Saturday, September 22, 2007

Is nothing sacred?

Senior members of SQA had been looking forward to a quiet time of year. Unfortunately, they had established this expectation without taking into account the activities of the society’s energetic conservation spokesman, Ellison Millinocket. Ellison had been alerted to a cause for concern in one of our great national institutions.

Unbeknown to the rest of us, he had taken the train from Taunton to London one sunny day in early September to visit the Sacred exhibition at the British Library. And what a tale of woe he brought back to the committee.

A sacred Muslim manuscript

He explained now horrified he had been at the scrummage in the exhibition gallery as people elbowed each other out of the way, obscured interpretation panels by leaning on them (in apparent obliviousness to the presence of other visitors) and stood or leaned in the way of the exhibits. As for the exhibits, some had curled in increased humidity, and light levels were so low (to prevent UV and lux damage rather than create ambience we assume) that it was often impossible to read the interpretation panels, let alone appreciate the exhibits.

On top of this Ellison was spitting blood at the British Library’s practice of using the new chronological terms BCE (Before Common Era) instead of BC (Before Christ) and CE (Common Era) instead of AD (Anno Domini) in interpretation panels.

We asked Benedict Crumplethorne, principal spokesman of SQA, to comment on this practice.

Well I’m afraid it would have Cheney turning in his grave. For an institution committed to preserving continuity in the historical record and a national institution housing documentary as well as printed heritage, they seem instead to be committed to causing confusion and undermining the integrity of British archival chronology. And as for sacred, you have to be joking. Is taking Christ out of the dating system sacred? Would a Muslim or Jewish museum or library unilaterally convert exclusively to the Christian dating system? Of course not, so much for what we have in common then. It’ll be public beheadings in Trafalgar Square next!

Apart from anything else, the new acronyms use exactly the same dating system as before, the Gregorian Calendar, which rather makes the new system look like hypocritical nonsense. A Muslim or Jew will be just as aware of the Christian basis of the new dating system as previously. The BL is making a fool of itself. And by the way isn’t the BL meant to be British? Don’t foreigners come to Britain to experience or even exploit Britishness? The historical context of our great collections is being deliberately hidden.

Garth Bland, County Archivist of Loamshire fuelled the debate by drawing to our attention Alasdair Palmer’s article entitled The greatest art should not be moving in the Sunday Telegraph of 16 September 2007. In the article Palmer describes a litany of damaged art works and objects. In respect of visitors enjoying exhibits, he shares Ellison’s view, literally. If you went to the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery, or the exhibition of Michelangelo’s drawings at the British Museum, your most potent memory is probably not of the glorious masterpieces on show. It is of being pushed and shoved, and of seeing more of the back of people’s heads than works of art.
Palmer is only scratching at the surface. Little does he know that our heritage is damaged in being exhibited in house, let alone when transported between museums, libraries, galleries and archives. It is axiomatic in the archives profession that any handling of archival material whatsoever results in mechanical wear and tear to documents. Archivists and archival conservators frequently have to deal with crumbling paper, eroded pigment, loose bindings, loose pages and this is without seeing fibre damage under a microscope. This is the reason we microfilm or scan popular collections of series of records. I regret that sooner or later society must grasp the nettle and accept that precious objects, art works, printed books and manuscripts must not be exhibited at all. We must turn our attention to a wholly digital future.

And so we have come full circle! No exhibitions, no squalid fighting for elbow room, no obscured interpretation panels and no curling parchment membranes!

Finally, we asked Dr. J. Pochin Sturge of the Institute for the Study of Mass Social and Foreign Behaviour (STUMSFOB) at Wigston Magna, Leicestershire, consultant anthropologist to SQA, for his explanation of the behaviour witnessed by Ellison and Palmer at the National Gallery, British Museum and British Library.

Palmer’s situation is perhaps the most pertinent as he clearly represents several perspectives rolled into one, those of indigenous Briton, the erudite intellectual desirous of appreciating fine art works, manuscripts, objects and printed books and the taxpayer whom one assumes is contributing to these institutions’ funding under the unmistakenly British misapprehension he can hold Parliament or the institutions it funds to account. For Ellison and Benedict, it is more a matter of professional hypocrisy, not understood by journalists and dilettantes. Allow me to concentrate on the points of mass behavioural interest.

Crucially, we have to analyse the profile of visitors to our national institutions. We find they tend to be foreign and lacking in British behavioural norms which probably contributes to the experience described by Palmer. It is indeed unfortunate these are substantially the same individuals for which exhibitions and the new dating system cater. In the mind of the foreigner we find a state of impulsion to identify with, remember and convey what they perceive as being British (and therefore better) in order to become British or be improved in some way by allowing something that could almost be perceived as a quasi-religious to be brushed off onto them. This attitude of course leads to a sort of miasma descending upon exhibition galleries in which visitors undergo a transition to a sort of trance culminating in total loss of sensory awareness of the presence of other human forms or politically distorted interpretational material. I am glad you have drawn this interesting focus of mass behaviour to my attention.

We thanked Ellison, Benedict, Garth and Pochin for their contributions.

P.C. scholars take Christ out of B.C. click here

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