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August 08 2012

Ashmolean buys Manet's Mademoiselle Claus after raising £7.8m

Oxford museum succeeds in campaign to keep in Britain painting regarded as a key impressionist work

The Ashmolean museum in Oxford has succeeded in buying Edouard Manet's portrait of Mademoiselle Claus, regarded as a key impressionist work, after raising £7.83m in just eight months, including hundreds of donations from the public ranging from £1.50 to £10,000.

If the appeal had failed, the painting would have left Britain, after being sold at auction last year for a record £28.5m – the difference in price represents the tax breaks for works of art going to British museum collections.

On Wednesday, two pale serious young women came face to face in Oxford: Fanny Claus, the subject of the arresting 1868 painting, and Mara Talbot, the 11-year-old who, with her mother, gave the final £30 donation to the public appeal.

"Maybe if she was smiling I might like her more," Mara eventually concluded, after studying her intently, and dealing coolly with the media – the photographers were bewitched by her own choice of outfit for the day, complete with flowery hair band, which chimed uncannily well with the painting – "but I do like her very much".

Mara's mother, Vicky Hirsch, a freelance art teacher, had only seen photographs of the painting – a study for Manet's Le Balcon – when she gave £30 to the appeal last week. "We live quite near and we come here often. It's so important for people to be able to see real things in museums for free. And it seems appropriate in this week when we're celebrating the achievements of individuals in the Olympics, that the little somebody like me can afford to give can make such a big difference."

Christopher Brown, director of the Ashmolean – one of the oldest public museums in the world and the most visited outside London, with a million visitors a year – only saw the painting himself for the first time in February, in the gallery of a London art dealer. It had just been sold to an overseas buyer for £28.5m, but the government had put a temporary export bar on it to allow a British museum the chance of matching the price. Brown was enchanted, and did some rapid sums in his head.

"I realised that both the National Gallery, and the National Gallery of Scotland, who would both have liked it very much, were tied up in fundraising for the Titians, and that because it carried an 80% tax bill for the owners, which would be waived if it came to a national collection, we could get it for a quarter of its value – and that we really might be in with a chance."

The Heritage Lottery Fund gave £5.9m, the Art Fund charity another £850,000, and the rest came from trusts, patrons, and more than 1,000 donations from individual members of the public. In gratitude, it will be sent on a national tour to regional museums next year.

The painter John Singer Sargent fell in love with the picture in 1884, bought it at the studio sale after Manet's death, and brought it to England. By then the pale young woman was dead, too: Claus, a brilliant musician, had married the artist Pierre Prins, but died of tuberculosis in 1877, aged just 31. The painting had remained with Sargent's descendants until the sale.

The Ashmolean is most famous for its archaeology collections, but has a marvellous art collection including outstanding works by Pissarro and other contemporaries of Manet, and early Van Goghs. However, of Manet himself, in common with most British collections, they have very little: a small landscape and two unfinished oils, and a watercolour version of his Le Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe, a work considered scandalous in its day.

Colin Harrison, senior curator of European art, has already been on to the Quai D'Orsay museum in Paris to discuss exhibiting his new treasure side-by-side with Manet's very different final version, in which Fanny has retreated into the background, her face a blur, losing the expression of a woman deep in some private contemplation that makes the earlier version so haunting.

"Another obvious exhibition would be Manet in England – asking why in fact there are so few Manets in England, a real puzzle," Harrison said.

Although the picture will go on a national tour next year, Brown cannot wait to have it home permanently.

"Our pictures are really very good, but I think when you see this work on the gallery walls it will sing in a way that few of the others can manage." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 27 2012

Who needs a Manet?

The Ashmolean Museum wants to 'save' Manet's Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus for Britain. But why do institutions feel obliged to present their own ambitions as a public service?

There is another campaign to save a painting for Britain – and this time it's a French picture we want to keep on these shores. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is leading an attempt to raise enough money to buy Manet's Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus for the nation. Apparently, it has been in Britain ever since the painter John Singer Sargent bought it in the late 19th century. Who knew? It was last on public view nearly 30 years ago, and now the unnamed owner has sold it for stacks of cash abroad – though the Ashmolean can get it for a bargain £7.83m if we help raise the funds.

