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An exhibition of contemporary works inspired by ancient art is a welcome new direction for the British Museum.

by James Hall, The Guardian, December 5, 1994

General guides to museums usually begin with a brief history of the museum and its collections. The tone tends to be earnest but upbeat. Not so the guide to the British Museum, which was first published in 1969. The Collections of The British Museum (£12.50) is edited and introduced by Sir David M Wilson. It has to be one of the most depressing and defensive introductions to a major museum ever published.

Wilson was director of the museum from 1977-91, and before that, a Professor of Medieval Archaeology. With so much government hostility towards the arts and the intellect, his period in office was not one of the easiest in the BM's history. Even so, Wilson's paranoid tone still seems surprising.

Prosaic lists of the BM’s activities and achievements, ranging from excavation to conservation, are punctuated with barbed remarks: "It must be emphasized that the Museum is not selfish with its treasures. It is often accused of hoarding", "We will not return any material which we legally own", "The Museum is governed by a body of Trustees who act truly in the sense of that title, protecting it from ephemeral media pressure and political clamour. The Trustees are not fuddy-duddy"; "A museum is not a dead institution and anyone who accuses the British Museum of being dusty and boring is either ignorant or lacks soul".

Undoubtedly, a lot of the aggro directed towards the BM has come from resentment at its unrivalled power and influence. The collections are almost embarrassingly rich. It is the cultural equivalent of a multinational with a near-monopoly in many sectors. But Wilson protests too much. The BM has for a long time had a reputation for being stuffy and aloof, run along the lines of an exclusive gentleman’s club. It has never bothered much about fostering relations with the "ephemeral" media or publicizing what it’s doing. Similarly, the house-style used for its displays tends to be very dry. The décor is often a joyless amalgam of neo-classicism and minimalism.

Yet under the new director, Robert Anderson, some attitudes appear to be changing. The departure of the British Library has a great deal to do with this. It gives the museum the space to build decent public facilities for the first time. That said, in choosing Norman Foster, they have, to their credit, gone for an architect with a bit of flair. Equally striking is the fact that when the architectural competition was announced, Anderson held what is thought to be the BM’s first-ever press conference.

Another promising development is the new Mexican Gallery. This is something of a departure because it has been designed by a Mexican architect in a style that discretely echoes traditional Mexican architecture. The results are stunning, even if the room seems too small. They could live to regret it. At the height of the tourist season, human sacrifice may well be performed on some camera-toting nerd.

Anderson tells me that object-friendly décor is not the shape of things to come. It only happened because the room had been rebuilt in the thirties, and could not be returned to its former neo-classical glory. More to the point, the Mexicans who were paying for the gallery insisted on a Mexican architect. Even so, I doubt that the BM’s "house-style" can remain completely unmoved after this enforced experiment.

The most daring new development of all has just opened in the Egyptian Sculpture Galleries. Two years ago a young curator, James Putnam, decided to try to organise an exhibition in which contemporary artists would make work inspired by Egyptian art. That this has happened at all is quite incredible. Until now, one of the easiest ways for a living artist to get their work shown in the British Museum was to make a fake artifact.

Rumours have been circulating for months that Time Machine: Ancient Egypt and Contemporary Art would be cancelled. It seems that the museum gave the go-ahead thinking there would be a few conventional paintings and sculptures. When it was discovered that one of the 12 artists required 30 tons of sand, and that another was using a frog, everyone became very nervous.

Not everything comes off, but the show should nonetheless be regarded as a triumph. The first work we see (a massive Negroid mask by Igor Mitoraj, made from rusted iron) is displayed on the lawn outside the museum. A similar mask, but this time cracked into two fragments, has been laid on the floor in the sculpture galleries.

Stephen Cox has often worked in Egypt, carving hardstones extracted from local quarries. The sculpture shown here, Flask, is carved from Hammamat Breccia, a grey-black stone with greeny flecks. It is a monolithic biomorph, around six feet high. Its gently undulating surface is smooth, except for a rough raised ridge that divides its front vertically. It is a magisterial fault-line, as strong and sexy as a Barnett Newman zip.

The top of the sculpture is flat and overhanging, a bit like a bottom lip. This suggests that the vertical ridge could be a stained encrustation marking the point where the Man-Flask has overflowed. It seems that even sphinx-like sentinels can lose control, spring a leak, develop a dribble...

Andy Goldsworthy is a good sculptor only when he works on a monumental scale. Rather like Richard Long, he "sculpts" in the great outdoors from natural materials such as sticks, leaves, ice and stones. Having photographed the work in situ, he displays the pictures in a gallery. He also exhibits similar kinds of small sculpture, but these tend to be twee.

At the BM we see photographs of Sandwork, one of Goldsworthy’s most impressive large-scale sculptures. One weekend in October he and a small army of helpers made a snake shape out of 30 tons of sand. It crept right through the Egyptian galleries, but its fragility meant it had to be swept away after two days. Apart from the photographs, there are mini-versions of Sandwork laid inside sarcophagi. This sublime snake-dune gives a visceral sense of the way culture is built on sand.

Marc Quinn has also taken a reptilian theme. He has made a variation on his famous frozen blood head. This time, in Frog, a glass box hovers insides a glass mould of his head. The box contains a frozen North American wood frog. This species freezes solid during winter and thaws in the spring, so it is technically still alive, only hibernating.

In Ancient Egypt the frog was a powerful protective deity closely associated with birth and rebirth. Quinn has used this reptile to make a compelling image of an animal energy lying trapped and dormant inside the human head. Like so much of his work, it has a visionary intensity worthy of William Blake.

Now that the ice has been so brilliantly broken, let’s hope that the British Museum perseveres and develops its links with contemporary art. But just one thing: please get rid of that cringe-inducing introduction.

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