The Urge to Scribble

January 8, 2008

Culture Vultures

Filed under: Uncategorized — theurgetoscribble @ 1:32 am
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Its not often I’ve felt out of place in a museum or gallery. I was a geek. Museums were my refuge where being fascinated by the world and interested in culture and art was allowed. The only moment of unease I remember was as a very self-conscious teenager when my mother enthused loudly about how glorious some Gauguin nudes were, weren’t their curves great? But apart from mortification over breasts at the hands of one’s mother in the Courtauld Institute, London’s cultural institutions have been places of sanctuary. It was odd then, to feel somewhat lost amongst the capital’s culture vultures at the Lee Miller exhibition in the V&A today. But the longer I stayed, the odder I felt.

It was only when I realised that I was witnessing a rather twisted version of the modern St Trinian’s film in action that things started to slot into place.

At school I was surrounded by groups. You chose your group and you stuck with it. The recent St Trinian’s has taken celebration of this teenage tribalism to new levels. Each look has its name, its look and its habits. But I am sure that it is generally assumed that once you strike adulthood such herd activity can mostly be left behind. That was how those of us who couldn’t and wouldn’t fit a group were comforted. However, cultural tribalism was certainly in action at the V&A. Despite all the time and effort and money put into widening access it was the middle classes with bohemian pretensions who had populated the exhibition. Which meant it didn’t feel very bohemian at all. And neither did it feel comfortable.

Three distinct groups were making there way around the Lee Miller exhibition:

  1. The Ladies of a Certain Age

    It does not matter what this age is, only that no woman will ever admit to being it. Most exhibitions though will have more than their fair share of attendees coming from leisured older women with a dress sense beyond the conventional (anything from frilled edges to fur coats) and the ability to make knowing caustic comments on the exhibits in a stage whisper.

  1. The Mid-Life Crisis

    These are perhaps the lesser spotted exhibition attendees but will come out in force for something suitably avant-garde. Lee Miller is obviously a case in point. Never have I seen so many grey haired men uniformly dressed in black leather jackets. At least they had left the leather trousers at home.

  2. The Arty Students

    Not necessarily art students but definitely students with artistic pretensions, many layers of clothing and gloriously dishevelled hair which probably took more time to master than simply running a brush through it.

Their appearance thought, is not really what matters. This need not descend into a society magazine ‘spot your type’ article. It is the sheer fact of their cultural homogeneity. The government spends millions widening access, the museums have never had more visitors and yet their audience seems still to be such a narrow group. And while I certainly wasn’t one of these groups (my hair being far too neat and my clothes lacking the requisite number of layers) I’m also hardly ideal audience diversification (still white, still middle class).

Our museums and galleries have never been more popular, since the Labour government introduced free admission numbers have soared. And even exhibitions requiring payment are becoming blockbusters – queues for tickets to the V&A’s recent exhibitions have stretched out the door onto Exhibition Road. Maybe I’m making an issue out of nothing. Lee Miller is after all a relatively sidelined cultural figure, however much I think she shouldn’t be. And maybe if I went during the week I would see school parties being introduced to her work and people beyond my three types. But I fear it would be yet more culture vultures.

The people I saw at today’s exhibition were in no sense representative of the country I live in. A few years ago I wouldn’t have realised. Coming from rural Sussex I thought the world was white and middle class. But its not. Does it matter that they weren’t at today’s exhibition? If they knew it was there and chose not to go then no, it doesn’t. But I’m not sure that’s the case. Culture is for everyone. We want a shared democracy, a society with shared values, and culture, in whatever form it takes, is a part of that. It is one of the joys of the world we live in. If we want people to share in the duties and responsibilities surely we should also strive to include them in all its rewards? Maybe I’m being naïve. Probably so. But if I felt out of place in today’s exhibition, imagine how many more will allow themselves to be put off by London’s professional culture vultures for evermore.



  1. I suppose a Lee Miller exhibition is would provide a stark reminder of your mother’s embarrassing comment – but no doubt you’re right to look beyond that. I like your ‘ladies of a certain age’. I couldn’t have put it better.

    I am surprised that even with free tickets and tourists flocking to the capitals sites of cultural interest you can easily spot these different groups – or are the distinctions more apparent when you leave the free part of the museum?

