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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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New Essay

Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Value of Museums

Friday, March 23, 2012

New figures released by the Art Newspaper report on the world's most visited museums and galleries. The Louvre tops the list with 9 million visitors a year. But British museums do rather well, with three in the world's top ten: The British Museum, the National Gallery, and the Tate Modern attracted between them around 16 million visitors.

The BBC's arts reporter, Will Gompertz, explains that the growth in the popularity of museums is down to a changing attitude in directors over the last two decades. Previously, art historians and curators viewed themselves as "keepers," guarding the treasure and only grudgingly allowing admittance to the public. Now, museums have become family-friendly visitor attractions, developed in association with marketeers and public relations firms. This is all, of course, to be welcomed.

However, it's important to note that a museum is not a supermarket. Museums and galleries may have brands, but they do not simply respond to consumer needs. They instead help to drive and create new tastes, publicising new artists, periods, cultures, or areas of research.

Behind the gloss and glass of the public face of museums, much of the work that takes place behind the scenes is still "academic," involving diligent research and archiving. Museums collaborate extensively with universities. Their giftshops are stocked with books written by academics. Museums may be the new blockbuster cultural attractions, a religion for a secular age. But they are made possible by the still, quiet voices working and writing in the background. That esoteric project on modernist poetics may one day, through circuitous and not always clear routes, lead to a bestselling exhibition on Vorticism. That historian researching medieval art may one day, indirectly and unintentionally, have helped to deliver a sell-out gallery on illuminated manuscripts.

Recent UK governments - both Labour and Conservative - have viewed universities in cool and quantitative ways, as generators of raw economic output. Consequently, arts and humanities departments have borne the brunt of research funding cuts, because their research is often difficult to quantify. Yet it is worth remembering, in terms which should appeal to politicians, that our museums and galleries are not only a national treasure; they also contribute to our national treasury, and however indirectly, the research done in arts and humanities departments may have a net value to the taxpayer. By requiring scholars always to prove the immediate social and economic impact of their work, government may cut off the source that ultimately feeds the millions strong flow of visitors and pounds to our cultural attractions - attractions which are one area in which, if these figures are to be believed, we still lead the world.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:56 am


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