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Dover Castle is trying to attract not just foreign but also British visitors, and to encourage the general public to be more aware of their heritage. Read the article and answer these questions.




1. What, according to the writer, were Victorian museums like?

2. In what ways have British museums changed?

3. What are the disadvantages of these changes?

Fossils Get into Showbiz

Roll up, Britain's museums are turning into theme parks!

We owe our great museums largely to those much maligned people, the Victorians. But their ideas are not ours. "Teach boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life." That was Gradgrind in Dickens's Hard Times, and you can imagine something of the same austere spirit permeating the Victorian museum: art, relics, and facts being presented in dusty cases, bereft of context or passion, to be observed in silence.

If museums had stayed like that, we would not have 2,500 today. But museum bosses realized that their institutions had to shed their forbidding image or die. However, a Museums and Galleries Commission working party complained in 1992 that the standards of display in many museums were still appalling. And a survey by the London museums to find out why people were not visiting them was called "Dingy places with different kinds of bits."

Other factors spurred change. In the 1980s the government forced a climate of "self-help". Admission charges were introduced; curators were encouraged to take crash courses in marketing.

There were some spectacular successes. Towns discovered they could make a virtue out of industrial decline by converting a disused mine, factory or mill into a museum; suddenly, they were tourist attractions. Morwellham Quay – a former copper mine in Devon that has been virtually reincarnated as a Victorian village, to the edification of thousands of visitors each week – is a classic success story.

Even more radical is the sea-change in presentation. Museums have become user-friendly. Competing for the same "leisure pound" as the theme parks, zoos and cinemas, they have gone into showbiz. The new buzzword is "interactive". For instance, if little Dean wants to pretend to be a Roman soldier stationed at Hadrian's Wall, he can.

Even the big institutions caught on. Madame Tussaud's opened a £10 million "Spirit of London" ride that whisks punters through London's history. Similarly the Tower of London's attraction, the "Medieval Palace", has experts dressed in thirteenth-century garb, and thirteenth-century replica quills and chess sets to help the punters get that Middle Ages feeling. This is the theory anyway.

Then there is the "Spielberg factor"; museums cashing in on the media event of the moment. Did you think it was a happy coincidence that the National Maritime Museum mounted its "Pirates!" blockbuster at exactly the time when Spielberg's Hook was released?

Plenty of museum people think that commercialism and an obsession with accessibility have been carried too far. They claim that museums are becoming degraded as centers of research, conservation and scholarship. The public cannot tell the difference any longer, they claim, between the dinosaur theme parks out to make a quick buck by throwing together a few plastic stegosaurus replicas in a field and the Natural History Museum, which has the real thing.

Last month's Museums Journal carried a caustic article by Peter Jenkinson, the head of museums in Walsall, which summed up these fears: "We appear to be moving away from the ideal of access for all, to a new environment where access is dependent upon the ability to pay; where the establishment of programs is based either on cynical or snobbish assumptions about what would be popular, or on the sponsorship that might be available; where subsidized museums that do not attract large audiences are seen as an unaffordable self-indulgence Three-minute culture has come to museums."

 





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