thinking about archaeology

The New Tate Modern – and what it made me think about the British Museum

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Listening yesterday to Nicholas Serota talk about Tate’s vision, and how that had led to the new extension which opens to all, for free, in two days, I thought of the British Museum. I couldn’t stop doing so, as Lord Browne (Tate chair) followed Tate’s director, and then Sadiq Khan (London’s mayor), Frances Morris (Tate Modern director) and finally Ed Vaizey (culture minister).

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Twenty years ago, said Serota, this was a derelict power station. Now it offers a new view of the world, not just about art, but about the city, about London and what art can do for the community. This shows what we can achieve when we remain open to ideas and to the world, said Browne, in a barely veiled dig at a backward-looking little England currently making all the noise. Vaizey said the same, while managing to sound as if he was unaware of an impending EU vote: Tate is a statement of a confident Britain that looks out to the world.

Now is Tate’s moment and I don’t want to make it about the British Museum. I will return to the BM at the end, but most of this blog will be photos I took yesterday – I hope you can pick up some of the excitement I felt just about the new building and the spaces and views it creates.

It was like being in a great cruise ship before the first passengers embark. Unscuffed stairs and landings that will fill with people and noise. Silent, sparkling cafes where reputations will be made, memories created and lives changed. Empty rooms like levels in a softly furnished multi-storey car park. Great expanses of galleries, where anything might happen. And not just any cruise ship. The long angled windows, the swish of the automatic doors and a curious hum on some of the landings: we were on the Starship Enterprise, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new art, to boldly go where no gallery has gone before.

There are 11 floors (11 floors!) in the Switch House, from the basement to the top – and you can walk from 0 to 10 up deliciously designed stairs, which change their attitude as they rise. Entrance from the south is on the level of the bridge across the Turbine Hall, which now unites the two sides of an enormous museum. There is a real quality in the simple detailing and the acres of fine wood (despite the scale, there are more intimate corners than in the old wing, now named the Boiler House). But what most impresses are the huge spaces, many of them outside the galleries, and the heights, and the playful opportunities given to light which variously sweeps, glares and hides among the concrete frames and piers. There is nothing remotely comparable in a public building in London.

I’m going to open with the view out to the east, starting on the first floor. It was pouring heavily at that point, but by the time we’d reached the top it had cleared and the sky was rich and grey.

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And then around the top, the Viewing Level.

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Now some spaces.

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Space enough for Will Gompertz to interview Jacques Herzog in the background (architect with Pierre de Meuron – the two men sat in the front row for the press speeches without saying a word), and another team to talk to Sadiq Khan in the foreground

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A new bridge connecting the 4th floors offers a terrifying view down the Turbine Hall (that installation on the ground beyond Ai Wei Wei’s newly installed tree is the array of empty seats after the press speeches)

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And finally a bit of art.

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There were some things completely new to me that I liked a lot. Below is a room for a Romanian artist, Ana Lupas, showing her The Solemn Process (1964–2008). This must be a tiny part of what she made over decades. Working with straw and clay and rural craftspeople using traditional techniques for housing and fencing, she created wreaths and columns that look ritual and ethnographic, but apparently have no prior meanings. She photographed the installations, and over time and social changes, they decayed and she turned to more craftsmen to encase remains in metal. The solemn process apparently refers to the farming cycle. Land art meets pagan ritual, and folk and agriculture museum.

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Next, Untitled (Ghardaïa), at the back of a gallery called Living Cities. By Kader Attia, born in France to Algerian parents, it’s a scale model of the historic city Ghardaïa in the M’zab Valley in Algeria. It’s made entirely of couscous. On the wall behind are photos of architects Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon, with a copy of the ICOMOS document that recommended the Vallée du M’Zab for world heritage site listing, and (the main text) explained why, dated December 1981. The ancient buildings inspire 20th century European architects, but while Le Corbusier and Pouillon watch the city, it dissolves and falls until it’s rebuilt with new couscous (prepared, we are to imagine, in a domestic Algerian kitchen). Tate’s “summary” describes further French-Algerian links in the work and the artist’s life. Ghardaïa itself is one of a cluster of five fortified villages with powerful medieval roots, topped by a minaret and grain stores. Concentric rings of houses embody a principal of social equality.