This is a beautiful and important painting, a beguiling example of Manet's louche modernity. I would love the Ashmolean to own it – why not? But this rhetoric about "saving" art has to stop. Unless the potential foreign owner is a wealthy maniac who bought it with the express intention of shredding the canvas and feeding it to the hounds, or a thriller writer who wants to do CSI on it to find out if Manet was Jacques le Ripper, or an agent for the Chapman brothers, the painting is not in any need of being "saved". If it did leave these shores, it would be no great loss to most of us, who have never seen it in a British gallery and had little idea it was even in the country. For all those years, it has not been a public possession but a very private one. It is only the prospect of a sale abroad that has suddenly made it news, got it shown in the media, and provoked this campaign.

It is hard to argue that a regional museum in southern England needs a world-class Manet for any reason beyond its own ambition. People living in Oxford are not that deprived of the Frenchman's genius: they can easily get to London, where they can see great works by him at the Courtauld Gallery, as well as at the National Gallery. I bet there are a few who could even manage the occasional Eurostar trip to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

It is almost impossible to defend art honestly. The language of politics – as George Orwell argued in a famous essay – is inherently false and deadening. When it comes to art, politics demands that every commission, every purchase, every gallery be a service to society and a national necessity. Any institution that needs public funds has to speak this language, and so ends up talking gobbledegook. A Manet must be "saved", as if it were a victim of something, and a museum's perfectly justifiable ambition has to be presented as a humble public service. The honest thing for the Ashmolean would be to say, "We really fancy this Manet, it's fantastic, we think it would look great in our collection and it would bolster our claim to be a really glamorous big-time gallery."

Art does not heal the sick, or feed the poor. It is useless. It is gratifying. It should never be spoken of in the miserable language of need, or seen as a vulnerable object of charitable concern. That is to confuse things and people. Save people. Enjoy art. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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July 24 2010

Stirling contenders comes up short

The 2010 Riba Stirling shortlist is out and, as usual, the committee has missed some of the best candidates

There is a band of buildings, skilful and brave in their design, that will feature prominently in future histories of current architecture. Some are world famous, some are hugely popular, some represent new ideas surfacing for the first time. All share the same badge of honour. They did not win the £20,000 Riba Stirling prize, the award for "the architects of the building which has made the greatest contribution to British architecture in the past year".

These buildings include the Eden Project in Cornwall, Tate Modern, Selfridges in Birmingham, the New Art Gallery in Walsall, Will Alsop's Hotel du Department in Marseille, Zaha Hadid's Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg and her BMW Central Building in Leipzig. The British Library in St Pancras, London, should also have won: although unfashionable and controversial when it opened, its quality becomes more apparent with each passing year.

Meanwhile the prize has been awarded to projects that have since subsided into obscurity. These include the Magna Centre in Rotherham, whose victory in 2001 seemed to surprise even its architect, Chris Wilkinson. The prize has an instinct for the compromise candidate, for the one least likely to frighten any horses.

This year some exceptional buildings haven't even made the shortlist, announced last week. One is the Nottingham Contemporary Art Centre by Caruso St John, a building that responds professionally to a demanding brief, budget and site. It is the work of client and architects who are both good and committed. Its galleries are scrupulously designed for the display of art. It deals beautifully with sloping terrain, allowing internal and external public routes to run through it. More than that, it tries something unusual, which is to see how ornament can be used on a modern building. It is clad in pale green concrete panels imprinted with lace patterns, creating a play of apparent lightness and actual heaviness.

Idea is translated into material, which is something architects should do. Nottingham Contemporary stands outside the usual run of decent-but-predictable modern architecture of which there is plenty. It is a public, civic building that makes a contribution to its city. It is an opportunity to recognise buildings north of Watford, which is something Stirling juries sometimes worry about, but the opportunity was not taken.

The list also omits the British Embassy in Warsaw by Tony Fretton, who must wonder what he has done to upset the Stirling fairy. Last year Fretton was the victim of a bizarre and nasty press campaign, which complained that two of the five prize judges were predisposed in his favour. This overlooked the fact that the other three weren't, or that, year after year, the Stirling jury is loaded in favour of the established and middlebrow.

As it turned out, the supposedly biased jury didn't choose Fretton's shortlisted entry, the Fuglsang art museum in Denmark. Instead they opted for Maggie's Cancer Caring Centre in Hammersmith, London, by Richard Rogers's practice, Rogers Stirk Harbour. This is a nice building, but it wasn't pushing any boundaries to reward a small project by a 76-year-old already amply recognised.

