of his museum. In 1812, and in the voice of an archaeologist of the future, he wrote:

“It is difficult to determine for what purposes such a strange and mixed assemblage of ancient works or rather [plaster] copies of them, for many are not of stone or marble, have been brought together…”

Not every young man could afford a Grand Tour of Europe. Soane considered his collection of copies the next best thing. He was right.

It was the stubborn whiteness of plastercasts, perhaps, the lack of an accurate means of coloration, not to mention a growing awareness of the damage being done by even the most careful copying — that saved Soane and his generation from imagining that they could render objects as they had been at their moment of completion.

Today we are armed with technology that can copy the surface appearance and even some of the structural elements of originals to perfection, or as close to perfection as makes no odds. This inadvertently puts us in the position of Lord Duveen, the British art dealer who, believing that authenticity was but a bathtime away, saw to the scrubbing of the Elgin Marbles. Nor was he the first restorer to kill through kindness. Writers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt were already complaining about this sort of thing in 1851, after seeing a newly cleaned Rubens: “It is,” they wrote, “like a piece of music from which all the half-tones have been removed: everything screams and bellows like earthenware gone mad.”

Nothing material will be damaged by today’s digital scrubbing — indeed, much valuable information will be uncovered and saved. But if we think that returning objects to their pristine state brings us closer to an authentic view of the past, then we are seriously short-changing our imaginations.

Soane and his fellows knew what we affect to deny: that time is real, and that everything ages and crumbles and dies. That’s why they considered art even more important than artworks.

As he reflected on the potential of scanning and 3D printing, Tristram Hunt, the current director of the V&A, pointed out in a recent article that “the lost artefacts of the ancient past have never felt more tangible, and less controllable.” Factum Arte founder Adam Lowe goes further. In the future, he says, we will handle each object “like an interpretation of a musical score. There will be different performances of the same object. They can be compared, discussed and understood.”

I would like to think the future will be full of John Soanes as, with a clear conscience, we start patching together bits of the past into new objects: not at random, not out of mischief, but as Soane and his contemporaries did — out of an imaginative engagement with a past we accept is irretrievably lost.

What price original art?

At what point does a practical problem become an existential one? When do we have to admit that not everyone can experience everything – and what do we do about that? Forgery is no solution because good forgeries are, by definition, as exclusive as originals: if the original turns up, the forgery loses all value. But what if we undermined cultural norms to the point where fakery was the norm?

A visit to the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and the Tinguely Museum Basel for New Scientist, 13 May 2017.

IMPRESSIONISM, the movement that shaped a generation of European artists, was concerned above all with light, colour and the mechanics of visual perception. Only one of its leading lights concerned himself, without apology, to the business of fame – Vincent van Gogh. He got what was coming to him: absolutely nothing. Dealers failed to sell a single canvas in his lifetime.

Tastes change. On 2 June 1973, in a park behind the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, a museum dedicated to van Gogh’s work opened to an ever-swelling crowd of admirers. In 2014, 1.6 million people visited. Last year it was 2.1 million – 20 times the number the museum was designed to accommodate – all there to see just 250 paintings and 700 drawings and letters.

At what point does a practical problem become an existential one? When do we have to admit that not everyone can experience everything – and what do we do about that? Forgery is no solution because good forgeries are, by definition, as exclusive as originals: if the original turns up, the forgery loses all value.

What if we undermined cultural norms to the point where fakery was the norm? This is the state of affairs dreamed up by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem in his 1976 novel The Futurological Congress, which features this diary entry: “Spent a few free hours… in the city. Could hardly control my horror as I looked at all the displays of wealth… An art gallery in Manhattan practically giving away original Rembrandts and Matisses… The fiendishness is that part of this mass deception is open and voluntary, letting people think they can draw the line between fiction and fact. And since no one any longer responds to things spontaneously – you take drugs to study, drugs to love, drugs to rise up in revolt, drugs to forget – the distinction between manipulated and natural feelings has ceased to exist.”

Doubtless the curators at the Van Gogh Museum have no such nefarious plans. But, faced with those queues, they are resorting to technology, even virtual reality.

Their most innocent-looking intervention is a dedicated location-based app by Marjolein Fennis that will entertain those waiting to enter, turning potentially fractious hordes into ad hoc communities of gamers.

In an effort to avoid delays and bottlenecks, museum designers scrape eye-tracking studies and video footage for insights. Some 85 per cent of the museum’s visitors are tourists, which means they get up late and roll up to the museum at the same time, 11 am.

