James Putnam
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Broke and dowdy, the British Museum is fighting to make itself as relevant as Tate Modern.

by Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times, August 07, 2002.

Last week Neil MacGregor slipped quietly into his new role as director of the British Museum. Committed, charming and a passionate communicator, he is sure to perform commendably. As head of the National Gallery he waltzed the Trafalgar Square grande dame from success to success, quickstepped her from scholarship to populism and won her lots of prize money from sponsors along the way. But his progress from now on is unlikely to be as unstumbling.
The British Museum is all but broke. With a projected budget deficit of more than £6 million it faces drastic cutbacks: 150 staff members have been told they must lose their jobs. A third of the galleries may have to be closed at any one time.

How can this Bloomsbury dowager, beset by declining visitor numbers, compete with its debutante granddaughter, Tate Modern, which, on the very day that MacGregor took up his new position, was welcoming its ten-millionth visitor?

James Putnam, founder and now curator of the BM's contemporary arts and cultures programme, is looking for answers.

'I overheard a conversation on a bus,' he says. 'A girl asked her boyfriend why he was excited by Tate Modern and not by the BM. Contemporary art made him question and challenge 'real' things, he told her. He couldn't relate to the language of dead artefacts. That made me sad because people are missing something when they say museums are dusty old places with no relevance. The BM's greatest strength is its permanent collection ' things like the Elgin marbles which could never be collected again ' and it is this strength and energy I want to tap into. I want this collection to inspire people.'

You only have to visit the Egyptian galleries, where Putnam used to work as a curator, to see the potential. Its presiding effigy of Rameses II inspired Shelley's Ozymandias. Perhaps his role is to encourage visitors to see the objects not as dead relics but as expressions of the passions which, as Shelley put it, 'yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things'.

'All the images and objects in this museum were once contemporary,' Putnam says. 'They had an emotional immediacy and meaning. Why do we have to think of the British Museum as ancient and Tate Modern as new? I'm interested in subverting our expectations of time.'

A colossal bronze mask, done by Igor Mitoraj as part of Time Machine, the first contemporary show that Putnam curated for the BM in 1994, now rests in front of the museum's façade. 'What do the immense eyes of the statues see looking inside their soul and gazing for centuries at their shadows in the light of the sun and the moon?' Mitoraj asks in a catalogue note. 'How is it possible to describe the magnetic force that this ancient civilisation releases? Art is the real time machine.'

He donated this piece to the museum, but most pieces that become part of Putnam's shows are not permanent. Putnam's own curatorial post costs the museum nothing. He is paid for by sponsorship and his projects are self-funding: they do not aim to add yet more objects to already overstuffed basements, rather to work in conversation with the collections, connecting departments which often compete. From Sandwork, a temporary 30-tonne snake made of desert dust by Andy Goldsworthy, which found space among the pharaohs, to Marc Quinn's Rubber Soul ' with a hibernating tree frog that survives frozen in sub-zero temperatures and then thaws out in the spring ' the pieces are ephemeral.

'Our engagement with emotions is as real as our engagement with objects,' says Putnam. 'And if a thing remains as a memory or a rumour, that can make it even stronger. A museum is the most fixed place in the world, obsessed with preserving something.

'But do works change when they get museum-ified? That's a question I considered with a performance piece by a young Canadian artist, Germaine Koh ' a length of knitwork (80m long, but growing) which we just unravelled down the staircase of the Great Court. While it was a museum object (it was on loan from Ontario) it was changing dimensions. Each time it comes into another collection she adds to it, and that is part of the performance. It is a lifelong work almost moving inside the stillness ' echoing the way old objects can reflect new times, can be reanimated inside them, find new connections and forms.'

Putnam wants viewers to question the official view of things, and to present the museum almost as a laboratory.

He is developing projects with two artists. Chris Bucklow, shortlisted for the Jerwood drawing prize, plans to display a sort of psychological autobiography: an unspooling series of depictions of his own life 'from the birth of the infant Bucklow onwards to where the mind first starts to split into consciousness'. He intends this contemporary narrative to echo the many other narratives offered by the museum ' the creation myths of other cultures and their attempts to describe the dawning of consciousness.

Another artist, Tim Brennan, has just received a major Arts Council award to work on a BM project. Trained in both fine art and history, Brennan uses history as his creative medium. During a recent residency at the National Maritime Museum he became interested in the 16th-century mathematician and astrologer John Dee. 'Dee was entangled in a lot of esoteric, occult, alchemical ideas that the Enlightenment would have dismissed as non-scientific. And yet his papers and artefacts were some of the founding works of the BM's collection.'

Brennan is devising a series of walks through the museum, exploring the relation between 'official' knowledge and more esoteric specialisms. 'My walks will differ from conventional tours in that they don't rely on information I might give, but on quotations which I offer from anywhere (from the Bible to a pop song). But over the course of a route they start to create connections. Even if I guide the walk it won't be a performance. I am interested in focusing away from the artist and on to the world around ' on to the museum.

'Every image from the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably,' said the philosopher Walter Benjamin.

In the shows that Putnam curates, the museum is a working medium for the contemporary artist, its objects a catalyst for the modern imagination which is reflected back on to the artefacts. This plays to the greatest strengths of the museum's galleries ' exactly the sort of strength Neil MacGregor may need most in the coming months.

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