Fretton is not an ingratiating architect. His plain buildings can look ordinary in photographs. Nor is he a slick minimalist. What's good about his work is the subtle relationships he creates between building, people, landscape and – when they are galleries – art. It is surely part of the job of prizes like the Stirling to draw attention to the un-obvious, the things whose qualities are easily overlooked.

Rather than Nottingham and Warsaw, the shortlist this year's prize includes two schools, and a house and studio built by an architect couple for themselves. All are good buildings, designed by lovely people, and it's possible that the jury wanted to send a message to the government by including the schools. Look, they seem to be saying to the school-axing Michael Gove, the design of places of learning does matter. But the house doesn't open up new ideas the way Nottingham does, or have its public importance, while the prize's role is to recognise the best architecture rather than send messages.

Also on the shortlist is the extended Ashmolean museum, Oxford, by Rick Mather Architects. This earns its place for the way it organises a complex array of galleries behind the museum's original, Grade I-listed building. But it displays a cloth ear for materials, structure and detail. Its glass and steel balustrades are in jarring shopping-mall moderne, and if the choice was between this and Nottingham, the latter should have won.

The good thing about this year's list is that it includes the two projects that were always the most likely and deserving winners, Zaha Hadid's MAXXI (Museum of 21st Century Arts) in Rome, and the Neues museum in Berlin by David Chipperfield with Julian Harrap. The latter is a beautifully poised, meticulous, but also creative shaping of a new museum out of the bombed-out ruin of an old one. It is a smash hit in its home city. It represents a way of doing architecture, where the signature of the architect is not always apparent, that breaks with the icon-building of recent years.

MAXXI is a Wagnerian blast from the brass section of the orchestra. It is the consummation of years of imagining and fighting for new ways of forming and arranging buildings. It has flaws, but it is a magnificent urban experience, a passeggiata played out on multiple intersecting levels. Hadid, the most famous woman architect in history, and possibly the most famous living British architect, has never been recognised by the Stirling. In Stirling-think, this would be a reason for giving her the prize.

To choose between these two is tough – Berlin just shades it for me – but if either wins the Stirling will break its habit of shirking the most powerful works. The thing to fear would be a split jury when the winner is chosen in October, with a third, compromise candidate surging through. Then the Stirling really would have lost all claim to be about the best architecture, as opposed to the smooth management of judging committees. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 28 2010

The Ashmolean hasn't sold its soul

I may have had my doubts about its recent refurb, but this Oxford museum now ranks among the world's greatest, as a dazzling new archaeological exhibition proves

After its ambitious renovation, Oxford's Ashmolean Museum has begun to look like a major museum in a major city. The gallery has a world-class collection, encompassing the archaeological treasures of Lord Arundel and Arthur Evans, the cabinet of curiosities of Elias Ashmole, and one of the most fascinating Renaissance paintings anywhere, Piero di Cosimo's Forest Fire.

Still, I wasn't sure about the refit when I made my first visit to the reopened museum recently. I liked the old place. Now, there is in effect a new building inserted into its centre, with a light-filled and spectacular atrium linking galleries reimagined as a tour of world cultures, constantly stressing east-west connections and global views. I found it a bit loud, to be honest. The displays are didactic in a way that is, at times, a bit intrusive – in the Roman gallery, for example, where a massive illuminated map of the Roman empire distracts you from the old stuff in cases at the sides.

But I soon cheered up. Everything is beautifully lit, clearly captioned and inviting. Superb Greek vases held me entranced. The current exhibition, The Lost World of Old Europe, is a brilliant survey of a neolithic culture that achieved very high levels of sculpture, including rare models of prehistoric houses. The Danube valley, it turns out, is one of the true cradles of humanity. The ceramics here are of a very high quality – often voluptuously beautiful – and this simple, serious archaeological encounter demonstrates that this museum is far from selling its intellectual soul.

The Ashmolean joins other museums around the country, from Manchester to Cambridge, that have turned themselves into dazzling culture palaces that rival the rich city museums of the US. I am glad so much renewal has been achieved by museums during the good times – it will give them some ballast in the rocky years ahead. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 27 2009

Enlightened age is cast into shadow

A decade of unprecedented investment in galleries and museums is ending and a return to the dark days of closures, entry charges and pandering to the familiar looms

It is a space dedicated to the fruits of patronage. Against whitewashed walls and beneath a startling glass canopy, the Leonardos and Donatellos, the choir screens and sculptures, the tapestries and caskets speak to an age of extraordinary wealth and aesthetic ambition. But the newly opened medieval and renaissance galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum also testify to the fact that our own epoch of remarkable cultural investment – like Florence after the Medici – is shuddering to a halt.

