TAITMAIL Levelling up or de-oiking?
I’m not sure if the government is trying to level us up or level us down, or who the levellers and the levellees are. Who are the British and what do they look like? Our museums should be able to tell us.
But then, of course, they would have to be able to tell the whole story as depicted by their collections, and the government has told them not to do that on pain of losing their funding.
Worry not because a polling agency called Perspectus Gold is there to help us identify ourselves and who we would like to be. Its nationwide study instructs us as to how to tell who is posh and who is not, and so who needs to be levelled up and who is on the downward slope.
I’m sure the bluff northerners who had been firmly mortared in the red wall but have now voted themselves into a blue one will be grateful to be told that the newly up-levelled will be expected to eat supper instead of dinner, go to the loo and not the toilet and eat partridge and grouse instead of biriani and chips.
They will have to get used to calling eachother darling instead of love, will need to turn their scullery into a wine cellar and trade their brand new Skoda Octavia for a battered Land Rover Defender.
And then there’s table manners. Emposhment means you will know how to use a knife and fork (you hold your knife like a hammer, not a pen), and you don’t use a serviette (horribly foreign word) but dab your lips lightly with your napkin.
You will call your parents Mummy and Daddy, not Mum and Dad. And at your new level you love cricket, choose rugby over football (and if you’re really actually posh you refer to Rugby), you have an Aga, use loose leaf tea not teabags, and live in your wellies. You wear a gilet or an old Barbour, play croquet and drink champers, not champagne. You NEVER discuss money and you do NOT wear a flat cap unless you’re at the stables.
Less easy to acquire for your total escalation is a double-barrelled name, a boarding school education, portraits of ancestors on your walls, a knowledge of Latin, a family tree and horses to ride.
Traditionally these identifying qualities would represent the section of the demography that museums and galleries portray, happy to show off the loot our imperial armies brought home, but in recent years more and more have followed the lead of the likes of Tyne & Wear Museums and the National Museums on Merseyside that examine a more comprehensive social slice. And more and more are happy to give the loot back, a process of the decolonisation so loathed by our culture secretary.
The pandemic and lockdown have levelled us, up or down, more effectively than government policy ever could because Covid doesn’t care if we use cutlery or silver, and many of the best offerings are in those areas Mr Johnson is eager to de-oik.
On Monday most of the museums that have survived will open to the relief of museum-goers at both ends of the level, and the government is taking too close an interest in the role of museums. What museum-goers want now is to be able to find out again, and to know that they are finding out the truth, not the part the government has decided is good for them.
Today AI has a piece in our The Word series by the head of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Christopher Smith, who suggests that rediscovering our museums is part of our healing process. The wealth of experiences we have in our museums and galleries, he says, is breath-taking, and they appeal to all levels. Design collections tell us about the everyday objects we use all the time, fashion museums show us that clothes are a critical part of our self-expression. There are museums of childhood and toys, of slavery and industry, of sex and disease, of food and of nature. And so on.
This egalitarianism is intrinsic to the way proper museums work – I mean museums that do not change their narratives according to political instruction – and has been enhanced by their need to resort to an online presence, offering a new openness that has demystified them for the sections of taxpayer that we’re told feel intimidated by the large doors and hallowed atmospheres of too many museums.
Those museums are having to re-present themselves with social distancing rules still in place and with fewer staff – more than 4,000 jobs have been lost in the heritage sector during the pandemic, visitors to Tate Britain are down 78%, to the Science Museum 69%, to the BM 76%, and the V&A has to make up a loss of £10m a year. Prof Smith see this new online openness as the major new development opportunity. “Online events and virtual platforms have brought culture and community to those who have previously been excluded” he writes.
“Museums and galleries have succeeded brilliantly in collapsing dichotomies of high and low culture; and the degree to which they have been missed up and down the country is a sign of their centrality.”
Museums are at the heart of our communities and they give us an understanding of who we are and how we got to where we are, not what politicians think it expedient to want us to be. They are not concerned with where we fit in society, and Brits of all levels can’t wait to get back into our palaces of discovery.