Mad about museums

Is the Natural History Museum losing its way? As this famous landmark of scientific endeavour seeks to become more commercial to fill the funding gap, Nick Reeves argues it has become a lavish amusement park and a backdrop for celebrity entertainment

The Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum, one of the main venues for London Fashion Week

The Arctic Experience in West London
Experience the Antarctic in West London

Charles Darwin boxed
Charles Darwin boxed in the NHM cafe

Something very odd has happened to Britain’s publicly funded museums and art galleries. At the same time that government abandoned charging, the museums abandoned their scruples.  And if you’re a museums junkie like me you may be wondering what on earth is happening to one of the most important of our national museums.

For years I have managed to avoid theme parks, no mean feat when you consider that I am a parent and live just four miles from Windsor’s Legoland and about six miles from Thorpe Park. But, to do so now will be nigh on impossible because in some cases the difference between Disneyland and museum land is barely discernible. So, it is with great regret that I have to report on recent visits to the Natural History Museum in London’s South Kensington. Each visit was a depressing and terrifying experience.

When I was a kid, and before the success of museums was measured by the ‘bums on seats’ rule, the Natural History Museum was a place I visited in order to acquire deeper knowledge and understanding of the natural world and to face up to some essential truths about it. I went in search of wonder, beauty and the extraordinary – and to learn. That was then though. Today, people – around three million of them – go for the rides, the blood and gore, and to push lots and lots of buttons.

Some of you will remember on television’s ‘Zoo Time’ programme, with Dr Desmond Morris, how chimpanzees were taught that if they pressed the right buttons they would be rewarded with a banana or some grapes. Well, that is now what we teach our children to do. It seems we have regressed to the evolutionary level of apes and are pressing buttons all over the Natural History Museum. And it’s not just the youngsters. Everywhere you go people of all ages are lifting flaps, putting their hands in holes and interacting with flashing apparatus just like gamblers at the one-arm bandits in an amusement arcade. Advocates of this approach to learning say that it leads to a greater understanding of the world. Really? Who are they trying to fool? It doesn’t. It leads to a greater desire for button pushing, and bigger and flashier rides, to more gore and a blurring of the divide between museums and theme parks. Kids love it and so it comes as no surprise that the museum director Michael Dixon reports that the number of children using the museum is up by a third. No doubt his masters at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will be chuffed and he will get his bonus.

The Natural History Museum was an impressive building. It still is – on the outside. Now it is crammed to its beautiful neo-Romanesque-cum-gothic ceiling with themed rides, computerised interactive display units and flashing gizmos that the museum-going public seem to demand. The once noble and beautiful interior has been turned into a bleeping, be-buttoned madhouse. There isn’t a vista that hasn’t been uncluttered and much of what is now on display isn’t natural at all, a unique achievement indeed for a museum of natural history.

If kitsch is your thing though, you will love the life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex. It bears its teeth and roars. And the only thing missing from the tableau is a life-size model of Raquel Welch, appearing from behind some rocks in a fur bikini, looking frightened.  On one level the 20ft Hollywood-esque monster is a success because it makes babies cry and adults giggle – just the sort of reaction you’d expect from a theme park attraction. But on another level it is completely phoney and merely made me, and other visitors, cringe with jaw-dropping incredulity.

I imagine that the general increase in visitor numbers (despite a slight fall on the previous year because, Dixon says, of 7/7 and the other terrorist threats in London) as a result of these pashmina-measures to popularise the museum has made it a beacon for the advocates of latter-day ‘Cool Britannia’, London’s tourism policy wonks and those who spend their time devising those evil performance indicators and league tables that have bedevilled so much of public life and that smother innovation. But surely it’s more than just a numbers game? What about the quality of the visitor experience? For me (and not only curmudgeons like me) it was dreadful and it was horrible to watch yummy-mummy children running round like demented apes pressing the buttons and obviously getting very little of value in return. At least a banana would have been nutritious.

I’m mad about museums but the Natural History Museum has made me very angry. Surely it cannot fulfil its primary role as an institution of scientific excellence if it confuses this essential purpose with one that is interchangeable with a theme park or an amusement arcade. The mission of the Natural History Museum we are told “is to maintain and develop its collections and use them to promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world”. This being the case, any meaningful performance indicator would be about measuring the degree to which visitors have a better understanding of the natural world as a result of their visit. Sadly, those that I spoke to could only enthuse about the multi-buttoned devices and had little understanding of what the devices were intended to achieve.

There is a kind of cynicism about all this encapsulated for me in one of the museum’s annual review documents which lists a showbiz charity bash, hosted by Elton John and supported by ‘celebrities’ such as Victoria Beckham, as a ‘highlight’ of the year. A highlight - really? If, in order to make them more appealing, our national museums have to take the easy option and court celebrities then there must be something seriously wrong, something that says much about our values and even more about those who run our museums. It also says a lot about the way in which museums are funded by governments.

The Natural History Museum’s last few annual reviews have stressed throughout the importance of commercial activity in order to fund its work. That means more gimmicks to attract more people to encourage secondary spend. If the price of paying for a serious and innovative museum of the natural world (and cutting out the nonsense) means a small increase in income tax, then so be it.  As things stand, I’d rather go to Thorpe Park which at least is honest about what it does.

See you at the burger stall.

Nick Reeves is executive director of CIWEM, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management


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