The fear is that a collapse in private philanthropy combined with a political arms race of expenditure cuts and quango-bashing could soon return our galleries and museums to the dark days of charges, closures and pandering to the familiar. Nothing less than the democratic capacity of British culture – the ability both to fund great art and open up life chances – is what is at stake.

It began a decade ago with the relaunch of the Royal Opera House following its £178m refit and has concluded with the re-engineered V&A and the equally stunning transformation of the Ashmolean in Oxford. Crumbling Victorian edifices have undergone architectural open-heart surgery and fusty old collections have been taken into the 21st century. Indeed, the Noughties marked a period of unprecedented postwar cultural prowess.

Of course, modernisation was never without its controversies. The great chunks of National Lottery and Arts Council cash swallowed up by the ROH set the mark for over-ambitious and poorly managed projects, a view only endorsed by the millions who watched the BBC documentary, The House, chronicling Sir Jeremy Isaacs' rumbustious attempts to manage Covent Garden. But few today, enjoying the acoustics and surviving the crush of the once derelict Floral Hall, would deny the transformative effect of the redevelopment on the opera house fabric and its artistic capacity.

With the new build came a new philosophy. The intervention of philanthropist Paul Hamlyn inspired a markedly more activist approach to audience development, with deprived schools and then Sun readers targeted for subsidised opera tickets. For this has been the mantra in arts and heritage over the past decade. Public money for modernised galleries meant access and inclusion had to change.

The culture shift began with free entry to museums and has developed down the years to force once standoffish institutions to engage with wider School trips, outreach and working with diverse communities have come to rank as highly as research and fundraising. audiences. "Most museums can no longer afford to blithely concentrate on their collections at the expense of their visitors," as a recent study puts it.

It is the move from a museum being about something to being for somebody. The families and groups now wandering through Kelvingrove museum in Glasgow or Middlesbrough's Institute of Modern Art are very different to what they were 10 years ago.

Of course, there has been some guerrilla resistance by curators concerned more with restoration than education. A leading fine art director, Philippe de Montebello, spoke for many of his peers when he revealed: "To me, audiences are second… Our primary responsibility is to works of art." But the combination of social activism and public funding tied to popular engagement meant that such disdain could never be sustained.

With growing audiences has come the appreciation that museums can rebuild urban economies. Once this was christened the "Bilbao effect" in homage to the impact that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum had on urban renewal, economic expansion and local pride in the decaying, northern Spanish port. But the problem with Bilbao is that no one goes back. A culture-led programme of civic regeneration needs to be about much more than the kind of single iconic building dispatched by the studios of Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava.

Instead, it has to offer numerous competing cultural attractions which bring in not only tourists and culture vultures but the kind of young professionals and knowledge-workers attracted to high-end civic environments. Manchester – with the Whitworth and City art galleries, the Imperial War Museum North and the People's History Museum – has been doing just that.

When in 1966 the young German critic WG Sebald arrived to take up a post at Manchester University, he found a city that seemed to "have long since been deserted, and was now left as a necropolis or a museum". Once "one of the 19th century's miracle cities, it was now almost hollow to the core".

Today, after a decade of cultural investment, it is that sense for the past – in its museums and cultural institutions – which has helped Manchester recover from its post-industrial nadir. So too in Liverpool, where the Tate Gallery at Albert Dock, the International Slavery Museum and the European Capital of Culture events have all helped to kick-start urban regeneration. And in the northeast, the Newcastle-Gateshead quayside redevelopment – including the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, the Sage Gateshead music centre and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge – have revived this district as a social space and powerfully updated Tyneside's urban identity. For with the revitalisation of museums there usually follows a broader appreciation of the historic fabric, as warehouses, wharfs and factories come to be valued as purveyors of civic sensibility rather than obstacles to economic development.

But Britain's museums have done more than gentrify the urban core. Over the past 10 years they have provided cosmopolitan spaces in our multicultural society, offering a vehicle for a shared socialunderstanding. In the face of mass-migration and stark, post-9/11 and 7/7 religious tensions, Britain's great conurbations have mostly remained free of communal violence. Our civic institutions have played an important role in that by offering settings for transcultural dialogues. "The museum is about the world," according to American curator James Cuno, with a social purpose "to breed greater familiarity with the rich diversity of the world's cultures". And from the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade to the exhibitions charting Iranian heritage at the British Museum, our cultural institutions have done just that.