A computer program developed with Erasmus University in Rotterdam uses algorithms more usually found in stock market trackers to predict visitor behaviour. Thus armed, the museum has come up with incentives to reduce peak time visits by around 60 per cent, even while visitor numbers have increased by nearly half.

“We don’t want as many visitors as possible, we want each visitor to have the best experience as possible,” says Milou Halbesma, the Van Gogh Museum’s director of public affairs.

Amsterdam, also badly bottlenecked, is planning to adopt similar technology later this year to get tourists out of the city and into the rest of the country.

Technology can also satisfy demand, especially in Asia, by bringing van Gogh’s art to the people. To this end, the museum has produced a digitally enhanced immersive experience, Meet Vincent van Gogh. It sounds hokey: visitors can wander with Vincent from rural Netherlands to the streets of Paris, pull up a seat at The Potato Eaters‘ table, and step into a life-sized Yellow House. In reality, the exhibition stimulates genuine interest, without leaving the visitor feeling cheated that they haven’t been in contact with the real work.

The museum’s limited run of Relievo reproductions take the opposite tack. Based on 3D scans of the paintings, including cracks in the paint and traces of paint layers, these surreally accurate reproductions took the museum and Fujifilm Belgium seven years to achieve. If you ever wanted to run your hand down the thick, impasto brushstrokes of van Gogh’s Sunflowers, now is your chance. This approach was also targeted at the overseas market, especially Hong Kong. A Dubai hotel exhibited them in 2015.

The only downside is that these strategies increase the number of people who want to see van Gogh’s real work. An exhibition currently at the Van Gogh Museum, Prints in Paris 1900, explores another very successful way of dealing with the sheer popularity of art and the celebrity of individual artists.

The fad for prints at the end of the 19th century not only decorated the hoardings and walls of Paris with colourful public art in the form of adverts, it also let everyone with a half-decent salary own an “original”. No two prints were identical – the imprimatur of the artist was visible and even, depending on the inks used, tangible. And the private nature of collections meant darker, more intimate themes could be explored by artist and collector.

Producing art ordinary people could own was a cultural as well as a technological breakthrough. But there is a snag, felt more sharply now than at the time these prints were produced. The low lighting at the Prints show reveals the vulnerability of works on paper. Unless these pieces are endlessly reproduced, dissolving their connection with the artist, they will have to spend almost all their life in storage, out of the public gaze.

The original is the gallery-goer’s holy grail. When Mark Rothko’s badly faded murals, painted for a Harvard University dining room, were rehung in 2014, an expensive lighting system was used to restore their colour. Over-painting them would have been an act of sacrilege. No one thinks this way about buildings. St John’s Cathedral, in the Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, for example, had whole pinnacles reinstalled and some statues recarved from scratch. This process began in the 19th century, using easily weathered limestone, which means some of the most recently reinstalled figures are actually copies of copies.

Gallery-goers are less forgiving. “I think it should always be very clear for the audience what you are looking at,” says Halbesma. “That is why we shall never show copies in our museum – because this is the moment when you meet Vincent and his work.”

“Unless artworks on paper are endlessly reproduced, they spend their life in storage, out of public gaze”

And the posters and prints upstairs? “They are all originals,” Halbesma says. “But we have big problems because of the light and their vulnerability. A lot of museums are already working with facsimile.” The implication is clear: catch this while you can.

Perhaps we should leave it to artists to determine what role provenance plays in their work. Van Gogh, desperate for that elusive sale, embraced the idea of reproduction. A letter to his brother Theo in December 1882 reads: “What I wrote to you in my last letter about a plan for making prints for the people is something to which I hope you’ll give some thought one day. I don’t have a fixed plan about this myself as yet… But I don’t doubt the possibility of doing something like this, nor its usefulness.”

The nearby Stedelijk Museum’s recent show of kinetic sculpture by 20th-century Swiss artist, showman and mischief-maker Jean Tinguely shows a rather different attitude. Tinguely was no ordinary mechanic, and some of his work, such as Homage to New York, was designed to burst apart in showers of sparks. His less self-destructive work is hardly more stable; the Stedelijk show had 42 moving pieces, rigged to timers to eke out the fun between the inevitable repairs.

It reminded me of a story told by Midas Dekkers in his book The Way of All Flesh – and an important part of the story of provenance. The Stedelijk once had a piece of Tinguely’s called Gismo. Tinguely insisted it should run constantly so the noise would lead people to it from wherever they were. A curator took him at his word, and for a brief, happy while, everyone got to see Gismo.

That’s the trouble with art: if you want it to live, you may have to let it die.