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And my last, Louise Bourgeois’ cabinet of curiosities, the first display of Artists Rooms from Anthony d’Offay’s gift to Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Wonderful things. In a smaller room at the back is a voluptuous marble figurine (Femme), accompanied by a document hand-written in a fantastic mix of French and English talking about motherhood, femininity and death.

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If you’re an archaeologist, you might have noticed where this is going. I selected these three works because I really liked them. They have clear archaeological resonances. That is no coincidence, but it’s not because I’m an archaeologist. So much contemporary art is like this. Modern artists and archaeologists are engaged in the same basic project: to understand who we are, where we came from and what it means to be human. We do it in different ways, but there is much overlap. Many archaeologists are would-be artists. Artists are frequently engaged with archaeological projects in this country. A prominent example in recent years is Drawing Stonehenge, where a number of artists were brought together by Helen Wickstead (an archaeologist who teaches in the School of Art and Design History at Kingston University) to respond in the field to excavations as they were taking place. I featured this in British Archaeology in 2008 (July/August); the flag below is part of Mark Anstee’s work about the Stonehenge Cursus.

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Attia’s couscous houses reminded me of Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope. They had a one-year residence with the Cambridge Archaeological Unit at the North West Cambridge development. They and a team of volunteers built a scale model village out of cob (a traditional building material of mud and straw), on the site of large-scale excavations which uncovered remains of prehistoric and Roman villages, based on the development’s masterplan. Tomorrow, Today, wrote Guthrie in British Archaeology (May/June 2015), engaged with “the site’s present nature, and the fleeting, unique archaeological access to the past, as well as encouraging reflection on human transience and future communities.” And, she said, they got very muddy and extremely cold. This future vision, one of the largest art and archaeology projects yet seen, was left to weather and was then backfilled. Soon it will be built over.

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From left, Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope with archaeologist Christopher Evans. Photo Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Places like the New Tate Modern, said Lord Browne, are places where we form a common identity. Where we come to be informed and to be challenged. Referring to St Paul’s across the river, he compared London’s beating heart to its cultural cathedral.

The old power station is a site for weekend family visits, said Sadiq Kahn. Tate is re-imagining the museum, seeing the potential for change, putting people at the heart of what it does and leading the world. He even noted how it embedded culture in the planning system.

Most significantly, Frances Morris observed that since Tate Modern opened, art and the world have changed. The collection has to change too, she said, bringing in more countries, more diversity and more women. Expect our galleries, she said, to look very different in ten years.

All this is what archaeology does, and does well and does around the world – but particularly so, I suggest, in the UK. Archaeology informs and challenges. It entertains. It affirms and shapes identities, locally and globally. And fundamentally, it changes. Our understanding of the past changes daily, as research and excavations create new stories, make new finds. The questions we ask about the past change too, as discoveries and the world around us stimulate new ideas, and different people bring their own interests and curiosity. Archaeology is fundamentally creative and dynamic.

I love the British Museum and everything it stands for. But I think it would be fair to say that the sentiments of the previous paragraph are far from the way the museum presents itself to the world. It hosts one of the most successful archaeological projects, uniquely British and admired around the world, for combining research and public engagement and sometimes off-the-wall enthusiasm and eccentricity: the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Yet PAS thinking does not run through the rest of the BM. The museum has not shown convincingly that it wants to continue supporting it.

It’s too long a topic for now, but there are ways for the BM to continue on its current route while taking on the vitality of Tate Modern, and representing the dynamism and engagement of what is really going on in archaeology today. Not easy! But worth a shot.

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