Of course, some ventures have not succeeded. The National Football Museum in Preston expensively confirmed that fans are far more committed to individual clubs than the game's history. Sheffield's National Centre for Popular Music lasted 15 months, while it is fair to say that The Public in West Bromwich has still to prove itself. But intellectually and socially, our artistic and heritage institutions display a far more confident sense of themselves than when the ROH went dark.

As such, they have been part of a broader shift in political and cultural activity. With nosediving membership of the mainstream political parties and church pews sitting empty, the British public have taken to exploring ideological and aesthetic issues in book festivals, ideas weekends and evening debates in unprecedented numbers. It is a secular, almost Enlightenment vision of citizenship and public life which marks a passion for culture in its broadest sense quite unheard of two decades ago.

When Tony Blair sought to connect his premiership with this artistic revival in a 2007 speech at Tate Modern, Sir Nicholas Serota stressed just how important government funding had been to this process. What was more, "Tony's commitment not to return to the stop-and-start economy in the arts is crucial".

Two years on, with seismic cuts to Arts Council budgets and the Olympics succubus swallowing ever greater Lottery funds, such certainty already feels dated. Benefactors are burying their cheque books, endowments are plummeting, builders are going bankrupt and government departments are working out where to inflict 15-20% cuts. At the very moment when, after the big build, our museums and galleries need secure revenue streams, they will be confronting a funding crisis.

Things might be even worse under a prospective Conservative government with little feel for the cultural fabric. In the past, Tory frontbenchers have mooted the return of museum charging; now they talk in anodyne terms of quango savings. But numerous arts projects are already looking in jeopardy. In theory, new funds for the British Film Institute archives and the Tate Modern extension are safe, but I wouldn't bet my Jackson Pollock on it. Meanwhile, in Manchester, plans for a Royal Opera North look ambitious, while the British Museum will struggle to finance its new wing. None of which is to suggest that great art cannot emerge during eras of austerity, but the democratic capacity of culture certainly takes a hit when acquisitions falter and education departments close.

Of course, there is another way. The Dutch government has decided to protect the culture budget during the downturn. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has lent £31bn to the nation's universities and museums to safeguard the "cultural heritage". Sadly, Britain cannot afford such largesse. The great boom of the art years was – like Medici Florence – closely and painfully wedded to the financial services bubble. And the effect of the Lehman Brothers crash in September 2008 will continue to be felt in even the most modest local gallery.

All we can do is retreat to the glorious V&A galleries and bask in the afterglow of this decade's astonishing cultural rejuvenation. As we do so our gaze might alight on Sir Paul Pindar's house: the beautiful, timber-framed Jacobean frontage of a 17th-century Bishopsgate home which at one point contained this Stuart merchant's extensive cultural collection. Now, for all its elegance, it is just a facade. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 05 2009

Oxford's treasure chest revels in its new incarnation

The Ashmolean's curators have been truly bold. Old favourites gain new depth as chronology gives way to svelte modernism

In 1634 a young man home on leave from the East India Company peeped inside a house near Lambeth Palace in London called the Ark. It belonged to John Tradescant, "keeper of gardens, vines and silkworms" to Charles I and an obsessive accumulator of objects. The young man was astounded by what he saw, where "a man might in one day behold collected into one place more curiosities than if he spent all his life in travel". It was a good definition of a museum.

Tradescant's collection was to form the basis of Oxford's Ashmolean, claimed as the earliest modern museum in the world. Those of us familiar with the old place recall wandering its dusty passages and cramped chambers, where ghosts of pictures lost in storage jostled with classical nudes seemingly on their knees and begging for release from the gloom. It was here that Sir Arthur Evans buried his Minoan maidens and Lawrence of Arabia his oriental cloaks. Coins, tombs, bronzes, icons, stylae followed. Most of them disappeared from view.

Tomorrow the museum reopens at double its previous size after a £61m hurricane has swept through the place. Nothing in Britain is remotely like it. The new Ashmolean's collection, from fine art to archaeology and design drawn from every age and every corner of the globe, is a microcosm of world civilisation, comparable in range only with New York's Metropolitan.

This is the most exciting new museum anywhere in Britain. The classical Ashmolean facade of 1845 by CR Cockerell has been restored, its portico glaring across at the gothic Randolph Hotel opposite, like a bank manager trying to refuse Count Dracula a loan. Once inside and through the old foyer, we find that the doyen of museum architects, Rick Mather, has taken over. He has ingeniously contrived to fuse 39 new galleries on to the rear of the old building, rising six storeys to a glorious restaurant looking out over the roofs of Oxford.