    Comment by DW — January 8, 2008 @ 11:07 pm | Reply

  2. Hmm, interesting points. Haven’t been to a museum in England for a while, so can’t add much to the discussion I’m afraid.

    One question: If the men had left their leather trousers at home does that mean that they were naked from the waist down??!! No wonder you felt uncomfortable! (ha ha!)

    Anyway, i like it, always like something to make me think. In this case it’s thinking about the different groups that I spot everyday in Italy, believe me there are a lot and there is absolutely no cross over. Someone at work was shocked when they saw me in pink trainers the other day, they thought I was the leather boots with heels kind, they were lost for words. How hilarious!

    Keep it up.

    Comment by Rj — January 10, 2008 @ 2:52 pm | Reply

  3. A while ago I did wonder whether museums (art gallerys, exhibitions, etc…) could broaden their appeal by encouraging more interaction before and after the visit, rather than just focussing on when people were actually visiting.

    Basically I was imagining some way of easily marking the exhibits you liked when you were wandering round, and then the museum providing a way for you to access that list afterwards. Then they could provide links to further information about the exhibits, encourage people to leave comments saying what they did and didn’t like…

    Visitors would also be able to share their list of favourites with others – you’d have been able to publish a virtual tour on your blog to talk about it if you wanted. It’d be like having a thousand curators and tour guides promoting the museum all over the place…

    But I doubt that would change much of the demographics, as the blogging world isn’t exactly a hotbed of diversity either. It might lower the average age I suppose…

    Comment by Adrian McEwen — January 10, 2008 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

  4. I enjoyed your article, and have to a certain extent identified the same groups. If I keep on wearing my black leather jacket will I inevitably become a mid-life crisis? Please, I’m not going to go to Pringle jumper hell… Must I start wearing socks with bees on them?

    I agree it’s a good thing that the government has taken steps to broaden access, and more people than ever before are going to museums. However, there are very few, if any, exhibtions which will draw a perfectly representative crowd. A specific artist will always appeal to a core group, with a few intellectuals, open-minded and curious people wishing to investigate something which is foreign to them. You are quite right though that generally London’s major museums are dominated by the white middle class. More involvement with schools is clearly one way to encourage a healthier mix.

    Comment by Andrew Hanson — January 13, 2008 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

  5. I continue to remain baffled by English preoccupations with class. If I had to label the crowds at my local museum, the Met, I would say it’s more than half tourists, a third school groups and the remaining wedge are yes, NY metropolitanites from the middle class, or whatever. And even the tourists who populate the halls of the newly renovated antiquities gallery or the European paintings exhibit are middle-class _enough_ in their home countries to be able to vacation in NYC, and the grade-school students are often from well-funded school districts who prioritize art education enough to organize a class outing around it. There is a parallel argument here about the state of our classical music concert halls, mostly that it’s in trouble – and that it’s archaic, irrelevant, elitist, and geriatric (I would have to agree with the geriatric comment). Rather than bemoan the homogeneity of the crowds at these venues, I think we should perhaps try to take a broader view of culture. Not all of our cultural capital is contained within the hushed and hallowed halls of museums and galleries. The Brits have a long tradition of expression through the written word; as far as I know, the British Library is still free and open to all. Music assails our ears at every turn (some of it is crap, but that’s for music critics to squabble over); not everyone needs to be the product of a middle-class privately-tutored classically-trained musical education to appreciate music in its myriad forms. Listening and appreciating music: I think that’s interacting with culture, too. And pop culture, in the music video, YouTube, reality TV formats, may be lowbrow, unavoidable, and mostly distasteful – but it is the current culture that we hold in common and share, making it, whether we like or not, a social experience (see Ursula K. Le Guin’s article in Feb issue of Harpers magazine re: reading books). Museums may tend to attract a certain cross-section of our society, as does the opera, and because of their long history as the bastion of the privileged, this is somewhat inevitable and slow to change. But rather than fret over the draw at an art exhibit, perhaps realize that culture, specifically the fine arts (word, music, visual art) exist and are appreciated inside and outside the V&A.

    Comment by BBL — February 14, 2008 @ 7:43 pm | Reply

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