Somewhere in here are all the old favourites: the Knossos octopus, the Cycladic maiden, the Etruscan warrior, King Alfred's jewel, Powhatan's mantle, Uccello's hunt in the forest, the "Messiah" Stradivarius, Chantrey's worthies, the Raphael drawings, the noble Titians, Poussins, Van Dykes, Constables, Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionists. The finest gathering of Dutch still-lifes fills the walls of a single room, an electrifying cornucopia of lobsters, tulips and dead game.

The Ashmolean's curators, under their director, Christopher Brown, have been bold in every sense. They have not only refashioned a great museum but clubbed visitors over the head with their novelty. The old chronology of world culture – "one damned thing after another" – has been shoehorned to fit the newly fashionable "interpretation strategy", built on the supposed interconnectedness of things and civilisations.

Things are no problem, indeed I would have liked more of a mix of paintings and sculpture. It is sad that a room devoted to Tradescant's original Lambeth "cabinet of curiosities" is buried in a basement surrounded by galleries devoted to such leaden topics as conservation, writing and the human image. Tradescant should be put in pride of place in the main foyer, an hors d'oeuvre to the whole museum, much as the British Museum's enlightenment library evokes the drawing room of a Georgian collector.

As for the interconnectedness of civilisations east and west, it risks becoming a didactic sledgehammer, "Crossing cultures, crossing time", reeking of 1990s New Labour and the "joined-up" museum. We can surely see a link between a Roman toga and an Indian sari, or between ceramic wares in differing cultures along the great silk road, without being hit over the head with it. Notices are like A-level multiple-choice papers, their grammar often appalling. Some of the archaeological rooms are classics of curators disempowering (as they would say) the objects and imposing a membrane of meaning between viewer and art. The message of a good museum is that the eye is the best teacher.

The architectural style of the new half of the Ashmolean is a pastiche interwar "moderne", reminiscent of the penguin pool at London Zoo. It is svelte and the presence of so much art relieves its relentless abstraction. But it gives an illusion of a lot of architecture for relatively little display, noticeably in the two sweeping staircase atriums, now de rigeur at such museums as the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum after the staircase disaster at the Tate Modern.

The resulting expanse of white, empty walling yearns for pictures or tapestries. This is a museum, not an airport. The new display cases, many set heavily into the walls behind giant frames, reduce the impact of the objects that cower, half-hidden within. As a result, to wander from the Mather side of the building back into the old Cockerell side, which can be done on every floor, is the best way I know to experience the cultural dislocation of modernism. Cockerell is rich in greens and reds, in dark wood, gilt frames, cornices and door architraves. Here the works of art, especially the pictures, seem at home, as if content to be on the walls of houses for which they were intended. These galleries drop their shoulders and relax. When the Stradivarius was displayed in these surroundings, I am convinced I could hear it sing.

On the new Mather side, every angle is hard, every colour white and the settings inimical to the context from which most of the objects have come. Sound is shrill. Doors and shutters are everywhere, opening and closing on approach as if in a high-security hospital operating theatre. Flickering videos preach the new engagement. Here the Stradivarius stands in its case, silent, aloof and untouchable, one more object frozen and conserved for eternity, never to be played.

Such reservations are only partial and should not detract from the exhilaration of visiting this extraordinary museum – indeed they are stimulated by its argument. Mather's interiors are of the highest quality and Brown's interconnectedness of things can spring nice surprises, such as the similarity between Samuel Palmer's 19th-century portrait of himself and a mural painting of a young man from 2nd-century Egypt.

Besides, Mather's spareness and Brown's holistic interpretation have come to be favoured by the 20th-century's museum grandees. The big museum project must surely be coming to an end, at least in the western world. The public sector is financially exhausted and private money and fancy architecture are turning elsewhere – in Boris Johnson's London, to the high-rise luxury flat.

Fine arts will return to the Latin quarters, to local galleries and private collectors. Britain may see a revulsion against the giant accumulator museums such as the Ashmolean and the London megaliths, with their miles of underground shelving stashed with works kept from public view. Provincial galleries may start claiming some of the nation's loot of ages, and may get it. Such cash as is available may go their way.

The more reason to greet this last cry of the old regime, confident in both its display and its argument. We may not see its like again. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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